Words by: Brian Heisler | Images by: Tobin Voggesser
RockyGrass Festival :: 07.25.08 – 07.27.08:: Planet Bluegrass Ranch :: Lyons, CO
One could easily pass by Planet Bluegrass without realizing a major festival were taking place, and the sold out crowd inside the Rocky Mountain haven would just as soon keep the masses way. As Planet Bluegrass owner Craig Ferguson put it, "After you leave this weekend, make sure you don't tell anyone about RockyGrass."
|JD Crowe :: RockyGrass 2008|
Entering the festival grounds it is plain to see why everyone would want to safeguard knowledge of this place. Shouts and laughs spill out from the river as kids and adults alike tube through the light rapids of cool mountain water, children run barefoot across Ferguson's lawn with his friendly Labrador, people relax in low lawn chairs with umbrellas and bluegrass icons such as Mike Marshall and Edgar Meyer blend into the crowd to enjoy the music just like everyone else. JamBase photographer Tobin Voggesser leaned over to me and said, "Is this not the greatest place in the world?"
Hometown heroes Spring Creek opened the festival, saying a warm hello to the band's loyal Colorado fans that made it to the morning set. Picking up steam in the bluegrass scene, Spring Creek is becoming accustomed to joining the ranks of the big names. Such big acts were littered throughout the weekend as usual. Mike Marshall and Darol Anger followed with a duo set as they made their first appearances. Russ Barenberg and Bryan Sutton together made a guitar duo, while the John Cowan Band rocked the late afternoon and Bela Fleck put together a masterful blend with his friends. And the Dan Tyminski Band wore down the sun while warming up the crowd with rampant evening dancing. Of course, "The King of Telluride" is very much the "King of RockyGrass," and Sam Bush, whose crew closed out the first night was as wonderful as ever. In one of the lightest Sam Bush performances one will ever see, old friends Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer rounded out the band, which focused mostly on traditional yet innovative bluegrass tunes. It seems part of bluegrass tradition is to make the downtime between songs comical and much of the weekend followed suit. Jerry Douglas explained at one point, "The second song came from a phone book in Nashville. We found hidden codes in the phone book. It's called 'Junior Haywood.' So whoever Junior Haywood is, he has a song about him now."
Opposite the main stage at Planet Bluegrass sits the recently built Wildflower Pavilion, which was filled with workshops and contests over the weekend, and where I happened to catch a family band of advanced pickers with an average age of about ten-years-old called The Hartmans. Four girls and a boy made up the group. The boy happened to have placed third in the RockyGrass banjo competition and the girl on upright bass had to use a stool to reach the top notes on the neck. The music was very traditional and impressively mature for such a young crew. Certainly, the Hartman name will be around in the Colorado bluegrass community for some time to come.
|Fleck & Washburn - Sparrow Quartet :: RockyGrass 2008|
The Infamous Stringdusters picked up the afternoon with more new age bluegrass. "We've been here all week picking, so when I look out into the crowd I see family everywhere," bass player Travis Book said to the audience, summing up the feel of this festival well. A group that has become a super group, Psychograss followed with Mike Marshall, Darol Anger, Todd Phillips, David Grier and Tony Trischka. Marshall and Anger did the talking, telling stories to the crowd as if sitting with friends around a campfire. Some of the most impressive banjo work of the weekend came from Trischka, who is certainly a legend in his field. At one point, Trischka used a violin bow on the banjo, a rarely seen technique.
Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet brought a stunningly unconventional style to the Planet Bluegrass Stage, which of course included Bela Fleck. Even Tony Trischka, Mike Marshall and Edgar Meyer made their way upfront to catch this group in action. Washburn's voice rang like a slow ragtime singer – raspy yet soulful and pretty - backed by her slap method of banjo. However, perhaps the most impressive part of the performance was prodigy cellist Ben Sollee. On his solo piece, Sollee tore through the cello like a folk player on a guitar with unblemished singing - smooth, clear and crisp. A tune influenced by Thelonious Monk called "Sugar Pie" was introduced by Bela, "This song is not very easy to listen to. It's not very easy to play. It's dreadful, really." Chris Thile and Punch Brothers continued the evening with their quiet but progressive sound. Thile's picking seemed to dance among the trees and red rocks as his body pulsated with every accent.
