Grammy Award-winning bluegrass band Steep Canyon Rangers takes the Spoleto Festival USA stage with two nights of concerts in College of Charleston’s Cistern Yard on Thursday and Friday.
The North Carolina-based band’s unique sound blends elements of pop, country and folk music. Since forming in 2000, Steep Canyon Rangers has released 15 albums and earned three Grammy Award nominations for Best Bluegrass Album, winning for 2012’s Nobody Knows You.
Following a show in Dublin last March, the sextet’s tour with actors Steve Martin and Martin Short was cut short due to the pandemic. Lead vocalist Woody Platt said the band had to reevaluate things after all gigs for the next year were canceled.
“We tried to stay creative through this time, and we’ve had to adapt just to survive,” Platt said. “We haven’t been able to do much work. We’ve done some drive-in shows and a few socially distance shows.”
The band also began doing live-streamed shows from home through its Patreon page, where members also share exclusive videos and early access to new material. Spoleto will be one of the band’s first shows with a live audience after the pandemic.
“We’ve done a lot of streams and when you finish a concert or finish a song and there’s no applause, you can’t really gauge the audience feedback,” Platt said. “I’m looking forward to when (we) share music with an audience and they react.”
Mike Guggino, who you’ll hear on mandolin, mandola and harmony vocals, said the hardest part about playing without an audience is bringing your own energy to the performance.
“I didn’t actually realize how much of a two-way experience playing music can be between artist and audience until they were gone,” he said. “Playing for a crowd of cheering — hopefully — fans is something I look forward to tremendously.”
When the pandemic hit, the band had three records ready to go, and those releases allowed them to stay focused. The Rangers’ most recent album, Arm in Arm, was created and released during the pandemic. It marks the first time the band recorded outside of its native North Carolina, spending several days tracking the LP at Southern Ground Nashville Studio.
“We wanted to fully immerse ourselves in this project, around the clock,” Platt said. “So we went and recorded at Southern Ground, and lived in our bus in the parking lot. When you do that, you get into the music creation mode and there’s little distraction. You can go back to the bus at the end of the day, and you’re still in that creative mode.”
Ultimately, the band is proud of the album and ready to play it for live audiences.
“I look forward to playing any and all of the songs from Arm in Arm,” Guggino said. “We released the album during the middle of the pandemic and haven’t had a chance to play many of the songs for live audiences. Everything will be fresh to them and to us. Even the old songs will feel new in some ways simply because we haven’t played them in many months.”
Nicole Taney, Spoleto’s director of artistic planning and operations, said these performances will have a reduced audience capacity. Tickets for both nights of Steep Canyon Rangers shows are being sold in physically distanced pods of two and four seats. All seats within a pod must be purchased at the same time in the same order. Face masks are required for all ticket holders.
“Normally we can accommodate more folks, but I think (the reduced capacity) just made a lot of sense and we wanted the artists to feel comfortable and secure as well,” Taney said. “We won’t have concessions and we aren’t having merchandise sales, just to keep people from mingling and gathering.”
Tickets in the venue’s two rear pods are still available for both Steep Canyon Rangers shows. Both shows begin at 9 p.m. and will last approximately 75 minutes.
Samantha Savery is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program at Syracuse University.