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Let me just start out by saying that despite having very eclectic taste in music, over a wide spectrum of styles, I have never been a huge fan of Bluegrass music. I know, I know, it’s traditional and pervasive and a lot of different musical styles borrow from it, I just can’t listen to it for very long without wanting to stick a fork in my ears. Repeatedly.

I am, however, a HUGE fan of live music played in intimate settings by professionals who know how to work a crowd. I’ll make all kinds of exceptions if the show is exciting, upbeat and engaging. That is exactly what one gets any time the Hard Road Trio is in town and the very reason I’ll take any opportunity to catch them.

Actually, any incarnation of Hard Road will do. The Trio itself, made up of mandolin virtuoso Steve Smith, guitar-strumming chanteuse Christine Sanders and double-bass ace Anne Luna are a magical combination. Adding more instruments — as they are wont to do when they play the Rio Grande Theatre for their annual KRWG fundraiser in July, for instance — is always a spectacular show.

Playing to a full house at the intimate Black Box Theatre on Friday, May 17, the Hard Road Trio gave what I believe to be one of the best shows of their career. Of course, I can only speak from my own experiences with the band, but having seen them several times and in several locales, this particular show was definitely the standout.

What we saw Friday night was the stripped down Trio and what an amazing show it was. Everything I love about live music was there: Spontaneous interaction between band members and the audience, bad jokes, interesting asides, rambling back stories and more from a band that genuinely wanted to be there. Exactly the kind of extemporaneous enjoyment one CAN’T get from YouTube or Vimeo.

The selections, too, were an interesting mix of traditional and contemporary styles, which kept the show on an even keel and banished any notion of tined cutlery from my head. In fact, at least one third of the 22 songs performed were brand new or, as Sanders put it, “still dripping ink.” It is always a bonus when a band shares music that has yet to be recorded and even better when the audience is told it is the first time the tune has ever been heard in public.

Hard Road Trio

Standouts of the evening included the instrumental interlude “Chance of a Fox,” which had flashes of Irish jig intertwined with Americana stylings; the touching Robert Earl Keen ballad “Mariano,” the recently penned “Mighty Long Way” and “Round and Round,” which each make beautiful use of all three vocalist’s strengths.

In fact, the performers themselves were in top form throughout. Three selections at the beginning of the second set showcased Luna’s talents on the cello, which added even more depth to the overall performance. Sanders’ guitar picking becomes more accomplished with each passing year, but it will always be the pure clarity of her vocals that signify her. And if I haven’t said it before, Smith may have a voice that harkens back to the Smoky Mountains of old, but he can seriously rock the mandolin. He’s like the Jimi Hendrix of mandolin players. Minus the smashing and fire.

I think what I love most about Hard Road, however, is the soaring harmonies. It’s almost as though the three voices were made to intertwine musically. And because they know this is a strong suit, all three songwriters tend to include them in every song they write, constantly seeking new ways to match their vocal instruments with those they hold in their hands. It’s the kind of admirable perspicacity that can repeatedly bring an audience to its feet.

Which is exactly what happened. Maybe it was because they were riding high from a successful tour that had finally brought them home, or because this show was the last stop before they played the New Mexico Music Awards in Santa Fe the following Sunday (an event for which they had been nominated in six different categories and won two, Best Packaging Design and Best Bluegrass Song), or because many of their personal friends and family members were in attendance. Maybe it was a combination of the above.

Whatever it was, the confluence was momentous and I, for one, was more than happy to be there. In fact, I can’t think of any other place I would rather have been that night. If you ever find yourself with the opportunity to catch this band, do it (Rio Grande Theatre in July, anyone?). You will NOT be disappointed, no matter what your musical tastes may be.

In fact, I would recommend that even if Bluegrass isn’t your cuppa ear juice, you leave the fork at home. You won’t be needing it.

Originally published in the Friday, May 24 issue of the Las Cruces Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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