Savannah Music Festival director Rob Gibson introduced Mike Marshall Thursday night as one of the event's best and most enduring friends. The San Francisco-based Marshall, who performed two Charles H. Morris Center concerts with his Big Trio, returned the favor by debuting "Suite Savannah," a passionate, multi-hued love letter to his adopted city.
This year's festival is the fourth one Marshall has appeared at since 2005. A leading light in the modern acoustic movement, he has taken the mandolin in exciting new directions, incorporating jazz fluidity, classical structure and even the sensibilities of pop and rock composition into the music produced by an instrument that's best known in America as a cornerstone of bluegrass.
Onstage, the 49-year-old Marshall was joined by two baby-faced musicians, both of whom were half his age. Yet Alex Hargreaves, 18, and 23-year-old Paul Kowert more than held their own with the veteran stringman.
The sound of Hargreaves' violin sailed sweetly into every corner of the room, accelerating or slowing down as Marshall's music demanded. He has a sweet tone, along with the versatility of many a well-heeled fiddler. His touch is simply astonishing.
Kowert, a member of the Punch Brothers (stars of last year's festival), showed a command of his bass - alternately bowing and playing with his fingers - not seen since the rise of the great Edgar Meyer nearly a decade ago (not surprising, since Kowert was one of Meyer's star students).
Thursday program - to be repeated Friday, March 19 at 12:30 p.m. - was all about listening, about savoring the individual sounds of the acoustic instruments as they wheeled, dived, tiptoed and danced in and around each other. The uptempo set closer, "Little Bears" (from the Mike Marshall's Big Trio CD) was the closest thing to traditional bluegrass in the set, but even that one had the stunning nuance and color of more complex music.
"Suite Savannah," comprised of three distinct movements ("Spanish Moss," "Middle Passage" and "The Gift") had a decidedly Southern feel; occasionally it brought to mind the bittersweet Appalachian themes from Ken Burns' The Civil War.
In the end, though, it was a typically eclectic and thought-provoking musical journey, like so much of Marshall's work. Only this time, the journey brought him directly to Savannah - a place he clearly feels is now his second home.