Goat Rodeo's eclectic mix is bluesy and original

The four musicians who participate in 'The Goat Rodeo Sessions' somehow make the jumble of musical genres work.

Ron Edmonds/STF/AP
'Goat Rodeo Sessions' musician Yo-Yo Ma works in incredibly rich cello solos but also helps keep the ensemble together.

Put together four top masters of classical and bluegrass – Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and Stuart Duncan – and you can only expect trouble.

With Goat Rodeo Sessions, the latest offering from this eclectic quartet, there are so many musical styles at work that it should sound like a jumble, a curious train wreck best quietly forgotten. If music executives had come up with this Big Concept, they would have been shown the door, or perhaps shoved out the open window of the 87th  floor.

Thankfully, it was the musicians themselves who found each other on their own musical journeys, and found in each other kindred spirits for making music that was fun, bluesy, and utterly original.

I’ve been to classical concerts, and I’ve spent many a fine afternoon swatting mosquitoes at late-summer bluegrass festivals. Goat Rodeo Sessions somehow encapsulates both of those worlds, and blending them into a musical whole that makes sense. All without the smell of a porta-potty.

Judging from the long line waiting to get into Boston’s House of Blues, this week, to attend a live performance of Goat Rodeo Sessions, there are a lot of people who get what it is that Ma, Meyer, Thile, and Duncan are trying to do. And judging from the crowd’s call for more – and one young fan’s unsolicited marriage proposal to Thile, wisely turned down – the crowd liked what they got.

From their first number, a bluesy number called “Quarter Chicken Dark,” you realize this is new musical territory, and there’s so much more to explore. Meyer’s bass provides the heart-beat that keeps toes tapping. Duncan’s violin provides the melody that one hums for days afterward. Yo-Yo Ma somehow manages to work in incredibly rich cello solos, while keeping it all together with eye contact with each player. Thile is the kid genius, swiveling like Elvis, and ripping through mandolin solos that would make Hendrix consider switching instruments.

To get a taste of "Quarter Chicken Dark," see this clip, filmed at NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts.”

What Ma, Meyer, Thile, and Duncan are doing, of course, is not entirely revolutionary. Antonin Dvorak and Aaron Copland and George Gershwin also incorporated American folk melodies in their compositions. But I suspect they didn’t have as much fun as Ma, Meyer, Thile, and Duncan.

In a phone interview, Duncan says he was thrilled when Chris Thile called him up to suggest the Goat Rodeo project. He just had one question: What in the world would they have in common to play.

“Before I had the chance to say, ‘wow, we’re going to have to pretty much write everything ourselves,’ Chris says, ‘….and the plan is to write everything ourselves.’”

Duncan, who has played 25 years with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, said he found that the differences between the musicians had more to do with personality type than with musical genres.

“The big surprise was how effortless it all was for Edgar and Chris,” says Duncan, “and maybe because they’re math guys. Well, Edgar is a calculus guy, like, he reads it for fun. He and Chris did the entire recording without music, in fact. That’s something both Yo-Yo and I did not do. We’re both sheet music people. I think Yo-Yo Ma, he’s like me but from a different angle. Being able to read something as well as he can, but still no matter, it takes a while to where you feel comfortable with the music.”

I’ve listened to this album dozens of times now, and I still don’t know which song I like the best. But I love the urgency of “Here and Heaven,” sung by Chris Thile and featured vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. In the midst of the House of Blues, I found myself closing my eyes, and being transported. Yeah, that’s the good stuff. (Here’s a clip, recorded at James Taylor’s barn-studio in the Berkshires, where the album was produced.)

(The Goat Rodeo Sessions, performed at House of Blues on Jan. 31 was simultaneously broadcast live in 430 cinemas around the country, thanks to NCM Fathom and Sony Masterworks. The program was also taped by WGBH and is expected to be re-broadcast on PBS stations later this year.)

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