The Perfect Festival: Summing Up RockyGrass 2015
While the crown jewel of Planet Bluegrass’s festivals is universally recognized to be the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, for those lucky 4000 people that attend RockyGrass, then know the real truth. This is the perfect festival. Since being ravaged by a 500-year flood almost 2 years ago, the grounds look and feel better than ever. With a tree-shrouded campground packed with tents and musicians, and a river running through the site under towering red rock canyon walls, the overall experience is truly sublime.
There was much to musically ponder from this year’s festival, from Sierra Hull’s minimalist lineup of mandolin and bass, to the maximum mayhem of Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers as the festival closer. Here are a smattering of my personal highlights, yet those artists omitted here is only for reasons of time and concision.
Young mandolin prodigy Sierra Hull is now fronting an exceedingly engaging duo, playing with the talented and in-demand young bassist Ethan Jodziewicz. Ethan has digested bluegrass and old-time music at length, even while attending the Curtis Institute of Music and studying under the great Edgar Meyer. He has virtuosic arco technique, and a musical voice that is at once familiar, yet modern and always fitting. They played mostly new material from Sierra’s upcoming Rounder release, which was produced by Béla Fleck. I feel that giving this style of bass playing such a front and center voice is a superb production move by Béla. Sierra’s choice to strip things down is both bold and beautiful, and it was expertly executed. While her chops are formidable (and this setting shows them off), it felt subtle, feminine and thoroughly musical throughout. Sierra actually chose to capo her mandolin for one tune (usually a no-no in the bluegrass world, and she certainly has the skill to play in any key), and used it to express open string and harmonics in gorgeous and creative ways.
There is a magical and spiritual feeling when seeing the Kruger Brothers perform. They create a truly distinctive environment when playing, and their show is absolutely beautiful. It included a significant percentage of instrumental works presented in a completely engaging manner. They are a treasure, and it is a very special show played by very special people.
As a banjo player, I am consistently drawn to that voice in groups, and Jens is a true force. The lengthy instrumental works are led by his undeniably lyrical melodies, and the trio navigates these long form works with multiple tempo changes, harmonic shifts, and numerous rubato sections with remarkable ease. Which brings up an enigma related to this band, at least in my mind. The hard work it takes to write music like this, to learn it, memorize it, and then flawlessly perform it is noteworthy. While hard work is part of the story of musicians like Béla Fleck and Chris Thile, the Kruger Brothers present it as though it is all an effortless endeavor. It is only curiosity about that choice to present it as such, and it makes the show no less transcendent. In fact, this may let the show be even more awe-inspiring.
At one point they described Doc Watson as an ambassador of America, and that his music has inspired people around the world. Jens said it made him think, “If they have music that great then I want to move there.” This is a beautiful statement, and looking at both the commonalities and disparities of the music created by the Kruger Brothers and Doc Watson through this prism is evocative of larger cultural concepts. Doc Watson is such a part of our sonic landscape, an integral part of the fabric of our folk music, and sometimes it takes hearing the perspective of the Swiss-born Krugers to illustrate the strength of Doc’s music and the inspiration he provided to hundreds of millions.
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen floored the audience with their display of “testoster-tone,” as they call it. In a band with so many chops, leave it to the great Mike Munford (2013 IBMA Banjo Player of the Year) to rise above it all and deliver mind-bending banjo pyrotechnics, often creating the peak of the tune.
I’m With Her is a new vocal super-group with Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz, and Sara Watkins. This set was simply sublime, with multiple moments of taking my breath away, bringing me to tears, and grooving like mad (sometimes all at once). It feels they have just scratched the surface of where this could go, and I hope they can dedicate more time to this project. Aoife is one of my favorite performers out there today. She brings strength, clarity and accessibility to whatever she does, be it Crooked Still, playing solo, or singing with jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas. Within her breadth of experience, she is always the consummate team player.
Billy Strings & Don Julin brought the entire RockyGrass audience to its feet in the middle of their set, and overall stunned us all delivering high powered vocals and phenomenal picking, all with an organic and honest approach to new and old tunes alike.
Crooked Still was such a great band with consistently strong and well-developed material, and their reunion set at RockyGrass showed us all that once again. Aoife’s vocal delivery is breathtaking, and her rhythmic drive as a singer is perfectly suited in this grooving band. With Greg Liszt’s blinding banjo solos, Tristan Clarridge’s chopping cello, Corey DiMario’s bass groove, and Brittany Haas’s astonishing fiddling, the whole sound is just unstoppable.
There is so much more that happened, like Danny Paisley singing his heart out, the Del McCoury Band attacking it like I have never seen before (even after some battery draining travel to get there), Wood and Wire delivering such spirit and soul, Chatham County Line entertaining like nobody’s business, David Grisman fronting his sextet and playing his iconic Dawg music, and some of the best campground jamming till 3am every evening.
But the set that took the cake (doughnut?) was the much-ballyhooed Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers set without Hot Rize. The spectacle included the Trailblazers riding through the festival crowd to the stage on horses, bluegrass zombies attempting to destroy their set of “music in the western style,” go-go dancers, smoke machines, the Fender Twins, the Brother Sisters, and the on-stage involvement of local law enforcement. While this sounds like complete chaos, it was. When video surfaces of this show, make sure to see it. Hot Rize did make an appearance at the end of the set, playing a half dozen of their classics, which offered the perfect sane closer to the historic turmoil that Red Knuckles brought upon us.
It also bears repeating that Planet Bluegrass’s extraordinary dedication to the environment is so commendable. This is now extending to refilling whatever cup you bring to the beer tent, and vendors only selling reusable utensils as opposed to giving out disposable ones. There are no trash bins, only compost and recycling, and they offer free filtered water. Thanks to Planet Bluegrass for putting on such great festivals while holding such a high bar with this stewardship.
Tickets go on sale for the 2016 RockyGrass in November. It sells out quick.
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Jake Schepps is a five-string banjo player whose most recent album, Entwined consists of long form classical commissions written for the classic bluegrass stinrgband (banjo, manodlin, guitar, violin, bass). He’s been hailed by Bluegrass Unlimited magazine as making music that “intrigues, entertains and reveals more of itself with each play.” Hear his music at JakeSchepps.com.