Grassy Bluegrass: Bloom Heavy River Romp revisited
With every cell phone ring, computer ping and honk of the horn, we get further from the more natural way we lived for the centuries before the industrial and technological revolutions. It’s our shared reality, but that doesn’t make any of our occasional yearnings for simpler times any less merited.
Grassy, MO, the nearest town to the Bloom Heavy River Romp, has a population in the four digit range and a truly refreshing remoteness – we were so far off the beaten path that the roads stopped having numbers, and were reduced to simply letters. Though the directions seemed to become an algebra equation, the destination itself was a sterling example of the campgrounds that proliferated across the nation in the 50s and 60s. Echoes of the squeals of delighted children swimming in the river resounded in more adult voices, as the music, the isolation and the relaxation they brought had all in attendance ready to boogie down far from the cacophony of the modern world.
Gathering at the Arrowhead Campgrounds for the third year in a row, the River Romp has seen exponential growth, all due to a commitment from the organizers to deliver a balanced weekend of music that Bluegrass and Americana fans of all ages could enjoy. Rather than fill stage after stage with acts to compete for your time, promoters focused on bringing in top talent, such as Yonder Mountain String Band, legend Del McCoury and his Family Band, sometimes know as The Travelin’ McCourys, Cornmeal, Hot Buttered Rum, regional favorites Head For The Hills, The Ben Miller Band, Chicago Farmer and the always entertaining Tyrannosaurus Chicken. With little to no overlap, it was easy for anyone who wanted to hear every act to get a sampling of all the tunes that filled the air.
With such an all star line up of acts, there was little to do but sit back and watch the parade of talent on the main stage. Thursday night showcased new talent like Elemental Shakedown, a neo traditional quintet of strong pickers who alternated clean lines with looser jams that elicited cheers from the audience.
The Hillbenders continually broke into wild jams, each song serving as a framework for mind blowing confrontations between the players center stage, while area stalwarts Head For The Hills delighted their fans, who showed their allegiance by making the trip and packing the front of the stage with smiling faces and cheering voices.
Friday saw a full day of highlights, such as YMSB’s Adam Aijala joining The Travelin’ McCourys for a set of traditional bluegrass, with nods to the past in song selection and weaving style of play. While folksy humanist singer songwriter Chicago Farmer warmed hearts and wrung wry smiles out of his crowd, the New Old Cavalry showed themselves a band to watch, with Alex Cavalry showed a dexterity on the Dobro that was a mind blowing accompaniment to the harmonies of voices and instruments.
On the main stage, legend and one of the true fathers of the form, Del McCoury played the crowd nearly as well as he played his guitar, eliciting cheers and song suggestions. McCoury joked about his inability to remember the thousands of songs he has either written or helped write when he couldn’t quite remember a line or two, and he wielded a smile like the sun itself.
Jeff Austin, manic mandolinist for Yonder Mountain String Band said it best when he and his bandmates took the stage next; he proclaimed “None of us would be here without Del!” Austin then turned his onstage insanity level to it’s tradition setting of 11, and the next 90 minutes were as impressive as any set the band has played this year.
Exhausted but clearly not ready to finish, Austin then came out for the rare and extremely intense picking party, The Bluegrass Ball. Hosted as always by Ronnie and Rob McCoury, it consisted of an all-star line up of players that included Allie Kral and Kris Nowak of Cornmeal and Brian Horne of Hot Buttered Rum. Each musician had the chance to stretch out, making a once-in-a-lifetime convergence of talent that truly lived in the moment.
With the day’s shows running slightly behind schedule, Cornmeal had the unenviable task of following the Ball, but more than lived up to the challenge. The band played ’til the wee hours of the morning, the sun’s first rays peaking through the tops of the trees as the band finished in a mighty crescendo.
Saturday was the last day of music and there was no time to rest for the crowd, who drug themselves out of bed to start the day off right with The Whistle Pigs and a second impressive set from the New Old Cavalry, who were joined by the producer of their latest disc, Hot Buttered Rum’s Nat Keefe, on guitar for a few tunes. The Mockingbird Hillbilly Band brought a comical approach to their stage presence and songwriting, but were deadly serious in their playing, a mixture that served them well in attracting and holding the crowd.
Tyrannosaurus Chicken created a wall of sound that belied the fact that there are only two members; both Smilin’ Bob and Rachel Ammons played a variety of instruments at the same time, sometimes grinding away and at other moments showcasing a lilting beauty. Their Mud Stomp Records label mates The Ben Miller Band came out next, and wowed fans old and new with their musical dexterity, as Miller held the stage with a visible ease, a comfort in front of audiences that oozes from him sonically and emotionally. Percussionist, drummer, washboard player and trumpeter Doug Dicharry amazed onlookers with his ability to switch instruments and styles on the fly.
