Bluegrass 'Losers' perform winningly

Friday, May 2, 2003

It wasn't hard to find a good seat Tuesday at Liberty Hall for Canadian bluegrasser Fred Eaglesmith and his band The Smokin' Losers. While the venue wasn't even half full (200, at best) you wouldn't know from the cheering that it was such a small crowd.

Eaglesmith and his quartet of musicians (including Roger Marin on acoustic pedal steel guitars) are primarily a bluegrass/folk act and would fit in perfectly at September's Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival in Winfield.

The group struggled with the sound technician throughout much of the show, trying to inspire the right mix in all the monitors on stage. Eaglesmith joked and chatted with the small crowd in between nearly every song, lampooning the differences between Canada and the United States and encouraging the crowd to see folk star Dar Williams' upcoming show. (Williams performed Wednesday, also at Liberty Hall).

One of the night's biggest hits was "Thirty Years of Farming," a tune Eaglesmith wrote about his father 25 years ago that was a recent No. 1 country radio hit for James King. Other songs, such as "I Shot Your Dog" and "Good Dog," were indicative of Eaglesmith's mostly lighthearted lyrical style. There's something to be said for his overall sound, which maintains a purity of form not often found on (or even accessible to) modern country radio.

The Smokin' Losers is an adept group, many of the members switching instruments between songs, going from slide guitar to drums, rhythm guitar to pedal steel or playing both mandolin and harmonica. Perhaps the night's best moment came with the performance of the Dylanesque "Freight Train," a raucous number that found the band in peak form, rounding things out with extensive harp and mandolin.

After a 90-minute set, closing with "49 Tons," the Losers called it a night, leaving Eaglesmith alone for a few solo acoustic songs. But only moments after leaving the stage himself, Eaglesmith returned for a pair of solo encores, including "When the Bandages Come Off."

There's some irony in such great American-roots music coming from five Canadians, but the larger irony was in the attendance. For a town that prides itself on music, the Lawrence community was curiously absent Tuesday. And while bluegrass isn't a sound Lawrence is particularly known for, those who missed the show missed a nice change of pace for Lawrence music.