Stepping within this quiet sanctum, I could almost hear a pin drop. We weren’t alone, my girlfriend and I, as we walked into The Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., but it certainly felt that way due to the atmosphere these walls evoked. I’m not sure if the others inside were simply tired from a long day or if they too were deep in thought, marveling over the years these barns had seen. Reconstructed from two upstate New York structures made during the 1700s – one in German tradition and the other from a Scottish background – the walls have been turned inside out to show the remarkable life they had witnessed. “What a wonderful place for some fine acoustic music,” I thought. And that was what we were about to experience; an intimate evening with upright bass virtuoso, Edgar Meyer, and the equally talented mandolin player, Mike Marshall.
Encased in a blue hue, the two appeared from the side of the stage and approached a pair of microphones, which otherwise sat alone. Then, at the volume of a whisper, they began to play. Silence can be an amazingly intense thing, especially when it feels as though the entire audience is holding its breath to allow the instruments to breathe. It’s as though Meyer’s and Marshall’s were the only sounds in the entire building. You can’t have an entire show in such a format though, and with the third song the energy surged tremendously! “What was the name of that last tune?” asked Mike knowingly. Edgar seemed to be a little taken aback, “Uh, well…you can call it whatever you’d like I guess. But I call it ‘Pickles’.” Everyone began to chuckle. “Did you say pickles?!” Marshall inquired, pressing the issue further, with Meyer switching the topic to their next song; a Bach piece in E minor. It was originally written in D minor, but E minor, we were informed, was a more “musician-friendly key.”
The whole show was instrumental in nature, which meant that, aside from a few dialogues such as the one just mentioned, most of the personality and humor we saw and heard from these two fine men was from their physical performance. There’s something slightly humorous to me about a man playing what looks like a small guitar leaning into the bass player, whose instrument is about five times the size of the other’s, to “play off” of him. But then you watch that same man burning through his fretboard with a smoke trailing following his fingers and your eyes go wide. So wide that you notice just to his left that the bass player is now alternating between playing with a bow, then finger-plucking, and now is playing with his bow once more – all during the same song. There were even moments of the evening where Mike stared down Edgar’s bass, bringing his eyes close, as though it had secrets to uncover. By the same token, Marshall started playing a Brazilian choro piece called “Flight Of The Fly” and the look on his face gave me the impression that he was as surprised by what he was playing as we were in the audience!
“Time for a love song, Edgar?” Marshall asked casually. Meyer looked up at him unbelievingly and said, “We don’t do those.” “Just between you and me,” Mike assured him, “This song is called ‘Blooper’.” He backed away from the microphone, paused, and then stepped forward again to add, “…it’s a love song.” Edgar shook his head before tearing into an absolutely mind-blowing piece. This concert was not always easy though, as this tune pointed out. It was a bit jazzy at time, with the phrase going on and on, almost aimlessly, before resolving amazingly several bars later than I expected. Ultimately, it was rewarding though, and I truly felt like I’d heard something special. After the two had brought the song to a conclusion someone asked “where was the blooper in there?” The two assured her, “If you make enough of them it sounds like they’re supposed to be there. Never just make one. It’ll stand out!”
The duo ended the night with a Bulgarian number, which we were told was something “you’d play at an East European wedding” by Meyer. Marshall suggested that we could turn the barn into a Bulgarian dance floor. I smiled at the thought. And that was our evening: a weird little night, filled with an extraordinarily small instrument and a very large one playing bluegrass, classical, Brazilian choro pieces, and Bulgarian wedding songs to a group of varying ages in a set of conjoined German and Scottish barns from upstate New York. The only thing to make the whole mess better was the opportunity to speak to Meyer and Marshall themselves, which those of us who stuck around for a little while longer were given the very chance to do. They were so warm and giving with their time, mirroring their cheerful demeanors on stage. These two don’t play concerts together very often (their next as a duo is the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado), so I’d recommend checking them out, together or with other acts, anytime the opportunity presents itself. Who knows, there might even be a Bulgarian dance floor.
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