Van Hoy Farms | Union Grove, NC | August 17 - 19, 2001
The Brushy Mt. Jamboree featured a virtual Newgrass summit as Tony Rice and Sam Bush joined a stellar lineup for a weekend of incredible flatpicking. The jamboree, hosted by Smilefest Productions, highlighted the rich and diverse talent in acoustic music. The lineup included Larry Keel, John Cowan Band, Acoustic Syndicate, Curtis Burch, Steep Canyon Rangers, Railroad Earth and Barefoot Manner to name a few. While the connecting thread was bluegrass, these bands each have a unique sound which stretch out into many different genres.
Located in western North Carolina, Van Hoy Farms is a perfect venue for multi-day festivals. Rolling hills and fields provided plenty of space for camping, with a few sites tucked among the trees for shade and all sties are only a short walk to the stage. Our group arrived mid-afternoon and had plenty of time to find a great spot, get oriented, and do some serious relaxing. The main stage area looked like it was designed for a rodeo but turned out to be very comfortable. Dug out of a hillside, the stage area is mostly below ground which keeps temperatures cool. The giant roof offers protection from the elements and allows the music to continue rain or shine. The sand covering the main floor feels great between the toes and with you festival blanket and chairs in tow, makes it feel like a day at the beach. The campground even has a pool for when it gets too hot.
The music got started around 6pm on Friday with Raleigh's Barefoot Manner. Fresh out of the studio from their first album, these guys set the tone with a raging set. Their sound is sort of a bluegrass on speed with elements of reggae, funk, and even some jazz thrown in. Lead guitarist and vocalist Dave Kleiss displayed some fancy flatpicking on "Airplane." The band really got into it as they launched into one of their original instrumentals. They stayed right in step with each other as they blazed through the intricate composition. They also played "Where Do We Go?" a mellow tune with a beautifully melodic hook. The mandolin player Shawn Chase stepped forward and played some great solos, showing off his smooth, elegant style. Walter Hensey laid down the steady bass grooves with a touch of reggae. For one song, the drummer Jeff Garland switched instruments with Dave and sang a fun country-sounding ditty. The encore was a lighting fast "Old Home Place" and finally the band's unofficial theme-song, "Barefoot Blues," a song that is guaranteed to make you get up and dance. These guys were amped to be on stage and played like it. Their original songs and jamming instrumentals are a great reason to check them out next time they come to town.
Larry Keel has developed quite a reputation recently as a premier flatpicker and it is well-deserved. He took the stage for a solo set with only a vintage Gibson acoustic. Playing a mix of original songs and traditional numbers, he displayed a bit of his folksy side. "Tombstone" is a fantastic original of his in which he conveys a musical feeling well captured in the title. Larry's unique voice gives his shows an other-worldly feeling. The deep gravely voice seems to spring from deep within a mountain and carries a huge amount of emotion. He sometimes plays guitar all hunched over with eyes closed and nose practically resting on the guitar while his fingers fly up and down the neck. Larry is sporting a newly shorn look these days with close-cropped hair and a trim mustache as opposed to the wild hair and bushy beard I'd seen him with last. His set impressed me not with flashy licks or wild energy, but with his ability to convey feeling, tone, and emotion. Larry picked a few old-time mountain numbers in a style that he described as "my Appalachian version." It had the feel of an informal front-porch session on a lonely hill deep in the mountains. At the end of his set, he gave a simple smile and a wave and strolled off stage just as comfortable as if it was his front porch.
Within minutes the atmosphere changed from Appalachia to Madison Square Garden as the John Cowan Band got ready to take the stage. John Cowan is never short on energy and delivers a highly charged sound full of rock and roll, R&B, and newgrass. His soaring vocals are a trademark and he was in good form Friday as he belted out songs from his latest self-titled Sugar Hill release. Unfortunately there were fairly major sound problems during his set, for a while the radio was playing during John's bass solo and later he had to stop so the fiddle player could be miked properly. John appeared pretty steamed about it, but came back and focused his energy on the music. The latest lineup of the John Cowan band features some very impressive musicians. Arguably one of the best banjo players in bluegrass today, Scott Vestal conveys a wide variety of sound, from Earl Scruggs style solos to ethereal background textures. On guitar, Jeff Autry kept up the intensity with several smokin' solos... quite literally in fact, at one point I noticed a lit cigarette in hand as he was picking. Despite John's tendency to go a bit over-the-top at times, this new very talented lineup sounds great. This band works hard too. They have a heavy touring schedule and the on-stage intensity is second to none.
