On December 1st, 2007 I capped off a six-day concert streak that spanned four venues in three cities (and amazingly included not a single member of Phish or The Grateful Dead) with a show featuring the Kruger Brothers at the Gladstone Theatre in Ottawa’s Little Italy neighbourhood.
I have only been to the Gladstone a very small number of times (that number might, in fact, be “one”) which is too bad. It’s a small, comfortable room with good sound and a convenient location, but I guess they leaned a lot heavier on theatrical productions than they did live music, while my entertainment dollar leans steeply in the opposite direction. Regardless, I was pleased to be in the house for my first Kruger Brothers show.
I see it written in my ticket album that Leavin’ Train opened the show (I generally only note the opening act in my ticket albums if I saw them). The next time I find myself under hypnosis I will probe my subconscious memory banks for any trace of Leavin’ Train; until then I will just have to imagine the band (or was it a duo?) warming up the crowd, for I have no recollection of them (him? her?) whatsoever.
I do remember the Krugers quite well though. Really, they are so unique as to be quite unforgettable: two thickly-accented Swiss siblings who play the most rapid-fire, mechanically perfect Kentucky bluegrass you’ve ever heard. Of course when one thinks of “bluegrass” they do not immediately conjure up images of the Swiss Alps, but somehow along the way these two guys found the distinctly American sound and man, did they run with it. One brother on the banjo and the other on alphorn (just kidding, it was an acoustic guitar) with a non-related bass player sitting behind them and no vocals (that I can remember), and just an endless stream of jaw-dropping chops, runs and phrases, and all of it played with utter precision. I mean there wasn’t a single string squeak or half-flubbed note all night. They were simply amazing.
And they clearly had huge brotherly love and respect for each other, that much was very obvious not only in the many stories that were told between songs but also in their playing demeanour. One element that was unmissable was how the frontmen stared into each others eyes every moment that they were playing. I mean, those two brothers locked in to each other visually for the entire performance, taking nary a glance down at their hands or their instruments. It was inspiring and very, very effective.
Years ago a friend of mine was studying medicine at U of T and she related to me the fact that our eyes evolved out of actual brain matter. Apparently way, way back a part of our brains just popped through the front of our skulls and turned into eyeballs. As a result, when you are looking into someone’s eyes you are actually, physically looking at a piece of their brain. I don’t know how this affects normal life, but I know for a fact that it is an extremely valuable asset for musicians.
If two musicians stare into each other’s eyes they will instinctively play together very, very well. They will start and stop as one instrument, without a word spoken. I know, know, know this to be true, and anyone who was a member of the Contemporary Music Ensemble that I directed at my university knows it to be true as well, because we used to do it all the time. It’s a difficult and unnerving exercise at first, but a breakthrough once you can do it (stare unflinchingly into someone else’s eyeballs whilst you are playing music, that is).
Anyway, the Kruger Brothers had obviously tapped into this trick long ago.
A final observation, an elephant-in-the-room sort of thing (please, please pardon the pun), was that the guitarist was so overtly obese that he could barely walk onto the stage without aid, and it was a wonder that he could even reach the strings of the guitar that sat on his own lap. I don’t mean it as a diss or anything, but I did sit there all night wondering how a man with the discipline required to gain so much skill on his instrument could let himself get to such a state.
Then it occurred to me that playing music often requires a thick dose of obsession to go along with all that discipline, and I guess different musicians have different balances (or imbalances) of obsession versus discipline. I know for me it’s discipline that gets me to pick up the guitar (every time) and obsession that keeps me from putting it down.
I believe this was my only Kruger Brothers show but that says more about their touring schedule than my appreciation for their talent. If they come back so will I.