Sam Bush is a workhorse. Forty years after first disturbing the conventions of bluegrass with his New Grass Revival, the bandleader and mandolinist is still barnstorming the country with his highly energetic brew of bluegrass, rock & roll, country and pop. Though the bluegrass world has always encouraged its influential practitioners to stay on the scene and really put the “elder” in elder statesman, a show by the Sam Bush Band is filled with the kind of rock energy that isn’t present when, say, Del McCoury is calmly peeling off licks.
Thus it was when Bush and friends closed their fall tour with a one-set affair at the Egg. The foundation of the band’s ability to do such heretical things as include a drummer is that its string members can fly through the bluegrass progressions whenever they wish. The rock backbeat and occasional electric instrumentation are not shortcuts past proficiency; they’re part of the artistic vision of someone who did the bluegrass circuit in the late ’60s and early ’70s and rightly perceived that the genre would maintain its cultural relevance only if it loosened up a little—not in terms of technique, but attitude.
So the traditional-minded “Blue Mountain” came off tight as (yes) a drum, led by Bush’s fiery string leads and paced by Todd Parks’ electric bass. (Parks even took a pleasing solo.) As on all of the breakneck numbers, acoustic guitarist Stephen Mougin seemed to be the field general, guiding the transitions and digging into his solo spots with relish. Unsurprisingly, it was a similar story for “Riding That Bluegrass Train,” featuring Bush’s high-lonesome vocals and solos from him, Mougin and banjo man Scott Vestal.
Bush has a pop tooth as well, but the New Grass Revival-era vintage of “Unconditional Love” didn’t redeem its schmaltz or unfortunate sidestep into reggae rhythms, despite its progressive intentions. More successful was the mortality-pondering title track to Bush’s 2009 album “Circles Around Me,’ which aims squarely for emotional pop and delivers, referencing Telluride and fallen friends without ranging from sentimental into maudlin.
“The Ballad of String Bean and Estelle,” also from the latest record, underlined the band’s range with its truly haunting mood, ballad form and grim depiction of a murder, showing that the lyrical tropes of old-time folk and bluegrass can be applied to a story of the home invasion of a Grand Ole Opry banjo player and his wife. Everything came together triumphantly for “Same Ol’ River,” with its rock-minded melody and absolutely gorgeous interplay among the string players, plus a particularly winning solo from Mougin.
The bandleader’s affable personality was on display throughout, and even when they returned for a fully electric encore of “Laps in 7,” which came off here as a meandering prog-grass excursion, one was inclined to enjoy his shredding, whammy-bar-enabled solo on electric mando and forgive the rather wobbly, overlong jam. Sometimes it’s best to let your banjo player play banjo, not electric guitar. But if Bush hasn’t come to that conclusion yet, he’s earned his right to differ.