The Rize of Bluegrass

By
Rob Hochschild
December 17, 2010
Tim O'Brien
Hot Rize
Pete Wernick
Nick Forster (left) and Tim O'Brien
Wernick (right) and Forster
Photo by Elisa Rice
Photo by Elisa Rice
Photo by Elisa Rice
Photo by Elisa Rice
Photo by Elisa Rice

In a world filled with over-the-top pop stars, it's always refreshing when virtuosic musicians turn out to be humble and unassuming. Take Hot Rize, for example. These men, four of the best bluegrass musicians on the planet, visited Berklee last month for a clinic, and if you didn't notice they were wielding stringed instruments, you could have sworn they were just four guys waiting for a cup of coffee.

But hearing Hot Rize perform a tune—and they played several during the 90-minute Berk Recital Hall session—is like taking a dose of aural caffeine. Your toes start tapping, your head starts bobbing, and you want to start singing along. 

Hot Rize—Pete Wernick, banjo; Tim O'Brien, mandolin and fiddle; Nick Forster, bass; and Bryan Sutton, guitar—were playing a show that night in Cambridge, and came to Berklee thanks to the energetic work of faculty member Matt Glaser, artistic director of Berklee's American Roots Music Program.

"It's incredible—the level of dynamics and interplay and grooving stuff happening all the time," Glaser gushed after Hot Rize played "Just Like You."

This was one of those Berklee clinics when students asked a few questions but seemed more interested in hearing the band play as much music as possible. And Hot Rize was happy to comply. But there were a few interesting comments:

 

On ensemble playing

We mostly just try to listen to each other. It's the hardest thing to do in music. –Tim O'Brien

You do what you can to make this music sound better . . . you do what the music needs. –Pete Wernick

 

On improvising

There's wiggle room to keep the parts fresh. I like things when they're unpredictable, but you have to have some sort of frame. –O'Brien

 

On playing banjo accompaniments

To play banjo, you don't have to have a license, but you should. You don't want to drown them out. I'll usually just play two notes, on the first and fourth strings. Just providing a pulse in the background, but taking up no space sonically. I'm just a little tick there biting his legs. –Wernick