Words by: Nick Hutchinson :: Images by: Tony Stack
RockyGrass :: 07.27.07 - 07.29.07 :: Planet Bluegrass Ranch :: Lyons, CO
Over the past four decades RockyGrass has rolled around every year as predictably and refreshingly as a late July rainstorm. Call it Telluride's mellower cousin from the Front Range. The festival is a laidback affair that sticks close to the high lonesome sound while still featuring enough "star" power to draw visitors from far and near. This year's fest, which sold out faster than ever before, took in a little of everything - from rain to shine, old time to progressive, up-and-coming artists to established legends. This year also marked the 35th edition of the fest, which originated at the prompting of Bill Monroe in the early '70s - back when the event was called The Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival (many years before it found a solid home along the St. Vrain Creek in Lyons).
| RockyGrass 2007|
RockyGrass carried on its unfailing tradition of bringing in the best in acoustic bluegrass this year as David Grisman returned to join artists including Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, Sam Bush, Jesse McReynolds, Chris Thile and legendary country and bluegrass artist Marty Stuart.
Friday included buzz-generating early slot performances by local newgrass aggregate Long Road Home, the genre-expanding Texas outfit Cadillac Sky (check out their recent release Blind Man Walking) and mandolin wunderkind Sierra Hull and her band Highway 111, as well as a mellow set by returning Swiss pickers (they're originally from Switzerland though they now reside in North Carolina) Kruger Brothers.
| Chris Thile And The How To Grow A Band|
Friday's "big" acts kicked off with Chris Thile And The How To Grow A Band. This group has ties to Colorado in the form of Leftover Salmon-ites Greg Garrison and Noam Pikelny and also boasts the playing of Bryan Sutton and Gabe Witcher. The talent-packed group delivered a mixed set before passing the stage on to the Peter Rowan Quartet (minus Tony Rice, who was listed on the program, but who was replaced, apparently at the last hour, by Bryan Sutton).
Sharon Gilchrist continues to shine in Rowan's quartet, which is a great platform for her sparkling mandolin work. New bassist Catherine Popper (who has replaced Bryn Davies) held down the low-end with fine form as the awe-inspiring Sutton added his flat-picking guitar runs to Gilchrist's sprightly mandolin lines, where their solo trade-offs had the crowd hooting. There was no formal mention of why Rice didn't appear, but the set included plenty of Pete "Red" Rowan's between-song anecdotes including the legend of the Free Mexican Air Force.
Next up was the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience, a group that features David's son Samson on bass. The group plays a healthy heaping of straight ahead bluegrass and old-timey nuggets in place of the jazz-tinged "dawg-music" associated with Grisman's better-known Quintet. DGBX features the strong vocals of Jim Nunally, who is also very gifted on the guitar. The set climaxed with a big jam/cluster pluck that took in Chris Thile, Sarah Jarosz and many others. It was good to hear Dawg dig into the roots of the music that originally inspired his playing style.
| Del McCoury Band :: RockyGrass 2007|
The Del McCoury Band finished up the evening with a crowd-thrilling performance that showcased the lightning fast mandolin playing and tasteful banjo plucking of Del's sons Ronnie and Rob McCoury, respectively. A crowd-frenzying version of "Nashville Cats" was among the group's highlights, as were nice takes on "The Traveling Teardrop Blues" and "1958 Vincent Black Lightning." Del was his usual magnetic self, joking with his band and even inviting the crowd to shout out requests. Grisman and Thile emerged from the wings with mandolins for the encore. One fan's t-shirt said it all: Del Yeah!
Sam Bush, Jesse McReynolds and David Grisman. These three mixed their legendary chops with a lot of stories, including the tale of when Sam Bush was invited to play with Jesse back in 1964 when he was but a youngster. Both Grisman and Bush were obviously proud to be playing with Jesse, whose relationship to the festival dates back all the way to its beginning (technically to its third year in 1975, when his group headlined the fest).
| David Grisman & Jim Nunally :: RockyGrass|
Bush and Grisman talked at length about Jesse's innovative "split-string" style, which pairs a banjo roll with a technique that employs the little finger hammering the string like a pedal steel. Overall, it was a historic meeting of the masters that took on classic material from the Jesse and Jim McReynolds' catalog as well as some surprises, such as a multiple-mando version of "Johnny B. Goode."
Laura Love Bluegrass Band: Laura Love made some new fans with a very energetic performance during which she invited people to let their freak flag fly. Naturally, the audience responded very enthusiastically.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver played one of the most "bluegrassy" sets of the weekend. Much like Del, Doyle - a former member of the Country Gentleman who won a National Heritage Fellowship last year - is a practitioner of the high lonesome sound, and he sang some amazing harmonies with the help of his guitar player, Jamie Dailey.
