JamGrass Festival & String Cheese Incident
Merriweather Post Pavilion | Columbia, MD | 07.18.02
"I actually haven’t gotten a ticket since I totaled my last car."
So my friend told me as we whizzed down the highway at 85 mph on the way to Merriweather Post Pavilion, just outside Baltimore. Sufficiently reassured, I slipped in a CD and turned up the volume as the sprightly sounds of bluegrass filled the car. We were on our way to what promised to be a monster day of music and fun, as the JamGrass Festival met String Cheese Incident in Columbia, MD. Having been fortunate enough to secure tickets in the orchestra pit, I was not about to let this concert pass me by, despite having to fly 2500 miles from San Francisco to be here. Four top bluegrass acts PLUS a full two-set String Cheese Incident show? Bills like that exist only in my dreams, or so I thought. The opportunity to see this show would have drawn me just about anywhere. The fact that I’d never been to Merriweather was even better – another place to cross off my list of “venues never attended.”
An easy drive from the Washington, DC area, Merriweather Post is situated in pleasant farm country amid rolling hills, seemingly a world away from the political center of the nation. It was already in the low 90s with high humidity as we arrived in a near-empty parking lot. The other early arrivals were lounging in lawn chairs, playing hacky-sack and already making a tidy profit on ice-cold beer and water. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well.
We entered the grounds at around 12:30 pm and I got my first glimpse of this veteran venue that has seen its share of memorable moments. The most prominent in my mind: the June 20, 1983 Grateful Dead show in a driving thunderstorm. The large, permanent seating area is fully covered by a solid roof, with additional permanent seating on the sides (added after original construction to accommodate a Tom Jones concert) covered by tents. The uncovered lawn area is very large, bounded at the rear by a quaint fence and classic American red barn. My initial impression was confirmed by John Cowan during his opening set, as he asked nobody in particular, "Where are the cows?" Having grown up in an area of rural farmland in Central New York state, I felt relaxed and at home in these surroundings.
JOHN COWAN BAND
The crowd filtered in slowly as the 1:00 pm showtime approached. The venue was mostly empty as the John Cowan Band took the stage before a large hanging "JamGrass" banner. Despite the small crowd, the former New Grass Revival bassist was clearly in a good mood as he began the festivities with a lively "My Heart Will Follow You" from his most recent album. His band (Scott Vestal on banjo; Jeff Autry on guitar; Luke Bulla on fiddle; and Pasi Leppikangas on drums) was in fine form and his voice strong as ever. Although Cowan was my personal least favorite act on the bill - I feel he sometimes lets his rock n’ roll sensibilities take over at the wrong time - his 45-minute set was solid and entertaining. Luke's fiddle shined on "Mississippi Delta Time," and Scott's banjo was featured on "Europa." "Two Quarts Low" was fast and furious, followed by a heartfelt rendition of Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon" that perfectly showcased Cowan's ringing tenor. A Scott Vestal instrumental, "By Stealth," used interesting time changes for emphasis, and the band interplay during the set-ending "Operator" showed how much fun they were having. A short but sweet set to open the show.
I was particularly looking forward to the next set featuring Jorma Kaukonen. The former Jefferson Airplane guitarist has a long history of playing acoustic folk and blues in traditional arrangements, but has surprisingly made few forays into a bluegrass style. I had always what such a supremely gifted guitarist would bring to the bluegrass table, and this set was about to answer that question. Flanked by Sally Van Meter (Dobro) and Barry Mitterhof (mandolin), Jorma took center stage and kicked into Delmore James’s "Big River Blues,” similar to Doc Watson's "Deep River Blues." The addition of Dobro and mandolin to Jorma's signature guitar work and vocals made for a sound that was all bluegrass yet distinctively Jorma. Continuing with tunes off his new album, Jorma ran through "Waitin' for a Train" and "Trouble in Mind," the latter a staple of his acoustic performances over the years yet given a new twist here. "Red River Blues" and "That'll Never Happen No More" led to an extended "Bread Line Blues," a timely recounting of the hardships of the Depression with soul and feeling. A randy "Tomcat Blues" and lively "San Francisco Bay Blues" followed, each evoking their respective themes. The set-closing "Just Because" lent another opportunity for extended jamming, with each performer taking several solos. And with that, it was over, 45 minutes of guitar wizardry gone seemingly in a flash. Accepting the cheers of the growing crowd, Jorma and his band left the stage to the quick-change artist roadies who managed the frequent set-ups and take-downs with speed and efficiency.
