Last Saturday an enthusiastic crowd of acoustic music fans gathered in the Bennington Center For the Arts' cozy, intimate auditorium for a casual evening with Moondi Klein and Jimmy Gaudreau, two veteran performers on the bluegrass and American roots music circuit. With a setlist that included Celtic instrumentals, swing tunes, French opera and contemporary alt-rock songs, the duo challenged the audience to expand their definition of acoustic music beyond the traditional bluegrass and old-time sounds. Having performed together for more than 20 years, Moondi and Jimmy also kept the mood light and friendly between songs, creating a laid-back, comfortable atmosphere at the show.
Promptly at 8 p.m. the pair assumed their positions on stage, their stools surrounded by a small forest of acoustic instruments that included several dreadnought acoustic guitars and various types of mandolins. Moondi mainly stuck to guitar all evening, using different capo placements to change his tuning and key, while Gaudreau bounced between guitar, his dark-stained mandolin, mandola and the larger octave mandolin, an instrument common in celtic music. Barely needing amplification thanks to the venue's size and strong acoustics, the duo acted as their own soundmen, adjusting the levels of their small P.A. with a small on-stage mixer. Audience members offered occasional mixing suggestions throughout the night, calling out "more guitar!" or other notes to help the performers dial in the sound.
These audience interactions became common during the show, with Moondi and Jimmy including the crowd in many of their between-song conversations. Clad in Hawaiian shirts and seemingly playing without a pre-planned setlist, Moondi and Jimmy took turns choosing what song would come next. These breaks sometimes led to good-natured bickering between the two musicians, prompting one audience member to comment "you're like an old married couple!"
Each song started with a brief introduction, with the musicians pausing to explain the origins and history of tunes like "Its a Sin To Tell A Lie," which Fats Waller recorded in 1936, or the Celtic standard "Fisher's Hornpipe," which Moondi accidentally called "Horner's Fishpipe" to the crowd's amusement. These moments made it clear that Moondi and Jimmy both feel completely at-home on stage--they almost treated the concert like gathering of close friends and family. And it some ways, it was.
In the second half of the show, after particularly impressive performances of the traditional "Whiskey Before Breakfast" and Tim O'Brien's tender ballad "Rod McNeil," Moondi (who later admitted that his real name is Lawrence) called out to his daughter Lauren in the audience, inviting her up to sing "En Ferment Les Yeux" from the opera "Manon." Lauren remained in the spotlight to add vocal harmonies on "Home From The Mill" and Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You"--a song that Moondi and Jimmy performed with Emmylou Harris on their tour supporting the folk music star. Showing the same confidence on stage as her father, Lauren stepped into Harris' place without any shyness or hesitation. Moondi later explained that his daughter is a budding painter and hopes to attend Bennington College after visiting the school over the weekend.
As soon as Lauren returned to her seat she was replaced by another surprise guest -- The Bennington's resident bird-carving virtuoso Floyd Scholz, a longtime folk music enthusiast. With some of his carving workshop students in attendance, Floyd borrowed one of Moondi's guitars to lead the duo through a hilarious version of "I'm My Own Grandpa," a song based on a Mark Twain anecdote that follows a man's unlikely road to becoming own grandfather through a series of unexpected marriages and technicalities. Floyd's warm, jovial performance fit in perfectly with the mood of the performance, drawing plenty of laughs and smiles from the cordial crowd.
Nearing the end of the concert, Moondi and Jimmy invited Lauren back to the stage for the evening's musical highlight: a passionate cover of the song "New Morning" by contemporary alt-rock group Alpha Rev. A tune from Lauren's record collection that Moondi and Jimmy have embraced, even recording a music video for it, "New Morning" showed how modern songwriting techniques and old-fashioned musicianship can combine to achieve a striking, century-spanning effect that succeeds on several levels.
After a standing ovation that seemed to signal the show's end, Moondi and Jimmy surprised the audience by staying in their places and offering to play another song -- effectively taking an encore without ever leaving their stools. They chose "Blackjack Davey" to be their their closing number, a traditional tune that Bob Dylan famously recorded in the early ‘90s.
After the show many audience members immediately gravitated towards painter Kirk Larsen, who had an easel set up in the back of the venue to document the event on canvas. Larsen had completed several small paintings over the course of the night, capturing abstract visions of the performers (including Lauren and Floyd) with kinetic, liquid brushstrokes. He even completed a small portrait of Moondi behind the grand piano, which he only played for one song.
Between the friendly banter, unexpected guests, audience interaction and cross-genre exploration, Moondi and Jimmy's performance matched musical adventure with a comfortable, welcoming atmosphere that left every audience member feeling like a part of the experience. The show may have been billed as a bluegrass concert, but it felt like something much more.
Contact Jack McManus on Twitter at @Banner_Arts or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org