The same week Adrian Gross bought a mandolin, he met a beautiful woman.
Almost 11 years later, they’ve both stuck around — she as his wife, and the mandolin as his sound in the now wildly popular bluegrass quartet, Slocan Ramblers.
“I should know how long ago that was,” Gross said, his wife laughing in the background during a telephone interview from northern Quebec, where he was taking a break from the road with his family. “It all came together for me, almost as one thing.”
A classically trained guitar player since age eight, the Montreal native’s pivot toward the mandolin was freeing, as he learned the instrument by ear. It was a window into oral music — “music played without really over-thinking it and without any notes on a page,” he said — and he was hungry for it.
He was hungry for bluegrass music, too, without even knowing it.
“I wasn’t just diving into the mandolin, I was diving into learning music in a folk way — by ear and by feel,” he said. “It just fit for me, for some reason. It’s best to not over-think it.”
Gross also fits with Frank Evans, Darryl Poulsen and Alistair Whitehead — who play banjo, guitar and double bass, respectively, as the Slocan Ramblers — and they will return to Shelter Island on Saturday, January 19, as an encore to their Sylvester Manor debut in April 2017.
“It was a highlight, to be honest,” Gross said of their visit to the East End. “The vibe was cool and the audience was great. They were a super attentive listening audience. We’ve been bugging our agent to get us to come back to that neck of the woods. We have high hopes for our repeat performance, that’s for sure.”
Their set list will pull primarily from their most recent outing, “Queen City Jubilee” — an album that represents an evolution for the Slocan Ramblers, as they have grown into their identity, Gross said.
“I think we found our own voice as a band,” he said. “It’s funny. Really traditional bluegrass bands think we’re a bit of a modern band. The modern, really progressive bluegrass bands think we’re a trad band. We fit right in the middle. I’m happy to be in that middle ground. I think a lot of our favorite music is made in that middle ground.”
The track “Mississippi Heavy Water Blues” — a reinterpretation of the blues tune by Barbecue Bob in the 1920s — encapsulates the blending of old and new that defines the band, Gross said, and proves to be a crowd favorite.
“We love digging into a bunch of really old tunes that haven’t been heard before,” he said. “The band formed in 2010, but since 2014, that is when the band really ramped up with writing and arranging.”
As they look toward their fourth album, “Queen City Jubilee” still lives and breathes as a culmination of the band’s work on the road, and in the air, Gross said.
On an early-morning flight to the arctic tundra of Iqaluit — the capital of Nunavut, the northern-most territory in Canada — Gross, Poulsen and Whitehead each grabbed a row of seats to themselves and slept, while Evans pulled out a napkin and began writing.
By the time they landed, he had most of “Just to Know” on paper, which they finished arranging during the 24-hour midnight sun, when they weren’t performing in the Alianait Arts Festival.
“When he opened his banjo case after being checked, the banjo was totally out of tune, and Frank just started riffing around on it in this totally bizarre tune that it was in,” Gross said. “It didn’t really exist, because it was out of tune, but he took it and tweaked it a bit, and that became the inspiration for the banjo part on that track.”
At any given time, the band navigates a balance of spontaneity and risk-taking with the structure and foundation that allows for that fearlessness, Gross said. “Between the four of us, I feel like we cover those bases,” he said. “At different times, people step into different roles. But for me, the goal is to find that mix. On a good night, we hit a pretty good mix of all of that.”
After all, that is the dynamic required for bluegrass, he said.
“There’s something very immediate about it. I’m not sure if that word connects, but in my head, that’s the word that comes to mind,” he said. “It’s immediately exciting. When you go see it live, the first thing you notice is the interaction of these musicians with each other and it’s like a mix of being super tightly arranged and really structured music, and really spontaneous. These little moments will happen that only happen once, and that’s what you go to a show for: to capture those little moments.”
In the coming days, Gross and his family would head farther north — into even more rural Canada — to capture moments of their own, as the mandolin player readied himself to get back on the road.
“We’ll be well rested, after about a month and a half off,” he said. “We’ll be feeling fresh. It will be a good time to come see the band, for sure.”
The Slocan Ramblers will kick off the Sylvester Manor Concert Series on Saturday, January 19, at 7:30 p.m. at the Shelter Island School auditorium, located at 33 North Ferry Road on Shelter Island. Doors open at 7 p.m. and tickets range from $25 to $40. For more information, call (631) 749-0626 or visit sylvestermanor.org.