To elaborate, the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is a 500+ acre, premier campground and music park located on the banks of the Suwannee river with accommodations for any type of camper, ranging from primitive sites for those who like to truly rough it, to rental cabins for those who like to camp with all of the modern creature comforts at hand. A campground of this nature provides a venue for even those who shiver in dread at the word ‘camping’ to enjoy a music festival. The Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park does it’s level best to provide everything that a guest could need while camping, so that the guest can get on with the business of relaxing and enjoying the many musical offerings to be found on their four stages over the course of four days.
At around four in the afternoon on Thursday, the Florida-grown Lee Boys took the stage at the Amphitheater and kicked things off under a clear, blue Florida sky. Their unique, ‘sacred steel’ music is a form of Gospel music with deep roots in blues, but which also embraces and beautifully blends soul, funk, rock, jazz, country, and hip-hop. Their style of music was the perfect way to begin the festival as it faultlessly embraced the core message of Magnolia Fest; All Are Welcome. After the warm festy welcome by the Lee Boys eight more bands would keep the music flowing between the Amphitheater stage and the Porch stage; the Ivey West Band, Band of Heathens, Parker Urban Band, The Congress, The Corbitt Brothers, The Motet, Nikki Talley and Lake Street Dive until 1:30 in the morning.
By ten in the evening the temperatures had dropped thirty degrees from the daytime highs in the mid 80’s to the low to mid 50’s but did little diminish the enthusiasm of festival-goers as The Motet, a disco-funk revival band out of Colorado, laid down a sound that blew away any thoughts of being chilly and installed a single, musical imperative in their place: You Must Boogie! Children new to this sound danced alongside folks in their sixties and seventies who were remembering younger days in the Age of Funk and Disco as decades-old muscle-memory awakened within them and drove them to shake their aged-yet-still-funky booties. Joy suffused the faces of fans as The Motet put every effort into shaking the leaves from the trees of the outdoor theater with their mighty sound. Bass, two-piece brass, drums, keyboards, percussion, guitar, and vocals all came together flawlessly to create a modern tapestry of those musical elements that made the Disco-Funk era great, while leaving behind those elements that made it cringe-worthy.
Following The Motet, western North Carolinian Nikki Talley kept things rolling from eleven to midnight on the Porch Stage, offering a more intimate country duet set with herself and husband Jason Sharp playing and harmonizing sweetly, allowing guests to cool off without going cold.
At midnight, the final set of the night was performed by Lake Street Dive back at the Amphitheater Stage. The three-piece, four member band makes up for any possible lack of sound they might have compared to larger bands by adding their voices to the mix in precise harmonies that work to supplement and support the drums, double-bass, and guitar and/or trumpet, all of which work together to provide a framework for the strong lead vocals. Taken as a whole, the artists provide a cohesive sound where every part exists in a musical symbiosis and no element offers discord by trying to outshine its fellows. All fancy talk aside, Lake Street Dive laid down a sound big enough to keep festival-goers dancing until 1:30 in the morning.
By noon on Friday, the temperatures were back up in the 80’s where they would stay for the rest of the day, with the light clouds and mild breezes typical of a Florida fall day. The first full day of the festival was in swing as all of the park’s four stages came to life. Merchants and food vendors were fully operational and ready to greet ever increasing numbers of attendees who arrived throughout the day that hurriedly set up camp and then made their way to the main festival area. Here the festival-goers wandered back and forth between the three outdoor stages and the refreshingly dark and air-conditioned Music Hall, catching the bands that they had come to see as well as becoming fans of bands that had been, until now, unknown to them. With twenty-one bands playing on four stages in a thirteen-and-a-half hour time frame, it would be just as impossible to not find a band that tickled your fancy as it would be to see every single performance, though there were those who certainly made a valiant effort at doing the latter. Artists performing bluegrass, country, blues, rock and roll, Cajun, funk, and endless variations of all of the above could be found all day and night throughout the park.
Of the many great artists to be seen performing on Friday, one absolute, not-to-be-missed set was that of The Del McCoury Band. At 76 years of age, Del is the epitome of the classic, classy bluegrass performer. He and his band, including sons Ronnie and Rob, took the Meadow Stage at six in the evening. Dressed in suits and ties in spite of the 84 degree heat they played in the finest bluegrass tradition with the sun kissing their faces as it sank below the cypress.
More often than not, in spite of having the expanse of the massive Meadow Stage on which to perform, the band clustered closely together in a tight knot, singing into a single mic in much the same way as Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys did seventy years prior. To see Del perform is to see a man who appears to be the happiest man in music. In spite of the heat and the sun shining in his eyes and the gnats in his face – several of which he claims to have swallowed while singing, “…they went down pretty easy, though…” he complained not at all, but rather grinned his infectious grin and laughed like the possessor of the world’s funniest joke. Singing songs about being sad and blue while seemingly tickled pink at life, Del McCoury looks to be the living example of the person that we all wish that we could be: the person who has found the thing they love to do the most in the world, and then got paid to do it.
The sun set as the Del McCoury Band played the last songs of their set. The heat fell away while fans smiled and tapped their feet to the music or danced in happy abandon. The dust kicked up by feet mingled with the smoke of campfires while the evening mist of the cooling humid Florida air worked to soften the view of the meadow. Happy festy folk danced and smiled as dragon flies flew overhead while Del continued his set. Children and families played without care or concern, content to exist in the moment as night fell and Del and his band bowed and left the stage. There were moments throughout the weekend that perfectly crystallized the nature and intent of what Magnolia Fest was meant to be, and this was certainly one of them.
Though the Del McCoury Band set might seem like the perfect ending to a great day, there were still six and a half hours of shows left to be enjoyed, starting with The London Souls on the Porch Stage. The New York City based power-duo turned the page as day became night and their music filled the vending area with a massive sound that was surprising in its strength for having been made by only two men. Doyle Bramhall II took to the Meadow Stage and The Congress filled the Music Hall with their sound, each band doing their part to remind attendees that, though the sun was down, the day was far from over. Then the Amphitheater Stage was mounted by The Travelin’ McCourys with guest musicians, Roosevelt Collier (pedal steel) and Earl Walker (drums) of The Lee Boys as well as Ronnie McCoury’s eldest son, Evan, on guitar. As an additional special guest, Del McCoury took the stage in order to lend his talents to the performance of ‘My Love Will Not Change’.
After the Travelin’ McCoury’s, the Tedeschi Trucks Band took over the Meadow Stage for a two hour set. The twelve member band filled the night with their southern-style rock and Gospel sound. The superb skills of Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks were generously supported by a fat brass section, a trio of backup singers, keyboards, bass, and, not one, but two drum kits, all orchestrated in such a way that never was the sound cacophonous or overwhelming, but always a perfect mix of the right sound in the right place.
By 11:30, many festival-goers thought themselves spent for the night and ready to return to their camps until The Motet began their second set of the weekend. People who thought themselves depleted of energy found themselves recharged and ready to shake to the funk for the next two hours. Finally, at 1:30 in the morning, the music on the main stages came to an end. As attendees made their way back to their campsites the gentle picking of Slopry Land would divert their attention and call to them to enjoy the late night festivals throughout the campground.
Saturday was another beautiful fall Florida day with highs in the low 80’s. Attendees marveled at how early noon comes when you stay up until the wee hours of the morning the night previous, but put on their happy faces and were present in respectable numbers when the first of twenty-two bands to play that day took their places on the stages. It would be another thirteen-and-a-half hour marathon with some bands like Berry Oakley’s Skylab, Col. Bruce Hampton, Steep Canyon Rangers and more giving repeat performances, much to the relief of many fans who had been forced to choose between seeing these bands and others who were only playing on Friday.
Fans that missed the performance of Steep Canyon Rangers on Friday were able to catch them on the Meadow Stage Saturday afternoon. The sextet thoroughly entertained the crowd with a modern bluegrass sound which is still firmly rooted in its ancestral soil. To the joy of many present, they invited Jeff Austin and two of his band members to join them on stage to play, demonstrating one of the key elements of bluegrass; a love of playing and picking with friends.
One of the most notable moments of the Steep Canyon Rangers’ set was when fiddle player, Nicky Sanders, left the stage to come down to play along the rail where he was given a bear-hug by an enthusiastic fan. Upon extracting himself, Sanders backed up and tripped over the stairs leading back up to the stage. Though stumbling, Sanders managed to keep his feet without doing himself an injury or dropping a single note in his furious fiddle playing.
