Live in the Clubs

13 Feet of Bluegrass likes hybrid sound

Thursday, December 13, 2012
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The members of Thirteen Feet of Bluegrass, Randy Jennings, left, Nick Viscio, Pat Liddy and Bob Altschuler, will be performing at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Sunday.
The members of Thirteen Feet of Bluegrass, Randy Jennings, left, Nick Viscio, Pat Liddy and Bob Altschuler, will be performing at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs on Sunday.

Like many bands, Thirteen Feet of Bluegrass has had to deal with hecklers shouting for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s epic “Freebird” during their sets.

Unlike most bands, though, they went ahead and fulfilled the request.

“For a number of months we played at LT’s Grill in Niskayuna, and somebody at the bar was yelling ‘Freebird’ — and others have done that to me in other bluegrass bands,” Bob Altschuler, the band’s banjo and dobro player, said recently from his home in Delmar. “So the other night, Pat [Liddy, guitarist and vocalist] sprang it on us — ‘OK, we’ll do “Freebird.” ’ So he started to play — I said, ‘Just tell me what key it’s in.’ People said, ‘Wow, you must have been playing that out for a while.’ No, it was the first time we’d ever played it — I didn’t even know the song. The guy who yelled ‘Freebird’ must have been very happy.”

Thirteen Feet of Bluegrass

When: 7 p.m. Sunday

Where: Caffe Lena, 47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs

How Much: $14; $12 (members); $7 (under 13)

More Info: 583-0022, www.caffelena.org

Variety is key

Although the band’s version was impromptu, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for the acoustic quartet, also featuring fiddler Nick Viscio and bassist Randy Jennings. Classic rock songs from the ’70s and ’80s — everything from The Eagles to Santana to Bob Dylan — regularly show up in their sets alongside more traditional material and original songs.

“People know the songs, and the influences are such that in the audience people sing along with the songs all the time,” Altschuler said. “They know most of them — they don’t know some of the bluegrass songs, necessarily. We’ve called it — I don’t know if this is original, but we’ve called it comfort food for the ears.”

The band is set to bring its hybrid of sounds to Caffe Lena on Sunday night, for the first time. It will be far from Altschuler’s first time on Lena’s stage, though — over the years, he’s at played the venue at least seven other times.

“[I played there] when Lena was still around,” he said of Lena Spencer, the Caffe’s founder. “This will be the fourth band up there. It’s always great to play up there, it’s such a famous place.”

The rest of the band’s members are equally experienced — Liddy, a New Jersey native, has been playing guitar for more than 40 years, and Jennings and Viscio (the band’s youngest member, in his 30s) were both members of The Dyer Switch Band with Altschuler for a time.

Liddy and Altschuler make up the core of the group, which began as a duo in April 2008. The plan was to play more bluegrass music, and the band developed its name based on the band members’ heights.

“We wanted a catchy name, and [Liddy] is six-foot-six; I’m the short guy at six-foot-four,” Altschuler said. “So we just rounded that up to 13 feet and got Thirteen Feet of Bluegrass, and started playing out.”

As the two began playing together, other styles began to creep in. While Altschuler had deep roots in bluegrass (he writes about bluegrass banjo, as well as teaching and playing it), Liddy was more comfortable in the rock and folk realms.

“Pat always played that type of ’70s, ’80s country rock, and some bluegrass, but he was kind of new to the bluegrass,” Altschuler said. “Together it felt like a really creative duo.”

In August 2011, the duo expanded to a quartet with Jennings and Viscio. Jennings, a member of the big band Nisky Dixie Cats, and Viscio, a longtime friend of Altschuler’s, both began contributing to the group’s hybrid sound, and along with Altschuler and Liddy began adding original music as well.

“Everybody in the band can kind of play in a big variety of styles, and the band really cooks,” Altschuler said. “We were just practicing the other night, and even in practice the band cooks. Everybody is able to adapt to what’s happening, and play in various styles.”

Looking ahead

With the lineup solidified, the band is looking to capture its energetic live sets with a full album. With a regular gig at LT’s Grill, and a slot in Saratoga Springs’ First Night festival, the band hopes to expand its touring as well. With three out of the four members still working full time (Altschuler is retired), full-scale touring would be difficult, but for now they’re satisfied playing where and when they can.

“Our love of music shows through,” Altschuler said. “That’s pretty much why people play; it’s not for the money unless you’re one of the one in 800 million people who are good and in the right place at the right time and makes it. We love the music and it shows through, and we have a sixth sense about each other in our playing. . . . It’s easy, it’s fun, it’s creative and it really sounds good.”

 

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