I had asked my friend and fellow writer/Northerner Jenny Dunn to come to the Savannah Music Festival's Keller Williams show with me at Trustees.
I was completely familiar with the Travelin' McCourys, but admittedly unfamiliar with Williams, other than seeing that name all over town on real estate signs. She did a quick search on Youtube and then texted "He plays in a Grateful Dead cover jam band."
Can't be the same person, I thought. I arrived a bit worried by the Dead Head tees and hints of patchouli.
Our own insecurities had us playfully judging the crowd for most of the night and being very cynical with our expectations.
We were prone to mockery ourselves, having arrived on a Harley decked out with black leather riding boots and fancy belt buckles.
Inside, the theater was in a bit of disarray, with most of the younger crowd in the lobby while an eclectic mix of pleated pants, sherbet overalls and skullets (bald in the front and party in the back) bobbed their heads and partook in the facial-groove-acrobatics of Charlie Hunter.
Hunter is a seven- (sometimes eight-) string guitar playing virtuoso, simultaneously playing bass notes, rhythm and leads. At times, the guitar sounded like a Hammond organ.
The guitar neck had slanting frets in either direction from the center, something I had never seen. Hunter played from a stool, facing drummer Scott Amendola.
Clearly, both were unconventional master-musicians, but their music, though full of funk and soul, was more for admiration and head bobbing than dancing in your seats. Hunter and Amendola stared one another in the eye trading Buddy Rich beats and Hendrix riffs. Jenny said of Hunter's peculiar facial expressions, that he was "trying to terrify a baby while playing peek-a-boo."
I will just chalk it up as sincerity. They closed with what I think was a Hendrix cover, but the fact that no one around me recognized it was a little telling. Jenny and I still were worried about the jam band thing.
Indeed, Williams did play with Grateful Grass, a Grateful Dead bluegrass cover band. Given the skulls and dancing bears in the audience, it was pretty clear they knew Williams from that project. Tonight, there would surely be covers, but none of them from the Dead. When the musicians took the stage, we were in the presence of straight-up bluegrass royalty.
The Travelin' McCourys are young-ish, clean-cut, boot-and-jeans country boys, while Williams is a jovial trickster figure with a mop of dark hair and business casual slacks and shoes.
He is a hard picker who lacks the reserve and finesse of Del McCoury, the band's usual leader, but he makes up for it in personality and caricature.
They started with a cover of Donna Summer's "Hot Stuff" (yes, they did) and the Travelin' McCourys traded leads on the violin, mandolin, bass, banjo and of course, Williams on guitar. The audience still was trying to figure out if they were to stand or sit, but clearly, reckless equations were being formed.
On a completely different note, a bluegrass version of Mike Doughty's "How Sweet You Are," was performed.
"How am I supposed to find you if I don't know where you are/How sweet you are in your long black American car."
It worked well as a bluegrass tune, though Williams' vocals were clearly inferior to the others, who each sang an original song.
Upright bass player Alan Bartram played his " Messed Up Just Right," which is featured on the Travelin' McCoury's album "Pick." A humbly sweet song about his wife with a "dress hot enough to burn" and he's "got his hair messed up just right."
Williams played a couple of originals that were light-hearted, playful (another one of his projects is performing children's songs) and idealistic. He sang of money's inability to bring happiness and how the world should dance.
His songs were clearly a different mood than the others. That said, the contrast of his presence with the others did make for a refreshing, and sometimes comic, dynamic.
Cover songs ruled the night. Ronnie McCoury sang high lonesome to Steve Earle's "Graveyard Shift" and his own dad Del's "Sweet Appalachia" which started a feeling of young, awkward mountain pride in the mostly 20-somethings who started to own the aisles and the night.
And I am guessing from their attire, they weren't SCADdies. Even though Jenny and I were poking fun all night, we started to have a raucous time with this crowd.
What really changed the pace of things and twirled all the baseball caps backward was fiddle player Jason Carter's song about "love, death and a whole lot of liquor" and he proceeded to play his tune, "What a Waste of Good Corn Liquor."
The antics had started. There was a lot of hillbilly knee slapping and even some of what I will call gangsta-billy arm signs.
The only brief lull for me was a novel and somewhat sarcastic version of the Butthole Surfer's "Pepper," but nevermind, the audience loved it and jumped in and for the rest of the night, that crowd, and even Jenny and I, couldn't help but let all the judging go.
A guy next to us with a skateboard who had been stiffly bobbing his head as if he were at a hardcore show couldn't be contained, ditching his skateboard and storming the stage.
The Travelin' McCoury's held them captive in what had become the Trustees Theater barnyard at the front of the stage with a rousing cover of Cage the Elephant's "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked."
And just like that, 100 people were sloppy-tonk dancing to "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" everywhere, throwing the gangsta-billy signs (appropriate for the Bonnie and Clyde theme song), and a-hootin' and a-hollerin.'
It was good fun and I laughed sincerely and respectfully.
The perfect bluegrass-pop union of the evening that bridged all the generations together was Foster the People's "Pumped up Kicks." Everyone traded leads again, even "Burt Reynolds" who played banjo stage right with a stiff face for most of the night.
Then he smiled and turned back into Robin Floyd McCoury. It was the one cover of the night that I liked better than the original and, at the risk of sounding a little clichÃ©, it spoke to us and we all spilled out onto Broughton, pumped up.
A girl in Daisy Duke shorts was twirling a hula-hoop while smoking a cigarette. Jenny and I played bikers again and hopped on the Harley and drove off into the night feeling a little less cocky-Northern and a bit more Southern.
Chad Faries is associate professor of English and creative writing at Savannah State University. Find him online at www.chadfaries.com and check out Dr. Chad's Storytelling Time from 4-5 p.m. Tuesdays on WHCJ 90.3 or https://soundcloud.com/storytelling-time.