Adding another musical element to the festival, the Rebirth Brass Band took the Meadow Stage and filled the evening air with a prime example of New Orleans jazz brass. Fans in the know danced energetically while waving hankies, scarves, bandanas, or just index and middle fingers held together in the air to signal their approval of the sounds this band of thirty-two years was laying down.
Jeff Austin Band returned to the stage with his band for his scheduled set at 7:30 pm, giving fans another example of solid, jam-grass. The thing that distinguishes Jeff Austin from so many other excellent bluegrass musicians is the obvious punk-rock soul that seems to seethe just beneath the surface and which influences both the lyrics and the beat of many of his songs. The overall feel of much of his music speaks of a vision of the world that is greyer and less ‘bright and shiny’ than traditional bluegrass and watching him perform is like watching a bluegrass version of Angus Young as he shreds on his mandolin. As always, it is an exhilarating performance.
The headliners of the night were The Avett Brothers with a much expanded lineup, taking the stage at 9:30 pm to the joy of their adoring fans. A crowd of smiling, upturned faces reflected stage light back at the band as music spilled across the meadow and drew the greatest number of fans for any performance of the weekend. In spite of chilly temperatures in the upper 50’s, fans in shorts and t-shirts would sooner have sawn off a limb than leave for warmer clothes and risk missing a single minute of the two hour set. Their love of the band would be enough to keep them warm.
Finally, rounding off the evening back at the Amphitheater Stage, Donna the Buffalo, a core band of Magnolia Fest, played their first set of the weekend. They lead festival-goers out of the last hours of Saturday and into the first hours of Sunday with their distinctive sound that had fans, as always, dancing almost nonstop.
Scattering outward into the darkness after the last notes of Donna The Buffalo had faded away, many a camper drifted back to their respective campsites to wind down before turning in, but no small number of people made their ways through the darkness to seek out the many islands of sound that drew them in back into Slopery Land like moths to an audible flame. Here, musical guests and festival attendees alike played long into the small hours of the morning, keeping the music going on a lower key, though with no less earnestness than any of the performances which had come before.
Sunday dawned cool and breezy and had a distinct, ‘the party is winding down’ feeling to it. It was the kind of morning that encouraged one to enjoy breakfast slowly and to linger over hot, fragrant coffee while mulling over the events of the preceding days and nights. Only a single stage, the Amphitheater Stage, would be in use by five bands for a piddling eight-and-a-half hour day of music. O, what luxurious and relaxing bliss does a lazy Sunday bring!
Looking out over the meadow where the now-silent Meadow Stage stood, one was given sight of yet another of those moments that perfectly crystallized the core notion that Magnolia Fest was founded on. Children laughed, played and giggled with the pure abandon that is the sole province of the innocence of youth, while adults looked on and smiled to see such beauty in the world. Here was a moment in time where the grinding concerns of life could be set aside momentarily and one could embrace the joy to be found in a world of music and the camaraderie one finds in the company of others in whose souls also dwells an appreciation for beauty in all its varied forms.
At noon the music started off with Big Cosmo, followed by Grandpa’s Cough Medicine and Jim Lauderdale, all of whom drew solid attendance and put out enough energy to keep exhausted festival-goers, if not dancing outright, smiling and tapping their feet at the very least. Unsurprisingly, the majority of those folks dancing on Sunday were aged roughly 12 and below, as they seem tapped into an energy source to which the rest of us have long since lost access.
By 4:00 in the late afternoon when Keller Williams’ Grateful Gospel took the stage, the batteries of most of the adults had recharged enough that they were able to dance along with the tireless children. The previously clear air of the day is now dissected by shafts of sunlight because of the amount of dust kicked into the air by happy feet. Bubbles float lazily overhead, hula-hoops are enthusiastically, if not always professionally, spun, little children are bounced on the shoulders of parents, hammocks rock, and fans sing along as Keller plays.
Last, but not least by any stretch, Donna The Buffalo takes the stage once again for the final set of the day, giving fans two more hours of music with which to enfold their spirits before taking their leave of the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park and picking back up their burdens of daily life. Though the music of Magnolia Fest has come to an end for another year, the memory of the music and the joyful festival-goers and the perfect weather will linger on in our minds and, in times of need, hopefully be a balm to our souls when we are sometimes battered by the casual indifference of daily life. It is in the memory of joy and beauty that we find the strength to straighten our backs and smile when we might otherwise bow our heads and let the innumerable little burdens of life break us down. It is for those memories that Magnolia Fest exists, and we hope next year to see you there, so that next time, You, dear reader, are the one who can begin the story with, ‘Here’s what you missed…’
The 500+ plus acre campground of Spirit of the Suwannee provides one of the most unique festival experiences a festivarian can have. The beautiful wooded floodplain surrounded by upland pine woods and maturing hardwood forests draped in thick lush Spanish moss bestows one of the finest backdrops imaginable. The mystic of the antebellum era can be felt as one hikes through the 12 miles of trails.
Magnolia Fest will kick off on Thursday, October 15th with the American sacred steel ensemble, Lee Boys. The Florida based band’s unique sound has attracted musical such as Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers Band, The Black Crowes, Los Lobos, Michelle Shocked, Gov’t Mule, Derek Trucks Band w/ Susan Tedeschi, The North Mississippi Allstars, Hill Country Revue, Umphrey’s McGee, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Oteil & Kofi Burbridge, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Toubab Krewe, Victor Wooten, The Del McCoury Band and The Travelin’ McCourys- all of whom have played with the Lee Boys and/or invited them to tour with them. The Amphitheater and Porch stage will host acts throughout the day from Ivey West Band, Band of Heathens, Parker Urban Band, The Congress, The Corbitt Brothers, The Motet (who will also close out the evening on Friday), Appalachian singer song writer Nikki Talley. The evening is set to close with Massachusetts based band, Lake Street Drive known for their split difference between Motown soul, sixties pop zip and British invasion swagger.
The lineup for Friday continues the introduction of some world’s finest performers in Americana, Roots Rock, Acoustic Blues, Singer/Songwriter, Bluegrass & Newgrass, Cajun/Zydeco with opening acts Grits and Soul and Bonnie Blue. Friday also sees the addition of two stages, an expansive Meadow Stage and the Music Hall. Performances will include Mojo Gurus, Applebutter Express, Berry Oakley’s Skylab. The Lee Boys, The Corbitt Brothers, Nikki Talley and The Congress will take to the stages once again for those who missed out on the Thursday sets. The lineup continues with Cedell Davis, Habanero Honeys, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Col. Bruce Hampton, Grammy award winning bluegrass favorites the Del MCoury Band, Quartermoon, The London Souls and Doyle Bramhall II whose been on tour with Tedeschi Trucks Band. The Travelin’ McCourys with the front man for the Lee Boys Roosevelt Collier will play a set before the headline for the evening Tedeschi Trucks Band. The Colorado impro funk band The Motet will wrap up the performances on the stages. Late night campfire pickin’ will continue into the wee hours of the morning by attendees and performers alike.
Saturday’s lineup packed to the gills with goodness will include Steve Pruett’s Back from the Brink, Bryce Alastair Band, This Frontier Needs Heroes, Quartermoon, Berry Oakley’s Skylab, The Corbitt Brothers, Flagship Romance, Whetherman, JacksonVegas, Col. Bruce Hampton, Steep Canyon Rangers, Sloppy Joe, Jerry Joseph and the Jackmormons, Quebe Sisters, Rebirth Brass Band, Grits and Soul, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, Jeff Austin Band, Jim Lauderdale, New Orleans Suspects. The multi Grammy award winning Americana folk rock band, The Avett Brothers, will headline the Meadow Stage Saturday evening. Donna the Buffalo the amazing zydeco, folk rock band will close out the evening.
The low key Sunday schedule gives attendees the opportunity to explore the wonderful Spirit of the Suwanee Park. The shady banks of the historic Suwannee River provide an excellent picturesque paddling experience with canoe rentals or wandering the trails by bike or foot. The lineup for Sunday starts at noon on the Amphitheater stage with Big Cosmo, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, Jim Lauderdale, Keller William’s Grateful Gospel and will close with a set from Donna the Buffalo.
