The one that (almost) got away

“Here’s the metaphor: … You find this fish. You prepare. You know what you’re going to catch. You get your bait, your tackle box — you get in the boat. You go out there. You catch it. It starts fighting. You’re like, ‘Wow, this is great.’ It’s pulling on your drag. You pull it out of the water … and it slowly just drops off.”

That was Rev. Jeff Mosier, six months ago, describing the supposed final days of his musical brainchild Blueground Undergrass, a band that, in its first life, lasted four years and three albums before parting ways in early 2002 under less than rosy skies.

The good Reverend (who actually did study theology some years ago) received his holy nickname from Southern-jam papa Col. Bruce Hampton (just like his buddy, drummer Jeff “Apt. Q-258” Sipe of Brevard) back in late-’80s Atlanta, when he was working as a founding member of the groundbreaking Aquarium Rescue Unit.

Since his ARU days, the banjo-wielding Mosier has busied himself with a number of intriguing projects, including straight-ish bluegrass endeavors with brother Johnny (also a former member of Blueground) and Leftover Salmon — where the Rev. initially filled the shoes of late banjoist Mark Vann after his untimely passing in 2002. He also is a musical therapist — working, for instance, with kids in youth-detention centers, an experience he credits as one of his most rewarding with music. Mosier also has the dubious distinction of being the guy who taught the biggest Phish of them all how to play bluegrass, back in 1994.

But Blueground Undergrass remains Mosier’s most successful, most intriguing and perhaps most fitting endeavor in his sometimes roller-coaster-oriented career. In a recent interview with Xpress, Mosier, now 43, simplified the Blueground/fish metaphor for clarity: “I had lost my zippity doodah. There was no joy left at the end.”

But that was then. And now Mosier has come to a sort of full-circle understanding about the recently reunited Blueground — and especially about himself as its uncanny and undeniable bandleader.

In December, after nearly three years of official limbo, Mosier reunited Blueground to play its first gig in Macon, Ga. Although this is currently “version 8.0” of the band, the newly revitalized quintet returns with original members Mosier on electric and acoustic banjos, David Blackmon on fiddle and mandolin, and multi-instrumentalist Cortini (a.k.a. Curtis Jones) holding down acoustic-guitar duties. Rounding out the lineup is young drummer Luke Emig, whom Mosier lovingly compares to Sipe for his open-mindedness (a key ingredient to working with the improv-fanatical Reverend), plus veteran bassist Steve Mays.

This latest incarnation marks an outstanding conglomerate to tackle Blueground’s self-described “psychedelic hick-hop bluesgrass” — that overeager moniker from the band’s olden days that’s still about as pinpoint as you can get in describing their sound.

Blackmon is perhaps best known as a frequent collaborator with Southern jam staples Widespread Panic, and his distinguished bow strokes can be heard on Panic’s first record, Space Wrangler, on classic tracks like “Driving Song” and “The Take Out.” Cortini, meanwhile, has long been a certified flat-picking champion, working in and around bluegrass for years. His diverse playing styles also recall Flamenco and other jazz-oriented influences. The biggest difference between the new Blueground and the old is the absence of Mark Van Allen’s heavenly pedal steel.

Mosier spoke at length with his former band mates, including brother Johnny and Van Allen, before officially putting the band back together. And while all the old tensions aren’t necessarily resolved with those guys, Mosier seems genuinely tickled to be back. The Reverend found that the key to understanding Blueground was in understanding himself as its go-to guy, getting past the negativity that upended Blueground some three years back.

Even six months ago, Mosier himself never would’ve dreamed that the big one that got away would simply turn around and jump back in the boat anyway. That damned fish must be religious — or at least in need of a good spiritual counselor.

And the Reverend himself seems to be seeing new light, as well.

“I finally realized, ‘Man, I don’t even give a s••t,'” says Mosier with his characteristic cackle. “[That’s] a place I’ve always wanted to be.”

Blueground Undergrass continues its comeback tour at Stella Blue (31 Patton Ave.) on Friday, Jan. 21. 10 p.m. $10. 236-2424.

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