“Bluegrass is a dangerous business,” warned mandolinist Adam Steffey before the Dan Tyminski Band charged into “Heads You Win Tales I Lose” on Sunday at The Egg’s Swyer Theatre. He later proclaimed “Who Showed Who” to be “the peak of pitiful” — mourning a beating, a murder and wondering over the fate of two orphaned children.
Meanwhile, the music soared like some wood-and-steel aircraft. The unlikely way that the cheerful high-altitude sound of bluegrass carries such doleful dirges of lyrics, almost invariably about loss and losers, is one of the most delicious paradoxes in American music. Tyminski and his boldly cohesive band may be the least well-known in a recent stretch of superb acoustic music featuring mandolins — David Grisman with John Sebastian, and Ricky Skaggs with his band Kentucky Thunder and guest Bruce Hornsby, both shows at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall — but they more than held their own.
Tyminski brought ace bassist Barry Bales from his main gig with Alison Krauss and a cast of killers who comprise his studio and touring crew: fluent and unflappable fiddler Justin Moses and fire-on-the-frets banjoist Ron Stewart. All have impressive pedigrees individually and all were enthusiastically on board with Tyminski’s repertoire and happy to back his beautiful voice. Tyminski let Steffey do most of the talking and soloed less often, but not less well, than his band.
Strong new stuff
His “Wheels” album hasn’t hit stores yet, but its songs went over really well anyway. They started with the fresh “How Many Times” and played most of the rest of the album. They also reached back to his previous album “Carry Me Across the Mountain” for the second song in the show, “Tiny Broken Heart” about a first love who moved away, for “I Dreamed of an Old Love Affair” and for its doleful title track full of worry about ailing children and ultimately mourning over a mother’s grave. Right after “Dreamed,” they revved up to “Knock, Knock,” an almost incomprehensibly fast and forceful new instrumental.
Tyminski sang his best known song, “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” from the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” after telling his wife that his voice would come out of George Clooney’s body, and she gushed “That’s my fantasy!” He said his new wife would never say such things, then managed to make the song sound genuinely sorrowful. He gasped, “That was cool!” after Stewart surged through a super-fast “Little Liza Jane.” When he broke a string during “Stuck In the Middle of Nowhere,” he kept singing and finished replacing it before the song ended.
Playing really fast and really tight together didn’t really test the band, since they ripped right through everything with completely relaxed panache and power. The sad stuff was really sad, especially after Steffey set up the mournful numbers with cheerful litanies of the pain they delivered. “Sit back, relax and enjoy the killing,” he advised by way of introducing Del McCoury’s tragic murder-ballad “Who Showed Who,” and Tyminski and band made the instruction easy to follow.