Tickets are on sale in advance and at the gate. Tickets are $200 until October 14th; and $210 at gate. All weekend tickets are inclusive of all taxes and fees, and include 4 days of primitive camping and music. Kids under 12 are invited to join for free. Fans can also upgrade their experience with VIP tickets for $400 which includes dinner, discounts, VIP Lounge, festival poster, & other perks. Single day tickets are available. Student and Military tickets are $180 and $210 at the gate. The Live Oak Music And Arts Foundation (LOMAF) will have a booth with raffles to raise money for the local music and art programs in the area.
SOSMP is located between Jacksonville, Florida & Tallahassee, Florida about 30 minutes south of the Georgia State line, about 45 minutes north of Gainesville. For RV hook ups, cabin rentals and golf cart rentals, please visit the park’s web site at www.musicliveshere.com call SOSMP at (386)-364-1683. For further information and tickets, please visit →www.magnoliafest.com/tickets.
Resonance Music & Arts Festival 2015
9/24/15-9/26/15 at Legend Valley (Thornville, OH)
Featuring: Perpetual Groove, Nahk & Medicine for the People, Rising Appalachia, Tauk, The Main Squeeze, Keller Williams and more…
Honest Tune caught up with Matt Butler, creator and conductor of the Everyone Orchestra before his upcoming shows this weekend in Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington as he takes his concept on the road with an all star bevy of talent. We get in depth about how he started this path, how the path itself has changed over the years, guest conductors and who he’s like to have sit in who hasn’t…yet. (Yeah, it’s Trey!) Enjoy!
Honest Tune ~ Let’s start at the beginning…do you remember when you first conceived the Everyone Orchestra?
Matt Butler ~ I conceived it in stages. It started when I was in India with my wife at a cross cultural open mic where we got to witness music being a universal language, bringing everybody together. I just Felt the communication in a really deep way. Then I thought, “Y’know, I bet there’s a different way I could create something that’s not really an open mic, but not really a band either.” It’s like this new musical experience, where people can have this feeling, the musicians can feel it differently, to be organized and brought together in a different way. At that point I was out of Jambay, my band of the nineties, and I had started to compose a lot. I was doing some singer song writer stuff, some film scores, and started thinking about heading in that direction fully, stepping out from behind the drum kit. I tell people “Everyone Orchestra is my singer songwriter project gone awry.” (Laughs)
HT ~ (Laughs)
MB ~ The process of working on my singer-songwriter project is where I made all these other discoveries. When I came back from my Indian experience I hosted an open mic, and there would be lots of jams, drum centered jams, multi-instrumental jams…global music jams and I was in deep experimentation stage with the concept from 1996 through 2001. It was also part of my experience working with Ken Kesey (Original “Merry Prankster” and author of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) and how he was always trying to get the audience involved in unique and funky ways. He was often very blatant about it. He would hand out handbills before our shows where it would have instructions like “This is where you spin!” and “This is where you dance like a clown!” There were these very specific ways he was trying to get the audience to participate. The idea of breaking the fourth wall down, between me and the audience, became very interesting to me. It’s not that we had that much success with this back in the day…sometimes it worked, sometimes not. I just grew up in a really orchestral household where, my mom just last year retired after 48 years of playing in the Eugene (OR) symphony. I had the opportunity to grow up among really, really incredible musicians, and actual conductors were in my mom’s regular circle of friends. Marin Alsop, who’s the principal conductors for the Baltimore symphony and one of the most highly regarded female conductors in the world…I guess watch her…y’know, this was orchestral music so it was very different from what I was creating, but still, the dynamic of where a conductor could take a group of musicians…I was very inspire by that. I didn’t conduct for the first few years. I mean…I was the drummer! (Chuckles) I hired conductors. It didn’t dawn on me ’til 2005 to conduct , I still self-identified as a drummer. Once i started conducting, I realized the role of conductor was really important to making this different. It was crucial to tap into this as something truly unique within the scope of what a band is and what people expect when they go to a music performance. The idea of being a facilitator, like leading a drum circle, kinda impacted my thinking at that point to. Being a facilitator, you don’t know exactly what will happen, you just roll with the punches, and help direct and adjust as needed. So learning how to conduct without some master plan, musically, is kinda my specialty.
HT ~ The genius of the Everyone Orchestra is that it works for basically all genres and styles. Do you approach these radically different styles any differently?
MB ~ Not really. I would say I adjust more for personalities. When I have a bunch of more, say, bluegrass musicians I lean in a more down the line style. We do some themed EO shows from time to time, like bluegrass or funk, but even within those contexts there is always some eclecticism. For me, it’s about personalities, the alchemy between the talent that’s most exciting. Seeing what people do, in reaction to these other people. I think the sonic texture of what the instrumentation is, that takes care of any accommodating that I may do because of a genre, and it ends up just happening. But, no matter the instruments, it was still just”Funk in A!” (Laughs)
HT ~ You lead the band with notes and stuff on dry erase boards. I’ve seen “Love” written on there many times, what are some of your other directions?
MB ~ I’ll give keys…sometimes I write “Love” because I’m just feelin’ it. I’m feelin’ it from the musical energy, from the vibe in the room. There’s love all around us. Music is love. I’ll write lyrics sometimes, but that changes nightly. Sometimes I’ll write “Bass & Drums'” sometimes I’ll write “8 beats Chaos!” There’s a photo in our show poster, with five words…I really believe in the contrast, the light and dark and chaos that comes from it. The right mix of those two forces…that’s chaos. I’ll give any type of direction…a key, a style…a progression…but a lot of what I am doing is asking different people to lead. The broader idea of what I am doing is facilitating a group, working as a team to create music through the conductive influence. I do a lot of this by just asking someone to start something, and that will lead to a jumping off point. I have no idea what they are gonna play. They’ll play a progression of some kind, people will jump in and it just becomes something. And then someone else will come up with part “B” and i wait for someone to give me a wink or a sign thatb they have something, and then I’ll cut everyone else out and give them the lead. Everyone then has to stop and listen, figure out what the hell is going on and join in and develop their part. That becomes “Part B.” Then I say, “Let’s go back to “Part A.” And at that point we’ve created both of these sections kinda out of the air. And sure, sometimes somebody brings a riff or a premeditated change in, but even so…nobody else knows what it is. What the other people play is still from the spontaneous ether…this is my favorite thing to do right now. I’m trying to write songs, as a group, that include the audience as a chorus, that have some kind of meaning to the moment and that feature all the musicians in a way that is exciting and new.
HT ~ You keep it pretty wide open with your selections, but a few folks have become semi regulars. Does familiarity make the collaboration easier or harder?
MB ~ I try and have a mix of the old and the new. I will say that there are some professional players out there that are my really close friends that I just enjoy working with, musically. It’s just a fun hang, a good spirit and it’s fun to throw them in the mix. And, y’know, they’re well known players and that brings a little extra excitement to the audience and the promoters. To have them on-board, and to mix them up with new musicians…that’s one of my favorite things about the Everyone Orchestra. Getting to see musicians expand their comfort zones, try new things with unfamiliar players, to grow as musicians…It might get easier for veterans of the experience, they know what kinds of changes I may call for, but also know that there is not really anything NOT to expect. With the noobies often there is a bit of fear, a little hesitation as they wonder “Can I really improvise?” Sometimes I’ll invite people who are not really improvisers, and I’ll be like “This is different. You don’t have to be free jazz musician, you just have to be ego-less and try and have fun with it.” The music we’re making isn’t perfect, but the being together and making music…that IS perfect. For the noobies it’s just about getting past the initial hesitation. I think that once the music is going, old hand and new faces are equally challenged each time.
HT ~ You’ve actually let someone else lead the orchestra at least once, moe. guitarist al. Schnier. Did it feel weird handing off your baby?
MB ~ Anyone can give this a shot, as far as I am concerned. As I get older I am thinking about teaching more people how to play this game. I’m embracing this as a new instrument, and I think that what I’m doing with it is kinda a unique twist, and an eclectic combination of a lot of the different parts of what it’s like, actually being a musician. It’s kinda like a new role on a baseball field…as if…what if they found a new base to play? (Laughs) Y’know, not first, second or third or the outfield, but some totally new position. It was kinda exciting in a way. I hated missing that show. Sometimes it happens in this crazy life of travel. A really close friend had passed away and so I had to miss it. It’s better than the show not going on, and I think Al has a deeper respect for what I do now, after having done it. I think some musicians could get a lot out of the experience after trying it themselves. If somebody had to try it at the last minute, i’m glad it was him. I used to do a lot more of the guest conductor thing, but that was mostly before I took the helm. A few of the key musicians who were around me when I started this said “Look, I like all the people you are bringing in to conduct, but the way this concept is gonna work is that we’re here because of you, and you should be conducting…we trust YOU.” Some of the conductors got up there and they were just kinda fucking with people. And that can be interesting, but as a musician you don’t wanna feel like a puppet on a string. You don’t want to be told what to do again and again and again. There’s a fine line between direction and setting there clearing space so musicians have a floor under them and can explore, to be free. Having been conducted and then taking the conducting gig myself…Different styles of conducting were bringing different things out. I’m still in the place of figuring out what this thing is, and I didn’t wanna put other people in the place where they’re being told what to do by someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing. On the other hand, I’ve been developing a curriculum, so that other people can more easily do this.
