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Concert Review: All-star Goat Rodeo troupe hits a strong stride at Meadow Brook

08.22.13
Yo-Yo Ma
Oakland Press

By Gary Graff

ROCHESTER HILLS — There are a lot of jokes to be made about an ensemble that calls itself Goat Rodeo. And the all-star conglomeration of Yo-Yo Ma, Chris Thile, Stuart Duncan and Edgar Myer made plenty of them on Wednesday night, Aug. 22, at the Meadow Brook Music Festival.

But the quartet's stunning performance was certainly nothing to laugh at.

Even more inspired than its Grammy Award-winning "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" album from 2011, the troupe's hour and 45-minute concert displayed kindred creative spirits locked in on an intimate and virtuoistic level. The 16 pieces — four of which featured vocalist Aoife O'Donovan from the roots group Crookend Still — were  carefully arranged, but with moments that allowed for improvisation from all four of the instrumentalists, blending classical and Americana styles in a manner that has little musical precedent.

There was also a genial informality and plenty of playfulness amidst the intricies — which is characteristic of the four Goat Rodeo members, anyway. The loose repartee, including discussions about song titles and Yo-Yo Ma's periodic self-deprecating references to himself as the "old Goat" (at 57?), only added to the atmosphere of Goat Rodeo as a wholly original kind of musical exercise.

Opening with the pensive creep of "Quarter Chicken Dark," the group recreated tracks from the album with a virgor that was both visible and audibule, whether it was the dyniamcially shift "Less is Moi," the aggressive "Where's My Bow," the old-tymey "Hill Justice," the jazzy "13:8" or the delicate "Franz and the Eagle," one of two pieces for which bassist Meyer switched to piano. Meyer, Thile and Yo-Yo Ma combined for a show-stopping treatment of the third and fourth movements of Bach's Gamba Sonata, while Duncan — who also tours regularly with Vince Gill and Diana Krall — followed with a lively medley of country and bluegrass tunes.

O'Donovan and Thile's contributions, meanwhile, fell into the value-plus category, with "Here and Heaven," "No One But You" and the show-closing lullabye "All Through the Night" providing a nice counterpoint to the instrumental work that dominated the evening — and will likely send some of the Meadow Brook crowd running to find O'Donovan's solo album "Fossils."

Early on, Yo-Yo Ma noted that in Goat Rodeo, "everything has to go perfectly for everyone not to die." Rest assured the group escaped Wednesday's show with everyone — audience and group members — intact and happy to have been part of a truly rare and stellar occasion.