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Musical luminaries unite for an orderly Goat Rodeo
"The Goat Rodeo Sessions" wasn't exactly a goat rodeo; the musicians involved are a little too disciplined for that.
But the Grammy Award-winning project is still an unique collaboration of disparate players -- cellist Yo-Yo Ma, mandolinist Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers, fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer -- exercising mutual musical curiosity for an equally unlikely blend of classical, bluegrass, folk, country and other roots music styles
"You look at it on paper and it's like, 'Gee, how comes these people are getting together?!" recalls the French-born Yo-Yo Ma, 57. "But we clicked immediately -- and partly because we basically share the same values. We're all interested in the world around us and in all different kinds of music.
"It's a typically American phenomenon that you can have a group of people who didn't grow up together or go to school together, but because they like one another and have certain values, they find a way to work together. We all have egos, but it's never been an issue in this."
"The Goat Rodeo Sessions" certainly found appreciation when it was released nearly two years ago. The 11-song set -- which features a cover of James Taylor's "Helping Hand" and guest vocals on two tracks by Aoife O'Donovan of the band Crooked Still, who's also touring with the Goat Rodeo quartet this summer -- received rave reviews and sold 184,000 copies, which is strong for a niche release like that. The album also won Grammys for Best Folk Album and Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical.
"You're always hopeful of a good reception, I think, but you never know," Yo-Yo Ma says. The process we went through to do this was so vibrant and positive, I think we were hoping that in itself would communicate something when people heard this. And I did talk to people at supermarkets, and they'd say, 'Oh, I love Goat Rodeo,' just unexpected quarters of society.
"I think people love music and like to listen to music without saying, 'Oh, I am this' or 'I am that' in their tastes. People are curious, and each of us have our own audiences that we brought with us who are now paying attention to what the other guys are doing. So it's coming from all different sides which is very healthy."
Thile, meanwhile, likens "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" to "a little Frankenstein music monster" but says the blending of styles fits into his own musical mission. "I'm always eagerly looking to hide the seams," explains Thile, 32, who recently released a classical album, "Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1." "You want soup, not stew, and I think what you have is a broad range on the spectrum of formal to informal music-making. Everyone complements each other nicely. I think it's the kind of thing that maybe classical music listeners will think is bluegrass and bluegrass listeners will think it's classical.
"Hopefully it lands in the nebulous zone where it can't really be named."
Thile and Meyer laid the roots for "The Goat Rodeo Sessions" when they worked together more than a decade ago. Meyer then suggested that Yo-Yo Ma bring Thile on board for his 2008 holiday album "Songs of Joy and Peace," and the cellist expressed an interest in working together again. Thile and Meyer suggested Duncan as a fourth ingredient, and the ad hoc group jelled from the first rehearsal at Yo-Yo Ma's home in Cambridge, Mass.
"It was such an excitement of, 'Gee, tell me more stories about Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers...' " Yo-Yo Ma remembers, while Thile adds that, "We instantly had a fun time together, even before we played a note. Yo-Yo made us all coffee and we sat around his kitchen, very casual and friendly. The music happened the same way."
"The Goat Rodeo Sessions" album was, in fact, recorded during two separate two-day gatherings during the summer of 2011, and it was followed by a live CD and DVD in 2012, as well as two additional songs from the sessions that were released as a digital single.
Taking the Goat Rodeo on the road has been a complicated matter, however. "We've always wanted to tour and we've never been able to until now because the guys are too busy," Yo-Yo Ma says. "It basically took about a year and a half to put this together. Obviously Chris has been touring like a crazy man with a bunch of other people, and Edgar is usually working on 10 commissions at the same time while touring and losing weight and doing wonderful things.
"And Aoife has also cut her first album at the same time, and Stuart, every time I turn my head he's at some gala event -- the Kennedy Center Honors, the White House honors, just all over the place. This is not an easy group to herd together."
Now that at our is being achieved, another album is on the docket. Yo-Yo Ma is hesitant to assign a timetable -- "First things first; we want to tour this a little bit," he says -- but he's confident that new music will be inevitable when the group is together. "I know what's going to happen; we're going to talk about it on the tour bus and people will have ideas and we'll just bounce them back and forth and see what sticks," the cellist explains. "It's just natural; when we're together, we make music."
Thile concurs. "Yeah, I think we'll see it through," he says. "It's really fun. It's such a good hang, and we're having so much fun making music together. These are good people, good friends and it's fun to be involved with people like that, who are all born to play music. I'm completely humbled to be involved in something like this.
"Everyone's busy, but I think the idea is to keep doing it and other projects will come down the line."
The Goat Rodeo Sessions featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile with Aoife O'Donovan performs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 21, at the Meadow Brook Music Festival on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester Hills. Tickets are $35-$55 pavilion, $20 lawn with a $60 lawn four-pack. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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