The night's headliner, Natalie MacMaster & Donnell Leahy, was much less bluegrass than anyone else over the course of the weekend. The group is much more Celtic than anything else, but it threw a mix into the night that the audience was willing to embrace. While this was not what the crowd came to see, the energy still swept people into dancing and clapping for the only combination to include keys and drums this weekend.
The 70 year old bluegrass legend JD Crowe and his band, The New South, were truly the most appreciated and well-respected group at RockyGrass. As one of the most prominent banjo players since the 1950s, Crowe was an influence on many who played the festival. The band revived the Fats Domino song "I'm Walkin'" for a perfect bluegrass remix. A request from the crowd actually made it into the setlist when the band added "Black Jack." This weekend of bluegrass brought about many a strange accent and bluegrass-derived speech, but with Crowe's band there was nothing but legitimacy.
|Carolina Chocolate Drops :: RockyGrass 2008|
The most appropriate way to follow this act was to bill the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band next. Rowan's band was definitely the oldest group by average age at the festival, but the musicianship was second to none. Something about the group was mesmerizing. Between the gray hair, the lack there of and the tarnished faces, it felt like ages of stories could pour out of this band, which was essentially what the music portrayed. A politically charged song, "Chopping Down Trees for Jesus," got the crowd laughing and cheering. It seemed perfectly plausible to envision Jerry Garcia belting into the night with Rowan on such a tune. After the band played without Rowan while he replaced a broken string, they went into "Panama Red," a song that Garcia indeed did play with Rowan many times in Old and In The Way. Up to this point in the weekend, it was the highlight of the festival. And that's when everything changed.
As I got up to feed myself after Rowan's set, a man next to me asked if I was going to stay for the Chocolate Drops. I assumed he meant some sort of drug, so I turned and moved on. As I ate, I opened my program to notice the name of the next group was actually the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and clearly this is what the man was referring to. What followed was the most avant-garde music of the festival, a characteristic rarely used to describe bluegrass. The trio took very basic sounds and turned them into jumping, unique, old time Southern party tunes. If it could be played, the Chocolate Drops used it. Instruments included a moonshine jug used as a wind instrument, bones and wood played like claves, bamboo wind pipes used like a harmonica, a snare drum slung over the shoulder and a kazoo. All three members of the band also passed around a banjo, a violin and a steel guitar, following the African American heritage of Carolina string music. It was unlike anything I had ever seen and it was what I was waiting for all weekend - something unexpected, something unknown, something to blow me away. The group did its own version of "Salty Dog" with banjo, kazoo and a jug, which also included a high-kicking solo dance from Rhiannon Giddens, the lone woman in the group. The band combined bluegrass with hip-hop, covering Blu Cantrell's "Hit 'Em Up" with banjo, violin and beat box, which received a standing ovation mid-set. Carolina Chocolate Drops were the only group throughout the weekend to receive three standing ovations. Without a doubt, they were the highlight of RockyGrass 2008.
|Sam Bush Band :: Happy Bday Byron!|
Fortunately, the only act to follow was the only act that could follow: Sam Bush. As usual, Bush blew wide open the stage he already owned. Bush prepped the audience by beginning solo, bringing the band in on the second song. The band played "Memphis in the Meantime," with Bush adding a line referencing a fellow mandolin player who was standing by: "I don't think ol' Chris Thile will do this song." Midway into the set, everything stopped as the Planet Bluegrass crew brought an oversized cake up for bassist Byron House's birthday, and even Craig Ferguson's dog, in a birthday hat, made it onstage. The night drove on like everyone knew it would, the true rock star and current king of bluegrass, Sam Bush brought out his best under Colorado skies and closed another fantastic year of RockyGrass. And remember, don't tell anyone.
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