In celebration of its 10th year, DelFest has assembled an All-Star roster for its annual Memorial Day Weekend extravaganza in Cumberland, Maryland. This year’s lineup is topped by the Trey Anastasio Band, Govt Mule, the Travelin’s McCoury’s featuring Dierks Bentley, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, and Bela Fleck & Chris Thile, is easily one of the best festival schedules around. Throw in namesake Del McCoury’s four sets over the weekend (which includes the traditional festival opening “soundcheck” set, and a guest laden spot which will feature Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys, Jon Fishman from Phish, the Preservation Hall Horns from New Orleans, and Ronnie Bowman) and the guarantee that Del will sit in with what seems like every band throughout the weekend and you would be hard pressed to find a better four days of music over Memorial Day Weekend this year. Continue reading DelFest Preview 2016, preparing to celebrate 10 years→
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 3rd year, The Charm City Folk & Bluegrass has already established itself as one of the premiere Folk and Bluegrass festivals in the Mid-Atlantic region. In its three-year existence the Festival has seen exponential growth moving from the cozy confines of the Union Craft Brewery in year one to the spacious grounds of Druid Hill Park, to the addition of a second stage in year three.
With a return to Druid Hill Park, a spectacular line-up, and the addition of the second stage that will feature thirteen bands with no overlapping sets, The Charm City Folk & Bluegrass looks to continue to be an early season standout of this year’s Festival season.
The Charm City Folk & Bluegrass’ schedule is topped by the Travelin McCoury’s and the Wood Brothers and is powerhouse line-up from start to finish. The twin stages will be set-up side by side so there will be little change over time between bands and no worry about missing any music. In addition to The McCoury’s – who will be stopping by as part of their road-to-Delfest tour – and the Wood Brothers, the day’s line-up will also feature such heavy weights as the legendary Seldom Scene and Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen.
Festival founders Jordan August and Phil Chorney also aim to highlight the great music that is being played in Baltimore today and remind everyone of the City’s long, influential, history in Bluegrass. “Baltimore is such an amazing City, with such an amazing musical heritage,” explains Chorney, “that we felt we needed to highlight.” To this end, August and Chorney included such Baltimore and local stalwarts as Letitia VanSant, Grand Ole Ditch, Chester River Runoff, and Charm City Junction.
The inclusion of local talent will culminate with an All-Star band led by Cris Jacobs before The McCoury’s headlining set. In addition to Jacobs, the All-Star band will include 2013 IMBA banjo-player of the year Mike Munford, fiddler Patrick McAvinue from Audie Blaylock & Redline, bassist Ian Truesheim, mandolinist BJ Lazarus, and drummer Ed Hough.
This year’s Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival will take place April 25 at Druid Hill Park in Baltimore. Tickets are available now and can be purchased here: Mission Tix
Check out past coverage of the first two Charm City Festivals from Honest Tune:
Tickets are on sale now via www.missiontix.com/charmcitybluegrass. General admission tickets are $45 and VIP tickets are $140. For each ticket sold, the festival will donate $2 to the Howard Peters Rawlings Conservatory and Botanic Gardens, which sits next to the festival grounds, to support horticulture education programs.
Check out Honest Tune’s coverage of the previous two years.
In late January, Yonder Mountain String Band mandolinist Jeff Austin had a baby girl. The band is very excited for him – of course! – but as they say: the show must go on. So Yonder announced a tour with opening act, the Travelinâ€™ McCourys. Not a bad get for an opener. Throughout the 17 dates they have been doing together without Austin, Ronnie McCoury has been filling in on mandolin. And in case that wasnâ€™t enough, Jason Carter has been adding his world-renowned fiddle skills to the mix.
The Orpheum Theatre, Madisonâ€™s most iconic, has a nearly 100-year history. In recent years, it has faced fires and foreclosure, but on February 15th, the line to enter stretched around the block.
The Travelinâ€™ McCourys took the stage promptly at eight and came out scorching. They kicked off their set with Ronnie singing lead on â€œWhy Did You Wander,â€ and â€œThanks A Lot.â€ They then turned the mic over to Carter, who stepped up and sang â€œWhat a Waste,â€ a song imploring the listener not to waste any of their precious corn liquor.
