The six musicians in the all-star pickup band called the Super Pickers can play almost any kind of acoustic music -- everything from chamber-folk to string-band jazz -- but Tuesday night at the Birchmere, they stuck to the music that first established their reputations: bluegrass.
They have all honed their skills over the years on standards like "Nine Pound Hammer" and "Sunny Side of the Mountain," and they renewed their longstanding friendships with obvious relish on this common ground.
They took the old murder song "Little Sadie" at a brisk clip; guitarist Tony Rice delivered the killer's monologue with cold-blooded authenticity, lending the dramatic implications to the vocal-like solos by fiddler Stuart Duncan of the Nashville Bluegrass Band and dobroist Jerry Douglas. Sam Bush kicked off the instrumental "Bluegrass Breakdown" at a ferociously fast tempo, chopping out mandolin chords and fast-fingered fills like a Chuck Berry of the mountains.
Bush's old partner in the New Grass Revival, Bela Fleck, followed with a banjo solo that placed less emphasis on speed than on unorthodox intervals that radically transformed the tune's harmonies.
The evening's highlights came on "The Wayfaring Stranger," which opened with Bush's moody minor-key mandolin solo set against Mark Schatz's ever-steady bass line; Rice followed with a plaintive vocal full of doom which that was amplified in turn by Douglas's moaning dobro solo.
The first set ended with Fleck's instrumental "White Water," which gave everyone a chance to play slippery bluegrass solos against unusual chord changes.