Despite the severe winter-weather forecast, the traditional bluegrass-loving crowd was out at the Grey Eagle on a recent Saturday night for the Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice show. This crowd means higher-than-average PBR sales, enthusiastic clapping after nimble-fingered instrumental solos, an age-range from 21-85, pearl-snapped plaid shirts and the random yelling of “Son!” or “Pick it!”
Opening the show was the surprisingly impressive Jon Stickley Trio. Surprising, because this was only their third show together. The hometown group consists of Jon Stickley on guitar, Sav Sankaran on electric upright bass and Lyndsay Pruett on fiddle. All three migrated to Asheville from other places in pursuit of musical endeavors.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that they’re virtuosic on their respective instruments, which helps explain why they could give such an incredible performance after so few shows together. Stickley has been involved in many successful projects from punk to Americana, and Asheville locals will know him as a former Biscuit Burner who moved on from that band to play lead guitar with The Shannon Whitworth Band. Pruett’s resume included playing in Futureman's Black Mozart Ensemble, as well as recording the title track for the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace. Multi-instrumentalist Sav Sankaran currently plays upright bass with the Dixie Bee-Liners and tours full time with them on the bluegrass circuit.
The trio opened with a short, ambient instrumental that set the tone for their set. It let the crowd know they could play straightforward bluegrass, but that wasn’t all they were going to get. As the song wound down, there was almost no pause as the trio launched into a bluegrass song called “Piedmont Foothills,” complete with three-part harmony and ripping instrumental breaks. Stickley said, “Why don’t we get Lyndsay to fiddle one? Here’s the ‘Kansas City Kitty!’” It’s an American Swing tune, circa 1929, and … wow. The song really allowed Pruett and Stickley to show off their instrumental prowess. Just when the crowd thought they had seen all the musical aptitude they could stand, Sankaran stepped up and takes a solo on the upright, dead-on the melody.
It was obvious that Stickley had spent a great deal of time crafting the set list. The transitions between songs were fluid, often not giving the audience time to realize one song had ended and another had begun. There were songs within songs, a nod to the season with a “Greensleeves” tease, and rhythmic intricacies that clearly kept the musicians on their toes. They rotated between vocal tunes and instrumentals, unafraid to blend bluegrass, Gypsy jazz, swing and samba. The most engaging thing about the show was that the musicians looked like they were having a blast on stage. They were constantly communicating with each other with their eyes and body language, smiling and laughing, and impressing each other with exceptionally creative licks. A few of the songs were recognizable from Stickley’s 2008 solo CD, Lions, and some were from a new CD he plans to release in 2011. With such an impressive showing at their third gig, Asheville can eagerly anticipate seeing much more from the Jon Stickley Trio.
Learn more at myspace.com/stickleymusic.
— Stacy Claude is a local musician, freelance writer, and author of Asheville Roots Music Review at avlrootsreview.blogspot.com.