Ragin’ at the Big Room
Rhonda Vincent and the Rage invoke spirit of bluegrass
Chico, CA 95928
Rhonda Vincent and the Rage brought the contemporary glory of old-time bluegrass to the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Big Room last week. With her nimble mandolin work and engaging presence, and accompanied by a cracker-jack band of professional pickers, the irresistible so-called “queen of bluegrass” presided over a crisp and flawless 105-minute set—of mostly Vincent originals—that gave reverence to the style of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and other performers from the Grand Ole Opry heyday.
The opening number, an offering from her new album, Taken, kick-started the show at a blistering pace. “Ragin’ Live for You Tonight” also set the evening’s tone with first-person lyrics that describe the lives of Vincent and her band: “We loaded up our suitcase and down the road we went/ said goodbye to our family, time with them is heaven-sent/ headed to another town, makin’ another show/ rollin’ down the highway ’cause we’re always on the go.”
Vincent augmented her mandolin picking, as well as lesser passages on guitar and fiddle, with her clear country voice that is somewhat reminiscent of Alison Krauss with a Dolly Parton influence (Parton guests on one of the tracks on Taken).
Even without her finger-picking virtuosity and perfectly pitched voice, Vincent’s engaging presence, sparkling eyes and pearly white teeth could be enough to earn her success by today’s pop-star standards. And that presence, which emits joy and even camaraderie (she urged the audience to “come pitch a tent and join us” at her family’s summer bluegrass festival in Missouri), combines with her band’s proficiency to create an irresistible performance. The integral Rage includes veterans Mickey Harris (on stand-up bass) and Hunter Berry (fiddle) as well as two relative newcomers—Aaron McDaris on banjo and Ben Helson on guitar.
The band reeled off about two dozen tunes, most of which clocked in at a tidy four minutes. Vincent performed plenty of original ballads, mid-paced and kick-up-the-dust-paced material from throughout her catalog, including her single from 1992, “I’m Not Over You,” as well as a few songs off the new record. The new songs fit in smoothly with rest of the material, not representing a major change for the band but instead adding more polish to their rootsy bluegrass repertoire.
Vincent also gave her nightly nod to the Martha White Baking Co. The Tennessee-based outfit that endorsed Flatt and Scruggs 55 years ago has sponsored Vincent and the Rage tours for the past decade. Not only was the mural-covered Martha White Bluegrass Express bus situated prominently along 20th Street, but Vincent talked up and tossed out packets of the company’s blueberry muffin mix. The band also performed its nightly one-minute rendition of “The Martha White Theme,” a throwback to old Grand Old Opry radio shows.
Vincent’s life has always revolved around music; she sang and played mandolin onstage with her family’s Sally Mountain show in her native Missouri by the time she was 8. She graduated from the family band and was a polished singer and player with an appreciation for both the Bill Monroe and the New Grass Revival schools of bluegrass by the time she recorded her first solo record in 1986. For the Big Room crowd, she brought out some of those classic old tunes, including Flatt and Scruggs’ “Polka on the Banjo,” Roy Acuff’s “Precious Jewel,” and a furiously paced Jimmy Rodgers tune, “Muleskinner Blues.”
The show roared to a close with affable fiddler—and Vincent son-in-law—Hunter Berry leading the band with a wild instrumental sendoff, “Wow Baby,” the title track from his solo album.