Pop music review: Earl Scruggs lets his banjo do the talking
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The 87-year-old bluegrass pioneer lets his still-impressive banjo skills (and son Gary) do the talking for him in a solid if almost rote performance.
Country music deifies its elders but not always for what they have left to give. Saturday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall, the 87-year-old banjo master Earl Scruggs took exception to that well-intentioned tendency: His show did away with anything that might have distracted -- for better or for worse -- from the hard fact of his ability. Picking his instrument in the fleet three-finger style he’s thought to have perfected, Scruggs calmly reaffirmed the basis of his fans’ worship.
Too calmly, perhaps. Half of the pioneering bluegrass duo Flatt & Scruggs, this North Carolina native helped popularize roots music in the 1960s thanks to mainstream incursions such as ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’ used prominently in Arthur Penn’s film ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ and ‘The Ballad of Jed Clampett,’ better known as the theme song from TV’s ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ Later he collaborated with the Byrds and Bob Dylan, among other young artists, and formed a crossover-minded country-rock group with his sons Gary and Randy, both of whom played in Scruggs’ six-piece band Saturday.
You didn’t sense much of that evangelical zeal at Royce Hall, where Scruggs and his accompanists performed their ministrations with an almost comic impassivity; this was a no-frills affair reflected in the title of the bluegrass standard ‘Doin’ My Time,’ which the group played roughly halfway through its 75-minute set.
Acting as his father’s mouthpiece, Gary Scruggs introduced far-flung material with descriptions worn detail-free from extended use: ‘an old gospel song,’ ‘an old boogie-woogie number,’ ‘an old fiddle-and-banjo tune.’ At one point he told the audience that the Scruggs family had last visited UCLA ‘in 1976, we’ll call it,’ and you understood the fuzziness as the natural result of decades spent playing concerts virtually identical to Saturday’s.
None of this diminished the skillfulness of Earl Scruggs’ playing, which arrived in short, sharp bursts overflowing with notes. (Near the end of the show Randy Scruggs offered a flowery acoustic-guitar version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ that revealed his father’s enormous influence.)
Yet the glum presentation -- even in songs as spirited as ‘Dim Lights, Thick Smoke’ and ‘Orange Blossom Special’ -- softened the music’s impact, as did the vacant stare Scruggs was projecting from behind his instrument. He appeared to take little joy from the uncommon persistence of his talent, and that made it hard to know how much sustenance it should provide.
-- Mikael Wood