Manchester Music Hall, formerly Buster’s, is the largest venue in Lexington next to Rupp Arena; the vast space holds up to 1100 concert-goers. As such, the venue attracts regional and touring bands such as Lucero, Sundy Best and Friday night’s headliner, The Steeldrivers.
Formerly the backing band to Chris Stapleton, the Steeldrivers are big; so big they can sell out MMH, including the VIP seating for those willing to pay a bit more for a photo with the band. They are a big group with a big following and a big crowd to fill every room in every city they play.
But that’s not what this article is about.
This is about what that means for Lexington’s local music scene. It means that two excellent local bands are able to fill in the bill and open up for this big touring act providing some of our beloved local musicians the opportunity to play in front of 1100 happy-to-be-there folks who may never have heard their music before. These bands get the chance to sell their sound and songs as well as their merchandise and CD’s to the eager crowd as they warm up for the headliner they came to see.
By 7pm, the VIP seats in front are filling in, the standing room area is slowly filling with an eager audience, the drinks are flowing and the fried goods out on the food truck are warming up the cold night. MMH has blocked off an area outside with barricades and filled it kindly with outdoor space heaters for their customers, who gather around like cows to a shade tree in the deepening cold, waiting for their food to cook while they smoke outside.
It’s time for Eric Bolander to warm up the crowd musically.
Taking the stage with Seth Murphy on cello, Trenton Jenkins on banjo and Ben Caldwell on backing vocals, Eric led his band into a fun, very welcoming intro set. “You kinda thrive on it. It’s nice to see when you get several hundred folks in front of you”, says Bolander of the vast crowd he faced. He previously opened the night for Sundy Best at MMH as well.
That’s the burden of the opening act; to work the room, warm them up, make them happy they are there and hopefully make them happy you are there. He was successful. That crowd was ready to love some good music, and Eric entertained them with his original songs, as well as a great cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain”, performed with the right amount blues and twang to make the song his own.
Using Murphy’s cello instead of a lead guitarist, the sound mixed with Jenkin’s banjo to create a unique blend with Bolander’s voice. Perhaps surprising, coming from his large frame and presence, the art teacher and ten-year veteran of the KY National Guard has a beautiful, sweet voice that owns both ends of his vocal range. He sang of wooing his now wife, mama to his new little girl, and opened the night with his tune “Honeysuckle” with its notions of protection and love.
Between songs, Bolander warmed the crowd up proper, getting them excited for the two acts yet to come, helping them remember they are so happy to be there, and thanking them with sincere gratitude for their enjoyment of his music, “great folk, bluegrass music with kind of a bluesy spin,” as Bolander describes his sound. Then smoothly, they ended their set and welcomed to the stage, band number two, Lexington’s rising bluegrass phenoms, The Wooks.
Listen to more of Cara’s conversation with Eric Bolander:
Still riding their own wave after winning the Band Contest last summer out at Colorado’s RockyGrass, The Wooks have been actively playing and touring ever since. Consisting of Morehead’s Jesse Wells on fiddle, Roddy Puckett on bass, Arthur Hancock on banjo, CJ Cain on guitar and Galen Green on mandolin, the bluegrass group mixes originals with some standard covers their fans have come to love, including Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and Robert Earl Keene’s “The Road Goes On Forever”. Winning the band contest opened many doors for the Wooks as Jesse Wells’ commented, “I personally didn’t realize what a connection that was, evidently a very prestigious thing.”
The Wooks have a tightness on stage, the evidence of seasoned musicians who have played together on the road for some time now, with a mutual passion for music that makes their instruments dance.
The Wooks are something of a powerhouse of Lexington musicians, and they all contribute to the songs, both vocally and lyrically. They brag on each other on stage, Arthur introducing CJ’s songs, CJ introducing Arthur. They dance around each other as they play, clearly having as much fun on stage as the crowd is down below. Each song brings hoots of celebration as the fans in the crowd recognize it and thank them for playing it.
Listen to Cara’s conversation with Jesse Wells:
The growing crowd is slowly soaking up more merchandise from the local folks, Wooks t-shirts and koozies, Eric Bolander’s trademark mason jar insignia on his shirts and CD’s. The opening bands were successful. By the time the Steeldrivers take the stage, the room is packed full, the audience satiated with good food, cold drinks, loaded down with Merch from two excellent opening acts that satisfactorily filled them with quality music they loved.
Many of the members of the crowd had not come to see Eric Bolander or The Wooks. Some did, but most were there for the headliner. However, Lexington musicians like these thrive on quality and good musical talent, and their gifts filled that large room, recently remodeled to give the large warehouse space a warm, comfortable and clean feel with great acoustics.
When folks pay up to see these larger regional or national acts when they come to town, they are supporting local musicians as well. “A lot of people are coming here who are fans of the Steeldrivers, fans of them who don’t necessarily follow local music or our music” say The Wooks. Yet, they are fans now.
Eric Bolander and band, and the Wooks now have planted their musical seeds in 1100 sets of ears, many for the first time. Two local bands were able to ride the wave of the bigger band, and the gift of music was shared with a grateful crowd. All good, all around.