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Grateful Bluegrass Boys approach genre through classical and classic rock

  • Author: Chris Bieri
  • Updated: April 28, 2017
  • Published April 28, 2017

Grateful Bluegrass Boys at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, July 22, 2016. (Photo by Stephen Dorian Miner)

When it came to playing in musical genres, Aaron Redner and his bandmates didn't want to pick favorites.

And by forming the Grateful Bluegrass Boys, they didn't have to.

The band merges the instrumentation of classic bluegrass like Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys and churns out tunes by classic rockers, especially the Grateful Dead.

"The concept for this band began with a few wedding gigs that included myself, David Thom on guitar and mandolin, and Bryan Horne on bass," Redner, a mandolin and fiddle player, wrote via email.

"I had played with Bryan for many years in the band Hot Buttered Rum. All three of us had a love for both bluegrass and classic rock. Even more specifically we love the Grateful Dead and had an affinity for performing their music in an acoustic format. We also have a strong connection to bluegrass music. … I thought combining our passions was an honest way to come up with a band name, although the 'grateful' in our name is more geared towards creating an environment of gratitude at our shows."

Banjo player Isaac Cantor and Ben Jacobs on accordion round out the band, which according to its website will be joined by locals Dan Booth and Tyson Alteri during the second stop of their four-show tour Thursday in Palmer.

Not surprisingly, Redner's musical education was a combination of classic rock influences and classical training.

"Vinyl records were always spinning in my home," Redner said. "My parents enjoyed many styles of music and I was listening to a lot of Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley. My father also played classical piano and we listened to a ton of classical music, which influenced me as much as anything."

Redner attended the New England Conservatory, where he earned a master's degree in classical violin performance. He thought he'd move on to play in an orchestra, until he started to go to Grateful Dead shows.

"I began to prioritize shows that involve people dancing passionately and singing along," he said. "I always felt the most powerful moments were when everyone was singing their favorite lyric at the top of their lungs with their arms in the air. This was more of an honest religious experience for me than any I had at my synagogue growing up."

Through the Grateful Dead, Redner found bluegrass music with Jerry Garcia's band Old and in the Way, featuring the fiddle wizardry of Vassar Clements.

"Hearing Vassar Clements fiddle with a combination of bluegrass chops and psychedelic adventure immediately captured my attention," he said.
Redner has found some songs in the classic rock cannon translate better than others — and not every song could or should be played with string band instrumentation.

"I find the Eagles music works well as string band music," he said. "They use the banjo and acoustic instruments often so in that way it's very natural. Creedence Clearwater Revival and Steve Miller's tunes can be made into bluegrass songs effectively. Led Zeppelin as well. We try to draw songs from all over the map and will also change the form and meter of the original song to suit our purposes. The cliché is just throw a mandolin back beat into a song, but that technique doesn't always work and it's a fine line between an effective translation and the music sounding hokey."

Redner said the Grateful Bluegrass Boys have completed recording an album, which is now in post-production and should be released soon. Redner's last album, "For My Boy," was a solo effort released last year. The whole process took about six months and was recorded in the hills of Petaluma, California.

"All the songs were written in the two years after my son was born," he said. "They reflect the emotions and experiences of mother, father and son. I would say it is a light acoustic rock album that kids also enjoy listening to."

Grateful Bluegrass Boys

Wednesday, 9 p.m. at Fairview Inn in Talkeetna

Thursday, 8 p.m. at The Fishhook Bar in Palmer

Friday, 8 p.m. at Williwaw in Anchorage (no cover)

Saturday, 8 p.m. at Alice's Champagne Palace in Homer ($10 advance, $15 door)

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