HT ~ Franchising is where the money’s at! (Laughs)
MB ~ Who knows? (Laughs)
HT ~ Did you lend him the hat?
MB ~ NO! Fuck no! (Laughs)
HT ~ (LAUGHS) Ever have a musician try and slip you a couple of bucks to get more stage time?
MB ~ (Laughs) Only Fishman! (Laughs)
HT ~ Well, He can afford it! (Laughs)
MB ~ (Laughs) Yeah right? He’s desperate for face time! (Laughs) No, nope, so one’s ever done that.
HT ~ In the beginning it seems you just brought the EO concept to festivals, but now you’re bringing it to cities with a heavy musician populace, like Denver, New Orleans and Portland. Is it harder to pull together a city show?
MB ~ It’s different. It”s different budgets, it’s different energies…just different considerations all around. I couldn’t do this without a good team. I have a few people who help manage the logistics, do the booking, help build the line ups…do the publicity. i’m all about the art. At a festival I will build it from there. Really, the concept was built it to make it easier for musicians in the area to come and play together. As we get bigger and bigger draws it started making sense to bring in some of the regulars. It becomes feasible to say “Okay, let’s bring out Al for these shows.”
HT ~ You have strongly linked the Everyone Orchestra to some very worthwhile causes. How has your charitable activism informed your musical direction?
MB ~ It’s a big part of the development of what EO was, was to kind of bring these people around a cause, and making it extra intense. As the years have gone by it’s been more difficult to make each show affiliated with a different cause, difficult to pull off. But when I was starting this, it was a perfect time for this energy in my life. I wanna save the redwood trees, just help be part of bringing awareness to the troubles of the world. My cause related work with folks like Positive Vibration, Summer Camp, just to add a little meaning to the party, so to speak. Honestly, I’d like to do more of it. I’d like to get bigger in the industry, just to do more for the causes.
HT ~ I can’t think of any environment more perfect a fit for what you do than Jam Cruise. How hard is it to pick from the massive amount of talent on the boat?
MB ~ It’s definitely a first world problem. (Chuckles) It’s hard! That EO always ends up being really big because I try to be inclusive.
HT ~ Are there any artists you have your eye on who haven’t been a part of the Orchestra yet?
MB ~ There’s this guitarist named Trey Anastasio I’d like to get. I mean…I don’t know…he’s a busy guy…I just think he’d understand the process really fast and I think he’d enjoy it.
HT ~ If you had a time machine, who are some of your dream artists to have in the band?
MB ~ I don’t. I really don’t. Sorry to burst your bubble on that one. I just love so many musicians. I’ve loved each and every one of the line ups just the way they are.
HT ~ That’s a perfect note to end this on. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us sir. Look forward to seeing you soon!
MB ~ Looking forward to it as well!
Well, I asked Billy Joel to sit in with us, but he said no. I don’t know why, maybe he was weirded out because I asked him while we were both taking a leak in the bathroom. Whatever, bro, get over yourself. It’s 2015. The walls of urination etiquette are a savage custom of the past. Live in the now.
Okay, so I didn’t actually ask Billy Joel to jam with us, nor did I even see him whatsoever. But on a serious note, Bonnaroo was absolutely unbelievable; without question not only the hugest crowd we’ve ever played for, but also one of the most energetic and appreciative. But I’ll start from the beginning of our Bonnaroo experience before we get into the meaty show time details.
We arrived nice and early in the afternoon with a lot of time to kill before our set. I usually don’t like to be at a festival all day before we play. It’s not that I don’t want to be there; I just know from experience that walking around for eight hours under the hot sun can leave me totally drained of any energy by show time. Not only that, but a lot of times I get bored and cope with it by drinking beer. And that’s definitely not something you want to consume all day before playing. In this case, though, we didn’t have a choice, so I figured I might as well walk around Bonnaroo and take it all in. I did, however, give myself a rule of no drinking before the set. I didn’t want to be a sloppy, exhausted pile of crap for one of the biggest festivals we’d ever played.
Before our set we sat down to do an interview with Red Bull TV, which was one of the stranger things I’ve experienced in my time on the road. They brought us up to a sort of tower overlooking the concert field, where they sat us down in front of super bright lights, handed us all microphones and dabbed makeup on us. I felt like I was announcing New Years Rockin’ Eve or something. It was weird. The interview itself was pretty fun, though.
The time finally came to set up our equipment, and I was surprised to see a substantial amount of people already at the stage waiting for us. To be honest, I initially told myself that they were probably just camping out for a good spot for whatever band would be playing after us, and we were just the entertainment in the meantime. As we neared completion of our sound check, we were all a bit stressed to discover that Eli’s Moog prodigy was completely incapable of staying in tune. Fun fact for those of you who don’t know much about keyboards (and I am one of you): Vintage synthesizers actually have to be tuned. I don’t know if it was the dust or the humidity or what, but the Moog was in super rough shape. But it was now or never! Gear malfunction moments are what separate the men from the boys, and if you don’t keep your cool and handle it with grace you’re bound to have a terrible time on stage. I knew that if anybody could handle it, it was Eli. He has four other keyboards on stage, and dude sounds amazing on anything that has piano keys, so I knew if something went wrong he would still play it off like a boss.
As we took a minute to collect ourselves before walking on stage, we heard the entire crowd chanting our band’s name, and I realized that the people who had been waiting while we were setting up were not just waiting for some other band to start playing. I hate to be cheesy, but we were really moved by it. As we finally took the stage, I was absolutely dumbfounded at how much the crowd had grown since I had walked off after sound check. I had never experienced anything like it. I would guess it was somewhere between 10,000 and 12,000 people. A few of my friends and family asked me if were nervous playing in front of such a big crowd; Honestly, aside from being a touch nervous about Eli’s synth working properly, I couldn’t have been less nervous. How could I be stressed playing in front of a crowd that was so warm and enthusiastic? I didn’t feel I had anything to prove. I was only focused on having a great time and enjoying such a beautiful moment while it lasted. On top of that, Eli dealt with his technical difficulties beautifully. I was proud of him for being so zen about it and adjusting without a hitch.
After having a day off to enjoy Bonnaroo, we hopped on a plane and headed back up north to play at Disc Jam Music Festival. I have to give a shout out to our unbelievable road crew for this one. As soon as our set had finished, they packed up the all the gear and drove all the way from Tennessee to New York so that we could stay at Bonnaroo for an extra day and then fly into the next gig. That just blows my mind. They work way harder than we do to begin with, yet we’re the ones who get special treatment. I won’t lie, I was more than happy to be able to hang out for awhile and then fly in a nice comfy airplane, but I felt kind of guilty about it. The next time a fan comes over to me to shake my hand or ask for an autograph I should just tell them to go get our road crew to sign their stuff instead, because in actuality my job is pretty easy and theirs is unbelievably difficult.
We arrived at Disc Jam in high spirits, not only from the afterglow of Bonnaroo, but from excitement about playing a festival that’s been so good to us throughout the years. It’s changed locations multiple times at this point, but has managed to retain the same vibe no matter where it’s been held each year. My theory is that it’s truly a festival that thrives off of the people who attend it. I’ve seen so many of the same faces every year I’ve ever played at it that it really doesn’t matter what the location is. The people there dictate the mood and spirit of the event.
As I set up my equipment in preparation for our set, I enjoyed the sounds of Electron emanating from the adjacent stage. Those guys have all been doing what we’re doing for years and years, and they’ve been super cool and supportive to us. They’re definitely always a fun hang. The only guy I haven’t talked to too much is Tom Hamilton, but I can safely say I was really impressed with his guitar playing. To be honest, up until recently I didn’t really know he was so good. It’s not that I didn’t think he was good – I just hadn’t checked out much of his playing – that was until a few months ago, when I caught him playing with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead in Denver. Man, that guy can play guitar.
