Concert Review | "ROC Bluegrass Bonanza" at Three Heads 

click to enlarge Center, singer/guitarist Ray Mahar, with fiddle player Zac Lijewski, banjoist Brad DeLano, and upright  bassist Aubrey Baldauf (all of Mahar’s band, A Girl Named Genny); mandolinist Scott Halpin of The Honey Smugglers; and guitarist Karis Gregory of Public Water Supply.

LEAH STACY.

Center, singer/guitarist Ray Mahar, with fiddle player Zac Lijewski, banjoist Brad DeLano, and upright bassist Aubrey Baldauf (all of Mahar’s band, A Girl Named Genny); mandolinist Scott Halpin of The Honey Smugglers; and guitarist Karis Gregory of Public Water Supply.

Last Thursday, singer-songwriter Ray Mahar and a backing band stood on the stage at Three Heads Brewing singing the songs of Seth and Scott Avett (yes, those Avett Brothers), which the packed crowd seemed to know down to the last syllable.

A week later, Mahar took the same stage with his sister Kate Mahar and, performing as the Family Room, played through a short set of original songs filled with delicate harmonies and deeply personal storytelling to an audience of about 40 people.

It was only the prelude to what would be a spirited romp through bluegrass tunes, but the entire evening still felt like it was meant for the real fans of Mahar — or, at the very least, devotees of traditional string band music.

It was “ROC Bluegrass Bonanza,” the third of five Thursday night concerts during Mahar’s musical residency at the brewery. On this occasion, Mahar was joined onstage by a murderers' row of local Americana musicians: fiddle player Zac Lijewski, banjoist Brad DeLano, and upright bassist Aubrey Baldauf (all of Mahar’s band, A Girl Named Genny); mandolinist Scott Calpin of The Honey Smugglers; and guitarist Karis Gregory of Public Water Supply.

Bluegrass music is filled with deceptively simple chord progressions and a steady, if predictable,  rhythmic heartbeat, but it’s the speed and precision of the melodic line — particularly during instrumental solos — that makes the genre stand out. Calpin, Gregory, and Lijewski all delivered on that score, with pristine and effervescent runs.

But by and large, despite the traditional instrumentation, this was not an evening of traditional bluegrass. Apart from two Flatt & Scruggs songs — “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Pick Along” — originals and country folk ballads took up a good deal of the oxygen. Nor were the instruments amplified in the old-school style where the players gather around a single microphone in a semi-circle (such a setup may not have worked well with the acoustics of the room at Three Heads, anyway). Despite these differences, Mahar’s set maintained the spirit and technical proficiency that are absolute musts in bluegrass.

Ray Mahar's residency continues at Three Heads on February 22 with Montclair, a tribute to the rock band Pinegrove ($20 cover), and concludes with a performance by A Girl Named Genny on February 29, with a $15 cover. Both shows begin at 8 p.m. For more information, go to threeheadsbrewing.com/events.

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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