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.
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:
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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