As Electron wound down and we started getting into our set, I felt a nice, rare wave of contentment. If I’m being honest with myself, I feel like I always want something else; more songs, more gigs, less gigs, more notoriety, more guitars, whatever. But every once in awhile, I can reach a place where I’m totally happy with where I’m at right then and there. I got to go to that place while I was on stage at Disc Jam, and I really appreciated being there. I was on stage with my friends, playing music that I was happy with, for a crowd of people who were feeding us great energy. I couldn’t have asked for more.
The set started off pretty standard, with us breezing through a few more abridged versions of songs. Definitely tight, but the real fun was yet to begin. Then, about halfway through the set, we brought up our friend Justin Hancock from Haley Jane and the Primates to play some guitar. Justin goes way back with all of us. I met him in college in a guitar lab, where we bonded over Phish. On top of that, he used to be in a band with Chuck and Eli called Actual Proof, so there’s a lot of history between all of us. We all had a great time playing together, and Justin sounded great. From that point on, I don’t think there a single break between songs. I also don’t think a single thing went according to plan, which is how we want it to be. That’s when the really good stuff happens!
Anyhow, that’s all for now, I’m in the van, as usual. It’s a little past midnight, and I’m listening to some Cannonball Adderley. Check him out if you never have. He is definitely my favorite bebop horn player. I may even start my next blog as soon I’m done with this one. It’s not like I have anything else to do! ’Til then, you all be safe out there.
With an influx of Appalachian migrants who came looking for work in the 1940s and 1950s, Baltimore found itself populated by some extraordinary mountain musicians and was for a brief time the center of the bluegrass world. Life in Baltimore for these musicians was not easy. There were missed opportunities, personal demons and always the up-hill battle with prejudice against their hillbilly origins. Based upon interviews with legendary players from the golden age of Baltimore bluegrass, Bluegrass in Baltimore provides the first in-depth coverage of this transplanted-roots music and its broader influence, detailing the struggles Appalachian musicians faced in a big city that viewed the music they made as the “poorest example of poor man’s music.
Bluegrass in Baltimore examines the highly-influential scene in Baltimore that produced such key figures as Del McCoury, Earl Taylor, Walt Hensley, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, and Mike Munford and explores the impact the music they made had on a wide-range of musical luminaries including Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Sandy Rothman, Pete Wernick, Sam Bush, and many others.
(Excerpted from Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and its Legacy by Tim Newby, published by McFarland Books, June 2015.)
On a cold night in early February 1963, in a small nondescript neighborhood in Southeastern Baltimore, on the corner of Pratt and Chapel Streets, in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital there was a small bar that you would have been hard pressed to find then, and does not exist now. Called the Chapel Café, it had a much too low ceiling with bad lights that seemed to do nothing but provide a ghostly haze that gave life to the heavy cigarette smoke lingering in the dank air. This served to make the ill-mannered, boorish disposition of the locals hunched over the bar even more menacing as they seemed to revel in yelling “play or get out” at the band perched on the small stage every time there was a lull in the music. The fourteen-year-old bassist on stage that night remembers it as “nothing but cigarette smoke and spilled beer, one of them rough places, the kind of place where the bouncer would have to throw out at least one guy a night.” Into this atmosphere, across the sticky beer-splattered floor, beyond the bar area that was just to the right of the door and over towards the stage tucked into the corner on the opposite wall walked a man.
This bar was much like countless other bars that were littered across Baltimore; Jazz City just a couple blocks away on Pratt street in Fells Point, the 79 Club in Federal Hill, the legendary Cozy Inn, and the chicken wire-covered stage at Oleta’s and Marty’s Bar KY. They were all tough beer-and-a-shot joints that were small, worn down, reeking of stale beer, and teetering on the edge of violence each night.
But the man who walked into the Chapel Café that night was not like the countless other patrons who inhabited them. He was a tall man who cut an imposing figure and known to be of few words. He was often referred to as an “ornery old cuss” by those that did not know him, though in reality he was a much more complex man than that simple, limiting description. He also had started a band that lent its name to a still developing sound that had its roots in the mountains of Appalachia, found its way to the city streets, and was now being played in this poorly-lit bar, much like it was at similar other bars around Baltimore. This sound was still shaking off its earlier label of hillbilly, so-named for the migrants who brought this music with them when they came down from the mountains or moved from the south to the cities to find work and a better life, and was beginning to be recognized by another, less derogatory name: Bluegrass.
The man who walked into that small corner bar was Bill Monroe, who with his band Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys had first given shape and life to this new exciting style of music. Bluegrass was born from the old time string band music that Monroe learned in his youth back in his rural home in Rosine, Kentucky, and from the fiddle of his favorite uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, who Monroe went to live with after his parents died when he was a teenager. Uncle Pen would become a role model for Monroe in all aspects of life, but it was through music that he would have his greatest impact on the young budding musician. Years later, after Monroe’s musical genius was widely recognized, he would give credit to his Uncle Pen referring to him as “the fellow I learned how to play from.” Monroe would later immortalize his Uncle in one of his most famous songs, “Uncle Pen,” in which he sang about the late night hoedowns and dances he played at as a teenager with his Uncle.
Monroe mixed his Uncle Pen’s fiddle sound with the country, gospel, and blues that was in the air at the time, and ratcheted it up to a breakneck speed with his distinctive trademark mandolin to create what famed folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax called “Folk music with overdrive” in a 1959 article for Esquire Magazine. Levon Helm from Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers The Band saw Monroe as a six-year-old and says this new style of music “really tattooed my brain.” He recalled how Monroe had taken, “that old hillbilly music, sped it up and basically invented what is now known as bluegrass music: the bass in its place, the mandolin above it, the guitar tying the two together, and the violin on top, playing the long notes to make it all sing. The banjo backed the whole thing up, answering everybody.” Country music-outlaw Waylon Jennings would echo Helms’ sentiment about the impact of Monroe and this new style of music he was playing. “In my house, in Littlefield, Texas, it was the bible on the table, the flag on the wall, and Bill Monroe’s picture beside it. That’s the way I was raised.” And for a brief time nowhere was this new style of hillbilly music, this folk music with overdrive, played better, faster, or in such a way that it would leave as permanent a footprint on the history and development of bluegrass than in Baltimore.
The teenaged bassist, Jerry McCoury, who was on stage that cold February night at the Chapel Café in 1963, recalled with a laugh when Monroe walked into the tiny Baltimore bar, “I actually didn’t recognize him at first. He was wearing his glasses and he had a hat on. Then I realized who it was and I was in total awe.” With admiration and high praise in his voice he continues, “It was like meeting God.”
Monroe’s stop in Baltimore was no accident. He had stopped by to see a former member of his band, Jack Cooke, who was playing that evening. Monroe needed a couple of players to fill out his band for an upcoming gig at New York University in New York City for the Friends of Old Time Music on February 8, just a few days later. He was hoping Cooke would join him on guitar, and he wanted to check out the older brother of McCoury who was a banjo player Cooke had recommended.
McCoury’s 22-year-old banjo playing older brother, remembers that same evening when the man rightly called the “Father of Bluegrass” walked in during their set:
We were playing the Chapel Café in Fells Point one night in 1963, when Bill Monroe walked in front of us. I could have fallen over right then and there. The purpose of him stopping by was to take Jack [Cooke] with him up there to play a show in New York City. He didn’t have a guitar player or lead singer at the time. Whoever it was had quit and he thought Jack would do it. He also didn’t have a banjo player either so they took me up there to play.
The banjo player, Jerry’s older brother Delano, joined Monroe’s band, which at the time included Kenny Baker on fiddle and Monroe’s longtime partner Bessie Lee Mauldin on bass. After the show in New York City Delano joined the band full-time, and at the request of Monroe he switched from banjo to guitar and took over lead vocals as well. It proved to be a career-defining break for the young banjo player turned guitarist/singer. Though his time with Monroe was short, it was an influential time as the bluegrass legend helped introduce the world to the voice of Del McCoury, a voice which might be the most perfect in bluegrass, a voice that is the living embodiment of the “high and lonesome” sound, a voice about which country music superstar Vince Gill declares, “I would rather hear Del McCoury sing ‘Are You Teasin’ Me?’ than just about anything.”