Then it was five-string master Robbie McCouryâ€™s turn and the band stepped back from the mics and let their instruments do the talking. Robbie brought the song in and threw it over to their guitarist for the tour, Cody Kilby, and he just threw it right back. Kilby plays guitar full time with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, but he has been lending his immense talents to this tour.Â He is an immensely talented multi-instrumentalist who gives whole new meaning to flatpicking. While he can run fiddle tunes with the best of them, he doesnâ€™t limit himself to tradition. Utilizing chords that would be more expected from Wes Montgomery than Lester Flatt, he tore through changes with a flair not often seen in a traditional bluegrass set. Not to be outdone, Robbie put down his five-string banjo and picked up an electric, replete with fuzz and distortion, and tore into it. After the song, Ronnie joked that we had just been listening to Robbieâ€™s â€œ5-String Flame Thrower.â€Â A well-deserved moniker.
Bassist Alan Bartram crooned, â€œMessed Up Just Right,â€ the love song he wrote about taking his wife out on the town. Ronnie gave us a few more with his high lonesome sound, including Bill Monroeâ€™s â€œBody and Soul.â€ Then Carter let his country gold voice shine on Doc Watsonâ€™s â€œSouthboundâ€ and Alan led the boys through Tony Riceâ€™s â€œOld Train.â€ They finished out the set with Dylanâ€™s â€œWalk Out in the Rain.â€ With promises that Ronnie and Jason would be right back, they thanked the packed crowd and exited stage right.
Yonder took the stage and bassist Ben Kaufman immediately stepped up to the mic to talk about how much he loved Madison. The band then lit into â€œI Know You Rider.â€Â With sly smile banjoist Dave Johnston then asked if we would all be his valentine and took us through â€œRipcord Blues.â€Â Moving through the band, guitarist Adam Aijala led â€œAll the Timeâ€ and then Kaufman sang â€œNew Deal Train,â€ which he referred to as his protest song. Aijala added his harmonica chops to the track, contributing to its depression-era flavor. The song ended, and without giving the crowd a moment to reflect, Kaufman set up a deep and jazzy bass lead-in to â€œFreeborn Man,â€ sung by Ronnie.
Then the band called out Robbie and Kilby of the Travelinâ€™ McCourys, as well as their friend Darren Shumaker, who brought another mandolin into the mix. On stage there was one bass, one fiddle, two banjos, two guitars, two mandolin players and a whole lot of bluegrass power.
Kaufman asked anyone on the stage without a Grammy to please raise their hands. Quite a few remained on their instruments. The McCourys are fresh off a Grammy win (with father and bandleader Del McCoury) for Bluegrass Album of the Year. Kilby is also a Grammy-winning musician. While losing a key member of your band, even for a few weeks, is never ideal it always helps when you have world class, Grammy-winning musicians ready to step in and help you power through. The eight of them plowed through â€œPass This Way.â€ Trading solos and feeding off of each other, the set closer went on for close to half an hour.
It had been two great sets of music and â€œPass This Wayâ€ could easily have served as a great end to a great show. But Kaufman let us know that they were going to take a quick break and then, he promised, there would be more of the same and lots of it!
And he meant it. The next set lasted over two hours. It opened with â€œMy Galâ€ into â€œNo Expectations.â€ They did â€œLandfall,â€ a new Aijala tune and then invited up Bartram, one of Kaufmanâ€™s â€œfavorite peopleâ€ to share bass duties on â€œBlack Sheep.â€
Perhaps inspired by Robbieâ€™s 5-string flame thrower earlier in the night, Aijala kicked on his distortion pedal and led the band through a very short, but very powerful, punk rock number. The whole thing was about a minute long, but showed a different side to the bandâ€™s talents.
Their punk rock moment turned out to be just an appetizer for a set that was about to jump very outside the bluegrass box. They ripped into a prog-rock tinged â€œDogs,â€ by Pink Floyd. The song ebbed and flowed, it turned and shook without warning, it descended into darkness, only to be brought back with a guitar riff or a mandolin run.
The band re-entered the box – briefly – as Johnston sang the more traditional â€œGoing to the Races.â€ Then they called their friends back out and the eight-headed bluegrass machine deconstructed Todd Snyderâ€™s â€œSideshow Blues,â€ in ways that Mr. Snyder probably couldnâ€™t have imagined, but surely would have loved.
