Blue Sky Jamfest – Slugger Field and Waterfront Park (Louisville, KY)
If you build it, they will come: Delbert McClinton, Tift Merritt, Jerry Douglas, Donna the Buffalo, Los Lobos, Buddy & Julie Miller. And that list barely scratches the surface of the fifty acts who gathered at Louisville’s Slugger Field and Waterfront Park for the first annual Blue Sky JamFest.
Organizers hoped this event would make Louisville a destination point on the summer festival circuit, while also providing a showcase for local and regional talent. The idea quickly won the support of city and county government, and seasoned festival veterans such as Sam Bush and John Cowan joined the festival’s steering committee. With affordable ticket prices ($50 for a three-day pass), a musically diverse lineup, and four stages of continuous entertainment, the producers seemed poised to accomplish their goals.
Of course, a festival’s success — or lack thereof — is often determined by the weather. And it rained buckets Friday night. The faithful few still came out to support Merritt, McClinton, Richie Havens, and Tim Krekel, a longtime fixture in the Louisville music scene. But the rain scared away those who were merely curious.
Saturday, only the mud was left to contend with. While Douglas and the Nashville Bluegrass Band brought their mountain sounds to Slugger Field, the Derailers brought a little bit of Bakersfield to Waterfront Park. Guitarists Tony Villanueva and Brian Hofeldt delivered songs from their latest release, Here Come The Derailers, as well as older numbers such as “Play Me The Waltz Of The Angels” and their trademark twanged-up version of Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”. The Derailers were excellent showmen, and the crowd had no trouble finding their groove.
The same cannot be said for O Brother bluesman Chris Thomas King, whose new project, 21st Century Blues, came complete with hip-hop turntables and fog machines. Louisville is no doubt filled with people who would dig it, but it seems that most of them didn’t make it out to JamFest.
The Sam Bush Band performed an energetic, if somewhat predictable, set. It seemed right to be sitting at the edge of Slugger Field when Bush opened with “The Star Spangled Banner” on slide mandolin and followed it with Grandpa Jones’ “Eight More Miles To Louisville”. A full moon provided a perfect backdrop for Bush’s ultra-positive “Howlin’ At The Moon”. Somewhat distracting was the video image on the scoreboard screen, which was always about two beats behind the performers, as if they were playing an overdubbed soundtrack for a Godzilla movie.
The stage was set up in the outfield and no seats were located inside the infield, which prompted Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo to comment during his band’s set, “I miss you. You’re so far away.” Still, everyone danced their appreciation of Los Lobos’ music in the stands — dreadlocked hippies, housewives, parents and children, the security guards, the girls working the concession stand. With three percussionists, the formidable Cesar Rosas on guitar, and Steve Berlin supplying an entire horn section, the band delivered a set of broad-brush Americana.
Sunday’s events took place at the beautifully developed Waterfront Park. Framed by sailboats on the Ohio River, the Juggernaut Jug Band paid homage to Louisville’s deep-rooted jug-band tradition. Legendary fiddler Art Stamper joined local favorites Gary Brewer & the Kentucky Ramblers during their bluegrass set. Zoe Speaks, from the Appalachian foothills, warmed the crowd with their intelligent contemporary folk music.
On the main stage, Buddy & Julie Miller muscled though an hourlong set with the help of a half dozen guitars. Still, Julie found it rather ironic that one of her husband’s guitars bit the dust as he was performing “Help Wanted”. And she became downright giddy when they followed that with “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go”. (She lobbied hard for “Broken Things”, but they’d sung that earlier in the set.) A highlight was their performance of “Quecreek” from Buddy’s new album Midnight And Lonesome: Julie’s song, plucked fresh from recent headlines, views the Pennsylvania miners’ rescue as a parallel to the resurrection.
The afternoon crowd belonged to Patty Griffin. Judging by the people who mouthed her lyrics, they obviously knew her songs — and not just ones that had been covered by Emmylou Harris or the Dixie Chicks. Griffin naturally favored songs (“Be Careful”, “Long Ride Home”) from her newest album, 1000 Kisses, but these folks also knew the words to “Mad Mission” and “Flaming Red”.
At the close of Griffin’s set, the crowd’s generous applause brought her back for a lengthy encore. And through it all, if you looked beyond Griffin’s striking visage and gorgeous vocals, there was Buddy Miller, a last second replacement for producer/guitarist Doug Lancio, quietly reminding us why he’s among the best guitarists in the world.