Monday, July 31, 2006

RockyGrass 2006 Sunday

RockyGrass draws crowd when it comes to contests. The instrument and band competitions are a little like a big hillbilly high school's talent show powered by the secondary plasma conduits from the starship Enterprise. So many of the entrants are savants, incredibly young to boast such mature talents.

I'm usually amazed when the contest finalists take their last, 3 song shot at impressing the judges. So many of these folks deserve careers in music. I always wish them well.

Contest Winners
(spelling not guaranteed)

  • Banjo - Brian Anderson
  • Guitar - Rob Piercy
  • Mandolin - Colby Maddox
  • Fiddle - Lisa Sapin
  • Dobro - Greg Booth
  • Band - Long Road Home

Vendor of the Day - The Colorado Case Company

Steve Simmons of the Colorado Case Company makes some of the toughest gig bags and accessories you can ask for. Over three-quarters of his business is making custom cases for individual instruments. Owners trace the instrument's silhouette on paper, mail it off, and get the case back in 3 to 4 weeks.

Good products. He doesn't get a lot of repeat business - mine's almost 10 years old and hasn't ripped yet.

T Shirt of the Day - "Sex & Drugs and Flatt & Scrugs"

I see, to my chagrin, that I have terribly overlooked The Stone Cup. They not only tolerated my multiple-outlet needs, they make the best medium roast coffee in northern Colorado. Latte lovers seem equally enthusisatic. Despite my egregious oversight, they gave me free access to wireless Internet access. Class act.

And the Day Begins . . .

Sundays at RockyGrass share a traditional feature with many other fests - a rollicking gospel set, usually timed to inspire true God-fearing hangovers. Thi morning's devotional was brought to life by one of the finest bluegrass gospel musicians. Doyle Lawson listens to these guys for inspiration, Blue Highway.

Blue Highway Does a Capella Gospel

RockyGrass's spiritual side took a turn to the East with Abigail Washburn's beautifully understated set. Backed by fiddle and cello, Abigail's essential, pure voice soars gracefully among and between the notes of every melody. The best example may be "Keys to the Kingdom", heard here last night as a lush five-part a capella harmony encore by Washburn's other band, Uncle Earl. But this early afternoon edition was adorned only by her ethereal voice and Casey Diesssen's tasteful, introspective fiddle. Blending old time tunes salvaged from 78 rpm records and her own compositions in Mandarin Chinese, Abby's set closed the spiritual cycle between earth and the cerulean Colorado sky.

Abigail Washburn

After too long an absence performing at RockyGrass under his own name, Darrell Scott and his Bluegrass Band took control of the midafternoon tempo and redefined "eclectic". The setlist included tunes sampled from the back pages of Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell , and Kris Kristofferson mixed with Scott's own powerful originals, many from his new CD, "Invisible Man". Backed by Casey Driessen (fiddle), Nick Forster (mandolin) and Matt Mangano (bass), Scott's set certainly wouldn't have pleased Bill Monroe's sense of bluegrass, but it sure matched the sensibilities of this 21st century audience.

The Darrell Scott Bluegrass Band

An old Firesign Theatre record asks, "How can you be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all?" By Sunday afternoon I was heat-befuddled and losing my sense of personal substance (there are Buddhists who spend years in a cave to learn this - I have a bluegrass alternative) but torn between the excellent Darrell Scott and the thoroughly entertaining Bearfoot Bluegrass, the Alaska band that has seemingly grown up at RockyGrass. Their set in the newly-remodeled Wildflower tent, home to the MoonGrass shows, began before Darrell's ended, so what to do?

Lacking the fluids and electrolytes needed for rational thought, I did what anyone would do in my place: I asked my grandaughter, on duty in the Kid's Tent. "Easy", she replied, "Bearfoot's guitar player is hot. Go take pictures of him." But when I got there, he wasn't even perspiring.

Angela Oudean, Annalisa Tornfelt and Mike Michelson of Bearfoot Bluegrass

The afternoon schedule rapidly gained momentum with the introduction of The Wilders, a retro-country unit hailing from Kansas City. If your tastes run to old-style honky-tonk torch-and-twang, it doesn't get a whole lot better than this. Think of Junior Brown unplugged. Then accelerate.