Since his brief time with Monroe, McCoury has gone onto establish himself as one of the truly legendary figures in the genre. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Hall of Fame in 2011, has released over thirty albums, won fifteen IBMA awards – including being named entertainer of the year nine times (with four straight wins from 1997-2000) – and won two Grammy Awards in 2006 and 2014 for his albums, The Company We Keep and Streets of Baltimore. He is a man whose roots stretch back to the earliest days, but who stands firmly in the now. A man who is not afraid to collaborate with any number of bands who might be assumed to be outside the normal wheelhouse and comfort zone of an aging bluegrass legend, mixing it up with younger bands like Phish, Yonder Mountain String Band, The String Cheese Incident, Old Crow Medicine Show, Leftover Salmon, and Steve Earle. Bands that are pushing the sound his one-time mentor Bill Monroe first created so many years ago into new and bold directions.
For Monroe to stumble upon such an absurdly talented player in Baltimore was no lucky break. During the fifties and sixties Baltimore was teeming with talent and a rare convergence of people. In addition to Del McCoury, a host of other influential pickers and musicians all would emerge from Baltimore during this time, including Mike Seeger, Bill Clifton, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys (the first bluegrass band to grace the stage at Carnegie Hall), the pioneering duets of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, and the groundbreaking banjo wizardry of Walt Hensley. They would all help to introduce the hard-driving style that was best found in its most pure form in those rough, corner bars on the streets of Baltimore, and bring this energetic style to the music world at large.
Baltimore was one of the few places in the United States where musicians from the mountains and the South could meet and play with folks likely outside of their normal social strata. College-educated city folk and hillbilly migrants from Appalachia mingled easily in Baltimore over the common-ground of music, and in particular string-band and early bluegrass music. Seeger provides the best explanation of Baltimore’s unique personality as a city:
We were quite conscious in Baltimore of being a place where the city and the country met. You’d have tough bluegrass bars, where the city people were the outsiders. You’d have bohemian parties, where the country people were the outsiders. It was a place where different classes and different cultures were meeting. It was a time of curiosity and discovery and friction and exhilaration.
Much of the focus on bluegrass as it relates to its growth in cities tends to revolve around Nashville, with its well-deserved Music City title, and the bluegrass scene that eventually developed in Washington D.C. around such genre-defining bands as the Country Gentleman and The Seldom Scene. While there were many other urban settings at the time with a large population of Appalachian migrants and that also had important urban hillbilly scenes, it can be argued that none of them had the lasting impact that Baltimore did. During those early years that saw the identity of bluegrass truly formed, it was the vibrant, special scene a short drive north of D.C. on I-295 in Baltimore that Seeger recalled which truly laid the foundation. With his trademark chuckle Del McCoury agrees:
There was Nashville, and then there was Baltimore. There were other places, Detroit was pretty big, and Cincinnati, there was a big bluegrass scene in those two cities, and Washington [D.C.] as well, but Baltimore was the hot town for this kind of music back in the fifties and sixties.
In the years following World War II, as the factories and industries boomed there was an exodus from the mountains and the South into the cities and Baltimore found itself the recipient of an extraordinarily talented crop of musicians who settled into an area ripe with possibilities and opportunities. In a house on Eager Street that held weekly gatherings of like-minded urban folk-music people and hillbillies, in neighborhoods across Baltimore called “Little Appalachia,” in “hillbilly ghettos” where migrants clustered in the cramped row houses that hosted nightly pickin’ parties, and in the working-class bars that could just as easily erupt in a brawl as they could in live music, the sound of hillbilly or bluegrass music was not only being played, but redefined and pushed in new directions.
These sounds soon started reaching the ears of young, impressionable musicians across the country who were just beginning to find their way musically. Sam Bush, one of the originators of the modern bluegrass sound that began developing in the 1970s, was a teenager in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and one of those young impressionable musicians in the late 1960s when he first came across the “hard-driving Baltimore-style.” His band, New Grass Revival, was a revelatory shot in the arm to bluegrass music when they burst on to the scene in 1971. They were a bunch of young hot-shot pickers breaking the normal restrained bluegrass mold at the time with their long hair, jeans, and t-shirts; who, with their psychedelic-influenced take on bluegrass fused everything from jazz, funk, blues and rock together. They shook off the shackles that had tethered the genre for too long and changed the face of modern bluegrass. It was an album Bush came across by Baltimore banjo-picker Walt Hensley that proved to be the first time Bush would discover the spark that would ignite his passion to move bluegrass into new realms and hear a term that would go on to define those early years of Bush’s long, storied career. Bush heard Hensley’s groundbreaking 1969 album Pickin’ on New Grass, and it blew away the young artist, instigating the formation of the band, New Grass Revival, and was part of the birth of a new style, “Newgrass.” With his mind fully-blown he explained, “He [Hensley] was stretching the boundaries there.”
Many of those early Baltimore musicians who inspired that young impressionable talent, like Sam Bush, and helped provide such a unique voice to this still developing musical style, would seem to have been within arm’s reach of making it big, of reaching that musical summit, only to fall short due to a litany of reasons. With a scene built around a large influx of poor migrants with limited education, it is not surprising to hear McCoury say that the bands in Baltimore “were less professional” than those in other cities, and to find so many players who were so talented on the music side fail so easily on the business side. This lack of business acumen or professionalism proved to be the biggest hindrance for many musicians from Baltimore.
For every Del McCoury or Hazel Dickens that clawed their way out of Baltimore and achieved that lofty legendary status there are countless stories of those who could not quite obtain what their seemingly unlimited talent placed within their grasp. Whether due to lack of education, poor business sense, too much drink, a lack of faith in one’s abilities, or quite simply bad luck, many of these Baltimore pickers found that instead of etching their name in big letters on the roll call of greats they were more often than not resigned to the overlooked role of early innovator or forgotten influence. The scope of these musicians’ influence was wide and far-reaching, but unfortunately as bluegrass musician Artie Werner (who years later played with many of the early pioneers from Baltimore in Cincinnati) says, “People don’t realize how much bluegrass was influenced by Baltimore-area musicians.” It seems with the passage of time, this has come close to being forgotten, as Baltimore is often overshadowed by their big brother to the south, Washington D.C., and the impact of these pioneering musicians is relegated to a passing memory or a simple mention in a lyric. But Baltimore’s story is the story of early bluegrass. Without it and the musicians who lived and played there, what we know and hear today would not be the same.
Hey everybody! I’m back at it after a long hiatus from blogging. I guess I just got the bug again and needed some sort of activity to keep me from going nuts on the road. But before I give you the details of last week’s run of shows, I figured I’d tell you about a couple of the more exciting things that have happened so far this year.
First off, I started off the new year by purchasing a shiny new guitar. That’s exciting stuff for me. For any guitar geeks out there who care about specifics, its a Gibson custom shop CS-336 with a non-reverse firebird headstock. For anyone who doesn’t care about what its called, just look at the pretty picture of it below:
I was out to dinner with my girlfriend and we stopped into a terrific guitar shop called Lark Street Music. I had no intention of buying a new guitar, but it felt and sounded too perfect for me not to fall in love with it. I spent the following couple days trying to get it out of my head so as not to make a frivolous decision, but ultimately my wonderful, lovely girlfriend told me to stop being a dumb ass and buy it. There’s nothing like the love of a good woman, huh? Anyhow, it’s been my primary guitar for the last six months, which is saying a lot since I’ve sold every guitar I’ve owned in the last 8 years. I named her Martha 2 (Martha 1 is my dog). Also, for anyone who cares, I still have Amelia, my trusty Paul Reed Smith hollowbody II that has been my primary guitar for the last ten years. That guitar will have to be pried from my cold, dead hands. She is however, in need of some TLC and overall maintenance, so I haven’t been playing her too much as of late.
Another highlight of this year for me was our three night run at the Sinclair in Boston. Playing shows and just being in Boston in general is always a big deal for us since we started the band there many years ago, and being there always brings something out of us creatively. I usually try not to voice my opinion of any of our shows. Who am I to let my negative opinion of a show ruin what was a great experience for someone in the audience? And, conversely, I’m wary to think too highly of a show and then get people’s expectations up too high only to have the music not meet it. But I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that these three shows are some of my favorite shows we’ve ever played. I love the feeling of abandoning a setlist for the sake of creativity and exploration, and I don’t think any of the three shows abided by what was written down. I also felt that every chance we took paid off in spades. I couldn’t have had a better time.
Here’s some of personal highlights of the run:
1- the entire first show
2- Russ Lawton and Ray Paczkowski of Soul Monde and Trey Anastasio Band sitting in with us on “Roid Rage”
3- Playing Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” for nearly an entire hour. It was the only song of the entire second set on the third night.
