Live Review: The Kruger Brothers at Cuyamaca College, January 24 2012

Photo credit: Tim Whitehouse

Among the banjo community, Jens Kruger holds a God-like status.

The Kruger Brothers, a three-piece from North Carolina, consist of brothers Jens and Uwe Kruger and New York-native Joel Landsberg. The brothers are originally from Switzerland but moved to North Carolina in 1997 to expand their already illustrious musical careers in the United States. Indeed, all three are highly respected and talented musicians who have more than paid their dues.

Jens Kruger — who in 1982 was introduced at the Grand Ole Opry as the first known European banjo player — has long been on a mission to take the banjo outside of its stereotype and into the hands of the masses, often blurring styles between the beautiful, subtle pieces to all-out riffage that would make even the most hardened of shredders stop and take note. If guitarists have Joe Satriani to emulate, drummers have Mike Portnoy, bassists have Jaco, then banjo players have Jens Kruger. The Dropkick Murphys, The Avett Brothers, and Mumford and Sons, all have him to thank for helping to shape their sound.

The concert was hosted by local banjo manufacturers Deering Banjo Company [full disclosure: the reviewer works for Deering], and come showtime, it was easy to see why audiences adore the Krugers. They graced the stage with a calm, relaxed demeanor, and quickly settled into what would be the first of two sets — effortlessly blending their traditional European roots with an honest sense of Americana, all the while refusing to limit themselves and the direction of their songwriting.

From the rousing opener “Jack of the Woods” to the dark and melancholy “Appalachian Concerto” (originally composed by Jens to be played with a string quartet), this show had it all. At one point, Jens even removed the finger picks and put on a claw hammer masterclass, proving that old-time music is still alive and well. The music was heartfelt, emotional, and completely unpretentious.

The thing about the Kruger Brothers is this: they might be three of the most incredible musicians in music today. Yet, unless you are within that tight knit circle of acoustic musicians, chances are you have never even heard of them before. They have led a good life and found a home in North Carolina (just minutes from the great Doc Watson, with whom they jam regularly). To many, the group is unknown, but to those who know them, they are household names.

Throughout the show, the trio let their instruments do most of the talking, but the interaction with the crowd in between songs was just as interesting. The Kruger Brothers shared stories of life on the road, life in Europe, and life after Europe, and generally connected with the audience. Although, I hadn’t walked their exact path, I walked a very similar one of my own. You can’t explain some experiences until you have lived them; successfully immigrating to the United States is one. Seeing the Kruger Brothers live is another. Here is one music fan whose mind has been well and truly opened.

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