Ike Sheldon of The Wilders

Phil Wade of the Wilders

Late afternoons at RockyGrass, the sun begins to sink behind the highest branches of the Planet's trees, offering an inverted promise of relief from the heat: the oncoming cool of the evening contrasts the increasing heat of the performances. As the Fest's final evening loomed, the crowd began to gather itself for a trio of acts that span virtually the entire history of bluegrass.

First up was the typically superb Tim O'Brien Band. This time featuring Bad Livers graduate Danny Barnes on banjo and electric guitar, Tim's set leaned heavily toward his Cornbread Nation and Grammy-winning Fiddler's Green releases. The opener, "A Mountaineer Is Always Free" brought water-chilled festivarians out of the St. Vrain river and swelled the population of the dance area. Tim's cover of Randy Newman's "Sail Away" was followed by a Danny Barnes composition, "Rat's Ass," and a stunning fiddle duet between Tim and the omnipresent Casey Driessen, "First Snow." To anyone around from Saturday night's closer, Tim exhibited some Steve Earle influence with "The Republican Blues."

Even in his Hot Rize days, you could always count on Tim for the true comedic touch. Today's joke, "They wanted to start a TV show, "CSI: West Virginia." But they couldn't develop a plot. All the DNA was the same and there were no dental records."

Tim O'Brien

And then it was time for the real Uncle Earl.

Earl Scruggs took the stage surrounded by the best. Longtime sidemen Hoot Hester (fiddle, vocals)and John Gardner (drums) joined Brad Davis AND Bryan Sutton on guitars, Rob Ickes working the Dobro, Sam Bush, (called to the stage for "John Hardy Was a Desparate Little Man" and never left) and the rock-steady Gary Scruggs all supported the man who, with Lester Flatt, invented the bluegrass sound Bill Monroe would turn into a genre. The set began with introductions by frontman Gary and the crowd rose to a standing ovation at the mention of Earl's name.

Musically, the set spanned the range of Scruggs' 50+ years as a musician, covering tunes by Dylan ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"), the Carter Family ("You Are My Flower"), and The Mississippi Shieks ("Sittin' on Top of the World"), salted with plenty of traditional tunes ("Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms", "Sally Goodin"). Of course, the set had the mandatory Scruggs signature pieces, "Ballad of Jed Clampett" (sung by Bryan Sutton) and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", a tune that wears better today than the the original 1967 film, "Bonnie & Clyde."

In 18 songs the Earl Scruggs setlist covered the living history of bluegrass music, then and now.

Since the last time I saw Earl, he's a little more faded, a bit more dependent on son Gary to help him with cues and directions. He is, after all, 82 years old, nearly the last living master of his generation, a widower now, and facing the coda of a remarkable career.

When the last notes of the encore rang out, the audience, sensing the possibility that this may have been a last chance to say so, warmly gathered Earl into their embrace, and rose to their feet to say "I love you" with both hands.

Bryan Sutton and Earl Scruggs

Earl and Gary Scruggs

Sam Bush has made a lot of traditions of his own, and now can add a string of Sam Bush Bluegrass Band performances at RockyGrass to that list.

In what seems to be an eternal booking, Sam appears at RockyGrass each July to perform a set of "real" bluegrass tunes, using as little electrification as possible. As at his Telluride sets, the Bluegrass Band's shows tend to grow into mammoth cluster-plucks that often require each of the 11 dimensions of string theory to contain.

Sam's new record, "Laps in Seven", contributed several tracks to this evening's set. "Where There's a Road" and "Ridin' the Bluegrass Train" are infectious, radio-friendly, and a good energizing launch to what turned out to be a two hour set.

I have to confess to a terrible lack of detail: I don't know the name of Sam's latest guitarist/vocalist. First name Steven, but damned if I know the last name. No matter his ID card, this guy brings the real thing to the band, adding a swift, fluid acoustic lead and a fine sense of vocal harmony.

