A Visit From the Queen of Bluegrass
It's not often that East Texas can say that the Queen of anything is on her way to pay a visit, but on Saturday night we were granted an audience with the Queen of Bluegrass: Rhonda Vincent and her band The Rage.
The Temple Theater was packed on Saturday night, thanks in part to Rhonda Vincent superfans who traveled many miles to make the show. John and Mary Goodman, hailing from Centerville, Iowa, made the trek to East Texas just for Rhonda. "There's none other than Rhonda Vincent & The Rage. We just got to know 'em, they're kind of like sons and daughters to us. For the past seven or eight years, you can call us Rhonda Vincent roadies!" John and Mary have followed the band to Europe and Alaska, and already have a full itinerary booked for the coming months.
Michael Williford didn't come quite as far - he followed the band to Tyler last week and Lufkin this weekend, from Carthage. "You know, living in East Texas, we don't get a lot of the good bluegrass bands here. Whenever good talent comes to this part of the state, we like to try to see them."
What keeps fans like Michael and John & Mary Goodman traveling with the band? It's a question answered by the fiery performance put on Saturday night.
Some bluegrass bands take the stage and play by feel: they get up there, they hammer out some standards at a blazing pace, and they go home. Rhonda Vincent & The Rage are not one of these bands. Rhonda, her fiddle-playing son-in law Hunter Berry, and her other son-in-law and dobro ace Brent Burke, play with the accuracy and precision of surgeons. Every single note is where it's supposed to be. There is no wasted energy. This is a band, joined by bassist Mickey Harris, guitarist Josh Williams, and Aaron McDaris on banjo, that take to the stage like it's another day at the office. They're unflappable pros, even as Rhonda calls audibles on the fly.
"We don't use a setlist. Every set, we tailor to our audience. [The other night,] Whenever Hunter played the fiddle, [Tyler, Texas] went crazy! The week before, whenever Brent took a dobro break, there was a woman there who just screamed! So we try to see what it is that the audience seems to respond to."
The Rage operate on a whole other level, analyzing the structure and genetic makeup of their repertoire, breaking it all down to the basics before building it back up. All night, Rhonda would turn to the band and call out another tune. She told me how that works out before the show: "We usually start off in [the key of] B. The second song's gonna be in E, and if it's not, you can be sure the third song's gonna be in E. I call it 'Run & Gun.' We can go from one song to the next, to the next, to the next..."
When you take a look at the tour schedule that Rhonda & The Rage have already lined out for 2014, you begin to understand why this level of organization is necessary. They'll play a set on A Prairie Home Companion in Minnesota at the end of this week, then tour the Southeast corner of the country, cross back into the Midwest in March, and take New England in the spring. By the end of 2014, Rhonda will have crossed the country at least three times. (The Goodman family will be right there with her.)
What's perhaps most impressive is that for a band with this grueling a tour schedule, the fire and energy is still there. All throughout the night on Saturday, the band were trading licks like they still had something to prove to each other. There were knowing grins and little flourishes exchanged between the guys, challenges shot across the bow in an effort to push the group further, and always smiles and laughter. The Rage might be up on stage for anther night in the office, but they're clearly having a great time.
It seemed to really pay off in the second set. Maybe it took the first half of the show to feel out Angelina Arts Alliance's Temple Theater, but after playing sponsor Martha White Baking Products' theme song and the nicest version of Happy Birthday I've ever heard for dobro player Brent's 25th, they seemed to really pull together for a beautiful version of 'I've Forgotten You,' originally from the 2005 album Ragin' Live. Brent strung together beautiful, soaring dobro licks, a marked contrast to some of this playing earlier in the night when it seemed like there were so many more notes he wanted to play, if only he could fit them in.
When the band put their instruments down for an a Capella rendition of 'His Promised Land,' there were goosebumps. When somebody in the audience started shouting "Rock on!" Rhonda gently reminded the crowd "This is bluegrass, sir!" By the time the band came back out for their encore, a heartfelt version of 'Jolene,' I think everybody in the audience could have heard one or two more.
It may not be often that a string band of this caliber passes through Lufkin, but it ought to be. Thanks to the folks at the Angelina Arts Alliance for bringing Rhonda Vincent & The Rage to town - hopefully we'll see them here again soon.