â€œDogsâ€ and â€œSideshowâ€ were each close to a half an hour. It almost seemed hard to imagine an encore could follow. Rather than try to outdo themselves, they took us to a quieter, more introspective place with â€œReuben and Cherise.â€
Kaufman thanked the crowd for braving the weather – itâ€™s February in Wisconsin! He recognized that while the single-digit temperature might not slow this audience down, he admitted that it was a lot for the bands to handle. Perhaps it was this reluctance that earned the crowd one final song for the night: â€œLet Me Fall.â€
When writing reviews you are always advised to not write in the first person as you are supposed to be objective and not let personal feelings interfere with the critique of the event, album, or music at hand. But sometimes the best way to truly express how special something was is through your own personal feelings. Strings & Sol 2013 was one of those events.
The past decade has seen an explosion in the number of music related festivals; seemingly every plot of land with the room to throw up a stage and let people camp has hosted a festival at some point in the past ten years. The new hot-trend lately has been the advent of the destination festival. Group a couple of like-minded bands together and find some exotic location at a resort that is willing to host a horde of music fans looking to get away from the cold-weather of the winter months and boogie their butts off on the beach. Then give it some kind of nifty play-on words name like Mayan Holidaze, Strings & Sol, or One Big Holiday – and viola you have a destination festival. Now with that being said, one would be a fool to think that is all that it takes to start one of these festivals. The logistics and planning that goes into an event like Strings & Sols must be staggering. And to pull it off as flawlessly as the folks at Strings & Sol did is even that much more impressive. But it is not simply great planning, cool locations, and good weather that make people drop $1000s and head out of the country for a week. There has to be something more.
It would be easy to sum up how amazing an experience Strings & Sol 2013 was in a few sentences. It was in Mexico. The resort was unbelievable. The stage was set-up on the beach which allowed bare-foot dancing in the white sand while the waves gently rolled in next to you. Leftover Salmon, as did the other four bands that were present – Yonder Mountain String Band, Railroad Earth, Greensky Bluegrass, and Keller Williams & the Traveling McCourys – killed it all weekend with help from Little Feat’s Billy Payne who was a surprise guest for the festival. But that would not do justice to the personal experience it was. For people to make such a trip there is something more that draws people.
My wife and I got married a few months back. Strings & Sol ended up being a belated honeymoon for us. One our favorite songs is Yonder Mountain String Band’s “Midwest Gospel Radio.” It is a beautiful piece of music that meant so much to us we used it extensively at our wedding. It is a song that no matter when we hear it brings goose-bumps and the memory of the wedding rushing back. Needless to say it is a bit special to us. On the flight down from our home in Baltimore to Mexico my wife asked me if she thought Yonder might play “Midwest Gospel Radio,” at some point. With the confidence of the set list coinsurer that I think I am, I answered, “I don’t know, they don’t play it that much so I would not count on it.” Friday afternoon during Yonder’s sunset show, I had left to grab a couple of drinks by the pool bar. I know what you are thinking, “Why would you leave?” In my defense the pool was mere steps away from the beach, you could still hear the music from the stage, and I couldn’t find a waiter on the beach (yes, there were waiters on the beach delivering drinks during the music. I know how awesome). As I waited for my cerveza and wife’s mudslide, I heard the first few simple gorgeous notes of “Midwest Gospel Radio.” I grabbed my drinks and sprinted back towards the beach not wanting to miss this moment. With drinks in hand I hurdled the small set of bushes between the pool and the walkway to the beach. I shimmed my way through the crowd and made it to my wife whose smile was lighting up the whole beach. She reminded me of my doubt in hearing this song, and then added “this just made my trip.” The addition of Billy Payne on keys and Railroad Earth’s Andy Goessling on saxophone only served to bring the song to life that much more. And it was in that moment, as we stood there with goose-bumps on arms, that the real reason that people travel such lengths to go to events like this; the music. It is the music and the deep connections we build with the bands and songs. It is the power to hear a song and be instantly transported back to some living changing event. It is ability to have every memory you have flood back through the simple sound of a couple of chords.