I've been a fan since first seeing Newgrass Revival at Telluride about 25 years ago. Bush was the first acoustic musician I had seen who successfully blended the achingly-precise rules of bluegrass with pure rock sensibilities. He can cover the bases with "Bringing In the Georgia Mail", nod to his own past with "Whisper My Name", and revive a name of an old friend, autoharpist Byron Bowers, when co-writing "When You Learn a Song, You've Got a Friend for Life." There's even a political comment with his contributed verse to "The White House Blues"

Bush is in the White House
Doin' his best,
Clinton's retired,
He's takin' his rest,
And now we're screwed,
We're screwed.

But my favorite part of every Sam Bush performance is the jam. Bush, who deservingly shares a Grammy with Emmylou Harris for her "Live at the Ryman" record, is at heart a seriously respected musician who can organize a crowd of musicians. This is no mean feat, friends.

In addition to guitarist Steve, this year's incarnation of the Bluegrass Band included Chris Brown (drum!), Scott Vestal (banjo) Sam on mando and fiddle, and the formidable Byron House on bass and harmony vocals.

By the time the 1st encore started (a reggae-inflected "Wabash Cannonball"), the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band had adopted Tim O'Brien (fiddle)), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Jeff Austin (mando), Hoot Hester (fiddle), and Rob Ickes (Dobro).

The second, Fest-ending encore broke out "Nine Pound Hammer". One last traditional tune to complete the 2006 edition of the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival. All the players in Sam's band and everyone from the "Wabash Cannonball" reappeared as Sam said "We got time for one more." Before it was over, Casey Driessen (fiddle) and Chris Eldridge (guitar) entered the fray. By the end, even the most sated afficionado was overwhelmed, exhausted. In three days the 2006 RockyGrass plumbed the depths of tradition and scaled the cliffs of potential. This is, to my mind, is the right and proper function of bluegrass festivals: nurture the past, seed the future. By any definition, this festival succeeded on both fronts.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

RockyGrass 2006 Saturday Part 2

The afternoon's heat continued to build, at least on stage, with Darol Anger's Republic of Strings mesmerizing the midafternoon crowd with contagious virtuosity. Day in day out, Darol remains one of my favorite fiddlers. He brings a scholarly investment to each performance. I especially enjoy his references to Swedish fiddle music.

Darol Anger

Traditionalists extraordinaire Blue Highway brought out their best game to follow Republic of Strings. These guys, a fully mature touring unit in the prime of health, blast out a setful of tight arrangements expertly played. Excellent four part harmonies and a sense of humor spice a brilliantly-paced setlist. High note - a completely hilarious impression of Ralph Stanley performing Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog." And for the encore, BH had the good sense to bring out Sarah Jarocz for a kickass version of "The Road is Rocky."

Blue Highway's Rob Ickes

For a band that was supposed to have just one brief incarnation, the g'Earls of Uncle Earl have shown amazing stamina and longevity. When the poser pit holds such knowledgeable listeners as Sharon Gilchrist, Edgar Meyer and Casey Driessen, you can guess something memorable is about to happen.  The g'Earls didn't disappoint. With four- and five-part harmonies and seemingless endless arrays of instruments, Uncle Earl transforms old-time tunes into neo-traditional rave-ups that get any crowd into the tempo. From the sweet melancholy "The Last Goodbye" through blazing fiddle standards "Julie Anne Johnson" and "Black-Eyed Susie", Uncle Earl's impressive range of styles, techniques and taste is impressive. And since we're also talking about beautiful women, lots of pictures are called for:

Rayna Gellert

Abigail Washburn

Erin Coats

Following the g'Earls, the schedule continued to build momentum and memories. The Manzanita band re-formed for the first time since its 1979 Great American Music Hall performance. Lacking Ricky Skaggs, this ensemble adds Dan Tyminski (guitar, vocals)  and Barry Bales (bass) of Union Station, and Gabe Witcher (fiddle) from Jerry Douglas' touring unit. This was a completely wonderful set, recreating the youthful spirit of the original, ground-breaking recording but played with the world-class virtuosity you'd expect from this group of stellar musicians. Darol Anger joined in for the Tony Rice classic "Manzanita"; the rest of the set was pure musical exhilaration punctuated by sheer silliness, as when Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas took advantage of Tony's frenetic solo during "Nine Pound Hammer" and carefully tucked Rice's pant legs into his boot tops.

