Floor space in the Crown Room at Crystal Bay Casino was at a premium last Saturday night.
People were crammed wall to wall and stacked five or six deep at the bar, while the entry line extended all the way back to the casino door. A constant eddy of disappointed groups meandered away from both gates, each learning in turn that tickets for that night’s show had sold out.
The reason for the ruckus was a rollicking evening show by two homegrown bands, Buster Blue and the Dead Winter Carpenters. The groups each put on a tour-de-force performance, demonstrating why their fan bases in and around the Lake Tahoe Basin are both fervently devoted and steadily growing.
Self-described “chain-gang” folk band Buster Blue kicked off the evening with their standard offering: a rocking show incorporating a parade of instruments. Hailing from Gardnerville, Nev., Buster Blue includes all manner of strings (both acoustic and electric), an assortment of brass (bass sax and trombone especially), and a percussion section that includes a chain and bucket (the former is lifted and dropped into the latter to a beat).
The six-member group had the audience rocking by the end of their set. Especially enjoyable was their signature stomp “Rise Up,” a pounding tune that tends to stick in one’s head long after the last notes fade. Buster Blue played for about an hour, and left the stage to roaring applause.
The Dead Winter Carpenters set up shop shortly thereafter, opening with “Cabin Fever,” a frantic romp driven by Jenni Charles’ searing Cajun fiddle. The North Shore string band was on fire that night, and the Crown Room’s expert sound crew ensured that every note of their tight performance reached the audience in crystal clarity.
Sean Duerr and Jesse Dunn picked up a storm, alternating between acoustic and electric guitars throughout the show. Whether soaring electric solos from Duerr or Dunn’s fervent flat-picking runs, the two guitarists’ fingers were flying all night.
Dave Lockhart was great fun to watch, thumping away on both electric and upright bass and belting soulful vocals out of a bushy brown beard. He and Charles faced off on bass and fiddle during one hot number. Displaying remarkable flexibility, Lockhart did a quasi-limbo, bending over backward almost to the floor, all the while pounding away on bass.
I really can’t say whether or not drummer Ryan Davis started the show with his shirt off. If not, he had definitely shed it by the time I caught a glimpse of him through the whirling crowd, a few songs in. This is to be excused however as Davis played his kit with fiendish intensity, piling another level of intensity onto an already sizzling combo. While appearing occasionally, drums are definitely not a mainstay in the world of bluegrass, and any drummer who can keep up with the tempos of the genre deserves a whopping pat on the back.
It was a great night of live music, and also happened to be Charles’ birthday. At one point the house lights came up and her band mates led the audience in an up-beat rendition of “Happy Birthday” as confetti rained down from the rafters. The birthday gal was beaming in a bright red dress with white stars. Her infectious smile and fantastic prowess on fiddle were well worth the colorful bits of crepe paper that suddenly decorated my whiskey.
Dead Winter Carpenters played for over two hours, including covers of Neil Young’s “Ohio” and “Bangor Mash” by Devil Makes Three, another North Shore favorite. Members of Buster Blue joined the stage toward the end of the show, adding a brass section to the quintet. It was great fun to see these two bands share the stage, just as they’ve shared unmistakable success recently.
A year ago, both Buster Blue and Dead Winter Carpenters were most likely to be found in the Red Room, Crystal Bay’s smaller venue, home to after-parties and smaller shows. But the popularity of both acts has steadily grown, thanks to their top-notch music and showmanship that they’ve put on display on frequent tours in and beyond the Reno/Tahoe area.
The two groups proved that they belong in the Crown Room Saturday, packing it with a sold out crowd and filling every last cubic centimeter with sound.