Live Review: Peter Rowan’s Free Mexican Airforce @ The Birchmere — 7/12/21

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Peter Rowan (Photo by Tim Benko)

Peter Rowan has played at The Birchmere many, many times. His career spans six decades, beginning in the early 1960s, when he was a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. During that time, he wrote the bluegrass classic “Walls of Time,” which he shared with the audience on Monday night in his latest turn at storied venue in Alexandria, Virginia.

Since his time in the Bluegrass Boys, Peter has played with a number of bands and artists that encompasses the range of roots music. He joined David ‘Dawg’ Grisman in Earth Opera, a band that was sort of an East Coast Grateful Dead, and he later joined up with the Dead’s Jerry Garcia in Old & In The Way. Somewhere in there, he was also a member of the eclectic group Seatrain.

On Monday’s show, however, he teamed up with Los Texmaniacs, a Grammy-nominated Tejano music unit, to bring out another side of his artistry as Peter Rowan’s Free Mexican Airforce. When Peter went solo, he got together with accordion virtuoso Flaco Jimenez, a Texas legend who was becoming more widely known thanks to his work Ry Cooder (whose “On The Borderline” Peter and his Free Mexican Airforce covered). From this period, Peter played “Break My Heart Again.”

It was at a show with Flaco at a feed store in New Mexico where Peter first met a child named Max Baja, a budding musician who was playing there, too. Fast-forward a number of decades, and Max becomes the bandleader, lead vocalist, and bajo sexto player for Los Texmaniacs. Los Texmaniacs added a grooving Latin flavor to the evening’s proceedings and songs in their native Spanish. When a really great band is playing and singing, even if you can’t understand (all) the words, you get it. (Max also shared that they are recording a new album for Smithsonian Folkways records.)

Overall, Peter Rowan and Los Texmaniacs were eclectic Monday night. There were straight-up country songs — songs about Texas and prison, instrumentals (“Up All Night”), traditional bluegrass numbers (“Muleskinner Blues”), blues (“Panama Red”), and of course Rowan’s excellent original compositions (“Midnight Moonlight”).

Watch Peter Rowan perform “Midnight Moonlight” at Music City Roots in 2013 on YouTube:

For a man in his ninth decade, Peter showed remarkable stamina, playing a two-hour set. I’ve actually found that the older generation of musicians often play longer than the younger ones; they come from a time when concerts were expected to be longer, and they have extensive catalogs to delve into.

In a touching moment, Peter remembered his friend, celebrated bluegrass guitarist Tony Rice, who passed away in December at the age of 69. Peter is a Buddhist, and he suggested that Rice will be reincarnated as a guitar wizard, but maybe first as a car mechanic.

In that way that the veterans do, Peter had an easy rapport with the crowd, and even invited them to make request. There were a number of friends and acquaintances in attendance, and the whole event had something of a feel of a joyous family reunion. That joy, the melding of different musical cultures, and the skill that everyone played with made this a truly special.

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