Hot Buttered Rum clocked back in with a second set of their own that featured a stellar assortment of re-worked Beatles classics, while Louisiana roadhouse-styled rockers Dirtfoot incited a dust storm, playing dance-inducing music in the arid sun. Split Lip Rayfield mixed tempos, with the slower settings reserved for mournful ballads like “Used To Call Me Baby” while their highest speeds made viewers fear for the players’ physical well-being and sanity.
Returning to the stage, Yonder Mountain String Band showed again why they were asked to headline the weekend’s festivities, swinging nimbly from genre to genre during timeless bluegrass numbers, murder ballads and even a reggae tune! Buoyed by the crowds cheers, Yonder took great care to showcase each member, as all four shared lead vocal duties and the musical forefront. The band showed the depth of talent that built their reputation as the premiere jamgrass band in the land.
As mentioned earlier, the Arrowhead Campground has a charm all it’s own, from the cabins and wooden stages to the idyllic river that runs through the edge. The river was an important aspect of the fest, as it provided more both the name and a welcome respite from the blistering heat. A fierce hot spell gripped the nation, and Grassy, Missouri was no exception. The trees’ green leaves provided some shelter from the sun’s blistering rays, but best way to beat the heat was the river itself. Children frolicked while adults sat chairs in the lower spots and luxuriated in the cooling rushing waters.
Despite the heat, the friendliness and easy camaraderie shared by the crowd provided a spirit of defiance and a willful ignoring of the temperature. Though fans in some cases watched from the shaded tree line, the show went on, and the fans got more than their money’s worth in both music and overall experience. Water was readily available, and permanent bathrooms and shower houses reminded you of the fact that for a majority of the year, the grounds were home to vacationing families who had no idea the fun they missed.
The folks behind the Bloom Heavy River Romp pulled off a near-perfect weekend of consistently entertaining music, clean and friendly camping, and enough sheer entertainment to make folks willingly dance in 108-degree weather. That last fact alone would be enough to consider any event a winner, but combined with the rest of the weekend’s craziness it made for memories that will last for a life time!
Setlists & Downloads
(photo gallery below)
Yonder Mountain String Band
Dawn’s Early Light, Cuckoo’s Nest, Troubled Mind > 20 Eyes > Troubled Mind, Don’t You Lean On Me, Girlfriend Is Better, Funtime, Rabbit In A Log, River, Polka On A Banjo, Spanish Harlem Incident, Looking Back Over My Shoulder, Ramblin in the Rambler, Kentucky Mandolin, Boatman, Ramblin’ Reprise
Del McCoury Band
Dry My Tears, She’s Left Me Again, Bluegrass Breakdown, Hard On My Heart, Train 45, Nashville Cats, Wheel Hoss, You Win Again, Cold Rain & Snow, Logging Man, Banjo Riff, I’m Blue and I’m Lonesome Too, Vincent Black Lightning, Hello Lonely, My Little Girl In Tennessee, Are You Teasin’ Me, In Despair, Alabama Waltz, Don’t You Call My Name, Orange Blossom Special, Henry Walker, Loneliness and Desperation, How Long Blues
Trouble Gonna Find Me Tonight, I’m Coming Back Home, Calling Me Back Home, I’m Standing, I’m Leaving, Goodbye, Feather, Hasten Jason, Swingtown (Steve Miller cover), Onward, Hillbilly Ride
Hot Buttered Rum
When I’m Sixty-Four, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away > Banish Set (Irish Medley), I’ve Just Seen A Face, Fruit Of The Vine, Mother Nature’s Son, Desert Rat, Rocky Racoon, The Genie’s Loose, Missoula to Miami, I Am The Walrus, She Came In Through The Bathroom Window, I’ve Got a Feeling> Something New > I’ve Got A Feeling, Summertime Gal > Walls Of Time> Summertime Gal reprise
Instrumental, A Deeper Shade of Blue, The Squirrel Hunters, When It Comes To You, instrumental, Rocky Road Blues, Pain In My Heart, Lily Hoskins, Cherokee Shuffle, Sawing On The Strings, instrumental, Evangelina, Why Did You Wander?, Tear Drops In My Eyes, My Brown Eyed Darlin’, I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky
Entertain Me, Gonna Get Ya, Rhinestone Ring, Devoted Mama, Back of a Stranger, Time To Be Your Friend, Right To Breathe, Rest My Head, John Zook, Cast My Plans, Pullin’ Up The Stakes, My Girl, The Watusi, Bathroom Sink
Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from the fest by Rex Thomson…