45th Annual RockyGrass Festival, Lyons Colorado, July 28-30, 2017
While watching this year’s RockyGrass Festival, I thought of one of my favorite quotes from the American designer Charles Eames: “The details are not the details. They make the product.” This is a simple yet profound statement. A great book consists of beautiful vocabulary and sentences. The best sports teams are made up of players who have focused on the smallest minutiae of their craft, and countless levels of technicalities stacked upon each other in order to perform at their peak together. Music is no exception – made up of the smallest, and important details. Banjo players discuss and prize “note separation” while playing a dozen notes per second. It requires a profound level of detail, experience, and thoughtfulness it takes to present a set of music here at the 45th Annual RockyGrass Festival. Details are often buried under lyrics, showmanship, the band sound, or even light shows and smoke machines (a la the Infamous Stringdusters). Here are a few other thoughts on the musicians, bands, and events at RockyGrass, in no particular order.
Before the Sam Bush Band’s encore, Pete Wernick came out on stage and announced that Scott Vestal won the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. On stage, he read the letter from the Board and handed Scott a check for $50,000. A stunning moment of recognition for a spectacular and deserving musician.
Tim O’Brien is a national treasure. According to his Wikipedia Discography, he has released 22 albums under his own name. At this point, his craft is of the highest caliber. If applying the “10,000 hours to become an expert” concept, Tim has multiple levels of 10,000 hours piled upon each other. It is always a treat to see him, and this year did not disappoint. Shad Cobb is one of the best fiddlers out there right now, and Mike Bub always makes it sound good. I had the fortunate opportunity to teach a music camp with Mike several years ago. He told me about the “Bluegrass Delta,” when the bassist is the point of a triangle and focuses his or her energy on the singer or soloist. When getting to play with Mike Bub, you can feel that energy, that focus from his listening, and it makes you feel better, and therefore play better. There are countless reasons why he has received IBMA bass player of the year, and this is just one part of the magic.
All the praise lauded on the Earls of Leicester is certainly well deserved, and they sound great. The material is strong, the arrangements, the outfits; the whole thing is remarkably compelling. The fact that the original Foggy Mountain Boys created this music and a show like this in the 1950’s is striking. As experienced from our 21st -century ears, this music is part of a long landscape of Americana ranging from vaudeville to Jimmie Rodgers to the Grand Ole Opry. Yet think about the details of their show (which the Earl’s certainly have), and pile on top the realities of touring in the 50’s, using instruments and gear from that time (like a real skin head on the banjo), and booking shows with no email or answering machines. And imagine going to see a show like this in 1950 without our decades of cultural reference. Putting aside our hillbilly prejudice, this show is truly a work of art, and the Earls of Leicester is a beautiful tribute to Flatt and Scruggs’ underappreciated legacy.
Bruce Molsky, another national treasure, sheds light on arcane and rare fiddling styles. He is a one-man library of thousands (millions?) of fiddle tunes. For the uninitiated, the bulk of these tunes can easily begin to sound alike from one to the next, which could be said for any genre of music such as the nuances between AC/DC and Iron Maiden, or between Brahms and Strauss. Yet herein lies Bruce’s gift: he transforms these old scratchy (often out of tune) field recordings and breaths new life into them with a rare sensitivity to nuance. Audiences invariably respond to his soulful fiddling, often transfixed by the alluring melodies subtly nuanced through each dizzying round. His new band Molsky’s Mountain Drifters completes the package with Stash Wyslouch’s on guitar, and Allison DeGroot’s on banjo. Stash’s old-time feel is totally spot-on, yet at complete odds with his style in the Stash Band. Allison DeGroot’s banjo playing is perfect, which requires the deepest respect for this music, countless hours learning tunes, jamming, and finding the details that separate these tunes and making them shine.
The Lonely Heartstring Band’s Saturday morning set was nonstop beautiful, feel good music without ever being cloying, smarmy or saccharine. In this era, it is hackneyed to say, “They are a progressive bluegrass band with a deep respect for tradition.” Maybe we should call this group of Berklee kids “post-progressive,” having grown up with the walls broken down and the lines of bluegrass and other music blurred. They consistently have a progressive sound that is not derivative of any of the more prolific or well-known bands. The brother harmonies by Charles and George Clements with Patrick M’Gonigle are impeccable, mesmerizing while having a human touch of soul. That is true for the whole band and their rendition of “As Long As I Can See the Light” gave me the shivers. There is little not to love about this band.
The Infamous Stringdusters closed Friday night in a cloud of smoke machines, a blazing light show, and fiery jams. Yet behind this fanfare lay a stunning display of thoughtful musicianship. This band represents the pinnacle of jamgrass today, and the level of detail put into their 90-minute set was quite astounding. The interludes between songs were at once free yet headed in specific and engaging directions. They often fell into some kind of funky vamp between tunes, yet these varied each time. Seldom did everyone take a solo on every tune, utilizing these free sections to showcase one or two soloists. There is a lot to watch with 4 strong lead vocalists, 4 soloists, wireless rigs on their instruments, and an enthralling show. Their breadth of material from bluegrass songs to fiddle tunes to their cover of Phish’s cover of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” was strong, purposeful, and well calibrated over their years of touring.
Other highlights include seeing young phenom fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves playing twin fiddles with the legendary Laurie Lewis, the great Matt Flinner playing banjo (who knew?), Trey Hensley’s hilarious “Cold Beer” song, Jens Kruger’s banjo fills orchestrated for a full string quartet, and the indomitable banjo legend Mike Munford stunning banjo fireworks on his tune “Line Drive.”
As you may know from my writings in previous years, this festival is a top tier experience, and the talent is consistently the best in the business. Therefore any artist not included here is only for reasons of concision. Additionally, Planet Bluegrass’ continued efforts in “Sustainable Festivation” is admirable and I hope other festivals of all kinds will learn from their notable example.
The more I learn about music and performing, the more details I see and hear that are small, wonderful, important, and vitally missed if not there. Charles Eames also said, “Art resides in the quality of doing, process is not magic.” Over the next year, these artists along with Planet Bluegrass will work on countless details preparing for the 46th RockyGrass. Tickets go on sale in November. Be there or be square.
Jake Schepps is an uncommon musician, banjoist, and composer creating music for the traditional American string band that is anything but traditional. Think bluegrass steeped in jazz, adorned with global influences, classical composition, and nuanced arrangements. His innovative online music subscription Round Window Radio covers territory from bluegrass to Brazilian choro, jazz, classical and more – each revealed through the prism of the 5-string banjo. New releases each month offer inventive, exciting, and rich new music with a wide spectrum of accomplished collaborators.