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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