Rave-up on the Ridge
A night of world-class bluegrass with Rhonda Vincent
Driving up the Skyway to see the “Queen of Bluegrass” and her band in Paradise last Saturday (June 11), I couldn’t help but anticipate a fantastic display of musicianship and vocal talent. But I also wondered how the ensemble’s acoustic music would sound in a big hall driven through a PA system. I needn’t have worried about sound quality. Although traditional bluegrass is intricate acoustic music, ideally suited to intimate settings that don’t require electric amplification, the designers of the Paradise Performing Arts Center created a space that can accommodate 762 people and make it seem as cozy as a large living room, with a sound system that gives every note of every instrument and voice a crystalline clarity that eases rather than assaults the ears.
In other words, it was an ideal setting for Rhonda Vincent & The Rage to present their brand of modern bluegrass, which incorporates bluegrass arrangements of popular country hits, gospel songs and original compositions. Starting off with the high-energy rush of “Bluegrass Express,” the sextet (supplemented at times by Vincent’s daughter Sally Berry on acoustic guitar) immediately established its prowess at interweaving instrumental and vocal harmonies. Vincent, who does most lead vocals and plays mandolin, possesses a clear, strong voice that rides and glides above the swirling mix of Brent Burke’s dobro, Hunter Berry’s fiddle, Mickey Harris’ upright bass, Aaron McDaris’ banjo and Josh Williams’ acoustic guitar.
Vincent is justifiably proud of her band, saying between songs that she’s “so honored to get to play with these world-class musicians.” And she lets them prove it by featuring individual band members on songs of their own. Guitarist Williams’ lead vocal on “Prodigal Son” conveyed a Southern mountain music vibe perfectly complemented by Vincent and the other band members’ harmony vocals, and enhanced by the melancholy chiming of McDaris’ banjo.
Another highlight was Sally Berry’s rendition of Merle Haggard’s classic country lament “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” played at a lively tempo with husband Hunter’s fiddle riding the melody, counterpointed by Burke and McDaris’ telepathic interplay of dobro and banjo. That interplay also transformed Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” from its original slow testimonial to a sprightly number that brought out the mix of joy and melancholy embodied in its lyrics. Staying in 1970s mode, Vincent sang Randy VanWarmer’s 1979 country-pop hit “Just When I Needed You Most,” featuring a melody that allowed her to beautifully demonstrate the high end of her vocal range.
The evening wouldn’t have been complete without a fiddle breakdown, and Berry’s solo turn, “Son Drop In,” gave the audience a foot-stomping, hand-clapping, whoop-inducing few minutes of down-home fun. Likewise, vocal harmonies also required a featured moment and the a cappella gospel number “Promised Land,” with Vincent on lead vocal and the rest of the band supporting her with layered harmonies over a dynamic range of volume and melody.
Staying well within tradition, Vincent sang Ernest Tubb’s hardcore lover’s (and drinker’s) lament “Nails in My Coffin,” with conviction: “I’m just drivin’ nails in my coffin every time I drink a bottle of booze/I’m just drivin’ nails in my coffin, drivin’ nails over you.” And the band’s musical fire on the number seemed to inspire and infuse another instrumental highlight, McDaris’ featured song, “All About the Banjo,” which filled the arts center with energy and embodied everything a bluegrass rave-up requires.