Fast forward to Summer and here we are, in the midst of festival season. This is an exciting yet stressful time of year for any band. Being at a festival with all our friends from other bands feels like a giant family reunion. The hang is just unbelievable. I honestly feel that all the other bands that are sort of in the same teir as us (is that what the kids are calling it these days? “Teir?”) are my best friends. Unfortunately, with all of us always on our own crazy tours we don’t get to hang as much as we’d like to, so we look forward to the hang that occurs backstage at any given festival.
Last weekend was an amazing, albeit insane one for us. We started off by flying to Arkansas to perform at Wakarusa. The set was all right despite fighting through some technical difficulties in the first quarter of the set. We were also using all rental (or “backline,” as the pros say) equipment, which was a bit stressful. But we made it through unscathed to fight another day. I think my personal highlight of the day was that all the water at the festival came in cans, which blew our minds. It felt like we were drinking beer, but we were actually being healthy. Good stuff.
We woke up bright and early the next day for one of the most hectic days of travel I’ve experienced in recent memory. We started off with an hour and a half drive to the airport, and then got on an airplane and landed in Chicago to catch a connecting flight. The layover culminated with our plane arriving an hour late, only to be kept at the gate for an extra hour because the flight crew couldn’t get the door of the airplane to close. That’s reassuring! A door being broken on an airplane is definitely pretty high up on the list of things you don’t want to be broken on an airplane. Dead men tell no tales, however, and obviously I’m alive to tell this one, so I think it’s obvious that the door held up okay. Then once that plane landed at LaGuardia, we hopped in a car and drove another three hours to Mountain Jam in Hunter, New York. All in all, thirteen hours of traveling in one day.
Thankfully, we arrived in time to catch the last half of Robert Plant’s set. He rocked the shit out of that mountain. He still sounds great and his music has aged gracefully over the years. Also, in between songs he told weird stories about young girls walking through the heather with buckets of milk singing “English refrains of old.” I don’t know what the hell he was talking about, but Robert Plant was saying it so it was pretty much the coolest thing I had ever heard.
After that, I walked over to the indoor stage to play our late night set. I’ll admit it was a bit surreal to watch a member of Led Zeppelin and then walk 100 yards and play my own set. That was a pretty cool “pinch me moment.” I enjoyed our set a lot, although I can’t think of any specific highlights. I just know it was nice to play a good long set that allowed us to stretch out. We’ve had a lot of power hour festival sets where we’re off stage before we even know we have started playing, so it was nice to have time on our side once again.
We got finished at 3 am and headed to our hotel to get some rest, but not for long. We were back at the venue at 11 am to get set up for an early afternoon set on the main stage. This was by far the biggest stage we had ever played on, but frankly I didn’t care what the stage looked like; I just hoped that people would get up early and come see us. No one wants to play for an empty ski slope. Fortunately, we had a wonderful crowd as well as a beautiful, sunny day amidst a lush, green mountainous setting. What a beautiful time. Despite our exhaustion from all the travel, we felt really locked in and creative. All four of us were in high spirits and were truly enjoying such a beautiful place to make music.
I hung out for the afternoon and enjoyed some free beer and food, and then decided to hit the road so I could have some “R and R” before getting back on the road, which brings me to now. We’re in the van, headed to Bonnaroo. My back is killing me and my hair is starting to go gray. Do you guys think Billy Joel would be down to sit in with us? I doubt it. Maybe we’ll ask Slayer…they’re a jam band, right? We’ll see…
The sun starts to set as The Wood Brothers take the stage at Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. Surrounded by trees and a lawn filled with folk and bluegrass fans, the band begins their set. Multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, flanked by the brothers Chris and Oliver Wood under the red glow of stage lights, warms his hands on a chilly April evening.
Oliver Wood kicks off the show by picking out a slow folk ballad on his acoustic guitar. His brother outlines the guitar chords on an upright bass, and Rix plays a beat on his self-proclaimed shuitar – a crummy guitar he transformed into a percussion instrument with tuna cans and other noisemakers.
The band sings their stories in soulful three-part harmonies while many audience members sing along.
After opening the set with a few slower, more traditional folk tunes, Oliver trades his acoustic for a hallow-body electric guitar, and Rix takes his place behind his drum set.
Chris uses a bow to play a virtuosic classical-style solo on bass as the festival sits in awe. When his solo comes to a close, his brother comes in with an upbeat, blues-soaked funky guitar riff and Rix launches into a groovy beat on the drums. The crowd can’t help but move to the beat.
Jordan August and Phil Chorney stand off-stage surveying the scene with walkie-talkies in hand and a solemn look on their faces. The co-owners and co-creators of the festival listen to The Wood Brothers’ harmonies and impressive musicianship, but there are more pressing concerns. Will the bus that is taking The Wood Brothers to their hotel make it through the rioting downtown? Is the event running on time? Is everyone enjoying themselves? Are people going to stick around for the last few bands after it gets dark? Will they get back their security deposit on the park? Is the festival living up to its reputation? With so many things that can go wrong, Chorney and August hardly have the time to stop and enjoy their own event.
“Baltimore is a working-class, blue-collar town, with great people, great food, great beer and great music,” Chorney says. “So let’s celebrate that.”
While protests and social unrest were bubbling into riots near Camden Yards on April 25, Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park was an oasis of peace and music as thousands attended the 3rd Annual Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival.
The festival featured performances from national and local folk and bluegrass acts including The Travelin’ McCourys, The Wood Brothers, The Seldom Scene, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Cris Jacobs, The Bumper Jacksons, Grand Ole’ Ditch, Letitia VanSant, Chester River Runoff, Charm City Junction, The Herd of Main Street and The Manly Deeds. The event also had local craft vendors, selling everything from hula-hoops to cider, beer, banjos, bowties and falafels.
The Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival is the latest chapter in a long history of bluegrass music in Baltimore – a history that has been all but forgotten, according to August and Chorney. They share a passion for the craft of bluegrass and folk music and a love for Baltimore. This inspired them to create the festival with the intention of sharing this music, bringing money into the city and raising awareness of bluegrass music in Baltimore, a city that was once a hotbed of folk and bluegrass.
“In the 1950s, it was either Nashville or Baltimore for bluegrass, which is a wild concept because Baltimore doesn’t seem like that place,” August said. “People forgot that bluegrass was even here.”
“That’s the purpose of the festival,” August explained, “to bring back that awareness of bluegrass music that used to exist here.”
Bluegrass and folk music have been a part of Baltimore’s history for a long time. Last year the Baltimore Museum of Industry had an exhibit about the banjo – an instrument with roots in West Africa that has been a part of Maryland tradition since the 1740’s. It wasn’t until the 20th century, however, that this music flooded the streets of Baltimore.
The Great Depression in the 1930’s resulted in the mass northern migration of poor families from the South and Appalachian region. As an industrial center, Baltimore became one of many cities on the receiving end of this migration.
“The proximity of the Appalachia region and the opportunities that existed [in Baltimore] at the time were a huge motivating factor for people looking for a change,” said Tim Newby, author of the forthcoming book Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and its Legacy.
These migrants brought with them their families, their traditions and their cultural tastes, which included folk and bluegrass music. These new-comers were not always welcome, Newby explained. Bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens recalls seeing signs that read “No Dogs or Hillbillies” as she went about town. Often the migrants would cluster together in small neighborhoods around the city, Newby said. The areas of Hampden, Woodbury and Druid Hill Park came to be known as “hillbilly ghettos,” Chorney said. In time, Bluegrass eventually became a staple of the Baltimore music scene.
“You had these migrants who had grown up with this music and you had many younger locals who were into this same kind of music,” Newby said. “They really bonded together and created a special atmosphere that was inclusive of both migrants and those already from the city or surrounding area.”
On the evenings before work these migrants would meet up in bars and basements, bring their instruments and have informal “pickin’ parties,” keeping their traditions alive in a city that proved to be nothing like home. Baltimore was the home to many bluegrass legends, such as Hazel Dickens, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys, Walt Hensley, and Russ Hooper, and Mike Seeger. Del McCoury (father of this year’s festival headliners, The Travelin’ McCourys), was a regular part of that early scene as well, as commuted down to play in the rough and tumble bars of Baltimore from his home in York County, Pennsylvania.
