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Photo by Dan Eggleston
Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives play Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, Florida on Feb. 17, 2023
Country music legend Marty Stuart
is every bit a traditionalist as he is a fearless musical venturer. His interest in music began as a child and he was already an accomplished mandolin player by the age of 12; so much so that he was asked to join the band of bluegrass pioneer Lester Flatt at the ripe old age of 14 and has remained a professional musician since.
Enjoying a stint as a popular country music solo artist throughout the late-‘80s and throughout the ‘90s, Stuart piled up an impressive array of hit singles on country radio. However, since 2002, he’s fronted a knockout band, The Fabulous Superlatives, which has garnered plenty of rave reviews and accolades for its recorded works and dynamic live performances.
A tightly-packed, sold-out crowd got a good taste of what Stuart and the Superlatives are capable of and why their live performances are regarded as absolutely joyful affairs last Friday night at downtown Clearwater’s quaint Nancy and David Bilheimer Capitol Theatre
Taking the stage at precisely the advertised kickoff time, the four-piece band looked sharp and stylish in individually-designed, sparkling Western-inspired duds. Stuart, with his impressive, tall mane of silver hair and his perennial smile, looked fit and ready to let his outstanding band do its thing. Starting off with a sumptuous instrumental number only served a small preview for the jaw-dropping musicianship and the equally-impressive contributions each band member would bring to the table.
From the opening guitar wizardry the long, tall, lanky Kenny Vaughan offered on “Country Boy Rock ‘N’ Roll,” a bluegrass nugget originally written and recorded by duo Don Reno & Red Smiley in 1956, it was starting to become clear that this was to not be an ordinary, run of the mill night of music. What followed was a stunning setlist that consisted of a variety of styles, songs, anecdotes and charming stories from Stuart, and, a whole lot of fun.
Dipping into his solo-‘90s output, Stuart delivered a beefier, bulkier, slower version of his quasi-rockabilly radio hit “Tempted” and sounded commanding and steady and seemingly pleased his followers in the audience familiar with that era of his career. Without missing a beat or stunting the momentum, Stuart announced that the band would next perform a cut from its forthcoming May 2023 album, Altitude
Vaughan strapped on a gorgeous Rickenbacker guitar and provided plenty of melodic, Byrds-like tones to “Sitting Alone” as Stuart sang (while bassist Chris Scruggs and drummer Harry Stinson added their smooth harmony vocals) to preview the band’s upcoming offering.
Revealing that, at birth, he was named after another country music pioneer, Marty Robbins, Stuart told an amusing story of being asked to perform one of Robbins’ many hits at a tribute event in his honor many years ago. Joking that he’d preferred to play any of that singer’s signature songs except for his biggest hit, “El Paso,” due to its extensive and lengthy lyrics, Stuart said he’d relented and agreed to play that one at the event and then, in turn, treated this audience to his take on the song, too. Not missing a single line, and playing his mandolin before a tightly huddled band at centerstage who all sang together marvelously in unison, Stuart more than proved his mettle and his reverent adulation for the artform known as traditional country music.
Calling this moment this highlight of the evening wouldn’t be off base but, with so many other gleaming moments throughout the 100-minute performance, it would be truly difficult to pinpoint what the true apex of this outstanding night of music really was.
A particularly poignant moment came when Stuart paid homage to Johnny Cash, his musical hero (and his onetime father-in-law, following a brief marriage to Cash’s daughter Cindy). Recalling a personal account of his last interactions with Cash prior to his passing in 2003, Stuart seemed genuinely emotional when describing his admiration and affection for The Man in Black. Performing what he expressed as being one of Cash’s best compositions, Stuart and band delivered a chilling version of a lesser-known tune called “The Walls of a Prison” that dates back to 1970.
Not interested in staying in one lane for too long, the Superlatives would soon delve into surf-rock territory after reminding repeat patrons that they’d deemed Clearwater, Florida the surf-rock capital of the world on their last visit to the area. With that, the band cooked up a bluegrass-tinged version of the instrumental surf classic “Wipe Out” that featured drummer Harry Stinson delivering some pretty impressive percussive sounds by expertly and feverishly tapping his fingers on his cheeks to create spot-on, melodic drum sounds from his mouth.
A foray into Texas swing came in the form of reviving a Bob Wills classic, “Brain Cloudy Blues,” with bassist Scruggs more-than-adequately handling lead vocals and a nod to traditional folk music was represented within the night’s musical menu too with a rousing version of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd” being given a pretty faithful rendering. Another nod to country-rock pioneers The Byrds (whose members, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman, Stuart toured with in recent years) came in the form of a tasty reading of that band’s mournful tune “Ballad of Easy Rider.”
Fitting right in was the southern gospel sounds of Bill Monroe’s classic Get Down on Your Knees and Pray, which also benefited from the band’s uncanny ability to elegantly harmonize together. Stating that he thinks it should be the state song of Florida, Stuart delivered a smoking version of the standard “Orange Blossom Special” that showed off his rapid fire, expert, mandolin stylings. Not many current touring bands are able to tackle so much musical ground over the course of one performance, let alone do so with such magnificent results; needless to say, this is easily one of the best, tightest, and most versatile touring bands out on the road right now, as witnessed throughout this spectacular display.
The evening wrapped with an encore that featured two more cuts from the band’s soon-to-be released album; “Country Star,” a beefy, country-soaked rocker that makes most of what gets played on country radio these days seem pale in comparison, and “Space”, a trippy instrumental that would sound right at home on a Grateful Dead album or a Doors album.
In closing, Stuart left the already-impressed audience with another one of his solo hits, 1990’s rockabilly rave up “Hillbilly Rock which brought the crowd to its feet, where it stayed, long enough to offer Marty Stuart and his fabulous band a long, well-earned standing ovation for the brilliant night of music they’d provided.