By Sarah Hayes, A&E Editor
First rule of attending a bluegrass concert: do not bother dressing up for the bluegrass concert. I learned this the hard way as I struggled to class up a broke college student wardrobe and walked into the Touhill Performing Arts Center in sensible slacks and a nice shirt, only to see folks in t-shirts and jeans who were slouching under ball caps. Whoops.
Then again, bluegrass demands no false decorum on behalf of the listener; it is not so much music as it is country’s soul distilled through a Mason jar before being dumped into denim and dancing shoes on a firefly-lit summer evening. It happened that a particular strain recently ran through the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus, courtesy of the Missouri Institute Of Mental Health (MIMH).
June 14 saw bluegrass artists Heidi Clare and Ron Thomason at the Touhill as part of the UMSL MIMH Artist Scientist Collaborative, with Clare on fiddle, Thomason on acoustic guitar and mandolin, and both providing vocals. Here is something the Touhill website did not mention: they were briefly accompanied by esteemed local jazz pianist, scientist, academic author, and campus leader Chancellor Tom George. Spoiler alert: the man can play a mean piano.
The night was introduced by MIMH’s Dr. Robert Paul, professor and institute director, who explained how the collaborative between MIMH and the musicians came to be and what came out of it. The idea was to bring creative minds into a scientific atmosphere to, in his words, “pull people out of their comfort zones” and think in new ways that can lead to breakthroughs in research and development. The multi-year project had Clare as the institute’s resident artist, and the culmination of their collaboration was the mid-June concert, open to the public and free to attend. Thus, the sound of bluegrass came to UMSL.
The Lee Theater, with its smaller stage and more intimate seating arrangement, was a perfect accommodation for Clare and Thomason’s performance, who combined music and storytelling in a way that was more reminiscent of “A Prairie Home Companion” than a typical Touhill event. The duo acted in perfect sync with one another, matching each other with every note and joke, leading some audience members to wonder audibly if they were a couple in another sense. A couple near me would occasionally question in varying tones of astonishment if the two were married, deciding by the last set that they were definitely husband and wife, all because Thomason said that they shared a house and some horses.
By themselves, these performers have a clear, masterful control of the Appalachian sound, but as a team, the sum becomes greater and clearer than its parts. It is not a cliché to say that when these two come together on stage, Clare with her fiddle, Thomason with his mandolin or his guitar, that they make beautiful music together. Clare performs bodily, moving her feet and legs as she pulls her bow across the strings so quickly it becomes a near blur in the air. Thomason can stay stationary as he performs, but when he is squaring off against Clare in a classic example of freeform bluegrass, he dances around Clare and occasionally turns his body into an instrument itself, slapping at his pant legs for a touch of percussion.
The evening of classic bluegrass was capped off with a touch of jazz, as Chancellor George took the stage for several songs, playing piano to Clare and Thomason’s string set. I went into this set thinking, “how cute, he plays piano” and came out going, “wow, he plays piano”—as in, really plays some banging jazz piano, accompanying MIMH’s musical guests with flare. Although the three of them had only started playing together that afternoon, their combined efforts did not sound unpracticed, although sometimes the piano threatened to run dissonant against the other instruments.
MIMH’s evening of music ended as Clare and Thomason, with George on piano, led the group in a sing-along of “Goodnight, Irene.” Dr. Paul returned to the stage along with the MIMH representatives in house to wish audience members a good night and an invitation to next year’s concert. It brought what had been a night of beautiful bluegrass and magical storytelling to an emotional close.