Dan Tyminski, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas

The Manzanita Band, and a view of the RockyGrass Stage

Saturday culminated in a much-anticipated set by Steve Earle and the Bluegrass Dukes. I'm a big fan of Steve's work, including his regular band, the "insanely loud" rock unit the Dukes. This foray into acoustic instrumentation and bluegrass arrangements showcases Steve's sense of musical detail and lyrical sophistication. And he seemed to be on is best behavior - we didn't hear "fuck" until the 9th tune of the 18 song set. His politics and anti-war stance are well known, and there's no need to rehash them here. A special moment came when Steve brought Peter Rowan to the stage, crediting Rowan with helping Steve recover his career after serving prison time. Rowan brought out his authentic Bluegrass Boy harmony vocal and a mandola for "Ben McCullough", "Hometown Blues", "I'm Looking Through You" and the monster encore number, "Copperhead Road." The remainder of the set was similar to Bluegrass Dukes sets of the past couple of years, even to pre-song patter, with the exception of a surprise setlist appearance of the Lowell George classic "Willin'". "Carrie Brown" did not cause heads to explode, but the new fiddle/banjo coda is a jaw-dropping display by fiddler Casey Driessen and Darrell Scott's nimble pickin'.

Speaking of Casey, I am more and more impressed by his spontaneous genius. Throughout the weekend he has been nothing short of dazzling, stepping in to add precisely the right notes at the right time, or saving the continuity of a tune, as he did for Steve when a mid-tune guitar change nearly led to a disruption in the musical flow. Much as I like and admire Darol Anger, my vote for all around best fiddler this weekend goes to Casey Driessen. See his shows, buy his new CD (it is the redefinition of fiddle cool).

Steve Earle and the Single-Mic Bluegrass Dukes

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

RockyGrass 2006 Saturday Part 1

So far we've avoided the predicted 100 degrees, thanks largely to some unforseen clouds that are keeping the heat down to merely sweltering instead of the blistering we'd expected. But festivarians are finding ways to stay ahead of the thermometer, like sailing the St. Vrain in an inner tube.

Tubing the St. Vrain River

Today's schedule started with a pair of fresh young bands that bode well for the future of acoustic string music. The Boston-based Crooked Still took the stage with an immediately-likeable approach to performance. "Bluegrass" cellist (and snappy dresser) Rushad Eggleston's crisply-bowed melody lines serve as a wonderful textural counterpoint to Dr. Greg Liszt's four-fingered banjo rolls (move over, Pete Wernick, there's a new Dr. Banjo in town). Aoife O'Donovan's floating vocals are reminiscent of Shawn Colvin or Margo Timmons. In fact, there's a definite Cowboy Junkies vibe in play here. Even their murder ballads are pretty. Interesting band - worth watching, I think.

Crooked Still

The impressive RockyGrass debut is definitely the Infamous Stringdusters. The biggest band to take the stage so far, this sextet features players with impeccable pedigrees and mentoring, such as guitarist Chris Eldridge, son of Seldom Scene banjoist Ben Eldridge, and bassist Travis Book, formerly of the Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band and Burl Galloway's Broke Mountain Trio. Five of the six contribute vocals to each performance. Fiddler Jeremy Garrett has a true bluegrass tenor while Dobro player Andy Hall adds Douglasian fills and rhythms.

Jeremy Garrett & Andy Hall of The Infamous Stringdusters

Still on tap is Darol Anger's Republic of Strings, Blue Highway, the g'Earls of Uncle Earl, a recreation of the Tony Rice classic Manzanita record featuring Jerry Douglas, and a sure-to-be-profane-and-loving-it set from Steve Earle and the Bluegrass Dukes. More on all that in Part 2.

Vendor of the Day - Peak to Peak Batik

Eric Maiorana, the creative force behind Peak to Peak Batiks, is a familiar face at Colorado festivals. His blends of musical themes and the layered dyes used in the batik process produces some astonishing images in ready to go clothing.

T Shirt of the Day

"Of course we serve vegetarians. That's what cows are."

