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Last Saturday evening, the Western Piedmont Symphony kicked off their third Chamber Classics program with the electrifying bluegrass quintet Unspoken Tradition. The event took place in the Drendel Auditorium at the SALT Block, Hickory's host of scientific, artistic, and literary endeavors for the community. The intimate performance was well-attended, and the stage was simply set, with five microphones in a line waiting for the show to begin. Western Piedmont Symphony's executive director Kelly Swindell and music director Matthew Troy came out to welcome the audience, announce upcoming events in WPS's season, and introduce the quintet; when it was time, Unspoken Tradition took the stage and started off the concert with a set of three rousing tunes.
The evening's program was announced from the stage; after completing the first set, mandolin player Ty Gilpin spoke up to thank the crowd while his bandmates quietly tuned in the back, cracking jokes to the audience such as, "does this A sound good to you symphony folk?," before the group dove back in for another tune. Once the dust had settled from the electric fiddling and picking, Gilpin properly introduced the ensemble: Zane McGinnis on banjo, Gilpin on mandolin/vocals, Sav Sankaran on bass/vocals, Audie McGinnis on guitar/vocals, and Tim Gardner on fiddle/vocals. Even though the group had only been onstage for about ten minutes at this point, it was obvious they were not only remarkable chamber musicians, but steadfast friends. Gilpin mentioned he had been playing with the others for ten years, and that decade of comradery was hugely apparent in both their playing and their personalities. The members of the band would look around and smile at each other as they soloed and I felt like I was a part of a porch jam band instead of in a concert hall.
Once the introductions were complete, the concert established a rhythm where Gilpin, Audie McGinnis, or Sankaran would introduce the upcoming tune while the rest of the band adjusted strings and things, followed by the group centering in and counting off. Bluegrass music often focuses on similar themes, so the band provided context for their music, such as their original composition "Land." Gilpin and McGinnis introduced the song by discussing how the themes "sense of place" and "leaving home because you had to, but you're always trying to get back" are central to much of traditional music, along with agriculture and family ties. These themes appeared in other selections, such as the energetic "Windmill Plow," the quintet's newest single "Lookout Mountain," and the murder ballad "Willowgarden," which was the second to last song on the first half and featured Gilpin singing for the first time. The first half of the concert ended with an electrifying fiddle tune; during the fifteen minute intermission, the band chose to meet patrons in the lobby instead of taking a well-deserved break, which I found admirable and indicative of their commitment to community.
The second half began with "Irons in the Fire," a tune about "working class bluegrass guys" such as the band members themselves. After several tunes, such as the soon-to-be-recorded "The Old Swinging Bridge" and the agricultural "Blood and Bone," Gilpin reintroduced the members of the "bearded bluegrass" band before diving back in for "I'm Lost, I'll Never Find the Way." The next tune, "Alleghenies," was an original by bassist Sav Sankaran about his childhood home in Pennsylvania; Sankaran told the audience that there's a great bluegrass tradition in the Allegheny Mountains, but it isn't written about as often as those in the South. "Monroe's Hornpipe" was a "battle royale" and Gilpin led the band into it with an encouraging, "pick it, boys!" After a few more tunes featuring solos from each member of the band, Gilpin thanked the audience for "lettin' the country boys come up and play" as they transitioned into two more McGinnis originals. The audience gave a standing ovation even after the house lights turned back on, ushering the band back on stage; "we weren't expecting that…we played everything we know!" they said before one last tune, which was played with the house lights on, "so we can see YOU this time."
Unspoken Tradition gave an absolutely stellar performance full of heart, humor, and humanity. The musical communication was impeccable, with clarity of tempo and sensitivity to balance between melodic lines and solos. The vocal blend demonstrated by McGinnis, Sankaran, and Gardner was wonderful – each harmony and melisma lined up with care and accuracy, even while they played their individual instruments. As a violinist, I have to say how great it was to experience truly great fiddle playing, and Gardner's percussive backbeats were one of my favorite parts of the ensemble. I truly don't have enough good things to say about this bluegrass quintet, and I hope to experience Unspoken Tradition's electric energy again soon.