Catch a Lil Smokies show anywhere, and you’ll be faced with one of the best bluegrass groups working today, a quintet whose three-part harmonies and extended jams blend classic twang with a party-like atmosphere.
Given how much time the Missoula band spends on the road, it’s no surprise live concerts are their calling card. So, as their third official album, Lil Smokies recorded a three-night stint in late 2018 at the Bluebird Theater in Denver to put together a live record. The result, "Live at the Bluebird," is out June 7.
“We wanted to have a live album that was a good representation of what our show is,” lead singer and dobro player Andy Dunnigan said. “There’s definitely a lot of energy on this one.”
Dunnigan said the idea of doing a live album came about while the band was spending months on the road, with a new lineup featuring fiddle player Jake Simpson and guitarist Matt Rieger (who played on the group’s 2017 album “Changing Shades”).
The band felt they were in a great place, musically, and found their live shows and interplay compelling enough to want to capture.
“We were definitely primed,” Dunnigan said. “We were road-born and ready.
“Especially during that time when it was recorded, we were really tight.”
Dunnigan said the band has always counted the Bluebird as a favorite venue, and it was a natural fit, due to the group’s popularity in Colorado, as well as the theater’s ability to record a three-night run, which in itself was a unique experience for the band.
As was recording live — Dunnigan said a previous Lil Smokies lineup got an early Top Hat show on tape, which he remembered as a nerve-wracking experience.
He felt some nerves during the late-November, early-December recording dates, but felt that by the third night he and the band had settled in, and let their best cuts rip.
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When the group members listened to the tapes, they all agreed most of the best tracks were from their final show.
Near-10-minute cuts like “Mending the Fences” and “The Toothfairy” show a jam band at the peak of their intertwined energies, while a smattering of covers show the Smokies’ range at converting anything — from Paul Simon to Dawes — into a rollicking bluegrass tune.
“We kinda just ran our entire catalogue, everything we knew,” Dunnigan said. They didn’t really repeat tunes from night to night, so if one didn’t work, it didn’t make it on the album.
“Nothing was really solidified,” he added. “It’s the live nature. Things happen, errors happen.”
The final track list is a solid reflection of the group’s career, with three songs off their 2013 self-titled debut, four off of the acclaimed “Changing Shades,” and five covers.
Those include some classics, like “High As a Georgia Pine,” or “Cheatin’ Kind of Life,” along with newer songs that the Lil Smokies had thrown into the rotation just before their Bluebird shows. Those make for some of the standout tracks.
Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” is fairly straightforward, but an affecting album closer, while a cover of Dawes’ “When My Time Comes,” turns the original country-tinged rock ballad into a hangdog slide-guitar meditation, with the Smokies’ harmonies animating the beautiful chorus melody.
“We got good takes of those,” Dunnigan said, “which was kinda cool.”
When the Lil Smokies went into the studio to record “Changing Shades,” they prioritized making an album that didn’t just copy their live shows, and for “Live at the Bluebird,” they wanted to show the other side — this is the Lil Smokies you see on tour, now available to crank this summer on your way to the campground.
“I think we accomplished that on this album,” Dunnigan said. “(It’s) a bug set in amber.”