Energetic and forward-looking, Gangstagrass was a fitting headliner for the celebratory grand reopening concert of the South Orange Performing Arts Center, Feb. 5. There are other groups that combine elements of Americana music and hip-hop, but no one else does it the way this one does, piling head-spinning raps on top of fast-and-furious bluegrass instrumentation.
There is, of course, an uplifting subtext to this kind of cross-cultural fusion project. Guitarist-singer Rench, who put the band together, told the SOPAC audience at one point in the show that we’ve all been “sold a lie” that different types of music have to be kept apart. “As long as we think we’re separate, we can be afraid of each other,” he added.
The group, which is based in Brooklyn though its members come from different areas of the country (banjo player and singer Dan Whitener currently lives in Matawan), has released six studio albums over the last 15 years or so, and enjoyed some mainstream exposure. Its “Long Hard Times to Come” was used as the theme song for the FX television series “Justified” and was nominated for an Emmy in 2010. Last year, the group appeared on “America’s Got Talent.”
At SOPAC, the quintet appeared on a stage that was bare except for mike stands and monitor speakers; the rhythm tracks were triggered by Rench, via a foot pedal. Whitener, Rench and fiddler Brian Farrow all sang, R-SON the Voice of Reason and Dolio the Sleuth rapped, and Dolio the Sleuth sang as well. Some songs included sections that evoked the classic “high lonesome sound” of bluegrass and others that featured the dense, gritty elements of hip-hop. Others threw everything together in a heady mix. Though he played, mostly, bluegrass and country licks, Farrow occasionally added riffs that approximated the sound of a hip-hop DJ’s scratching.
Whitener explained, at one point in the show, that the banjo evolved from an African musical instrument. And Farrow linked the fiddle tune that underpins the anthemic “Freedom” — “I ain’t gonna wait no more to get this freedom,” group members sang — to Solomon Northrup, whose memoir “Twelve Years a Slave” was used as the basis of the movie of the same name.
Meanwhile, “You Can Never Go Home Again” provided, perhaps, the evening’s most dramatic moment. Dolio the Sleuth and R-SON the Voice of Reason engaged in a sort of rap dialogue — playing a criminal trying to explain his actions and the criminal’s exasperated brother, respectively — while Whitener sang a mournful chorus about never being able to go back home.
This was SOPAC’s first full-capacity show in nearly two years. After being forced to close because of the pandemic in 2020, SOPAC was able to present some partial capacity shows in 2021, but the planned full-capacity reopening, scheduled to coincide with the start of the 2021-22 season in September 2021, was postponed until now because of damage to the venue caused by Tropical Storm Ida.
Themes of suffering, and perseverance, are common in both bluegrass and hip-hop, of course. And they run throughout Gangstagrass’ songs as well. That is another reason why this group worked well as SOPAC’s first offering after a long, difficult period.
Upcoming shows at the South Orange Performing Arts Center include “An Evening of Love Songs with Ms. Lisa Fischer” (best known for her work with the Rolling Stones and her participation in the Oscar-winning documentary “20 Feet From Stardom”), Feb. 10; singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky, double-billed with the husband-and-wife duo of Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, Feb. 11; The James Hunter Six, Feb. 18; and Marcia Ball, Feb. 19. Visit sopacnow.org.
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