The Seldom Scene Groovin' in the Garden Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden 6-9 p.m. Thursday, May 27 $8 advance, $10 door 262-9887, ext. 337
The Seldom Scene's quarter-of-a-century run as a frequent bluegrass festival act nearly came to an abrupt halt when founder John Duffy died in 1997. The band members figured they'd finish the dates already booked before cashing in the performing chips and putting it all to rest. Fortunately, the band's future took a different turn.
"We just weren't quite ready to let all that go, and we found the audience didn't want to let it go either," Scene lead singer-guitarist Dudley Connell recalls of those first gigs without Duffy. There's still clearly loss felt, but it's also clear that Connell and the rest of the quintet discovered the Scene's musical journey was meant to continue.
"We're sort of weekend warriors," Connell says about their six-gig-a-month regimen. "Still kind of out there hammering away at it."
Indeed, the Seldom Scene has been hammering away at it for some time. Formed in Washington, D.C., in 1971 by Duffy, the group merged a quintet of top-notch musicians from bands in a city already known for its lively bluegrass action. Originally, the members intended to keep their goals modest; the Scene was content to play locally and let any other performing cards fall where they might.
Calling recently from his Gaithersburg, Md., home, Connell remembers well the mid-'70s popularity of bluegrass in the nation's capital. In those days, he was the leader of another band and though he wasn't in the Seldom Scene, he knew the group members from crossing performing paths with them around town. He recalls the money wasn't great "maybe $150, $200 a night you could scrape by" but there were clubs aplenty where both great and aspiring players could learn. There were also festivals in Virginia and North Carolina where all the bands could mingle and jam.
The Seldom Scene quickly carved its niche particularly on the East Coast and though the band roster changed periodically, the members maintained a consistent reputation for great playing and heart-stopping harmonizing. Fans also came to expect creative arrangements from the group that maintained traditional bluegrass roots while challenging its borders.
Connell joined the band in 1995 when he read the Scene was breaking up; he remembers he called Duffy who told him the lineup was changing but the Scene wasn't disbanding. Connell had been out of music for a while, but he asked Duffy if he could come over and sing with the group. The union clicked.
"When I had the opportunity to join the Scene, I just jumped on it," he says now. "It felt just great. ...It was such an open field (musically)."
Despite the loss of Duffy, the band continues its performing ways. Connell says tracks for a new record are finished and he promises a style of bluesy, contemporary bluegrass mixed with more traditional sounds. He says the Seldom Scene's final stop on the road of musical discovery remains a long way down the line.
"There's the need to re-establish ourselves," Connell concludes. "We're continuing to
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