It would probably be safe to say that not everyone on the beach during “Midwest Gospel Radio” had the same reaction as us. But it can probably be said that all who attended Strings & Sol found their own personal moment of music that reminded them why they came all this way to see some bands play some tunes. And at Strings & Sol this year there were plenty of them.Â It might have been getting to hear Leftover Salmon blast through a couple of Little Feat tunes, in “Fat Man in the Bathtub” and “Dixie Chicken,” as Billy Payne sat in with the band. It could have the appropriate festival opener of James Taylor’s “Mexico” by Greensky Bluegrass. It could have been the way Keller Williams and the Traveling McCourys played through a raging rainstorm that cut short their set to then quickly move inside to the lobby bar and pick up exactly where they had left off in “Mullet Cut.” Maybe it was the simpler things that stirred your soul like the playful afternoon session of Name That Tune Bingo at the pool with Keller Williams, Vince Herman, and his son Silas or the quiet intensity of the afternoon picking clinic with Ronnie McCoury and Railroad Earth’s Andy Goessling and John Skehan. Maybe it was the way your favorite band seemed to be enjoying the music being played even more than you. Looking over and catching Leftover Salmon’s Drew Emmitt grooving on the beach during Yonder Mountain String Band’s afternoon set. Or seeing the guys from Greensky getting-down when every they were not on stage including a Mexican wrestling mask adorned Dave Bruzza holding court at the pool bar during the raging beauty of Railroad Earth’s transcendent headlining Friday night set that was a true highlight of the entire fest. Over the four days of music there were limitless moments that stood out. Some obvious for all to see, some like “Midwest Gospel Radio,” more personal and less obvious. But regardless of what your highlight was, Strings & Sol provided plenty of them.
The beauty of live music is the unexpectedness of it. The twist and turns a familiar song can take live on stage that grow even more hair-raising when a band brings guests on stage and allow them to do their own unique thing. Every festival seems to feature sit-ins, but at an event like Strings & Sol with the tightknit relationship’s that many of the band’s share when combined with the loose relaxed atmosphere lead to an abundance of guest appearances. There was the ubiquitous presence of unannounced guest Billy Payne who lent his touch to every band through the weekend. A surprise sit-in from Umphrey’s McGee’s Joel Cummins with Greensky Bluegrass during “Lose My Way” made it seem like anything was possible. It was a common occurrence to look to the stage and see fiddler Jason Carter, Ronnie McCoury, and Greensky’s Anders Beck jumping onstage to provide a couple of tasty links to the proceedings. There was the guest laden “Franklin’s Tower” during Leftover Salmon’s headlining set which included Billy Payne, Keller Williams, Ronnie McCoury, and Jason Carter which was a fifteen minute sensory overload. While it seemed everyone got in on the sit-in vibe of the event, the true MVP of the sit-in’s was Railroad Earth’s fiddler Tim Carbone who seemingly never left the stage throughout the entire festival. He was with Keller and the McCourys as they blasted through John Hartford’s “Vamp in the Middle,” just as he was onstage through most of Leftover Salmon’s shows. He also joined Yonder for a number of songs during their three shows including a healthy “Traffic Jam” > “Rag Doll” > “Traffic Jam.” He was even there late-night at the lobby bar as an impromptu picking-session sprang up with band mate Skehan and some of the contestants from the picking contest held early that day.
Regardless of what your moment was, you were sure to find one. And when you did, and you got those goose-bumps and you danced with your feet in the ocean and your smile lit up the beach you knew why you had come. It was not for the sun-kissed pool, or the all you could eat food, or all inclusive bar. No, it was none of that, it was quite simply for The music.
One-man-band Keller Williams hits the road this winter and spring performing his signature solo sets. Accompanied on stage only by a slew of instruments and musical gadgets, it always feels good to return to the roots of this mad-scientist of music.
In his seemingly insatiable quest for constant musical evolution, Keller will also make very special select live appearances with any one of his creative collaborations â€“ Keller and The Keels, the critically acclaimed Keller with The Travelinâ€™ McCourys, and his most recent six piece funk outfit More Than A Little.
