A week ago last night we went to see Peter Rowan before a nearly full house at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. I had seen Peter in town once before, some 20 years ago, accompanying himself as the warm-up act for the Nashville Bluegrass Band (I think) at the Cedar Cultural Center. Although I enjoyed him on that occasion, he blew us away at the Dakota.
Backed by Los Texmaniacs, taking advantage of the Dakota’s improved sound system, performing before a hot audience, Rowan sounded closer to 29 than 79. Los Texmaniacs accordionist Jimmy Baca provided brilliant color on virtually every song. I snapped the photo from our table without realizing how the lighting would give it the psychedelic effect.
His voice was shockingly rich and resonant in the setting of the Dakota. He took requests. He told a few stories from his days with Monroe. He worked hard over two hours to convey the beauty of the music. If you get a chance to see him, don’t let it slip. That is my review.
Peter has led a long and storied life in music. I cannot do justice to it here. I can’t even try. I am familiar with only one tiny strand of a career that has embraced nearly every variety of American popular music, from rock to folk to bluegrass and Tex Mex.
He played guitar with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. He is a fantastic songwriter and terrific vocalist. Seeing him perform with Los Texmaniacs, I can add that he is a gifted bandleader. He has a long and deep relationship with Tex Mex music all by itself. As to the breadth of his career, consider this excerpt from the biography posted at his site:
The late ‘60s and early 70’s saw Rowan involved in a number of rock, folk and bluegrass projects, including Earth Opera, Sea Train, Muleskinner, and the Rowans, where he played alongside brothers Chris and Lorin Rowan. After the Rowan Brothers disbanded, Rowan, David Grisman, Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements and John Kahn formed a bluegrass band christened Old & In the Way. It was during this incarnation that Rowan penned the song “Panama Red,” a subsequent hit for the New Riders of the Purple Sage and a classic ever since.
I want to post a few videos that give a sense of his sound and encourage readers who might be so inclined to look around for more. In the genre now denominated Americana he is a giant. The gentleman of String Cheese Incident (video below) refer to him as “the legend himself.”
I remember looking at the cover of the Seatrain album Marblehead Messenger in the record store back in the day and wondering what the group was all about. If only I had known. Rowan joined the group for its self-titled second album. The timely “13 Questions” comes from it, the first post-Beatles album produced by George Martin. Peter contributed several songs, but I question whether he had anything to do with “13 Questions.” The song reached number 49 on the Billboard chart. Let this serve as the warm-up to Rowan himself.
Peter wrote the bluegrass classic “Walls of Time” with Bill Monroe one night when the bus he (Peter) was driving for the band broke down, or so he says. In the recording below he sounds like Monroe. At the Dakota show he recalled Monroe telling him that if he (Monroe) hadn’t pursued the music that came to be called bluegrass, he would have been a great blues singer. Rowan says he responded, “Yes, sir.”
Peter wrote “Midnight Moonlight.” I first heard it on the Old & in the Way album with Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Vassar Clements, and John Kahn. He has recorded it many times. I love the song. The video below has a good audio track.
Rowan teamed up with Tony Rice for a few memorable discs. “Sunny Side of the Mountain” comes from a terrific compact disc that also includes knockout recordings of “Walls of Time” and “Midnight Moonlight.” “Sunny Side of the Mountain” dates to 1944, when it was first recorded by Hank Snow, “The Singing Ranger” (f/k/a “The Yodeling Ranger”). It’s definitely old school, not cool, but what a beautiful sound.
Here is one more from his recordings with Tony Rice. Peter wrote this one, as I believe he did all the rest of the songs on the disc.
Before seeing him with Los Texmaniacs, I had no idea of Peter’s affection for Tex Mex music. It goes back a long way, as you can hear in “Free Mexican Airforce.”
When Peter invited requests, the gentleman next to me shouted out for the song “Old and in the Way” from the album of that name. Peter graciously performed it, even though he didn’t write it (it was written by David Grisman) and it isn’t part of his repertoire. I wanted to hear “Land of the Navajo” from that album but couldn’t remember the title. Fortunately, I didn’t need to. Peter gave it an intensely moving and almost prayerful performance toward the end of the show.
If you have stayed with me so far, I invite you to settle back as you take in this extended live version of “Panama Red.” Here Peter is backed by an all-star cast including Jerry Douglas on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin, Viktor Krauss on bass, Kester Smith on congas, and Larry Atamanuik on percussion.
Steve Hayward kindly introduced me to the jam band String Cheese Incident many years ago. Peter can do the jam band thing too. In the 2021 video below he joined the String Cheese boys at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles to perform “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy” (that was the song I went looking for) and “Sweet Melinda,” both his own compositions. This one may give you a contact high.
I would like to wind this up with an encore of “Midnight Moonlight.”