Red Molly & The Seldom Scene
at the Birchmere,
Alexandria, Virginia (4 June 2011)

On June 4, Red Molly and the Seldom Scene split the bill before an almost sold-out house at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., one of the East Coast's finest listening clubs.

Red Molly came on first and opened with "Jezebel," a song off of their current CD, James. The audience swallowed it as though it were cheesecake. From the opening song on, it was obvious that we in the crowd was in good hands. If you've only heard Red Molly on records, their live show will surprise and delight you. Their songwriting is first rate and they have an uncanny ability to choose cover material that suits them perfectly. Their harmonies are complex, imaginative and grabbing, although the band manages to make them sound effortless.

Equally at home with folk, bluegrass, gospel and western swing, Red Molly grabbed the audience and wrung it out. Their level of musicianship has improved greatly over the years. Abbie Gardner has grown into one of the nation's best dobro players and for this show at least guitarist and banjo picker Laurie McAllister concentrated on the bass. At a previous show a year or so ago I saw her make her public debut on the bass; her playing then was enthusiastic, basic and tentative. She is now quite proficient on the instrument.

New band member Molly Venter had the unenviable job of replacing original member and audience favorite Carolann Solebello, who left the band because she couldn't both tour and mother her small children. Venter pulled it off; she didn't simply replace Solebello, she became a natural part of the trio. Her rhythm guitar playing is solid and her vocals are great, both in solo and harmony parts.

I heard a lot of people declaring that they had come to see the Seldom Scene but had become confirmed Red Molly fans as a result of their show.

The Seldom Scene followed Red Molly. The Birchmere has always been their home club. They began playing there in 1971 and worked the place every Thursday night for decades. The crowd knew them both as entertainers and, in a lot of cases, as old friends, so the Scene was relaxed and casual about being on stage there. One of the things they love to do is to perform bluegrass arrangements of songs you'd never think could be done as bluegrass tunes, so they opened up with Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather."

I've never seen the Seldom Scene so funny before. They clowned, joked, mugged, did Dylan imitations and had a great time -- 71-year-old banjo picker Ben Eldridge, the only member who has been with the group from its beginning 40-odd years ago, did a great and greatly exaggerated sex symbol routine in response to an audience member's yelling out that he was hot. For all their clowning, though, the Seldom Scene's music was sharp, precise and driving. After four decades, they still set the standard for bluegrass and Americana playing.

Not only are they one of the best bluegrass aggregations in America, they are one of the most generous. On about half a dozen different occasions, they praised Red Molly from the stage and, for their encore, they called Red Molly back out and simply played while the women sang "Amazing Grace." Since they worked out the arrangement in plain view of the crowd seconds before they played it, the moment wasn't rehearsed.

But it was beautiful.

The Seldom Scene and Red Molly. The veterans and the newcomers, the old and the young, the standard bearers and the receivers of the standard, the men and the women. You couldn't help but be struck by seeing the present and the future of Americana music together.

In all, a great night.

by Michael Scott Cain
9 July 2011