It’s not often one shows up a bluegrass show to see three middle-aged men (two of them Swiss) dressed sharply all in black, take the stage, and seat themselves as precisely as the Kruger Brothers did. Especially in a setting like that of the Cistern Yard last night, with backlights creating a striking backdrop.
But the Kruger Brothers aren’t a typical bluegrass band, if they’re a bluegrass band at all. The trio might have originally started out as something much different when they got together in 1995, but their Charleston performance incorporated nearly as many elements of folk, jazz, and chamber music as it did what most people would classify as Americana. These features, especially when delivered with the understated charm and geniality the men brought to the stage, made them an excellent fit for the Spoleto festival, and the audience was clearly pleased with, and engaged by the program.
Jens Kruger (banjo, harmony vocals), Uwe Kruger (guitar, lead vocals), and Joel Landsberg (bass, harmony vocals) have been playing together awhile, and it shows. The relaxed, affable attitude shared by the men charmed from the outset; they projected sincere gratitude for the enthusiastic response to their music, occasionally finished one another’s sentences, and threw personal stories in between songs. And the songs, themselves? Many of them bled together, and nearly all incorporated passages that felt as much like chamber music as anything else, but the constant was the precision with which the material was delivered. Uwe’s lead vocals, on the frequent traditional folk-leaning verses, were clear and strong, if somewhat less singular than the instrumental passages. They weren’t as much to my personal taste as the instrumentals, but they provided ballast to the music and a framework from which the solos could depart. It’s worth noting that of all the vocal performances, the one that received the strongest response was an impromptu Flatt & Scruggs cover. Even so, it was the instrumental prowess and musical interplay, rather than the individual songs, that won the audience over.
For all the jazz flourishes and technical complexity, the music continually returned to traditional folk motifs and structures, whether there were lyrics or not. At times, it was difficult not to be reminded of the work of Michael Hedges or Leo Kottke in the 90s, both artists who also started from established traditional forms to create work that fused genres and tested boundaries. As might be the case for both of those artists, as well, some might feel the music meandered too much, or that some of the solos were virtuosic for virtuosity’s sake, but that is more a matter of taste than execution. It would be difficult to claim the Kruger Brothers’ performance was anything but accomplished, or that the performers were anything but wholly charming.
The Kruger Brothers’ joy in making music together was evident, and the buzz in the crowd after the performance ended was almost uniformly positive. The Spoleto audience was clearly more than receptive to their distinctive blend of bluegrass, folk, and chamber music. Leaving the Cistern Yard, multiple parties could be overheard discussing the possibility of returning for the Saturday night show.