Somewhere up in the faraway seats, at the top of L.A.’s Greek Theater, as alt-country-rock band the Lone Bellow took a break during their dynamic set for L.A. Bluegrass Situation’s fifth annual festival, a lone voice bellowed loudly, “Play some bluegrass!” It was a fair-enough comment from the rafters, but the band launched into a short set of acoustic country and gospel songs after delivering an electric set of lyric- and harmony-driven rock and roll.
The festival is, after all, titled, The Bluegrass Situation. However, it might be better named the “Americana Situation,” as that genre is defined as a diverse gathering of multiple genres rooted in the American experience, which was what was on tap at the Greek.
Throughout the day, beginning with the plaza stage near the entrance gate, the festival brought all of the elements of Americana music to a young audience eager to absorb each act. With bands like Spirit Family Reunion and Dustbowl Revival most closely representing the “bluegrass” of the situation, the remaining bands ran from singer-songwriters, like Gregory Alan Isakov and Sam Outlaw, to the experimental newgrass/modern stringband music of Punch Brothers. Headlining the day — probably furthest afield from the “bluegrass” label — was L.A.’s modern alternative folk-rock band, Dawes.
At its best, the Bluegrass Situation festival represents what is most engaging about the relatively young Americana music movement of the last 20 years, as it gathers diverse music with pure instrumentation –albeit often plugged in — for a day-long celebration of music, food, and community. It was all well-received by an attentive audience who hung on every note of every performance.
The near-capacity crowd were proof positive that the vision of the festival’s originators — promoter Amy Reitnouer and actor-musician Ed Helms — is a valid one. They’ve brought together the too often scattered and isolated Americana music community under one grand venue as well as an online gathering place via their website. The folks at this show could have been several months of crowds from the Watkins Family Hour at the Largo and the eventful Echo Park Sunday Americana jams, aptly titled, The Grand Old Echo.
Perhaps the bands who played outside on the plaza stage would have been better served by simply opening the main stage at the Greek rather than appearing just outside the famed venue. I’m sure they would agree, as Sam Outlaw quipped, “It was always my dream to almost play the Greek.” However, each act who played the plaza stage gave it their all — we got a rowdy busking set from New Orleans-influenced Dustbowl Revival, L.A. country western songwriter Sam Outlaw, the beautiful folk strains of the Wild Reeds, and the pure mountain music of Spirit Family Reunion.
On the main stage, Jonny Fritz and Nashville’s Della Mae brought the honky-tonk spirit to the proceedings, while Gregory Alan Isakov leaned toward the darker edges of a singer-songwriter’s brooding visions.
Punch Brothers used bluegrass along with other ingredients and reference points — from Claude Debussy to Brian Wilson — for serious musical exploration. They were the very definitition of “pushing the envelope,” as they delved into both traditional bluegrass and folk, before lapsing into trance-like arrangements that pulled together high-lonesome vocals, imaginative lyrics, and complex instrumentation. The band delivered a set that engaged the audience and left a sense of awe in their wake. The band is led with precision and skill by Nickel Creek alumnius Chris Thile, who gleefully provided Chaplin-esque dance moves as Punch Brothers presented so much musical chemistry and dynamic, their performance bordered on eclipsing the headlining act. Who, after all, can follow such entertainment, so artfully delivered?
And for headlining act Dawes, who have been rising through the ranks over the last few years, the show was a kind of bittersweet pinnacle of career success, with the departure of their long-time lead guitarist, Tay Strathaim. The band was nearly upstaged Saturday night by their new guitarist, Duane Betts (the son of Allman Brother’s Dickie Betts). With a distinctive lean Spaghetti Western cowboy look, Betts fit right into the proceedings and did his namesake, the late Duane Allman, proud. However, at times, he seemed to be holding back to stay within the confines of Dawe’s songs, which could have gained even newer life from Betts’ fresh, young blood.
Nonetheless, during their hour-long set, Dawes proved that they have earned their place on the best concert stages in the country. They played with a heart full of rock and roll, and left the audience satisfied.
No matter what this festival carries for its moniker, and however accurate that proves to be, Saturday’s festival was indeed a high point of L.A.’s 2015 concert season. That it took place at the high-profile Greek Theater is a testament to the L.A. Americana movement and the vision that is being fulfilled in greater capacity with each year at this fine festival.