The very popular Claire Lynch brought her acclaimed vocals to the fest. Dolly Parton once commented that Lynch has one of the sweetest, purest and best lead voices in the music business. Her singing voice is not unlike that of Emmylou Harris and the songs in her set offered a departure from straight up bluegrass, as they bordered on the folkier, singer-songwriter side of acoustic music.
| Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver|
Tapping into his seemingly endless reserves of festival energy Sam Bush threw down a characteristically spirited performance to cap off Saturday's bill. Chugging through high-octane bluegrass-styled material, including some of his recent gems off Laps of Seven, and sprinkling in some genre-expanding covers, Bush had the crowd howling at the moon.
Many festivarians considered Bush's set to be the peak of this year's RockyGrass. With banjo player Scott Vestal tearing it up and Byron House holding down the bottom it's not hard to see why the Sam Bush Band pleases. From a John Hartford cover ("On the Road") to a stone classic ("Nine Pound Hammer"), the Sam Bush Band continues to be a cornerstone of the bluegrass festival scene. The group's final jam took in guests including Chris Thile, Casey Driessen, Gabe Witcher, David Grisman and Sean Watkins and Mark Schatz of Nickel Creek.
Peter Rowan's solo performance set the perfect tone for Sunday morning as Red dug into his catalog including a nice "Midnight Moonlight" and heartfelt versions of "Land of the Navajo" and a beautiful "Wild Horses." Rowan's lauded career started with none other than Bill Monroe and he has since created plenty of timeless music on his own. A set by Rowan on Sunday at the festival brings everything full circle and reminds audiences why they keep coming back year after year.
| Peter Rowan :: RockyGrass 2007|
The Australian-English folk trio The Greencards established a name as the opening slot on the Bob Dylan - Willie Nelson tour a couple years back. Several of the group's tunes have a pop sensibility to them, with the songs taking center stage as opposed to any real virtuoso playing. The group's strengths includes female lead vocalist Kym Warner, who brought it home more than once.
Cherryholmes seemed to be the favorite group among the musicians hanging out backstage. A six-piece band formed completely from one family, with the youngest being 15-years-old. They were all impressive musicians and each song spotlighted a different family member. The mom, Sandy, sang most of the songs. The band's banjo playing daughter, Cia, sat in with Marty Stuart's band, which gives you an idea of the level of talent in this band.
Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys: As stated earlier, McReynolds' first time at this festival was in 1975. He and his brother, Jim, started playing together in the 1940s and had the longest running brother duo in country music until Jim passed away in 2002. Jesse, a pioneer of mandolin techniques, has constantly pushed the country and bluegrass genres, recording an album of Chuck Berry covers back in the '60s, backing Jim Morrison in 1969 and even strapping on an electric guitar in the '70s. He and his longtime band, The Virginia Boys, brought their 60 years of picking to RockyGrass this year much to the delight of the audience, which happily soaked up the history and amazing playing. The material ranged from fine old bluegrass to more rocking fare.
| The Greencards :: RockyGrass 2007|
Marty Stuart & The Fabulous Superlatives delivered a very well received set. The band selected great tunes and played fired-up bluegrass renditions of old-school rockers such as "I Used to Lover Her (But It's All Over Now)" and "Mystery Train." The silver-haired Stuart is a great performer with a commanding stage presence, which he no doubt honed during his years playing with Lester Flatt and later Johnny Cash. And who knew how well Stuart could rip the mando!?! Fine stuff and, for many, a nice introduction to this great artist.
Nickel Creek, comprised of Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins and touring bassist Mark Schatz, are poised to take an extended break after this year, and with that news came deeper meaning from their performance. The popular group, which started in 1989, won the Telluride Band Contest in 1995 and got its first Grammy in 2003, played its favorites including "The Smoothie Song" and "I Am a Lighthouse" and bumped along with some sometimes awkward stage banter before wrapping up a damn fine show furthering the notion that they are the premier younger generation progressive bluegrass group. Thile plans to re-emerge soon with a Chicago-based outfit he's calling The Tensions Mountain Boys (which is really just the How To Grow A Band under a new title that allows them more creative flexibility). Keep an ear out for them.
| Marty Stuart :: RockyGrass 2007|
In final thoughts, a tip of the hat should be given to the Spring Creek Bluegrass Band, winners of this year's band contests in Telluride and at RockyGrass - a first for any group. As well as to Bearfoot on their sixth appearance at RockyGrass, the inimitable Mark Schatz and Friends, North Carolina's Biscuit Burners and the recycling staff who helped keep RockyGrass green.
Note: This summer marked the debut of The Wildflower Pavilion, a beautiful new facility on the Planet Bluegrass Ranch that played host to some amazing workshops, including a much-buzzed-about Saturday session with Casey Driessen and Noam Pikelny. The Pavilion will also be home to the Wildflower Concert Series, with Tim O'Brien kicking things off on September 7.
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