Sam Bush

Sam Bush performed at the Bijou Theatre on Jan. 11, 2018. 

Sam Bush returned to the heartland of the bluegrass genre to deliver a roof-raising, foot-stomping hoe-down of a performance Friday evening. 

By the time the lights dimmed, the house was packed. Several audience members took to standing; as the concert progressed, this option became especially popular. Many audience members even danced jigs to the strumming of banjos, mandolins, and various other stringed instruments (not to mention the drum set).

Before the Sam Bush Band took the stage, East Tennessee group Circus No. 9 performed their biggest show yet.

Circus No. 9 is a quartet featuring Thomas Cassell, a Johnson City resident, on mandolin; Vince Ilagan, a University of Tennessee alumnus, on bass; Matthew Davis of Nashville on banjo; and Ben Garnett, also a Nashville resident, on guitar.

“This is the biggest room we’ve played in Knoxville,” Cassel said of the Bijou. He recalled that Circus No. 9’s first performance also took place in the city, at the WDVX Visitor Center.

“We don’t all live here, but [Knoxville has] sort of been the band location,” Cassel said.

Circus No. 9’s sound proved to be an apt opener for the Sam Bush Band—their eclectic sound, a fusion of jazz influences and bluegrass conventions, conveyed in rhythmically precise yet lyrical passage, produced a crowd-pleasing performance that still wasn’t afraid to experiment, to risks and explore musical frontiers.

The same could be said of Sam Bush. The bluegrass legend’s setlist ran the gamut of his work and the genre, from tried-and-true tunes such as “Circles Around Me” and “The Ballad of Spider John” to more experimental, recent work, such as the closer, “Stop Violence”.

Bush delivered a performance that ranged from breakneck to expansive, moving from full ensemble pieces dense with notes and tight harmonies to mournful and lonesome, with sparse instrumentation and slower tempos. At times he wielded his signature mandolin—at others, a fiddle, or a guitar, or an electric variant of the mandolin. Over the course of the night, Bush moved away from his more established work and into the territory of the experimental.

Lee Zimmerman, a music journalist and fan of Bush’s who attended the Bijou performance, said that, while the new, progressive bluegrass existent today is thought of as the innovation of new performers—such as Circus No. 9—a lot of the changes began with Sam.

“He was key in this whole crossover from traditional bluegrass to ‘nu-grass’…he was in a band called ‘New Grass Revival’, [which was] one of the key bands that led this transformation from the old to the modern,” Zimmerman said.

More important to Zimmerman than categorizing genres, though, is the appreciation of good sound.

“You don’t always have to classify music to find meaning in it. I like it when music bends the boundaries… when people add great songs, great melodies, and make something special.”

Sam Bush and company have bent the boundaries of what bluegrass can be, with electric instruments, drum accompaniment, odd time signatures, and other features of a musical landscape that is constantly evolving.

Nevertheless, that didn’t stop the crowd at the Bijou from tapping feet, bobbing heads, and dancing along to the sound of banjo, mandolin, bass, and guitar—to the eclectic sounds of East Tennessee itself.

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