What: The Blue Rags reunion w/Tyler Ramsey and Mad Tea Party
Where: The Orange Peel
When: Saturday, April 10
On rare occasions, when exceptional chemistry is involved, the performance of live music can actually transcend artistic taste.
The Blue Rags took the Orange Peel stage April 10 after a two-year hiatus. And as they played their trademark “rag ‘n’ roll,” they didn’t do anything you wouldn’t expect them to.
But there is something that lives between Bill Reynolds’ bass strings and the keys of Jake Hollifield’s stripped-down upright piano. It erupts from every smack of wood-on-skin that comes from Mike Rhodes’ drums, from every care-bent note that escapes from Scott Sharpe’s guitar strings, and from every vaulting word that tears out of Woody Wood’s mouth.
That night, the Blue Rags were, once again, the undisputed kings of the Asheville music scene.
I admit I never experienced them in their prime, in the mid-’90s, then led by madman Abe Reid and the objects of much adulation from crowds and record companies alike. The shows from this era are the stuff of local legend — as, to a slightly lesser degree, are the shows from their stint on post-indie super-label Sub Pop, when a marginally less frantic Woody Wood replaced Reid. They were, during this time, Asheville’s biggest rock act, following roughly in the trail Chapel Hill’s Squirrel Nut Zippers had stomped down shortly before.
All that being before my time, I was only left with their records, Rag ‘n’ Roll and Eat at Joe’s — and I’d be lying if I said either did much for me. I couldn’t grasp what all the commotion was about, why the band still enjoyed so much dogged devotion. Of course, fan after fan told me I’d never understand “it” without seeing the band live. By default, I had to concede the point.
In truth, the only hint I’ve ever gotten of the alleged Blue Rags magic has come from individual members’ more recent projects (Wood’s Hollywood Red, Sharpe’s contributions to The Unholy Trio, Reynolds’ ROBOT and DrugMoney). But those acts displayed only brief flashes of the fire that threatened to ignite the Orange Peel stage April 10.
One of the most giving live-music displays I have ever seen, the whole show amounted to an extended thank-you to the crowd. Instead of the ego, pomp and self-absorption I’d expected (that attitude being forefront in some of the Rags’ side projects I just mentioned), out came raw, undiluted passion and the flying sweat of a band lost in the moment.
The sizable crowd, too, was happily drowning. No warm-up time needed here — the audience frenzy was instant.
Certainly some songs teetered toward the abyss of needlessly extended jams — but mostly the band seemed to know just how far to push it. Their peculiar collection of roots covers — everything from the country-gospel classic “Will the Circle be Unbroken” to a timely and thematically appropriate version of Dylan’s “Forever Young” — gushed out like geysers, stopping just when the flow began to weaken.
We can reasonably expect the materialization of a live album recorded at April 10’s fiery performance — but that’s about the only current Rags rumor (are they back together, or not?) that’s likely to see light anytime soon.