PETER ROWAN & TONY RICE
The crowd continued to filter in, with the pavilion about 2/3 full as a personal favorite, Peter Rowan, took the stage with members of his Texas Trio (Billy Bright on mandolin and Bryn Bright on bass) and the legendary Tony Rice on guitar. The crowd sensed the treat that was in store, and gave Rice a particularly warm reception. Rice, known for his taciturn demeanor on stage, let his fingers do the talking. Opening with crowd favorites "Panama Red" and "Midnight Moonlight," Rowan immediately established his credentials and let the fans know they were in friendly hands. Rowan quickly soaked through his sky-blue shirt in the high heat, sweat literally dripping from the crook of his right arm as he furiously worked his guitar magic. Rice remained calm and cool, an appearance that belied his fast and intricate guitar work. "Old Santa Fe" took the crowd down a dusty Texas street, "Wild Mustang" to the open plains. A dark "Armageddon" was sobering, but an inspiring "Walls of Time" brought us back to familiar territory as Peter paid tribute to the Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. A haunting "Wayfaring Stranger" with extended solos wrapped around an instrumental "Summertime," its languid imagery settling perfectly in the hot, muggy air. The band left the stage to loud applause, but there was more to come. Rowan reappeared to play a poignant, solo "Lonesome Blues." He then re-introduced Tony Rice to another thunderous ovation. Rice proceeded to stun the crowd with a solo instrumental piece that was folk, jazz, classical and bluegrass all in one. Mixing tempos with simply amazing picking and fretwork, Rice drew the loudest ovation of the day with his innovative approach to solo instrumentation. A true master of the Martin guitar, he even cracked a little smile as he finished. He done good, and he knew it. Rice took another break as Billy and Bryn Bright returned with Peter Rowan to play "Pullin' the Devil by the Tail," a tune off of Peter's excellent Reggaebilly album. Bryn, one of the finest stand-up bassists working today, showed her chops as she dug into the beat and played off Peter. Billy smiled and jammed as they hit the groove. Finally, Tony Rice returned as the foursome ended their 70-minute set with a "Free Mexican Airforce" that had the crowd singing and yodeling along. By the time they left the stage, most of the crowd had arrived and a buzz was building for the Dawg himself, the legendary David Grisman.
DAVID GRISMAN QUINTET
David Grisman holds a special place in the history of bluegrass music and the hearts of its fans. Probably the finest mandolin player in the world today, his journey from traditional bluegrass in the Bill Monroe style to the creation of his unique "Dawg" music has led him down many musical paths. His extended collaboration with Jerry Garcia might have exposed and endeared him to many fans, but his ability to fuse musical styles into his signature hybrid has earned him universal respect from all quarters of acoustic music. The finally-packed house recognized that status and responded accordingly. As Grisman's band took the stage one by one, they demonstrated how to build a tune from the ground up. First to appear was long-time DGQ bassist Jim Kerwin, who began quietly with a stand-up bass solo that slowly captured the crowd's attention. Next up was percussionist extraordinaire Joe Craven, who started by drumming with his hands on the bottom of Kerwin's bass, then switched to fiddle and drew a laugh with a Pink Panther tease. He continued as guitarist Enrique Corria took his place on stage left, playing his own brand of Latin-flavored grass. (As Grisman said later, "No bedroom should be without all of Corria's albums.") The jam kept building as flautist Matt Eakle appeared, bass flute in hand, to lend that unique aspect to the sound. Eakle closed his eyes and twisted his body as he played, obviously feeling the music deeply. The band didn't miss a beat as Grisman, a mass of bushy white hair and Santa Claus beard, finally made his way to the front and led the group into his instrumental tune "EMD." No mistaking that sound - the David Grisman Quintet had arrived.
Grisman's 85-minute set was a mix of old and new. He introduced selections from his new album, Dawgnation, with obvious pride and joy. This is a man at the height of his game, but instead of getting too comfortable, he continues to take chances with new tunes such as "Mellow Mang." The exquisite interplay within laid-back pacing (as befits the title) showed that hot jamming is not the exclusive domain of up-tempo tunes. "Fanny Hill," introduced by Grisman as the second tune he ever wrote, brought that old-timey feel. Another new tune, "Cha Cha Chihuahua," had Joe Craven moving between instruments at a frantic pace, but somehow he never missed a beat or note. Watching Craven play is more than invigorating; it can be exhausting as well! Grisman then switched gears, treating the crowd to a stellar version of "Grateful Dawg," co-written and performed extensively with Jerry Garcia. Love and affection for the big man poured from the crowd to the stage, where the band reflected it back in the music. "Hasan Yolo" (by fellow Acoustic Disc artist Jacob do Bandolim) gave Enrique Corria's Latin chops room to breathe. Another new composition, "Bluegrass at the Beach," used an interesting mid-tempo and unusual phrasings to conjure something more than just another day at the beach. But they saved the best for last, with Grisman dedicating the set closer to the late great Charles Sawtelle, original guitarist in Hot Rize. Named for Sawtelle's character in Hot Rize's alter-ego band Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers, "Slade" ran the gamut of emotions. Joy, sorrow, love, warmth, humor and even anger at the loss of a valued friend flowed from the stage. These world-class musicians weren't holding anything back, and though nobody sang a word, the meaning couldn't have been clearer. The group returned for an encore of "Dawgnation," giving the crowd a final chance to soak up some Dawg music before the evening's headliner, String Cheese Incident, attempted to blow the roof off the place.
STRING CHEESE INCIDENT
Reviewing the String Cheese Incident is not an easy task. As with the Grateful Dead and other jambands, the combination of setlist, stage chemistry and crowd interaction all mix to organically create a different "incident" from night to night. I like them a lot, as evidenced by the fact that this was my 20th SCI show in three years (not a lot by some standards, but a lot for me in recent years). I particularly enjoy their attention to melody, which is too often missing from groups that have too much "jam" and not enough "band" for me. Tonight, I was hoping for some collaborations with the JamGrass performers, an opportunity for the band to get back to its bluegrass roots.