The David Nelson Band took the stage and brought with them non-stop boogie music and extended improvisational jams. As the founding member of New Riders of the Purple Sage, David Nelson was an integral part of the psychedelic sound coming from San Francisco's Bay area in the late 1960's. The band members even looked the part with bandannas and flowing curly locks that would have fit right into a Haight-Ashbury happening. His band kept the 'rock-till-you-drop' spirit alive with several songs that developed into lengthy jams. During one, each member was featured with solos before they all came back together on the main groove. He played many familiar songs as well as new material from his recent albums. The crowd really responded to the set, forming a huge dance pit at the front of the stage. The David Nelson band specializes in that feel-good kind of jam music that makes you dance forever. David didn't seem to want to leave at all, playing late into the night.
That was the end of the scheduled program for the evening, however the music didn't stop there. A band from Charlotte called Moonshine Racers came on stage and played their version of country/bluegrass with a few fun rock covers done bluegrass style until the wee hours of the morning. I didn't catch this band as I was enjoying the late night festival scene, meeting lots of new friends, and listening to informal jam sessions.
Saturday arrived and people began rolling out their tents and campers to sunny skies. I had a breakfast of homemade grilled cheese sandwiches (festival fine dining) and looked for friends who were arriving that morning. Despite an amazing lineup of acts and the huge success of Smilefest earlier in the summer at the same venue; turnout for the festival was low on Friday and picked up only a little bit on Saturday. One possible reason was a competing bluegrass festival in Cherokee, NC only an hour or so away. The numbers were fewer than the promoters expected, but it certainly didn't dampen the enthusiasm of those who did attend. I continued to wander around the festival and heard some great music close by. It turned out to be the Steep Canyon Rangers warming up for their set by playing old fiddle tunes. A few more folks drifted over and before long an audience had assembled for the impromptu show.
The first band of the day was Blue Bambooza. These guys played hard-driving rockabilly. Consisting of guitar, bass, mandolin, and drums, it was the kind of music you'd hear in a Saturday night juke joint. They were putting out a ton of sound and even more energy, cruising around the stage like Chuck Berry. They put on a good show that got everyone fired up for a full day of music.
Next on stage turned out to be one of my big highlights of the festival, the Steep Canyon Rangers. Of all the acts at the festival, Steep Canyon's sound was the most traditional. A five piece outfit with guitar, fiddle, banjo, bass, and mandolin, they sang numbers like Ricky Skaggs' "Little Cabin Home On The Hill" and other traditional songs. What impressed me the most were the band's originals. Their own tunes had the same sound and feel as the bluegrass classics. One song in particular had lyrics about "pining for those hills of Caroline." With the straight ahead style of play and great harmonies, it could have been a Stanley Brothers song. Along with the songwriting abilities this group has, they are very talented musicians as well. The fiddle player Lizzie Hamilton really stood out, laying down lightning fast licks and singing beautiful harmony. The guitar player Woody Platt has one of the best bluegrass voices I've heard in a long time. He sang clear and strong and his voice has the perfect range for those old classics. The banjo player, Graham Sharp, burned down the house with his picking. During the set the band brought out a friend of theirs from Chapel Hill to fiddle a few tunes. Steep Canyon won the Rockygrass band competition this year, a huge honor which probably means they will get a set on the main stage at Rockygrass in Lyons, CO next year. I enjoyed Steep Canyon's clean acoustic sound and their original material. This band is a must-see for great bluegrass.
And now for something completely different... Spacestation Integration charged out next with an extraterrestrial sound. Their music was a wild combination of jazz/bluegrass fusion, prog rock, and improvisational jam band. The outfit is centered around lead electric banjo player Ryan Cavanaugh. His playing was remarkable, with jazz licks, bluegrass twang, and rock solos all worked into the performance. The bass player was also excellent, playing intricate creative lines that were a part of the lead rather than a boring repetitive background. The band included a fiddle player, a percussionist, and a drummer. While there was no Futureman on the Synthax Drumitar, comparisons with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones is unavoidable. Spacestation play a similar brand of way-out-there jazz with large sections of improvisation and composed jams. The on-stage communication between the members was interesting to watch. Through a subtle and silent language of nods and looks, the band stayed in-tune with what the others members were doing. I noticed them indicating when to return to the main theme of a song after lengthy solos. I didn't recognize any of the songs, most likely all original material and there were no vocals at all. Their music was like an auditory roller coaster ride, takes you up slowly and then cuts loose for a thrilling ride.
One great thing about festivals is the exposure to acts you haven't seen yet. Railroad Earth has been making a name for themselves recently on the festival circuit. This summer they performed at both the Telluride and Grey Fox bluegrass festivals. They took the stage at Brushy Mountain and immediately filled the entire place with a huge, full acoustic sound. With six members, this band can make a lot of noise. Their sound was a very joyful bluegrass/acoustic rock hybrid reminiscent of New Grass Revival. The lead singer, Todd Sheaffer, has some serious vocal pipes and could maintain a full-on wail indefinitely. Playing banjo for most of the time, Andy Goessling is the musical chameleon of the group and plays a number of different instrument. On fiddle, Tim Carbone stood out as a fantastic player with scorching solos and the most eccentric look of the band. The original material was very up-beat and rollicking, and they did seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. Not only did the sound fill up the place, the spirit of the music seemed like an all-inclusive good time that set the crowd to dancing. This is a band I would highly recommend next time they come through your area.
