The 44th Annual RockyGrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado
After describing RockyGrass as the perfect festival last year, I actually need to amend that sentiment. There is no such thing as perfection, yet many of us constantly strive for it. I would say it is more like a Three Michelin Star restaurant. “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is a beautiful documentary film that offers a portrayal of a master sushi chef’s dedication and passion to be the best every day. It shows the relentless work and sheer energy and devotion needed to stay on one’s A-game, day in and day out, year after year. As a musician, many people throw around the term “talent” as if it is something received by luck of the draw. As has been shown, talent is overrated, and the reality is that top musicians (or chefs, athletes, painters, etc.) just work harder. I believe this can be applied to festival promoters like Planet Bluegrass. Even though their festivals sell out in mere hours, they continually work hard every year to make it better, to have engaging and adventurous programming, and to promote noble environmental initiatives (this year’s move to zero waste included using hard plastic reusable plates that were washed every day).
This year’s overall level of talent was astonishing. For example, bass legends Edgar Meyer, Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers), Ethan Jodziewicz (usually with Sierra Hull), Mike Bub, and Missy Raines all performed. Banjo players included Béla Fleck, Noam Pikelny, Tony Trischka, Scott Vestal, Danny Barnes, and Wesley Corbett. Good god, what a cavalcade of stars.
As I continue to develop as a musician, I am finding these experiences more and more thought provoking and totally inspiring, and on many more levels. What follows is a handful of reflections on some (not nearly all) of the music seen and heard. Any artist not included here is only for reasons of concision.
Over the last decade, Berklee School of Music’s American Root Music Program has created legions of extraordinary string band musicians, with many of them here at the 44th RockyGrass. Molly Tuttle is the perfect example of that, as was her band. Molly’s gorgeous voice, gorgeous songwriting, and killer guitar chops are a triple threat. And her band with fiddler John Mailander (another Berklee whiz), banjoist Wes Corbett (former Berklee banjo faculty), and Missy Raines (1000-time winner of IBMA bassist of the year) played a wonderful hour of music. And the highlight was certainly her solo “clawhammer guitar” work.
The Bryan Sutton Band’s set was simply beautiful. Bryan’s path from the resident face-melter with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder to a folksy bandleader in the Tim O’Brien vein has been cool to witness. During his set, one gets glimpses of his power on guitar (like on Log Jam), yet most material is far more nuanced and relaxed (from his new album The More I Learn). Much has been said about Bryan’s guitar prowess, and he deserves all of it— His note clarity and definition are other worldly. I really liked the musicians in his band. Mike Barnett can play it all (and has since he was a young teenager), and this more sparse setting lets him shine. Casey Campbell comes across as a relaxed and gracious musician, while laying down a killer groove. Sam Grisman is at once rock solid, and yet highly responsive to what is happening on the stage. And while I am gushing on Bryan Sutton, this video has the greatest guitar solo of all time.
Speaking of Tim O’Brien, he brought an unbelievable superband to RockyGrass. With Noam Pikelny (banjo), David Grier (guitar), Shadd Cobb (fiddle), and Mike Bub (bass), this band was unstoppable. The sound was a bit wonky during his set, but instrumentalists like these transcended the situation.
Next up was a killer set with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Edgar Meyer. A bold choice to program all-instrumental trio at prime time Friday night (as opposed to reversing this and the Tim O’Brien set), yet groups this goes over well at RockyGrass. They played all sorts of classics from Strength in Number and Short Trip Home. They absolutely killed it on “Duke and Cookie.” It was an incredible set of trio music, reinforcing their place in the pantheon of newgrass legends. Of note is they have been there since well before 1989 when the Strength in Numbers album came out. That album was a truly special landmark — the concept, the playing, and the material holds unbelievably strong to this day (less so with the excessive reverb). One last thought, Sam Bush is so magnanimous as a frontman with his singing and stage persona, it’s easy to forget what an incredible instrumentalist he is, grooving incredibly hard, and shredding these long multi-part instrumental tunes.
The Slocan Ramblers started out the day. They have a relaxed feel and fun vibe, albeit with some stellar chops. With so many bands going for a musical experience of undeniable intensity and energy, it’s refreshing to hear something that is extremely well executed, enjoyable from the first to last note, but not demanding (though I do love demanding music too).
I then zipped over to the Wildflower Pavilion and caught the solo set from David Grier. This guitarist is a national treasure. The depth of expression and variation he finds within simple diatonic fiddle tunes is unparalleled. While his playing is always beautiful and virtuosic, he simultaneously shines a bright light on the profundity of tunes “Turkey in the Straw” or “Soldier’s Joy.” With so much creative emphasis on composing new tunes (which he also does), it is inspiring to be reminded that looking backwards offers such a rich palette of musical inspiration. (the only problem with Grier’s amazing set is that I had to miss Danny Barnes and Nick Forster!)
