RockyGrass Bluegrass Festival
Planet Bluegrass Ranch
July 25-27, 2008
RockyGrass came in hot this year. With temps reaching well into the 90s, the music sizzled along with the air. Lyons’ own Spring Creek Bluegrass, a fast-rising act that won both the Telluride and RockyGrass band competitions last year, kicked things off with a crowd pleasing mix of traditional and original bluegrass. With a steadily growing audience, multi-instrumental whiz Mike Marshall (on mandolin for this outing) and virtuoso fiddler Darol Anger teamed up for a unique set of classically tinged mashgrass. Marshall described one of their musical offerings as “Bach goes to Motown,” which pretty much sums up the kind of genre blending that one can expect when they team up. The duo hosted several of its RockyGrass Academy students onstage for a finale that put smiles on a lot of faces both young and old.
Next, virtuoso guitarists Russ Barenberg and Bryan Sutton teamed up for a fleet-fingered set that blended their respective six-string magic, followed by the John Cowan Band, which provided some of the most uplifting music of the day, including a brilliant version of Tim Obrien’s “Hold to a Dream.”
One of the best performances of the festival saw banjoist Bela Fleck bringing up a new guest for each song of his set. The Fleck duets included the likes of Tony Trischka (banjo), Noam Pickelny (banjo), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Sam Bush (mandolin), Abigail Washburn (clawhammer banjo and vocals) and John Cowan (electric bass and vocals).
Then the Dan Tyminski Band stoked up the crowd with classics including “Freeborn Man,” and his much anticipated version of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which had the crowd hooting and hollering O’Brother style.
Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer closed out the day (with a little help from Bela Fleck) with an eclectic set that ranged from traditional bluegrass to every other style encompassed by their collective expertise (classical, country, newgrass, etc). This Friday night closing performance whetted the audience’s appetite for Sam’s Sunday night billing.
The Infamous Stringdusters hit the stage around 2 p.m. This group is comprised of six young lions who are taking the bluegrass establishment by storm. They won the IMBA Album of the Year for 2007 and have the youthful energy of Yonder Mountain String Band with a more traditional tilt. They could easily rock the house at festivals like Bonnaroo, while turning on younger generations to bluegrass music.
Psychograss, making their first Rockygrass appearance in about five years, have a new CD out called Now Hear This. The unique thing about this band is that each member is arguably the best at their respective instruments. Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Tony Trischka, Todd Phillips, and David Grier all have impeccable pedigrees as band leaders and musicians. Their jazzy interpretations were as enjoyable as they were challenging as their set kicked off with “Big Monk,” which Mike Marshall described as “Bill Monroe meets T.S. Monk.” Watching the unbridled virtuosity was breathtaking and they did not hold back. Psychograss’s newgrass jazz experiment turned out to be a mere warm-up for the out-of-this-world music that was still to come.
It was The Sparrow Quartet’s turn next, and their musical vision was truly unique. Abigail Washburn’s lilting and emotive singing was mesmerizing when blended with Ben Sollee (cello), Casey Driessen (violin) and Bela Fleck (banjo). The results were quite startling, as they forged a new sound that might be dubbed “Bluegrass Bjork.” The first two songs were Chinese folk songs sung in Chinese, which should give you an idea of where they were guiding us. Even their take on classic Americana had an otherworldly, ragtimey flavor provided by Ms. Washburn’s haunting vocals and sparse banjo accompaniment. Bela Fleck half-jokingly acknowledged during one of his song introductions that this music was “hard to listen too, dreadful.” While they received one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations ever seen at Rockygrass, some audience members just didn’t like it.
Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers continued the experimental nature of the day, as their set was centered around a four-movement, 40-minute piece called “The Blind Leaving the Blind.” Heavy hitters such as Noam Pikelny (banjo) and Chris Eldridge (guitar) delved deep into Thile’s arrangements. While the instrumentation hinted at a more traditional sound, the complexity of the piece begged a deeper look. Like the Sparrow Quartet, the Punch Brothers seemed to polarize the audience as some appeared to love it, while others simply did not.
The day closed with yet another unique facet of the precious bluegrass diamond: Natalie McMaster and husband, Donnell Leahy, a fiddle duo that provides enough sonic fireworks to light up Yankee Stadium. As their backing drummer and bass player put down a steady beat, they fiddled and danced with the fury of the devil. Their enthusiasm was contagious and the delighted crowd clapped along in rapt approval. It was a fun-filled set that ended the day on high note.
The day of rest kicked off, appropriately, with a soothing set of gospel-oriented bluegrass by GarrettGrass Gospel Extravaganza, which included members of fiddler/vocalist Jeremy Garrett’s other group The Infamous Stringdusters. Other soulful Sunday morning moments included Sarah Jarosz‘s "Come on up to the House" and Adrienne Young‘s version of "Brokedown Palace.”
By the time JD Crowe and the New South hit the stage in the afternoon, the audience was wide awake and ready to have some fun as JD and his band tore into a set that featured classic bluegrass, fun covers, including Gram Parsons’ “Christine’s Tune (The Devil in Disguise)” and a few songs from his recent release, Lefty’s Old Guitar. The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band followed with a crowd-pleasing performance that featured some new tunes as well as some of Pete’s classic fare, including a nicely rendered version of “Land of the Navajo.” With each passing year, Rowan’s stature as a revered bluegrass elder continues to grow and his enigmatic presence at RockyGrass always helps make it a special event.
Next up was the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who hail from the North Carolina Piedmont. The all-African American bluegrass trio brought some fresh energy to the RockyGrass stage as it moved through an authentically old-timey sounding and very enthusiastic set, including an energetic version of “Salty Dog” and even a run through Blu Cantrell’s hip-hop radio tune “Hit ‘Em Up Style.” The Chocolate Drops are Rhiannon Giddens (clawhammer banjo, fiddle, kazoo and vocals), Don Flemons (guitar, clawhammer banjo, rib bones and vocals) and Justin Robinson (fiddel) – with every band member also providing copious amounts of dancing.
The Sam Bush Bluegrass Band capped off the fest with a signature set of fun covers, including Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” and Hiatt’s “Memphis in the Meantime,” and originals, such as a blazing version of “Bringing in the Georgia Mail” and “Howlin’ at the Moon.” And naturally, Sam had just about every musician in attendance on stage by the end of his set as he conducted a thunderous romp through of “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” with the assistance of Peter Rowan (vocals and acoustic guitar), Chris Thile (mandolin), Mike Marshall (mandolin), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Edgar Meyer (acoustic bass), Steve Thomas (mandolin), and Don Flemons (bones). It was a special moment when Planet Bluegrass presented bassist Byron House with a gorgeous birthday cake mid-set.
While hosting many luminaries and legends of bluegrass music, RockyGrass always feels like a down-home affair with 3,000 of your best friends – which is why festivarians keep coming back.