The Gibson Brothers, a household name for bluegrass fans, played a wonderful show Friday night to a packed house at Proctors’ GE Theater. While they sang about the hills of Virginia and a horse in a bar, and covered Merle Haggard, Eric and Leigh Gibson are from Ellenberg Depot, N.Y., just northwest of Plattsburgh, where they play the holiday show every year. This year they took it on the road, with quite a few North Country fans in tow Friday night.
Accompanied by mandolin, stand-up bass and drums, their sound was smooth, gentle, and precise. It was refreshing to enjoy a group playing unselfishly, no one looking to get out front. The vocals were clear and understated, and solos were clean and attentive to the larger sound.
There were guests to break things up. The Gibsons’ sister Erin, a regular with the group, came on to sing a few, starting with “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” The energy of the group raised a bit on this one, but settled back down afterwards.
Next came their friend Joe Newberry from North Carolina. They cleared the stage for him to sing us an uplifting ballad called “Christmas in the Trenches,” a true story of a truce between German and British troops in the 1914 battlefield of France. You could hear a pin drop during this number.
The group returned to strum the speediest tune of the night, Eric pickin’ a knee-slapping banjo solo while his brother and Newberry strummed their strings at an equally fast pace. It was fun to see them hit this, and was disappointing that we didn’t get more bouncy hyper bluegrass later on.
Between tunes there were some good laughs when the brothers showed-off their honed skills to rib each other. To close the first set, Eric sang a song he recently wrote that featured the line in the chorus, “Leigh ate Santa’s cookies in the night,” ruining the holidays for the family. Leigh, we learned, has a weakness for cookies.
Leigh brought a nice, somber tone to tunes like Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains.”
Bass player Mike Barber, who has been with the group for 25 years, provided a subtle bottom line, the kind you feel but don’t always hear. The drummer was careful not to step on the sound — too careful — his brushes and bamboo sticks rarely made it through the collection of strings sounds.
There was no ecstatic, screaming solos or shouting vocals. The arrangements weren’t overly ambitious or even challenging. Instead we got classy, top-notch musicians playing selfless, refined, positive holiday music.
“How about the Gibson Brothers on ice next year?” Leigh asked the crowd.
Eric told us he was an English teacher for a few years, and pointed out his school principal in the audience. He was one of many from the school system.
Eric sang a new one called “North Country Christmas,” inspired by the name of Friday night’s program.
Growing up in New York’s Northern Tier, the Gibson brothers talked about the Canadian radio music they received, more than U.S. stations. He followed with Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night.”
Newberry came back to sing a few, like “Baby in a Manger,” a gospel tune, a capella with four-part harmony.
Erin returned to the stage, and her brothers made fun of the Christmas gifts she had bought them over the years. She shot back a few good barbs, the audience enjoying the family fun. The whole gang came on stage to sing “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem.”
Most of the night’s music slid forward at mid-tempo, with banjos and a mandolin pickin’ the fills, playing a round of solos and falling back into the verses. Occasionally they gave us a ballad or a speedy one. They ended with “Silent Night,” repeating the final line, “sleep in heavenly peace.”
Whatever they played was on the mark: pleasant and first-rate, the soft approach made you pay attention, and feel good. Overall the night was a great treat.