LIVE: American Patchwork Quartet @ Proctors’ GE Theatre, 01/21/2022

The word “Fusion” has gotten an incredibly bad rap. It’s become permanently associated with the worst excesses of prog rock and prog-jazz: Screaming guitars, howling saxophones, and time signatures you’d need a calculator to work out. The bottom line is that Fusion is simply two (or more) styles of music coming together to make something totally new – which is exactly what Proctors’ GE Theatre got from the American Patchwork Quartet last Friday night.

Photo by Rudy Lu

American Patchwork is just one more thing COVID screwed up: The four members (Guitarist Clay Ross, vocalist Falu Shah, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Clarence Penn) had just started working on their unique take on America’s musical melting pot when the Covidiocy began in 2020; Penn moving to Orlando for a teaching gig at the University of Central Florida didn’t help matters much. However, the quartet’s commitment to the band concept never faded, and all four members were present and accounted for on a night not fit for anyone without at least four layers of clothing.

Penn got the ball rolling, walking onto the stage floor by himself and setting up a cool rhythm on his kit. Penn’s longtime musical co-conspirator Nakamura came out next, laying down a fat signature riff on his double bass. Ross – APQ’s ostensible frontman – joined the duo on stage and intertwined his own riff with Nakamura’s, and then Shah completed the quartet by singing harmony with Ross, and then sliding into the lyric on the Carter Family classic “Beneath the Willow.”

There was no denying that American Patchwork was playing a country song. You could hear it in Ross’ echoing guitar work, and in the winsome quality of Sha’s vocals and vocalese – but that was on the left side of the stage, while on the right, Penn and Nakamura were dropping a complex foundation that would not have seemed out of place at the Village Vanguard, NYC’s jazz mecca. In the space between the two musical styles, a third sound was being created before our ears, and it’s a fair assessment when I say the crowd was completely bewitched by the time APQ had gone from “Willow” to the traditional “Cuckoo Bird.”

Photo by Rudy Lu

While Ross is a South Carolina native who grew up with country music in his veins, his playing style comes a lot closer to Julian Lage than Duane Allman, which brought the 18th-century ballad “Pretty Saro” right into the third decade of the 21st century. Ross’s enthusiasm when he talked about the group’s mission statement (“A very New York City-inspired look at American roots music” conceived during Ross & Shah’s joint stint with Carnegie Hall’s “Lullaby Project”) was tangible, as was the commitment the rest of APQ had to their direction. For his part, Penn told the crowd it was “small and mighty, but very hip”, congratulating the audience on its listening skills and knowing when to clap.

For her part, Shah’s musical experience is deeply rooted in her upbringing in Mumbai, India, and her vocalese dovetailed perfectly with Ross’ playing, particularly when he embraced the West African musical traditions you find at the root of modern guitar playing; that gave the band one more percussion instrument on “The Devil’s Nine” and the classics “Shenandoah” and “Wayfaring Stranger.” There’s no telling how deep the crowd was into American roots music prior to this evening, or into the musical history American Patchwork was revisiting, but there were plenty of shaking shoulders and bobbing (masked) heads all around the GE, and the pop they gave out at the end of each number grew louder as the crowd’s enthusiasm ramped up with the band’s own energy.

Photo by Rudy Lu

Shaw described the material APQ was working as “songs with a fundamental sense of humanity – democracy in action, actually working” as songs & influences from around the world went into the melting pot alongside each new group of immigrants to add further shape to the American experience. “American folk music” does not equal Bob Dylan and Joan Baez – it never did. Dylan’s own work owes more to Robert Johnson and Mississippi Fred MacDowell than it ever did to Woody Guthrie. Bela Fleck’s own 2008 release Throw Down Your Heart has already examined the link between West Africa and Appalachia, and American Patchwork takes that examination up several notches – and, according to Ross and Shah, they’re just getting started, with a long-awaited recording coming sometime this fall.

Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man” ended the evening, with each music taking a break of his or her own. While Nakamura was spot-on all evening long, his opening solo on “Soul” was absolutely devastating, showing that he needs to be mentioned alongside the best bass players on the menu. The rest of the group met or exceeded Yasushi’s energy and creativity, earning a standing ovation when it was all over. The need for N95 masks aside, this show was a welcome balm to the chill that has set in over all of us, either by COVID or the weather itself, and it was well worth venturing out into the frigid night for a taste of what the true American musical experience is really all about.

Photo Gallery by Rudy Lu

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