By the 1950’s, Baltimore was the 6th largest city in the United States, Newby said. Folk and bluegrass were the most popular forms of music in the city. There were many bars and clubs that featured local bluegrass musicians, such as the 79 Club, the Cozy Inn and the Blue Jay, giving musicians an opportunity to share their songs and hone their craft.
Soon Baltimore became a center for bluegrass music, with influence in the national music scene. In 1966, “The Streets of Baltimore” by Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard, was one of the biggest hits on country radio.
The city is a different place than it was when it was known for bluegrass, but August and Chorney are proving with their festival that bluegrass is still here.
“The Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival is doing a great job of keeping the spirit and tradition alive of this musical legacy of the city” Newby said. “They are helping to bring awareness to Baltimore’s storied history to a generation of music fans who might be unaware of it.”
A Celebration of Music
The Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival unites people of all ages and walks of life in the beautiful Druid Hill Park in a celebration of music. Despite overcast skies, the festival is buzzing with excitement. Two stages are situated at the bottom of the gently sloping hill, an ideal spot for the stage because it is a natural amphitheater. August says that they added the second stage this year to cut down on the time between sets, allowing for the crew to set up for the next act before the previous act finishes.
People stand densely packed in front of the stage, and the hill is covered in lawn chairs and blankets where many festival-goers have settled in. To the right of the stage is the tent of one of the festival’s partners, Union Craft Brewing. As in previous years, the brewery has made a bluegrass themed beer specially for the event, a Bavarian Hefeweizen dubbed The High Lonesome Hefe. Next to the beer tent there is some fierce corn-hole competition.
Up the hill, near the conservatory, is what August calls “vendor village,” where people can choose from a range of food options and also buy items such as banjos, hula hoops, jewelry, bowties and band merchandise. Off to the left side of the stage there are a few chairs set up so that attendees can bring their own instruments and have their own pickin’ parties.
The diversity of the crowd and the vendors is matched by the diversity of the bands playing. Although they all fall under the umbrella of folk and bluegrass, some of the groups could not be more different. On one hand there is the traditional old-school bluegrass group the Seldom Scene, and the exciting and fast paced music of Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen and The Travelin’ McCourys, and on the other hand you have the more folk and blues style of the Wood Brothers, and also the unique blend of jazz, bluegrass and early western swing from the Bumper Jacksons. They show the wide range of forms that folk and bluegrass music have taken over the years. The one thing the bands have in common is that they all get the crowd moving.
“A lot of traditional music, in different kinds of cultures, is dance music,” says Jess Eliot Myhre, singer, clarinetist and washboard player for the DC/Baltimore-based group the Bumper Jacksons. “I think that fundamentally people really connect with music that makes them want to dance.”
The music at the festival certainly has that effect on people. There is something simple and lovely about this old-fashioned music played on acoustic instruments, Myhre says. There is nothing standing between the listener and the musician, she explains, which is what makes folk and bluegrass so unique and genuine.
Despite all the positive vibes and good times at the festival, the mood of the event was somewhat odd. Protests and incipient riots are happening only a few miles away as a reaction to the death of Freddie Gray, who was arrested only ten blocks away from the park.
“I think it was a great festival, but it was very strange playing that festival to that audience while the protests were happening so close,” Myhre says.
While Myhre feels the festival seems out of place in the city in turmoil, music can be a source of empathy and understanding.
“Folk and bluegrass tend to be music that tells stories of hardship and struggle,” Chorney explains. “Baltimore has its history of hardship and struggle, and people can relate to it.”
Pickin’ Parties, Paperwork and Permits
The Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival all started on Chorney’s porch in Hampden, a neighborhood in Baltimore. August, who is currently a musician in the Jordan August Band as well as Trace Friends Mucho and a freelance photographer, met Chorney, a marketer for Citeligher, through the Baltimore music scene. They would see each other at the 8×10, a bar at which August bar tended, and they became friends when August did a photo-shoot for Yellow Dubmarine, a reggae Beatles cover band that Chorney managed.
Soon after becoming friends the pair began to have regular “pickin’ parties” at Chorney’s. They would sit out on the porch with a case of beer and a bottle of whiskey and play into the night. Before long, these get-togethers sparked the idea for some sort of bluegrass party.
“Let’s throw a bluegrass party,” Chorney said, “let’s get all our friends together who play music… Let’s just do something cool.”
This idea eventually blossomed into the first Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival. They raised money and hosted the event in Woodbury at the Union Craft Brewery. The festival was a success, selling out 1,600 tickets nearly a month in advance. While August and Chorney were grateful for the opportunity Union Craft gave them, they realized they had no room to grow and began working with the city to find a new location.
The next year the pair teamed up with District 7 Councilmen Nick Mosby, who selected Druid Hill Park as the new home for the festival. In order to use the park, the festival had to undergo a long process of filing paperwork and permits, making frequent trips to City Hall, and appeasing various governmental organizations such as Parks and Recreation and the Housing Department.
As a for-profit company, the festival had to do a lot to use city property, such as making substantial donations to the city and non-profits, including the Believe in Music Program – a K-12 inner city music education program. The festival was made possible through a collaborative effort between festival and the city, embracing something that brings something artistically and culturally different to the table, Chorney explained.
“I think that’s really unique and special, and I hope to continue that partnership as long as I can,” Chorney said.
In the end, August and Chorney explained, it always comes down to money.
“We don’t make money. We’ve never made money off these events, me and Phil pay out of pocket every year to make sure this happens,” August says.
The city gets money from the permits, donations, payment to use the park and a security deposit. Being able to pay the bands is another huge expense. Then you have to factor in costs for everything from marketing, festival workers, the stage, speakers, lights and tents, all the way to porta-pots.
“Everyone always gets paid no matter what,” August said, “even when you know the bank account about to hit zero, you still make sure they get paid.”
Chorney and August are not the only ones that work to make this event a reality. It requires a lot of effort from many of their friends, who help with everything from social media to band hospitality, working with the vendors, to general volunteering on the day of the event.
With a Little Help From My Friends
On the day of the festival, Chorney, August and their team are a well-oiled machine. While festival-goers are relaxing, enjoying the music and beer, the volunteers work through the day into the night making sure things go smoothly. Between helping with parking, manning the entrance, taking pictures, setting up the equipment on stage and countless other tasks, there is no shortage of jobs that need to be done.
Chorney and August are the busiest of all. When they aren’t zipping around in a Gator truck moving equipment they are organizing the volunteers, greeting festival attendees and acting as the puppet masters, pulling the strings behind the scenes making the festival a reality. Moments where they get to sit, relax, and listen to the music are few and far-between.
August, whose life’s passion is live music photography, explains that one day he hopes he and Chorney won’t have to work the festival so August will be able to photograph his own event. Until that day, Chorney and August are working on keeping the festival growing with the help and support of their friends.
“My favorite part [of the festival] is seeingmy friends smile even though they’ve spend a 14 hour day setting up, breaking down, helping people out,” Chorney says. “And they expect very little in return except a thanks and a chance to be a part of something.”
Entering its eighth year, DelFest has firmly established itself as one of the premiere bluegrass Festivals in the Country. Returning to the Allegheny Fairgrounds in Cumberland, MD, with a line-up this year topped by Old Crow Medicine Show, Trampled by Turtles, Railroad Earth, Leftover Salmon, Jason Isbell, and Greensky Bluegrass, it is again one of the best festival schedules around. Throw in namesake Del McCoury’s five sets over the weekend (which inlcudes a set with David Grisman and a Family Jam on Sunday) and you would be hard pressed to find a better four days of music over Memorial Day Weekend this year.
As usual DelFest features three stages and will host late-night shows every night. The three stages are in close proximity and allow easy travel back and forth allowing for maximum music viewing over the weekend. The four late nights this year will feature Railroad Earth and Larry Keel Thursday, Greensky Bluegrass and Steep Canyon Rangers on Friday, Leftover Salmon and Dead Winter Carpenters on Saturday, and a Sunday night blow-out with The Travelin’ McCourys and Jeff Austin.
With a line-up that covers all ends of the bluegrass spectrum – from classic bands like the Seldom Scene, Hot Rize and Del McCoury, to established jam-grass stars Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, and Greensky Bluegrass, to bands slightly outside the bluegrass world Trampled by Turtles, Jason Isbell, Otiel Burbridghe & Roosevelt Coolier – DelFest has something for everyone and something new for everyone to discover. It is a can’t miss event on your festival calendar. tickets are still available now at: DelFest.com
Check out past coverage of DelFest from Honest Tune: