Berkeley’s musical blessings are bountiful, but I’m going to start this holiday season by giving thanks for Laurie Lewis.
Creatively ambitious and utterly unpretentious, steeped in tradition but doggedly progressive, Lewis is a gifted fiddler, deft guitarist, inspired songwriter and powerfully evocative singer. A creative force on the Bay Area bluegrass scene for decades, the long-time Berkeley resident has mentored several generations of brilliant young string players, while also honing an impressive body of evocative original songs (projects that she releases on her own label, Spruce and Maple Music).
Lewis showcases both sides of her musical life on her new album “Skippin’ and Flyin’,” a loving tribute to bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe on the 100th anniversary of his birth. She celebrates the album’s release Saturday at Freight & Salvage, where she’ll be joined by most of the album’s cast, including her long-time musical partner Tom Rozum on mandolin and vocals, fiddler Chad Manning, bassist Todd Phillips and Patrick Sauber on banjo.
Lewis explores several numbers indelibly linked to Monroe (“A Lonesome Road” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) but casts a much wider net, covering songs recorded by his antecedents (The Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers) and his musical progeny (Flatt and Scruggs). My favorite song is one of Lewis’s own devising, “The Pharaoh’s Daughter,” a gorgeous ode to the biblical heroine who saved Moses and then promptly disappeared from the book of Exodus.
While the album features several illustrious guests — Linda Ronstadt, Kathy Kallick, Dale Ann Bradley and Nadine Landry all contribute harmony vocals — the most notable creative connection is between Lewis and Rozum. They started performing together in 1987 when he joined her band Grant Street, a talent-laden combo that boosted the careers of string experts like banjo player Tony Furtado and guitarist Scott Nygaard. But after a serious car wreck in Arizona in 1994, the sudden confrontation with mortality led Lewis and Rozum to focus on honing the duo act they’d long thought about pursuing.
“We felt like it was something we wanted to do, and knowing everything could be over at any time, we made it a priority,” Lewis says.
Released under both their names, their first post-crash album “The Oak and the Laurel” (Rounder) earned a 1996 Grammy nomination for Best Traditional Folk Album. Showcasing their restrained high lonesome harmonies, they explored classic old-time tunes by the Louvin Brothers, the Carter Family and Peter Rowan with a cast of string stars including Mike Marshall, Nina Gerber and Darol Anger.
Keenly aware that each gig is a singular communion they’ve thrived in each other’s company ever since, whether performing with Lewis’s Bluegrass Pals, working in a duo format, interpreting bluegrass standards or playing Lewis’s originals. And that’s something to be very thankful for.
Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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