Thursday, January 24 Alabama Music Box Mobile AL
Friday, January 25 Tipitina’s Uptown New Orleans LA
Saturday, January 26 Fitzgerald’s Houston TX
Thursday, January 31 Bell’s Eccentric Cafe – Backroom Kalamazoo MI
Friday, February 1 The Vogue Indianapolis IN
Saturday, February 2 Newport Music Hall Columbus OH with Lotus
Thursday, February 7 The Englert Theatre Iowa City IA
Friday, February 8 Blue Note Columbia MO
Saturday, February 9 The Canopy Club Urbana IL
Friday, February 15 City Winery New York NY â€“Keller Williams Solo and Keller & The Keels
Saturday, February 16 City Winery New York NY – Keller Williams Solo and Keller Williams and More Than a Little
Thursday, February 21 The Haunt Ithaca NY
Friday, February 22 Tralf Music Hall Buffalo NY
Saturday, February 23 Mr. Small’s Theatre Pittsburgh PA
Friday, March 1 – Tuesday, March 5 Dark Star’s Jamaican Jam in the Sand Negril Jamaica
Friday, March 8 University of Wisconsin at Steven’s Point Steven’s Point WI
Thursday, March 14 The Met Cafe Pawtucket RI
Friday, March 15 Paradise Rock Club Boston MA
Saturday, March 16 Higher Ground South Burlington VT
Friday, March 22 – Saturday, March 23 Suwannee Springfest Live Oak FL Keller & The Keels
Thursday, March 28 Lincoln Theatre Raleigh NC
Friday, March 29 Ziggy’s Winston Salem NC
Saturday, March 30 Trustees Theater Savannah GA Keller Williams with The Travelin’ McCourys
Friday, April 5 Hookah in the Hills Rome OH
Saturday, April 6 Mt. Lutsen – Papa Charlie’s Lutsen MN Keller Williams solo and Keller Williams with The Travelin’ McCourys
Thursday, April 11 WOW Hall Eugene OR
Friday, April 12 Aladdin Theatre Portland OR
Saturday, April 13 The Neptune Seattle WA
Friday, April 19 The Birchmere Alexandria VA Keller Williams Solo and Keller Williams and More Than a Little
Saturday, April 20 Theatre of the Living Arts Philadelphia PA Keller Williams solo and Keller Williams and More Than a Little
Friday, April 26 The Jefferson Theater Charlottesville, VA Keller Williams Solo and Keller Williams and More Than A Little
Saturday, May 11 Aiken Bluegrass Festival Aiken SC Keller Williams Solo, Keller & The Keels, and Keller Williams with The Travelin’ McCourys
Friday, May 24 – Sunday, May 26 Summercamp Chillicothe IL Keller Williams and More Than a Little
Sunday, June 16 Clearwater Festival Westchester NY Keller Williams with The Travelin’ McCourys
Sunday, July 28 Rockygrass Festival Lyons, CO Keller Williams with The Travelinâ€™ McCourys
Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival Auditorium Theatre Chicago, IL January 21, 2012
The blues runs through Chicago’s sonic jugular. The city’s history is steeped in the genre. However, the music of the mountains curries nearly the same favor in the present day Windy City — running through its streets and clubs in near stride with its grassless brother. The Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival is testament to this.
Chicago Bluegrass & Blues is not the typical festival. There are no tents, Flaming Wok, or extracurricular activities. In fact, the only thing about the event that resembles a modern-day festival is the fact that its bill runs from morning through evening with multiple acts slated on multiple stages. In short, it is a music festival in the most purist sense of the phrase.
Over the course of two days spanning two weekends at two venues, CBB marries two distinct styles (see the name of the festival) of music for purveyors of multiple persuasions; and it was these purveyors’ search for the sound that kept both local and traveling fans undeterred by the fact that visibility near Chicago had dropped to a quarter of a mile due to hazardous weather and a threat of a repeat of 2011’s “snowmageddon”Â on the day before the festivities.
This past weekend was the bluegrass phase of the event, and throughout the day the venerable walls of the Auditorium Theater rang with the echoes of bluegrass legends, both living and passed.
Majors Junction started the day’s tunes off with a deeply country-influenced set that included raucous covers of songs by Johnny Cash, an artist whose influence was plain to see; the Man in Black’s tonal attitude continuously reverberated through the room.
Utilizing the lobby as well as the venue’s main stage of the venue provided the perfect environ for the simplistic instrumentation of mountain music. A great example of an ensemble that utilized this well was Jonas Friddle, who played without amplification but had no vocal trouble as they sung above their instruments to the chagrin of the smiling group of gathered onlookers.
Strongly stating Chicago’s case for producing quality bluegrass music was the Windy City’s own Henhouse Prowlers. Favoring the awry take on the traditional bluegrass approach, the Prowlers were dressed to impress, and their play came across in the same manner. Mixing originals and covering masters like Bill Monroe and John Hartford, HHP did their part by both amply honoring and adding to the rich tradition of sharing the song.
Keeping the homegrown feel of the festival going, The Giving Tree Band brought their brand of amplification and percussion oriented music to the stage, along with a rabid local fan base who reacted very vocally to their onstage appearance. While far from traditional, The Giving Tree Band held the music’s core spirit tightly in their grasp while they delivered one energetic and spirited song after the next, ably lifting the audience to new heights. Obvious crowd favorites, the band would later return to back up the second half of singer/songwriter Joe Purdy‘s set.
