Shortly after Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder took the stage at the Cistern Yard on Thursday night, it was clear that Skaggs has surrounded himself with technical masters. As the group’s lead vocalist and mandolin player, Skaggs is certainly the main attraction, but the six members of Kentucky Thunder are integral to the group’s precise, jumpy sound.
It was the combined efforts of Skaggs and his group that made Thursday’s concert such a jubilant, breezy experience. Skaggs was supported by three rollicking guitars, an upright bass, a fiddle and a banjo. Throughout the show, Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder made technical, complex music sound simple.
Although bluegrass isn’t the most varied genre, the band played each of their short songs with such verve and enthusiasm that one couldn’t help but get swept up by the energy. With help from guitarists Dennis Parker and Paul Brewster, Skaggs also added soaring three-part harmonies to many of his songs. On “Lonesome Night,” a mid-tempo ballad, it was the combination of Skaggs, Parker and Brewster that resonated most.
Skaggs seems to recognize how crucial Kentucky Thunder is to his performances. Several members got the spotlight, including Parker and Brewster, who each took over lead vocals. Parker’s rendition of James Taylor’s “Carolina in my Mind” was especially gorgeous, in part because it contrasted with the bluegrass that shaped the rest of the evening and it gave the whole crowd a chance to sing along.
The technical perfection of Skaggs and his band was remarkable, especially Jake Workman, the lead guitarist. Workman’s solos were a feat in and of themselves, carrying the audience along on complex melodies without missing a note.
If Kentucky Thunder displayed an abundance of musical talent, it was Skaggs who established a connection with the audience. He took several breaks throughout the show to tell stories, including a long and winding narrative about playing onstage with bluegrass legend Bill Monroe at age six.
Skaggs was also responsible for the night’s comedy. “What a wonderful evening,” he said early in the set. “So wonderful and humid.” Despite the humidity, which became so heavy Skaggs stopped playing for a moment to chalk his hands, Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder brought an hour and a half of ebullient bluegrass to Charleston.
Reviewer Joe Allen is a Goldring Arts Journalist.