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RockyGrass 2006 Friday, Part 2

Ordinarily the real heat at RockyGrass is on the stage: this weekend is threatening to set temperature records - global warming on Planet Bluegrass.  But the Planet does offer some neat relief - the St. Vrain River. And as festivarians might expect, playing with the river rocks leads to spontaneous art.

Rock Art

One of the event's main sponsors, New Belgium Brewing, makers of Fat Tire, brings more than just adult beverages to the weekend. Complete mechanical nonsense is also available.

New Belgium Spinner

The afternoon's schedule kicked offf with the Alaskan unit, Bearfoot Bluegrass, followed by the Tony Trischka Bluegrass Band featuring Roland White on mando and vocals. White's presence gave this ensemble an authentic traditional feel, especially with the standards "Molly and Tenbrooks" and "Pike County Breakdown."  But no band boasting Tony Trischka and Darol Anger can always color inside the lines. "Rhumba on the Banjo" sounded exactly what you'd expect from the title. Trischka has also reworked the standard "Salty Dog" by reversing the chords and polishing the arrangement into "Doggy Salt." Watch for a new CD release in January '07.

Tony Trischka Bluegrass Band

A finely-crafted set by Mountain Heart was warmly received by the sun-baked crowd. Always pleasing musicians, they've come a long way since being named up-and-comers in 1999 by the IBMA. Indeed, their stylistic range has broadened to embrace the more adventurous acousticity. But sometimes, instead of eye-opening, ear-popping innovation, MH's extended explorations sounds more like the soundtrack to a Michael Flatley production.

The Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet ratcheted the intensity level up to galactic standards. Tony Rice appears much more at home in the current lineup, while newcomer Sharon Gilchrist demonstrates a welcome sense of self confidence in her solos. Bryn Davies, in addition to sweet harmony vocals, has blossomed into a predominant upright bassist. Rowan himself, looking more and more like Mark Twain every year, sang impeccably throught the band's 11 song set. The quartet was joined by Richard Greene, who added a poignant fiddle break to "Play, Vasser, Play,"  Rowan's tribute to the late Vasser Clements. Perhaps the most intense moments of the set came during an upright bass/guitar faceoff between Davies and Rice during the encore "The Wild Mustang." Watch for a new CD from the Quartet this fall.

Tony Rice and Richard Greene

Winners of the Best Blue Jeans Contest, Sharon Gilchrist and Bryn Davies

As the afternoon waned, the crowd settled back to enjoy the rare assembly of Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg and Edgar Meyer . This gifted trio recreated their 1994 release "Skip, Hop and Wobble" plus a sprinkling of newer pieces by Barenberg and Meyer. The effortless expertise of these musicians is always awe-inspiring.

Douglas, Barenberg and Meyer

The first 'tweener of the weekend featured to precocious Sara Jarosz . Now 15, she changed instruments for each tune on her three-song list, wowing the audience with her skills on mando, banjo and guitar.

All this was merely prelude to the headlining Yonder Mountain String Band, returning to the RockyGrass stage after a 6 year absence. After an extended introduction by each of the Uncle Earl girls, YMSB immediately launched a opening salvo of neatly segue'd tunes culminating in the Hartford classic "Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie." Offical "5th member" Darol Anger shared the stage for the entire set, a presence that always raises the quality of performance no matter which band he plays with. The Yonder setlist included extensive jams on "Easy as Pie" and "Steep Grade, Sharp Curves", which also featured an audience-participation tribute to RockyGrass's late emcee, Buck Buckner. An unrestrained "Keep on Goin' > Death Trip > Keep on Goin' " jam brought out additional guests Casey Driessen on fiddle and the peripatetic Bryn Davies, who literally shared Ben Kaufman's bass in an extravagant solo. The crowd, usually following the "sit down and listen" rule, was on its feet from the first note and danced until the final encore tune, "Troubled Mind".

"Life is way too serious to be serious about . . . Turn off the TV and go out and pick."

Buck Buckner

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Friday, July 28, 2006

RockyGrass 2006 Friday, Part 1

The end of July? Must be time for the 34th annual RockyGrass festival. Located in the heart of a scenic pocket of the Front Range, this Rocky Mountain tradition is produced by Planet Bluegrass, the same force behind the Folks Festival, Festival of the Mabon, and the possibly misnamed Telluride Bluegrass Festival.

