By Gerald Peary.
It was an old-timers’ love-in at the new Davis Square Theatre in Somerville, MA, on Thursday evening, welcoming back Beantown native son, Peter Rowan, now 70, who, among other musical achievements, was once guitarist and lead singer for Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. “I used to call her Joanie Bz,” name-dropped an aging hippy behind me about his friendship with Joan Baez in her barefoot Club 47 days. “I actually saw Old and in the Way!” shouted out a very veteran local music writer in a urinal line in the men’s room. He was there in 1973 for one of the handful of live concerts of the beyond-legendary bluegrass band with Rowan, David Grisman, and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia.
Rowan’s new album, so appropriate for the evening, is called The Old School. He sang the tuneful title track, whose lyrics, about the bluegrass music lifestyle, kicked off with a colorful quote from the legendary fiddler Vassar Clements. Rowan has worked with them all: Richard Greene, Clarence White, Bill Keith, Tony Rice. Rowan’s repertoire included some of his melancholy Oklahoma troubador songs about half-breed Natives and the tumbling tumbleweed, his country rock hit, “Panama Red,” for The New Riders of the Purple Sage, and, of course, prime material from touring with Bill Monroe. “’Rowans’ is what he called me,” Rowan recalled. “He talked of me in the plural.”
I confess, I also was among those who witnessed Rowan play a zillion years ago, circa 1970, when he sang like an angel with the Blue Grass Boys, his high baritone blending with Monroe’s high tenor for the most stirring of country harmonies. Rowan today still goes gamely for those Jimmy Rodgers notes in the sky, hits them occasionally. He’s as expressive and passionate a singer as ever, though he’s descended from heaven on high. But he continues to be an amazing flat-picking guitarist. Fine with me.
For his Somerville concert, Rowan brought on stage as backup four Boston teenagers who, frankly, were all in different developmental phases of becoming bluegrass professionals. They tried hard, succeeded some of the time, but occasionally lowered the intensity of the music. Good luck to them, valiant kids! Rowan did better with something I have never seen in a bluegrass concert: not a drum set (the Other) but a woman singer from the Himalayas, who blended Buddhist monkish chants with Rowan’s soulful crooning. They were so, so great on the evening’s highlight, “The Walls of Time,” the masterful song of heartache, loss, mortality, and immortality, penned together by Rowan and Monroe.