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With A Little Help: Claire Lynch at the Cellar Stage, May 21

May 24, 2010

By Senor McGuire

Claire Lynch keeps losing all-star musicians, but the singer continues to lead one of the best bluegrass bands around. When Lynch brought her quartet to the Cellar Stage at the Faith Community United Methodist Church of Hamilton Friday night, it wasn’t just her warm, welcoming soprano that captivated the crowd but also the terrific picking of her supporting cast.

The International Bluegrass Music Association once voted Lynch as the genre’s best female singer, and she likes to surround herself with peers. For many years her bassist was Missy Raines, winner of multiple IBMA Awards, but when she left at the end of 2007, Lynch was able to replace her with bassist Mark Schatz, himself a multiple IBMA winner. For even a longer time, Lynch’s guitarist was Jim Hurst, himself a two-time IBMA winner, but he left this past March. He was replaced by Matt Wingate, a young man who hasn’t won any awards yet but probably will, judging by his very fast, very melodic acoustic-guitar solos.

The quartet of Lynch, Schatz, Wingate, and Jason Thomas has only been together three weeks, and they were obviously still getting used to one another. Despite a few awkward transitions, though, they showed great potential. They could handle a hard, driving bluegrass number like Bill Monroe’s “My Florida Sunshine” convincingly, but they could also pull off a dark, bluesy lament like “Jealousy,” an old-time country song like Lynch’s “Widow’s Weeds,” a breezy swing tune like Henry Hipkens’ “Fallin’ in Love,” and a singer-songwriter folk number like Lynch’s “Woods of Sipsey.”

Such versatility works only if the performers are equally committed to each style, but Lynch evinced an obvious affection for all of them. The rhythmic rigor of her bluegrass tunes bolstered her folk songs, while her nuanced interpretation of the folkie lyrics bled over into the bluegrass numbers.

This versatility was shared by her backing musicians. Newcomer Wingate played mandolin and bass in addition to guitar, while Thomas played both fiddle and mandolin. Crownsville resident Schatz, a former member of Nickel Creek and the Tony Rice Unit and a current member of Maryland’s Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble, often switched from bass to clawhammer banjo. One of the show’s highlights was Schatz’s body-slapping hambone routine on the old folk song “Cindy Cindy,” topped off by his tap-shoe clogging to a hot fiddle solo by Thomas.

But there was no upstaging Lynch, a charismatic presence with wavy red hair falling over a perforated white blouse above white bell bottoms. When she accidentally dropped her guitar on the stage, she was stunned for a moment but immediately recovered by wisecracking, “I’ve always believed that the more you mistreat them, the better they sound. I had a husband like that once.”

The Claire Lynch Band headlines the Roots Music and Arts Festival at the Carroll County Farm Museum July 11. Cellar Stage is on summer break until the fall season begins Oct. 1 with Donna Long and Friends.