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Peter Rowan at the Bowlo – Review

The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Trio and The Blackberry Conspiracy Friday March 7 at the Turner Bowlo
By Eileen Newmarch

When I first saw this show advertised I was torn –off to a camping weekend at Numeralla or go to a gig – the weather forecast on Friday and the chance for free tickets in return for a review tipped the scales – camping could wait till Saturday.

Any show that Donal Baylor agrees to play in the opening act is bound to be a good one, and this was no exception. We arrived well in time for the start of the show and the room was already full – we managed a small table up the back, possibly the last table. This was the first outing for The Blackberry Conspiracy but it certainly did not show. The line-up brought us some of Canberra’s finest musicians, Donal Baylor, John Taylor (JT), Jim Sharrock and Simon Milman. The music presented ranged from pure Bill Monroe bluegrass to blues and some Jim Sharrock originals. Jim provided fine vocals and his excellent feel for rhythm kept the music driving. Donal Baylor’s fiddle playing was a treat – he is a master of Bill Monroe style fiddling. He also showed his versatility by switching between fiddle, hammer claw banjo and guitar – all of which he excels in. JT treated us to a fine rolling bluegrass banjo and Simon’s double bass was rock solid.

I first saw legendary US Bluegrass singer-songwriter and Grammy award winner, Peter Rowan, “the voice of Bluegrass” at the National Folk Festival a couple of years ago and queued for a CD for ages only to miss out. On his return to Australia he has a new album and a hot new trio, featuring Chris Henry on mandolin and vocals, and George Jackson on fiddle, banjo and vocals.

Peter Rowan is a true legend of American Bluegrass, with a history dating from 1964 and his role as lead-singer/guitarist with the father of Bluegrass, the late Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. Chris Henry, one of the most highly regarded young musicians on the American Bluegrass scene and the premiere Monroe-style mandolinist of his generation. New Zealand-born Melbourne-based, George Jackson, is a brilliant young fiddle and banjo-player, winner of many awards, including the 2012 Tamworth Golden Fiddle Award, and the Banjo Competition at the 2013 Rockygrass Festival in Colorado – a bluegrass festival founded by Bill Monroe and the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society.

They presented two sets of bluegrass at its finest. Classics such as Leadbelly’s ‘In the Pines’ and a powerful bluegrass version of the civil rights song Oh Freedom sat beside Peter Rowan originals and we were also treated to original tunes of Chris and George. We were treated to songs of mountains, moonlight and memories, lost love and salvation.

This was tight, driven bluegrass. Peter Rowan’s singing was sublime, and was enhanced by Chris and George joining in sweet harmonies. Chris Henry is possibly the best bluegrass mandolin player around – he was amazing. His parents are Bluegrass musicians and he made his first public appearance on mandolin at age 4.

This is the bluegrass that so many groups seek to emulate. In the words of Peter Rowan himself – “pick it clean, play it true – you know that’s the rule of the old school”- and you wouldn’t get finer picking and playing than this.

A great night put on by CMC. The only downside – This was my first night at the Bowlo since the Merry Muse moved. With the loss of the Burmese bistro, the food was very ordinary and more expensive and the behaviour of the people in the bar was a bit over the top.