LENOX, Mass. — Put four extraordinary musicians together from the worlds of classical and bluegrass music and the results can be … well, really kind of dull.
This is, for sure, a minority report as the Goat Rodeo Show — Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan — had seemingly all but one of the Tanglewood thousands in a state of rapture Thursday night. And as I’m writing this on the day after, the other guests at the inn I’m staying at are trading smiles and superlatives while reliving the concert.
So what’s wrong with me? I could happily plug any of these musicians into Spotify and listen to them all day. Ma is one of history’s great classical cellists and is always seeking to expand the boundaries of his instrument while breaking boundaries of all kinds of musical genres. The others share that restless creativity.
But as much as I love both classical music and bluegrass, I can’t find much emotional attachment to this merger of the two — unlike, say, the music of Gangstagrass, which merges bluegrass and hip-hop with much more soul if not such ostentatious musicianship.
With Goat Rodeo, I find the musicians undercutting each other rather than driving each other forward. Duncan would establish a sensational groove on violin only for it to dissolve into cerebral, self-indulgent Sunday brunch noodling by one of the others.
Here's music that, to my ears, doesn't go anywhere emotionally engaging except when Duncan is soloing:
Elsewhere, Ma would play the lead in a Bach trio that could bring tears to your eyes but Thile’s mandolin, though certainly pretty, was ultimately an overly loud distraction.
And still, I couldn’t help think it was my problem. Why couldn’t I just give myself over to the fab four? And then they played Bob Dylan’s “Farewell, Angelina” and I stopped blaming myself. Punch Brother Thile, joined by Aoife O’Donovan on vocals, drained every ounce of poetry out of the doleful lyrics. This isn’t a pretty song; the sky is on fire and the singer is leaving his loved one, for God’s sake. Ma’s fills, written by Meyer, got the melancholy right – Dylan, Joan Baez or Nana Mouskouri might have killed to have him back them up on their great recordings. But not at the cost of the rest of the fussy, ornate musicianship of this soulless version.
See for yourself. Here are Thile and O'Donovan in a similar performance, though minus Ma and the other Goats:
You don't need to speak a word of French to go weak in the knees with Mouskouri's simpler, superior version.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t great moments. Duncan is the real bluegrass master in the group and any time he took the lead the results were mesmerizing. His duets with master mandolinist Thile, who looks and sways like Jude Law in a David Lynch movie, were equally terrific. Ma and Meyer, when they escaped playing rhythm, were as splendid as ever, though I was even less a fan of their collaborations with Mark O’Connor than I am of Goat Rodeo. (Meyer is also the established composer in the group; he’s written excellent pieces for the Emerson String Quartet, Hilary Hahn and Joshua Bell, among others.
This is much more like it: "Attaboy."
I’d go see any of these guys if they were playing in town – but not with each other. Supergroups aren’t always super to me. I loved David Crosby in the Byrds, Stephen Stills in Buffalo Springfield and Graham Nash in the Hollies, but HATED Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Well, now I'm at Lenox Coffee and the baristas are buzzing about the Goats. To paraphrase the Dylan song: Farewell, Goat Rodeo. The sky is on fire. I must go where it’s quiet.
More on Goat Rodeo from NPR:
This program aired on August 17, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.