Any empty space in the front rows quickly vanished as the lights dimmed and the front stage security guard disappeared. The crowd that had filtered in all day came to life, sending up a cacophony as the band members (Bill Nershi on guitar; Michael Kang on guitar/mandolin/fiddle; Kyle Hollingsworth on keyboards; Keith Moseley on bass; and Michael Travis on drums/percussion) took their familiar positions. Travis took up the sticks and set up a loping beat, picked up by the bass as the other band members began filling in the notes to Moseley's "Joyful Sound." Sounding a bit like the Grateful Dead's "Fire on the Mountain," the song conveys a heartfelt view of how to live a positive life. The band took a while to get energized, the unrelenting heat and humidity taking a toll. But as they often do, they used a jam to get in sync, in this case the instrumental break within Holingsworth's "Way Back Home." Kyle took over the jam and coaxed the other band members to a higher level of intensity. It was an early taste of what would become a recurrent theme throughout the show: dominant keyboards. "Yo Se" and "Texas Town," two songs recently introduced into the repertoire, gave the crowd a taste of Spanish and country music, respectively.
Now that the band was properly warmed up, it was time for some of those collaborations I had hoped for. John Cowan returned to sing his original lead vocals on New Grass Revival's "Can't Stop Now," which SCI performs regularly with Moseley on vocals. Cowan was clearly enjoying himself as he belted it out at the top of his lungs, exchanging looks with Nershi as the crowd boogied in place. The energy level of the venue increased as both the crowd and the band anticipated more treats. Cowan left the stage, quickly replaced by Peter Rowan, who enraptured the crowd with his dramatic vocals on his composition "Sweet Melinda." During the extended jam at the end of the tune, Billy and Bryn Bright reappeared and they all got down on a raucous version of the bluegrass instrumental classic "Blackberry Blossom." Peter and Billy remained on stage to perform the Rowan favorite, "High Lonesome Sound," Peter's clear vocals and jaunty persona putting big smiles on all the band members. The 75-minute set had provided some rare treats, and although neither Jorma Kaukonen nor David Grisman performed with SCI, I wasn't disappointed.
The 35-minute set break saw the sun finally go down as the crowd found its second wind. The energy level just exploded as String Cheese Incident opened their second set with a rocking version of the Allman Brothers' instrumental classic "Jessica." Fans were dancing, hula-hooping, twirling… an uninhibited expression of pure joy and love of the moment, shared with good friends and family. Kyle (who hails from the Baltimore area and was clearly playing for some peeps in the house) delivered the next installment of his monster performance during "Black & White," off the 2001 release Outside/Inside. The edgy, funky jam during this song easily extended to 15-20 minutes, offering intense interplay that kept returning to the keyboards. After such an intense interlude, the band knows when to take a breather, which they did on the upbeat bluegrass ditty "Good Times Around the Bend." "SKAT," a jazzy, African and Latin-tinged instrumental featuring Michael Kang on fiddle, quickly brought the groove back, then handed the crowd once again to Hollingsworth as he fronted a rousing performance of "Close Your Eyes," distinctively mouthing every note as he plays them. Nershi gave the crowd another breather as he sang his haunting "Hotel Window," which sums up the mundane aspects of touring life in the chorus "I can see it all from my hotel window." This song has become one of my favorites with a pretty melody, solid lyrics and a sincere, emotional delivery by Nershi. On this night, as they finished out the ending jam and played variations on the refrain, Nershi surprised the crowd by singing lyrics to the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want," making them fit with the timing of the “Hotel Window” jam. This short interlude took everyone by surprise and led into a long jam that gradually got funkier and funkier, leading into the set-closer, a Hollingsworth instrumental called “BAM”! This full-on funk jam, featuring a staccato beat and heavy electronic sound, pushed 20 minutes. I don't particularly enjoy this tune - it's just not my cup of tea - but there is no question that another huge keyboard performance was delivered. Kyle had come to play and left no doubt about it.
They made the crowd work a bit to bring them back for an encore, but return they did. Being it was the JamGrass show, they gave us another taste with "How Mountain Girls Can Love." This was just a warm up as another surprise guest was announced. "Look who we found!" cried Nershi as guitarist Keller Williams strolled out from behind the drums to a huge ovation. His "Freeker By the Speaker" was just what the crowd wanted to hear, with its J.J. Cale-like vocals, funky-cool jam and a rare turn on lap steel guitar by Nershi. Despite a nearly two-hour set, neither the band nor the crowd wanted to leave, so SCI remained on stage to play a rare third encore, "Howard" (lyrics by Keller Williams too), giving everybody one last chance to shine.
As the lights finally came up on the spent and happy crowd, a warm glow of satisfaction filled the venue. The day had delivered on its promise, giving something to fans of traditional bluegrass, electronic funk and everything in between. As a statement on the human condition, it was clear that while heat and humidity might take a toll, heart trumps them both.
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