The Planet Bluegrass property is bounded by the swift St. Vrain River and sheer red rock cliffs. Within this multi-acre pocket of the known universe 3,500 festivarians gather each summer for the more traditionally-minded of the PB fests.

As is customary, the opening act for RockyGrass is the winner of the revious year's band competition. This meant the stage was first graced by the energetic old-timey sounds of Town Mountain, a product of the fertile Asheville, North Carolina music scene. Mixing original tunes with traditional and proto-bluegrass standards, this quintet recalls the roots of this genre while extending its boundaries in a respectfully creative way. How's this for an ecelctic philosophy: "Jimmy Martin - the James Brown of Bluegrass."

Robert Greer of Town Mountain

Next up is fiddle legend Richard Greene, an alumnus of Monroe's Bluegrass Boys and co-conspirator with such elder influences as David Grisman and Peter Rowan. This time around he's backed by the Barton Brothers, a talented trio featuring mando, banjo and double base. Greene's solid footing in the foundations of bluegrass and the Barton's Californiated acoustic produce an interesting hybrid that got more than a few of the audience on their feet despite the heat of this summer day in the Rockies.

Richard Greene

The afternoon's schedule promises to be a hot one, as the high temp is expected to reach the upper 90's (really brutal at an altitude of over 5,000 feet) and sets by the Tony Trischka Bluegrass Band featuring Roland White and an anticipated set by the Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet.

All this is only preparation for this evening's lineup of Douglas, Barenberg and Meyer followed by first-time RockyGrass headliners the Yonder Mlountain String Band.


Adam Carlos of Hands of Music. Adam specializes in uniquely  music-fan-oriented art. He captures images of the hands of musicians and transforms the photos into exquisitely-detailed monochrome drawings. With subjects ranging from Bill Monroe to Steve Earle, and using media as varied as tee shirts and lithography, Hands of Music has something to offer every festivarian.  

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Grey Fox mail list debates Steve Earle

There is lots of post-festival discussion on the Grey Fox listserv of Steve Earle's politics and language in his Saturday night set at Grey Fox. I focused on the political content in my own posts on this blog, but the factor that generated the most complaints was the performer's salty language.

Several of the posters said they shared Earle's political views but were uncomfortable with the use of words such as "motherfucker" at a family festival. Other posters have replied that (1) Earle played in a late-night slot when the kids were in bed, (2) everyone should have known what to expect, (3) Earle sings and writes great bluegrass-style music, and (4) if people didn't like it they were free to leave.

It will come as no surprise that I am in the second camp, though I think it is great that people are speaking up and a dialogue is underway. Here's a photo that may be my one small contribution to the debate.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Not Exactly Festival-Related

But I thought this was fun. Star Wars on a Banjo.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The contest winners are in

Thanks to all who entered the Uncle Earl footwear contest. The correct answers are:

A Erin Coates
B Kristin Andreassen
C Abigail Washburn
D Rayna Gellert
E KC Groves

Congratulations to: Sue Rokos, John Walkenbach, and Tom Gannon, the first three to send in the correct answer. Festival Preview t-shirts are on the way.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Uncle Earl footwear contest

This is all I'll have time for today. Uncle Earl was one of the hits of the Grey Fox festival, mainly for its infectious style of old-time string-band music, but also for the fun outfits and stage presentation.

Here's a little contest. Match the Uncle Earl girl with her footwear. The performers, in no particular order, are Kristin Andreassen (guitar), Rayna Gellert (fiddle), KC Groves (mandolin), Erin Coates (bass) and Abigail Washburn (banjo). The shoes are up to you to figure out.

Email your picks to Festival Preview. The first three correct entries get a Festival Preview t-shirt.

Crooked Still by request

To give some coverage on the getaway day Sunday show, here are some photos from the Crooked Still set.

Aoife O'Donovan sings "Angeline the Baker" by request from a little girl in the front row.

Rushad Eggleston was incorrigible with goofy stage comments and unbelievable cello accompaniment.

Greg Lizst and Corey Dimaria rip it up.

Aoife closes the set with guest vocals by John McDonald of King Wilke.