Jerry Garcia once said that the Grateful Dead are like licorice — some people don’t like licorice, but those who like it like it a lot. I think that’s a category that the Hillbenders might be in as well.
The Hillbenders attract a young audience through their vibrant stage presence, one that makes most other bluegrass bands look waxen. They are darlings of the summer festivals, and there is no doubt that outside, in the sun, they are very, very entertaining. They are proof that bluegrass can be really exciting, if not a bit frenetic, and people who like it eat it up wholesale.
Like so many young bands these days, the Hillbenders want to bring together a range of influences, including the pop shorthand that prizes speed, movement and cool outfits. They use bluegrass instruments not only because they like them, but also because they have an underdog quality — there is something unavoidably brash about rocking out on a dobro.
Still, there is no doubt that behind the rock-star veneer this is a band made up of very capable musicians. Mark Cassidy on banjo is a particular standout, playing a very progressive, melodic style of banjo, as on “Clutch,” in the set presented here. All the players here know the music well, and its precedents, and like the sadly disbanded Cadillac Sky, bring along an infectious spirit and energy. Yes, there will be some people who say it’s not really bluegrass, but the people who like it will, rightfully, love it.