After last year’s experimental detour, this year’s edition of RockyGrass went back to its proven formula of providing an array of traditional bluegrass, up and comers, familiar stand-bys, and new discoveries.
As an added twist for the 37th year, the festival – held July 24-26 in Lyons, Colorado – had two unannounced surprise acts that had the crowd abuzz with anticipation.
My first revelation of the weekend came immediately upon arriving on Friday afternoon with the set by Vasen featuring Darol Anger and Mike Marshall. Anger and Marshall are true musicologists as they brought us Vasen, a string band from Sweden that featured the nyckelharpa, a native instrument that is a cross between a violin and mandolin. Their Scandinavian twist on bluegrass music had a gratifying sound that reminded me of the Kronos Quartet-playing Bill Monroe.
Friday was capped with a veritable triple crown of bluegrass superstars: Peter Rowan, Del McCoury and Sam Bush. They absolutely personify what RockyGrass is all about and to see them one after the other was a special treat. While each played a fairly standard set, the “all star jam” at the end of Sam Bush’s set was particularly satisfying with Del McCoury, Jeff Austin, and Mike Marshall taking multiple turns displaying their chops.
Saturday started with appearances by the Alaskan group Barefoot and Switzerland’s Krueger Brothers and a surprise announcement that Hot Rize’s alter egos Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers would play a free late night show on the smaller Wildflower stage.
The fiddle then took center stage, featuring two of the best in the business in Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper and Byron Berline. Michael Cleveland is a blind violinist who has won the IMBA’s fiddler of the year six times. Byron Berline’s group California also dazzled with one of their now infrequent reunions. He has played with everyone from Bill Monroe to the Flying Burrito Brothers and is a true fiddle pioneer.
As the rain began to fall slowly with the waning sun, spirits could not be dampened by the appearance of Earl Scruggs. His band stomped through standards such as "In the Pines" and "Sitting on Top of the World" and even broke out electric guitars on Bob Dylan’s "You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere." It was absolutely thrilling to be in the presence of a performer who, besides Bill Monroe himself, has arguably done more for bluegrass music than anyone dead or alive.
My personal favorite of the entire weekend was Steve Earle’s set. His all-too-rare appearance with the Bluegrass Dukes (Tim O’Brien, Casey Driessen, and Darrell Scott) mostly featured songs from his brilliant The Mountain and Train A Comin’ albums. His ability to make social commentary on war and political injustice using the milieu of the Civil War is fascinating . The themes explored in songs like "Harlan Man" and "Dixieland" are just as relevant today as they would have been in the 1800s. The encore of the Beatles “I’m Looking Through You” was revelatory.
Sunday was a day for more discoveries and surprises as a TBA band was listed just before the Hot Rize headlining slot. Gossip was being bandied about naming everyone from Steve Martin to Trey Anastasio as the surprise guest. The Steep Canyon Ramblers kicked things off on Sunday and they have become Rockygrass regulars since they won the band contest back in 2001. The Steve Martin rumors as the TBA band got some legs because Steep Canyon has been accompanying him in support of his new bluegrass album.
Next up was Sarah Jarosz, who is only 17 years old and finally earned her own slot as she has been relegated to tweener sets over the last several years. She has always been a virtuoso on the mandolin, but this performance featured her beautiful singing voice, which she showcased on a gorgeous version of "Shenandoah." She’s going to college in the fall, but look for big things in the future from her.
The Darrell Scott Bluegrass Band featured the amazing talents of its namesake. To say that he is merely a talented player and singer is almost an insult. He plays guitar, banjo and mandolin with equal flair, sings with with a soulful yet precise voice but amazingly he is mainly known for his songwriting. He has had songs covered by many Nashville heavyweights such as The Dixie Chicks and Travis Tritt.
Now it was time for the special TBA band to make its appearance, and to the credit of Planet Bluegrass they kept the secret very close to the vest right up until show time. Local and now national favorites Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage to well-deserved applause. Appearing at a bluegrass festival like RockyGrass represents an interesting conundrum for YMSB, as their national popularity sometimes precludes them from being totally accepted by bluegrass purists. However at RockyGrass none of this backlash was apparent, as they took the stage as hometown heroes. It was interesting that bassist Ben Kaufman did briefly address this rift, but was thankful for the support of the RockyGrass crowd. Songs such as "Boatman," "Traffic Jam" and "Two Hits and Joints Burned Brown" got the crowd out of their lawn chairs and dancing up a storm.
In an interesting juxtaposition, Hot Rize followed with the closing set of the weekend and I couldn’t help but think that like YMSB, they also achieved national acclaim back in the 1980s. Hot Rize plays with the same sense of fun and this was evident in songs like "Blue Night" and "High on a Mountain."
Instead of acting like a mini-Telluride that grows larger and higher profile every year, RockyGrass has managed to maintain its individual identity and local flair as one of the best kept secrets in Bluegrass music.