The SteelDrivers, an ensemble that’s likely to win a Grammy on Monday for best bluegrass album, performed at the Folly Theater on Friday.
Although members of the Nashville-based group intend to travel to Los Angeles to attend the ceremony, the quintet seemed wholly focused on entertaining a near-capacity audience of almost 1,000.
The SteelDrivers are thriving in spite of the loss of a pair of integral members since the band last appeared in the Cyprus Avenue Live series at the Folly Theater in 2008. Missouri native Mike Henderson and magnificent vocalist and songwriter Chris Stapleton were the standout members of the SteelDrivers at that show.
Stapleton has become one of country music’s most vital stars after leaving the group in 2010. Henderson and the band parted ways in 2011. The SteelDrivers’ tenacity is a reflection of the substantial talent of the three remaining original members and two recent additions to the group.
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Gary Nichols, Stapleton’s replacement as the band’s lead vocalist, sang with the fervent conviction of a Southern soul man. His passionate roar on “Good Corn Liquor” evoked the frenzied style of Wilson Pickett.
Nichols further ingratiated himself with the audience when he said that he was inspired to write “Hangin’ Around,” a pretty song about loyalty, after watching a documentary about Derrick Thomas, the late Kansas City Chief.
The relaxed demeanor of Brent Truitt, the mandolinist who took the place of Henderson, is in keeping with the band’s informal stage presence. Yet nothing is nonchalant about the group’s formidable musicianship. The SteelDrivers demonstrated why its members are coveted accompanists for many of the biggest names in country and pop.
Very few of their solos lasted more than 30 seconds, an approach that forced each musician to condense his or her best ideas into concise statements. Aside from a penchant for corny jokes, the SteelDrivers are free of indulgences.
The taut format allowed the band to squeeze 19 songs into 95 minutes. The chilling Civil War song “River Runs Red” and “Where Rainbows Never Die,” a haunting composition about triumph in death, were among the best selections.
Dynamic fiddler Tammy Rogers noted that “Rainbows” lost out to a Lady Antebellum song at the Grammy Awards in 2011. For the members of the audience who whooped in appreciation and rhythmically stomped on the wood floor of the Folly Theater on Friday, the music industry’s validation of the SteelDrivers is entirely unnecessary.