Like a grandfather showing the kids a thing or two, Tony Rice was up next. He was joined by Larry Keel, Curtis Burch on dobro, and (I believe) a few members of Larry's band. This set contained unbelievable flatpicking. Unfortunately there were major sound problems getting Tony's microphone to work that were never fully resolved. For those who could hear in the front, we were treated to a fantastic duet with Tony and Larry picking Tom Paxton's "Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound." No microphone can hold Tony Rice down and he played the guitar with grace and power. He was brilliant on his classic "Nine Pound Hammer" solo. Tony was playing his own signature series guitar from the Santa Cruz Guitar company. It has no markings on the fretboard save for the inlayed Santa Cruz logo on the 12th fret. The set seemed a bit short and the band a bit frustrated, which kept the set from really coming together as it could have. I realize 'the show must go on,' but I think everyone would have appreciated a break to improve the sound. However, it was great to see some of the old and some of the new with Larry Keel and Tony Rice sitting up on stage together and they both played majestically through adversity.
Next up, and fully sound-checked, was Sam Bush. The king of festivals, Sam always knows how to pick up a crowd. From the initial "Good evening music lovers!" he was on fire, rocking through a set of Sam Bush favorites. For anyone not familiar with Sam Bush he is the original bluegrass rock star. He's been considered bluegrass' most exciting mandolin player since his early days with New Grass Revival and continues to put out excellent solo albums. For the Brushy Mountain set he pulled out a Bob Marley song "Comin' in from the Cold" and even put his own spin on the Rolling Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash." Sam Bush's solo material always has a fast-paced rock feel as did the latest song he introduced called "They're gonna miss me when I'm gone." His energy level was 110% as usual as he ripped through fan favorites "Same 'ol River" and "Howlin' at the Moon." A surprise guest strolled out on stage and was none other than Jack Lawrence. Jack is one of the smoothest guitar picker around, and is most often seen playing with Doc Watson. Sam and Jack played a few songs together including a Cat Stevens cover and then everyone left Sam all alone on stage. He quipped, "You can never go wrong with a Bob Dylan song..." and played "Traveling in the North Country." It was a truly special moment, he put such raw emotion into it and filled the venue with only the mandolin and his voice. The band rejoined him for a medley which included "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang and Prince's "1999." It wouldn't be a Sam Bush show without a "Sailing Shoes > Crossroads" and he didn't disappoint playing a red-hot version. Suddenly another guest ambled out and whispers raced through the audience "who's that?" and "I've never seen that guy before!?" Sam introduced the mystery guest as none other than Mark Bryan, guitarist for Hootie & the Blowfish! His guitar playing was quite good despite my misgivings about his regular gig, and he blew the roof off the Doobie Brothers' hit "Long Train Runnin'." Sam Bush never fails to deliver high-octane rock and roll bluegrass. May he continue to do so for many more years to come.
Acoustic Syndicate had the honor of closing out the evening. This band has been on the festival scene for a number of years and has developed a big fan-base. Very well-deserved I might add. These guys are in the same newgrass vein, playing vocals oriented tunes with guitar, bass, banjo, and percussion. The vocals are what stands out about this band, their harmonies blend well together. A saxophone player came out to join the band for much of the set as did Sam Bush and Curtis Burch. At one point the band quipped, "Well, Sam said you can never go wrong with a Bob Dylan song, but we think you can never go wrong with a Neil Young song." A super speedy bluegrass version of Neil Young's "Powderfinger" immediately followed. It was the most hilarious take on "Powderfinger" I'd ever seen with the banjo picking out the Neil Young guitar leads. Other highlights were a Van Morrison cover and one extended jam that friends told me was one of the band's best original songs. There was no surprise band to follow this evening, but everyone returned to their campsites for more festivities ears ringing with incredible music.
Sunday's lineup featured Keith Lovett, Ruth & Curtis Burch, and Big Daddy's Bluegrass Buddies. We were unable to catch any of the music on Sunday as it hadn't started by 11:30 and we had to get back on the road. We left the festival recounting all the incredible acts we'd seen and the state of bluegrass. Americana, roots music, folk, traditional bluegrass, and especially newgrass have enjoyed a recent resurgence of popularity. This has opened up a world of possibilities for many bands who love bluegrass but want to explore other areas with their music. The giants like Sam Bush and Tony Rice are alive and well and still touring heavily. While the future looks bright with very original bands like Steep Canyon Rangers, Barefoot Manner, and Railroad Earth. All in all the Brushy Mountain Jamboree was a great festival which turned out some fantastic music and illustrated the rich and diverse talent in newgrass today.
Words and Photos by
JamBase | North Carolina
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