The Byron Berline Band made its bluegrass appearance at Armstrong Auditorium in far north Edmond Sunday night in front of a toe-tapping crowd that enjoyed its leader's stories about playing with music legends like Bob Dylan and corny jokes almost as much as the music.
The band opened with the fast-paced “I'm on my Way Back to the Old Home,” a tribute to bluegrass creator Bill Monroe, complete with a banjo solo and lots of applause, and Berline gradually introduced his band during the first several songs — Jim Fish on guitar, Greg Burgess on fiddle and guitar, Richard Sharp on bass, John Hickman on banjo and Steve Short on drums.
The concert played out in the formal grandeur of the Armstrong setting, but the tone set by Berline and his crew was true bluegrass friendly — the group even came out to talk with fans during the intermission.
By the second song, Berline introduced guest Barry “Bones” Patton as one who was “going to steal the show” by playing rhythms using two rib sticks cracking together like maracas. Wearing a black hat and shirt and blue jeans, Patton had intermittent solos that added some additional showmanship to the songs as he kicked his knees and danced while clicking the ribs to the music.
Berline's third song came from the Beatles — “Here Comes the Sun” — bluegrass style. It featured two guitars, solos by Berlin on the mandolin and Hickman on the banjo, bass plucking and the bones. It was also fun to hear the bluegrass version of another song from the rock 'n' roll world — Dylan's “Knockin' on Heaven's Door.”
Throughout the evening, Berline sang, played the mandolin and fiddle and highlighted solos by members of his group as he worked in a little bluegrass history and his own stories, such as those about making music for the movie “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” with Bob Dylan and playing with Monroe and the Byrds. He noted that bluegrass typically doesn't include percussion, but the drums added another layer of interesting sound to the talents of the band.
A legend himself, Berline has a career that also includes helping Vince Gill get his start in the recording industry, recording a fiddle solo for a song by the Rolling Stones, playing with musicians like the Eagles and Elton John, among others, and recording with Gene Clark of the Byrds.
Sunday night, the band played favorites like Bob Wills' “My Window Faces the South”; Monroe's “Sally Goodin,” which Berline noted he played with the bluegrass performer himself in 1967; “I'll Feel a Whole Lot Better” by the Byrds, which was more rock than bluegrass. Other songs included the band's renditions of Ricky Nelson's “Hello, Mary Lou” and the gospel “Crying Holy Unto the Lord” with a mandolin solo by Berline.
Among the highlights of the evening were the performances by some of the Irish step dancers who study at the Muggavin School of Irish Dance at Herbert W. Armstrong College in Edmond. One of them, Jude Flurry, 11, recently placed ninth at the World Irish Dance Championships in Boston; another, Jordan Saranga, 12, placed 25th.
The group of about six to 10 students first danced the Irish step to the Berline band's performance of “Huckleberry Hornpipe.” They appeared again near the end: One of Berline's final songs was “Orange Blossom Special,” a fun song that offered each band member a chance to show off as well as the Irish step-dancing kids.
Fans of bluegrass weren't disappointed by the interesting show and catchy music, but neither were the bluegrass novices who enjoyed the musicians' talent and depth of knowledge about the genre.
The Byron Berline Band typically plays every other week at the Double Stop Fiddle Shop in Guthrie. For information and a schedule, go online to doublestop.com.
— Lillie-Beth Brinkman