The good old boys of Poor Man’s Whiskey, featuring former Cornmeal fiddler Allie Kral, kicked things up a notch at the Fox Theatre on Friday, June 14th with two full sets of northern California bluegrass-based rhythms. The show was billed as Poor Man’s Whiskey playing the music of Old & In the Way, an early seventies bluegrass super group featuring Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead notoriety, bluegrass pioneer Peter Rowan, and a who’s who of string pickers in David Grisman, Vassar Clements, and Jerry Garcia Band alumni John Kahn. Poor Man’s Whiskey last played the Fox when they opened for Great American Taxi in January, and their knack for crafting well plotted lyrics and melodies that explode during their live shows earned them their return as the headliner.
While not necessarily a permanent fixture in the band, Allie Kral feels right at home. The addition of the fiddle that Poor Man’s Whiskey unknowingly lacked before her departure from Cornmeal is something that to me feels like an upgrade, version 2.0. Kral is that impressive. Her energy and total grasp of the material fell into place right from the start. Her onstage demeanor and boogie fit right in with Brough and the rest of the band, and I think they’ve seen the light, and will work to retain her for the long haul if she doesn’t take her talents to South Beach. No matter the situation, I see her as important a member of the band as any other.
Poor Man’s Whiskey and the members of opening act Brothers Comatose walked off stage and into the pit to kick off the set, working to bring the spotty patches of people together into a cohesive crowd. It worked, with everyone in the room gathering together on the lower levels towards the stage, listening closely to the instruments without the accompaniment of microphones, amps or speakers. After the first tune, the members of Brothers Comatose departed into the crowd, and Poor Man’s Whiskey stepped back on stage, introducing Allie, their upbringing with the music of the Grateful Dead, and how Old & In the Way was the first bit of bluegrass to reach the coasts of northern California; the land beloved and immortalized in their lyrical songbook.
Front man and banjo plucking extraordinaire Josh Brough introduced their initial cover, Pig in a Pin, and asked the crowd to give a loud “yee haw,” as they burned their way into the material of Old & In the Way. They kept within strict bluegrass standards for the initial output, including Panama Red, which Brough mentioned was written by Peter Rowan, who they had the pleasure of playing the song and set with recently.
When guitar and mandolin players Chris Haugen and Jason Beard picked up electric guitars, we knew we were finally going to get a taste of their interpretations of the music beyond the traditional arrangements Old & In the Way. Catfish John, a Jerry Garcia popularized tune, provided that very lift to keep the crowd guessing. The funk guitar rhythms, mixed with Brough’s move to his Nord keyboard and addition of electric bass on the part of Aspen Stevenson lit a spark that wasn’t prevalent in the early going, and I could tell they were dipping into their own back pockets to reach new peaks on the widespread cover. Allie and drummer George Smeltz were the only two who didn’t change their instruments, and Allie held down the farm flavored bluegrass while the guys got weird. On the refrain, Brough sang, “take me back, to Boulder, Colorado,” one of many occasions throughout the evening that he altered lyrics to include Boulder and the Fox Theatre.
It was sometime after Catfish John that Brough broke a pint glass passing his keyboard bench off stage, before leading the band into the David Grisman tune Old & In the Way, which the seventies group took their name, and saw Poor Man’s Whiskey back on their bluegrass lineup of instruments. This shift in every couple of songs defines the band and allows them to tackle a fusion of musical tastes with a common background. You could call it jam grass, funk grass, or even straight-up bluegrass if you wanted to, but you’d be selling them short. Allie and her endless fiddling enthusiasm also work miracles for the band, letting them jam outside the box while she retains the country southern hoedown and traces of Appalachian moonshine. Bluegrass fusion is certainly at its most entertaining when not stuck within the boundaries of traditional standards.
“The Brothers Comatose are going to play a song from Old & In the Way now,” Brough announced before passing instruments to their supporting Napa neighbors. They played Angel Man, and it was cool watching the guys from Poor Man’s Whiskey hanging around on stage laughing and drinking like something out of The Last Waltz. “It’s always fun running into your neighbors over a thousand miles from home,” Brough continued as he tried to open a beer on the heel of Allie’s boot. When it failed to work the first few times, Allie claimed that “it worked the first time every other time,” and that “my boot has stage fright.” Entertainment through multiple mediums at its finest.
Midnight Moonlight, perhaps the crowd favorite of the evening, and certainly one of mine, rounded out the latter part of the set. The incredibly vocal crowd even sang along to some of the more noticeably memorable songs, laughing when the band tricked them by swapping in Colorado specific lyrics.
Continuing into the second set, Poor Man’s Whiskey’s Humboldt-high stomp grass let loose on mostly original tunes. Songs like Let’s Go Out Tonight and Brough’s piano heavy ballad, Easy Come, Easy Go, define the band with their fun-loving attitude and attention to northern California settings. Spouting off lyrics about the old days touring with the Grateful Dead and smoking weed, the band was in their own, even more so than in their interpretation of Old & In the Way, which they said they grew up with and helped to inspire their band.
“All Night Long,” bassist Aspen Stevenson sang as they trotted through another original I recognized from the last time they played the Fox. Seeing a band developing on the road and growing with each show makes for good viewing, enjoyable hearing, and a distinguishable bond that makes the audience feel somewhat entitled over years of tickets and dance-filled nights. There is no doubt in my mind that endless touring of all markets has benefited them as they continue to achieve the level of their craft that they are so recklessly striving for, and having Kral certainly hasn’t hurt their efforts.
“We’re running out of time, why don’t we come down on the floor and play some music for you,” Aspen says, a testament to the fun they were having. They proceed into a stripped-down Sierra Girl after asking the crowd to be quiet so all ears could hear, and halfway through the song a drunken chucklehead broke out into the chorus of The Go-Go’s Vacation. Some looked on in horror, some laughed, but the band played on, no doubt laughing to themselves as they aren’t the sort of band to let a little crowd interaction spoil their good time.
Sierra Girl is probably the one song I listen to on a consistent basis when it pops into my head. My friend, who recently moved back to Colorado after two years in Truckee, certainly enjoyed it, as we had talked about the song to some lengths prior to the show and said it would be a great conclusion to the night if they played it. And of course, they saved it until the end. “Heading down in the morning, heading down in the pouring rain” replicates my adventure visiting Truckee and heading to the airport in Reno to catch my plane, as I’m sure it resonates in other ways for other people. Lyrics like these make the band so easy to relate to, and they’ve certainly caught my attention for the long road ahead.