Sporting yoga pants and loving it, after having eaten a yummy vegetarian meal, at the table right next to mine, no less! the iconic Peter Rowan casually strolled onto the stage at BSide Ballroom and Supper Club in Oneonta, armed only with a guitar and a story to tell. To have such an essential figure in the bluegrass world performing in this small intimate venue with a seating of approximately 140 maximum, was a true dream come true.
Starting off the show on a melancholy yet hopeful note with “Doc Watson Morning” a song about a “guitar-picking kind of day,” Pete ended the song with a mini yodel, which was nice to hear so early on in the set. Giving the audience what they truly were hoping to hear, Pete moved into an acoustic solo rendition of “Panama Red” which he brilliantly chose to mash-up with classic folk tune “Freight Train” which proved to be quite the winning combination. Moving on to another one of his better known tunes, Jack Bonus’s “Hobo Song” it became clear at this point in the set that he felt totally at ease with the crowd, and in return, made the audience feel as if they were just chilling with Pete in his living room. The next song up moved the audience from Pete’s living room to a desert with tumbleweeds blowing by, when he sang a version of “Tumbleweed” throughout which he put so much emotion into each and every note.
At this point in the evening, Peter Rowan brought out bassist Paul Knight, who has toured with Pete in the past, performing as part of the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. It also marked the point in the set during which much storytelling ensued, which is always a treat coming from someone who has played with so many other musicians, and traveled to so many corners of the earth. I have to confess that when Pete was eating dinner next to me, I worked up the nerve to put in a shameless plug for myself that he was helping me kick off my birthday week celebration, and right after he brought Knight out on stage, they were kind enough to sing happy birthday to me! It’s definitely going to be hard to top that on my list of memorable birthdays. Reminiscently telling one story about his days playing with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, during which time, as Pete put it, Monroe would always “call me plural” and refer to him as Peter Rowans, the audience received an intimate and real history of this legend who stood before us. Switching to stories about learning more rootsy rhythms from New Orleans, such as the “stomp” and the “slow drag” Pete performed his own song in slow drag, “Ragged Old Dream” off of his aptly named The Old School album. Segueing into a more bluesy part of his set, Rowan explained how he used to go to record stores in Boston, where one used to be able to sit and listen to blues and folk albums for hours, and proceeded to perform a particularly bluesy version of “In the Pines”. Ending his set with the title track off his new album Dharma Blues was fitting, especially because it ended with a true signature Peter Rowan yodel.
Choosing a somewhat odd time to take a set break, being so close to the 10:00pm time the show was projected to end, Pete ended up coming back on to play at 9:30, but went a bit beyond the original end time, which nobody seemed to mind. Beginning with an instrumental number with amazing use of harmonics up and down the neck of the guitar by Rowan, he then went into a very touching tribute he wrote for Jerry Garcia, his former band mate from his days playing with Old and In the Way, titled “Jerry and the Deep Blue Sea” in honor of the work Jerry used to do to raise money for the protection of dolphins and coral reefs around Hawaii. Playing a few more numbers off his new album Dharma Blues, which was inspired by his recent trips to India and Nepal, we were introduced to a much more spiritual side of Peter Rowan. His song “Arise” which was heavily influenced by the concept of bodhisattva, was explained to the audience by Rowan as the idea that all beings have been our parents in previous lives. The cyclical nature of the concept of bodhisattva was beautifully mimicked in both the lyrics and the musical notes so masterfully chosen by Rowan. Returning to a spiritual world from a more Western culture, Rowan pulled out a particularly note-intensive version of “Land of the Navajo” incorporating an almost reggae-style bass solo, followed by Rowan playing some more impressive harmonics followed by an extended yodel jam. Ending his set with “Restless Grave” off Dharma Blues, on which he was accompanied by Gillian Welch on the album, the crowd was unhappy to see him go.
Thankfully, Rowan was urged by the audience to come back onstage for an encore, and he was even taking requests. He chose to give us two of his more popular numbers, “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” and of course, “Moonlight Midnight” which received a big old howl from the audience! Saving up just enough energy to sign CDs and chat with anyone who wanted to be in the presence of such a spiritual being with a lifetime of experiences to share, it was easy to see that everyone in attendance for this performance was truly in awe of the special gift that had been handed to us: having the opportunity to listen to this bluegrass icon in such an intimate setting. Peter Rowan will be touring around the northeast until November 23, so make sure to add one of his shows to your calendars if you can. It will truly be worth the experience.