Yo-Yo Ma and Goat Rodeo colleagues traverse the musical genres delightfully

February 1, 2012 at 9:27 am

By Keith Powers

Th Goat Rodeo ensemble (Chris Thile, Aoife O'Donovan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan) performed Tuesday night at House of Blues. Photo: Jeremy Cowart

Rock stars have had their supergroups through the generations from Cream and Blind Faith to the Traveling Wilburys and Audioslave.

So, why not other kinds of music? When hotshot bluegrass fiddler Stuart Duncan, composer/bassist extraordinaire Edgar Meyer and mandolinist virtuoso Chris Thile picked up a cellist—you might have heard of him, too—the resultant Goat Rodeo Sessions achieved the “super” label, that’s for sure. It’s just that nobody knows what kind of music they play.

But play it they did, and to great effect, Tuesday evening as part of the Celebrity Series at the House of Blues before a packed house and a live close-circuit video feed that went out to theaters across the country. As terrific as those three players are, the megainterest was generated by the cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, stretching his career in yet another new direction with this quartet.

The self-titled album has been out a few months, and Goat Rodeo Sessions—the name comes from an aviation phrase describing a dire situation difficult to solve—showcases a dozen tunes written by the ensemble that mine the sonic world of the foursome. Most of it sounds like bluegrass, especially when Duncan’s fiddle stands front-and-center. Some of it sounds like bluesy punk, when Thile and his mandolin take the lead. All of the writing bears the unmistakable arranging fingerprint of Meyer, a composer of deep sophistication.

Unlike the rock supergroups that devolve into alternating solo excursions for the each of the participants, the Goats (yes they held two fingers to their heads and butted, goat style, from time to time) actually blended together. They shared the limelight, engaged in fanciful, fast-paced duets, and seemed to enjoy each other’s very different skills. The set wove beautifully from lickety-split jams to moderate-tempered ballads, and by the time the third encore—the traditional lullaby All Through the Night—was finished, nobody could say that it wasn’t an entertaining evening.

Thile acted as frontman, introducing most of the tunes. He proved a versatile player as well, switching to fiddle and cutting off an impressive ostinato to launch the group into Where’s My Bow?, a Celtic-flavored, minimalist romp that quickly abandoned Thile’s repeated pattern and moved off into shifting solos that changed tempo, key and mood with no regard to genre. Thile also played guitar equally well in Helping Hand, a slow-tempo ballad that gave Duncan a chance to show his own versatility, on mandolin.

The inherent musical background of each player was generally under wraps—no cadenzas for Ma, no clap-your-hands-with-me breaks for Duncan. But when each player soloed, their strengths sneaked in. On Franz and the Eagle, Ma and Duncan alternated the same line, each showing their own brand of virtuosity: the cello, clean and precise, ripping off arpeggios with facility; the fiddle, slightly off the beat, easing the rhythm toward danceability.

The quartet was joined by chanteuse Aoife O’Donovan for a couple numbers, of interest mainly because they broke up the pace. No One but You worked the best for the singer, due less to technical brilliance but to the impossibly long vocal line that exposed the singer’s voice and made the lost-love lyrics come to life.

Three encores, including an orchestration for trio (sans Duncan) of a Bach sonata, rounded out the extravaganza. Despite all the hype about the event, the offbeat venue, and the omnipresent television crew, the Goat Rodeo Sessions still managed to sound like real music. Just don’t ask me what kind.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Yo-Yo Ma and Goat Rodeo colleagues traverse the musical genres delightfully”

  1. Posted Feb 01, 2012 at 2:27 pm by Thom

    Boring Yo-Yo Ma does NOT feel bluegrass rhythm and playing his old improvisations like always.

    Boring Yo-Yo Ma is an over advertised artificial “star” and losing the public.

    This boring “concert” was only about the many.

  2. Posted Feb 25, 2012 at 12:37 pm by Argen McPhee

    This was a top notch performance by masters; I trained it up from NY just to see how it would turn out and was not let down. Amazing musicianship and color. . It was one of my favorite performances by a small group in the past 5 years. And as a performance addict living in the city, I see at least 4 shows a month.

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