First off, Tony Trischka is my musical hero. How he can be a living legend, a spectacular banjo innovator, and always be a gracious and kind human is an inspiration. He played a wide spectrum of music from his back catalog, with a truly kick-ass band. Grant Gordy (guitar) is a special musician. One of his first gigs was the hallowed guitar chair with the David Grisman Quintet, and now plays with Mr. Sun, a deep cuts virtuosic newgrass quartet. While being a bluegrass musician at heart, Grant’s incredible breadth of harmonic and rhythmic knowledge from jazz gives him a strikingly singular voice on the guitar; one that is worth giving your attention. Fiddler Mike Barnett was often joined by Darol Anger, John Mailander and Alex Hargreaves (4 fiddles!), mandolin whiz kid Dominick Leslie (who is no longer a kid, though I first met him when he was about 10), bassist Ethan Jodziewicz, and Tony’s son Sean Trischka on drums. The set was all over the map, which is a lot of like Tony’s albums; large string sections (with cello hoss Mike Block joining them), guest vocalists (Michael Daves and Abigail Washburn), moments of beauty and moments of chaos. Overall such fun.
As one can imagine, Bèla Fleck and Abigail Washburn put on a breathtaking show based on their Grammy-winning duo album. With five banjos on stage, the details in sound, arrangements and orchestration are sensational. They have to be thoughtful with such a limited palette, and they have put in an immense amount of time on the presentation of the show. Béla played a solo piece on the tiny banjo uke that was over the top impressive. Then their adorable son Juno Fleck made his RockyGrass debut dancing to one of the tunes towards the end of the set.
The morning started with Yonder Mountain String Band, playing a “gospel” set. This felt like an opportunity to showcase the new Yonder 2.0 with Jake Joliff (mandolin) and Allie Krall (fiddle). For this set, the band shed their pickups and played into several mics, and strolled through some great bluegrass standards and old chestnuts, like Ozzy’s “Crazy Train.”
Good god, Michael Daves can sing. He played works from his recent Nonesuch album “Orchids and Violence” (which is really great by the way). With an outrageous band of Brittany Haas (singing tenor and playing fiddle), Noam Pikelny, Dominick Leslie and Mike Bub. This was loose Brooklyn bluegrass, with the utmost of respect and love for the tradition, played with wild abandon at the highest level. And Michael’s singing is just crazy powerful, and the whole band played an amazing set of music.
The Queen of Bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent played an energetic set of traditional bluegrass. These more traditional bands do not make it out to Colorado often. Overall, this audience has a low threshold with bands that might plug Jesus, Trump, or Wal-Mart. Yet that was not on display, and it was so great to see a reminder of the broader world of bluegrass, and really awesome to hear Josh Williams play guitar. Though her bus is too much for words.
The closing set was “Punch Brothers Play and Sing Bluegrass,” likely named as such to alert people they will not be using drums, plugging into distortion pedals, or playing a 40-minute through-composed piece of music. I have praised the Punch Brothers on these pages before, and it is all deserved. They are a truly special band. The level of detail in every single piece, the overall arc of each tune, and the arc of the set is all highly crafted and thought out. Their show was like watching a gripping movie, falling off every note, every turn. For example, here is a tune (which they did not play), but offers insight on the overall orchestration and use of dynamics on a traditional tune. The incredible build over the 2:30 is simply stunning, and irresistibly engaging. This level of control, detail, and exquisite use of their five instruments and voices was employed on the entire 90-minute set. In the move to a single mic, Chris Thile does not have as much physical space to gyrate, which in turn makes the presentation seem much more even in terms of stage presence and personality. And once again (as always), sound engineer Dave Sinko is my hero. The absolutely stellar sound they get from a single mic is unparalleled, and as I have mentioned, a vital part of Punch Brothers comfortably killing it every night. It is a coup that they get to tour with him, and he deserves the highest praise for his part in Punch Brothers success.
As a professional banjo player, many of these performers are friends and collaborators, and I end up learning more backstory with some bands, not to mention hearing the challenges of being a fulltime bluegrass musician. What struck me this year, more than years past, is the sheer amount of work and dedication it takes to walk onto that stage is underappreciated. We all know that being an artist in any discipline is a life of pushing a rock uphill, yet the nature of performing music and being in a band is different than being a painter or an actor. There are countless challenges in holding a group of 4 or 5 musicians together through the ups and downs of touring, performing, recording, and life changes. Now with the likes of evil Spotify, consuming music is free and the industry is being challenged in unprecedented ways. While I do not have the answer to that problem, I do want to take this opportunity for us all to pause and reflect on how profound and rewarding it is to get to reap such beauty from these artists.
(Most of this shows up on YouTube, including entire sets from most bands. While not the same as being there, it is worth giving a listen to everyone).