Mandolin playerÂ David Grisman has earned a stellar reputation as both a band mate and leader. Equally at home whether sharing the load or leading the way, Grisman was an integral part in the way that bluegrass reached new ears over the years, primarily through his work with the unlikely supergroup Old & in the Way, alongside Jerry Garcia, Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan and John Kahn.
Through the years, “the Dawg” has worked with virtually every acoustic notable, from Doc Watson to Bonnie Raitt, Earl Scruggs and countless others. His current quintet, which spotlights a jazzier lean, was the outfit that took the stage in Chicago.
From the set’s inception, the CBB crowd was hushed and enthralled by tunes Like “Dawg’s Waltz” and “Midnight Moonlight.” Adequately demonstrating that instruments can be used to play any type of music when placed in the proper hands, Grisman picked and strummed with a mixture of force and dexterity that showed the mark of a true master.
Following the Grisman set would be a daunting task for most, but not to another true king of bluegrass who was in the theatre… living legend, Del McCoury.
For more than fifty years, Del has been making his living with a strung up box, a falsetto croon and a sense of style and composure that has become famous in its own right. Dapper as always in his customary tailored suit, Del was joined by his band that features sons Rob and Ron on mandolin and banjo, respectively.
Whatever talent-bestowing force there is in the universe, it has truly blessed the McCourys. Throughout the set, and per recent tradition, Del called out for requests halfway through his set, wowing the crowd with the sheer number of songs at his command. For most who exhibited a move like this, it would be deemed as grandiose, but no so for Del. For him, it is simply the showmanship that courses through his soul and his consummate desire to always leave his audiences knowing that they got a bargain when they bought their ticket.
The elder McCoury embodies a musician that, even with over half a century in, remains grateful and humbled by the fact that people come to see him play. His sons are following directly in his footsteps, creatively their own people but possessing the same instrumental mastery and genuine demeanor of their dad. The set was, as it always is, beautiful.
To close out the evening, there was not a living bluegrass act who promoters could place atop Grisman and McCoury on a lineup. Therefore, the two living giants participated in a resurrection of the sound created by the man credited as being the “the father of bluegrass,” Bill Monroe, with a set dubbed “The Big Mon Jam (a Tribute to Bill Monroe).”
Monroe’s ghost haunts stages across the world when banjos, fiddles and such are taken up in song. David Grisman and Del McCoury are two men who respect this significance and chose to honor him with a combined set of tunes written by the master.
Starting out together alone on the stage, Grisman and McCoury were joined by Del’s band, and brought the house to its collective feet by the end of their tribute to the man who would have been 101 years old this year; and while living over a century would have made him remarkably well aged, that lifespan is nothing compared to the length of time is songs will live, written into the fabric of bluegrass’ soul.
When Del McCoury is not of a mind to go a’wandering, his sons and band mates venture out as the Travelin’ McCourys. Without their patriarchal leader on guitar, the band drafts the finest talent in music to help them thicken out the sound and thereby provide a sonic diversity to keep things fresh. The Travellin’ McCourys even recorded an album with the gospel-tinged sacred steel sound of The Lee Boys. On this auspicious occasion, they recruited no less than Billy NershiÂ (String Cheese Incident / Emmitt-Nershi) to play guitar and added Yonder Mountain String Band front man and mandolin player extraordinaire, Jeff Austin, into the mix for good measure for the CBB’s proverbial “late night set” coined The Bluegrass Ball Jam.
Easily the energy highpoint of the night, Austin traded runs with Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Rob McCoury sped through blistering leads, and Travelin’ violinist Jason Carter bowed and sang with wisdom and gravity. The smiles traded between the players matched the grins on the faces in the Auditorium Theatre throng to perfection, and their choice of the set-closing SCI number, “Jellyfish,” had the band running and jumping in place while the crowd gave the appearance of an ensuing joy filled riot.
With a noticeable looks of disappointment the band said goodnight, while casting longing glances at their instruments, obviously wishing for one more chance to play, not just for the people, but for themselves.
With their goodbyes and the blinding house lights, the audience began the herding shuffle out into the cold Chicago night, having been warmed from the inside all day long. There was much chatter as the mass made its exodus, but one topic reigned high above the rest: Chicago Bluegrass & Blues Festival weekend two at the Congress.
Click the thumbnail(s) to view more photos from the fest by Rex Thomson…