John Starling -- one of the founding fathers of the progressive bluegrass pioneers the Seldom Scene -- enjoyed a triumphant return to the D.C. area last night. A packed house at the Birchmere enthusiastically received Starling's impeccable set of folk, bluegrass, gospel and country material.
Starling's performance eschewed the fiery instrumental breaks of modern bluegrass in favor of a subdued and often exquisite musical presentation emphasizing his song and singing. Starling's Ready Section Band provided tightly controlled, traditional backings based on the gentle interplay of Larry Lynch's fiddling mandolin with Gary Ferguson's guitar.
It was Starling's classic hillbilly phrasing and high, lonesome singing, however, that was the show's focus. Ably assisted by Claire Lynch's clear mountain harmonies, Starling was especially impressive on gospel material like Ralph Stanley's "Jordan."
Lynch turned in a wonderful lilting rendition of her own "Hills of Alabama" that proved her not only an excellent songwriter but a fine singer whose high ringing tones reminded me of Dolly Parton and Emmy Lou Harris.
Starling himself was at his best in a tragic vein, and his pained reading of Phil Rosenthal's haunting "Muddy Waters" was perhaps the set's highlight.