TVD Live: Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway at The Birchmere, 6/27

Oftentimes artists will say they’re glad to be at a place. But Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway were clearly delighted to be making their debut at The Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, in between some festival gigs.

This, after all, was a hallowed ground for Mid-Atlantic bluegrass, where generations of stars have performed over the storied club’s half century, and local bluegrass superstars the Seldom Scene established an early residency and has been associated with the place ever since.

Tuttle likely knew The Birchmere name as a child, listening to records and learning flatpicking, cross picking, and clawhammer guitar styles from her music teaching father. Those lessons were successful enough to have her become the first woman to win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s guitar player of the year award five years ago—which she went on to win for a second consecutive year.

Still in her 20s, Tuttle wasn’t yet married to bluegrass traditions. She played in other people’s bands and wrote, sang, and recorded her own original material (as well as playing covers of others). The first time she headlined at The Birchmere, a year ago, she played solo, doing a lot of that material.

But her return to the bluegrass fold with a new album and a similarly accomplished young band made The Birchmere premiere of Tuttle and Golden Highway a special high point—for her and the audience. More than half her set came from the group’s debut album that came out this year, Crooked Tree. And like a traditional bluegrass group, the quintet lined up across the stage and burned through the material while each took their own impressive solos.

Most of the players also have their own bands but were likely lured to Tuttle because of the high quality of the operation. Boston-based Bronwyn Keith-Hines, originally from Charlottesville, VA was last year’s IBMA fiddler of the year, is a solo artist who quit her band Mile Twelve last fall. Glamorous stand-up bassist Shelby Means, a member of the Grammy-nominated bluegrass band Della Mae (who also plays in three other outfits) was just nominated instrumentalist of the year by the Americana Music Awards.

Fiery banjoist Kyle Tuttle (not related to Molly) has led his own bands, won awards, and played with a number of others including Billy Strings and Greensky Bluegrass. Lightning-fingered mandolinist Dominick Leslie is from the band Hawktail and, like the bandleader, won awards as a youngster and studied at Berklee.

So it’s a brainy, ambitious, hard-charging unit all around, which could at times call for some balance (in volume if not presentation). Every time one electrified soloist stepped up, it dominated the sound in a way that Tuttle’s remarkable style did not. That may be the nature of the higher pitched fiddle, mandolin, or even banjo that reliably cuts through the collaborations, but each of those instrumentalists also got applause for solos while the band leader did not.

That may be because Tuttle is such a team player, she’s happy to step back and have her bandmates show their stuff (and turn her volume up not quite as loudly when she steps up). But for all her talent on guitar, there should be more of it on display (and better amplified) to reflect its full glory.

Tuttle at 29 has even more to offer than her fingerpicking. An engaging personality on stage, she is also an able songwriter and better than average vocalist. A shot of show biz confidence could help her lead the band more dynamically. On the other hand, it might  detract from the modest, almost shy personality that makes her so appealing—and human—on stage.

Her strongest songs were personal—the roads to her first bluegrass fests as a child in “Grass Valley,” her anthem to the innate strength of those who are different in “Crooked Tree,” her lament of her changing home city in “San Francisco Blues.”

This was a band that could supercharge and deconstruct classics from Bill Monroe (“Wheel Hoss”) to John Hartford (“Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie”). And throwing in a couple of songs from her pandemic-era album of covers, she slowed down and made sparkle The Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow” and, more surprisingly, Rancid’s “Olympia, WA.”

Her all inclusive anthem “Big Backyard,” with which she closed her encore, deserves to be widely known. But she started the encore with something from the locals, Seldom Scene, with their lovely “Wait a Minute” that she knew as a child. And for the encore instead of the individual amplification, they gathered around a single microphone to harmonize and step up for solos—which seemed to instantly solve any issues of volume equity as well.

It must have been daunting for the opening act, DownRiver Collective of Nashville, to perform before such mastery. But the five-piece collective of Belmont College students and dropouts acquitted themselves fine with their own originals and the requisite bluegrass cover of a rock song—in their case, Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.”

SETLIST
She’ll Change
Nashville Mess Around
Wheel Hoss
Castilleja
The River Knows
She’s a Rainbow
San Francisco Blues
Side Saddle
Sleepy-Eyed John
Super Moon
Dooley’s Farm
Over the Line
Grass Valley
Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie
Olympia, WA
Crooked Tree
White Freight Liner Blues
Take the Journey

Wait a Minute
Angeline the Baker
Big Backyard

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