It was sort of an insane thing to do, but this past weekend I drove up to the Czech Republic from Italy in order to catch the last couple of concerts of a tour by Druha Trava and the banjo virtuoso Tony Trischka. Tony had toured with DT in May, when I was in Nashville, and that tour apparently had gone so well that he came back in August for a week.
I had never seen Tony perform live before, but that was just one of the reasons that I had wanted to catch some of the tour. He had first toured the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) in 1988, before the fall of communism, and he had also returned in 1989, also before the Wall came down.
During those stays, he performed as a guest on an LP by Poutnici, the influential progressive bluegrass group that Druha Trava's Robert Krestan and Lubos Malina played with before founding DT in 1991, and which in turn had been very influenced by Trischka's music. I had found a somewhat scuffed copy of that LP, "Wayfaring Stranger", in the used vinyl bin of a used book store in the little town of Kutna Hora 3 years ago. I bought it for the equivalent of a couple of dollars. In the liner notes, Trischka describes Poutnici in much the same terms I have used to describe Druha Trava. "They … have a unique sound," he said. "Czechgrass instead of Kentucky bluegrass. In other words, they've made it their own, which is wonderful."
I caught 2 concerts over the weekend -- one Saturday night at a little festival in the town of Frydek-Mistek, in northeast CZ near the Polish border, then on Sunday at another little bluegrass festival in the town of Chotebor, about 65 miles east of Prague. Druha Trava is still labeled "bluegrass", though their music only uses bluegrass as a starting point; Tony and I agreed that this is one of the reasons we like the band so much; they don't stick to rules or try to recreate or imitate the American bluegrass sound, rather, they take the musical building blocks and create something new. Robert Krestan's original songs and distinctive gravelly voice put the stamp on this; even their take on Dylan songs in their last CD, "Dylanovky," transforms them into Druha Trava songs.
The concerts featured DT in the first half, then DT and Tony Trischka, then Trischka solo or backed by the group. Among the standout pieces were duets featuring him and DT's banjoist Lubos Malina. For the final encore at Chotebor, the two of them performed a tricky maneuver whereby one played the right hand and the other the left, on the same instrument.
Over the weekend I had an opportunity to talk with Tony about his experiences touring CZ in the late 1980s -- he told me stories from that tour that underscored how, at that time, the music, and the experience of the music, (and the experience of experiencing the music) had a powerful symbolism that, particularly for younger people, has largely dissipated if not disappeared. (More on this later.)
Here's a slide show to give an impression of the scenes in both festivals -- all very similar to the bluegrass festivals in the US as portrayed, for example, in Neil Rosenberg's book "Bluegrass Odyssey." The little stage, the spare seating area. Stalls around selling food -- the usual Czech fare: in Frydek Mistek it was mostly grilled pork products (sausage, "steaks", etc and boiled hot dogs); at Chotebor there was goulash, liver dumpling (rice) soup and a sort of fried chicken cutlet that one of the musicians tried only to find it was almost raw inside. I stuck with potato chips.
There was also a lot of beer -- the local beer (and one of the sponsors) of the Chotebor festival is called "Rebel". Now, I've taken a lot of pictures of the Confederate flag displayed at country festivals in Europe, and I've met a lot of Civil War reenactors in various countries and discussed what this all means.... but Rebel beer is not related to the U.S. Civil War and no stars and bars are involved. The term refers to a local 19th century anti-Habsburg writer and agitator named Karel Havlicek Borovsky -- who died in the 1850s, well before the US Civil War broke out....
I've never seen a bluegrass festival before with a big screen, as in Chotebor! It was particularly odd, as the venue was so small that you could easily get close as close to the stage as you wanted.