Review by Fast Eddy
Community. Simply stated, this one word sums up my experience at the 41st annual RockyGrass Festival in Lyons, Colorado. From the festivarians to the performers, to the staff and volunteers, everyone came together in a seamless fashion to make the 41st annual an incredible weekend.
This sense of community was found everywhere at the festival. The campgrounds provided an outlet for the pickin’ festivarians to come together and hone their chops while other pedestrians wandered about and could easily stop by numerous picks and listen to the high lonesome sound. The performers also added to the community by stopping by local late night pick circles to add to the jamboree. Throughout the entire festival, there was a sense of “we are all in this together.”
The staff and volunteers did a great job of keeping everyone safe and kept the festival moving along. Sam Bush, during his set with Del, gave credit exclaiming, “if you haven’t noticed any problems, it’s because the staff and volunteers of Planet Bluegrass are doing such a fine job.” A truthful nod and sentiment to the fine job they did.
Friday, July 26
The Lomax Project, featuring Jayme Stone, Tim O’Brien, Bruce Molsky & Friends, paid homage to The Lomax Brothers field recordings. Jayme Stone’s banjo playing tastefully catered to the tunes, melodies and at times intricate rhythms. On some tunes, Tim O’Brien’s fiddle playing echoed through the field and helped the crowd forget about the hot weather they were enduring. I especially enjoyed when the group performed the a capella version of “Sing 99 and 90.” The singers’ voices blended together perfectly to create a heart-warming sound. Again, the community was connected through the music.
The Kruger Brothers took the stage at 5:30 p.m. and provided the crowd with their contemporary soulful sound. The always impressive Jens Kruger seamlessly flowed from melody to melody on his banjo. His technique was spot on and his tone was incredible. The Kruger Brothers original composition “Watches the Clouds Go By” was a highlight and felt like a perfect match to the cooling temperatures.
After the Kruger Brothers, I retreated to the campsite and picked a few tunes with some friends. The theme of listening to some music and then being inspired to pick a few with friends was constant throughout the entire festival. Feeling a bit worn-out from the sun and other tasty treats, I decided to take a “time out” and listen to the Tim O’Brien set from my tent. After a much needed nap, I rolled out to catch Friday’s headliner, The Del McCoury Band.
I must admit, I was a bit pensive at first about seeing McCoury and the boys, but as their set went on, I switched from judgment to enjoyment. The McCourys played a high-energy set that switched from originals to traditional tunes. Some tunes had blazing tempos while others slowed it down and gave the festivarians a chance to breath. Del McCoury is 74 years old and can still effortlessly belt out a high lonesome tune. Considering his age, we were all lucky to witness a living legend that has perfected his art. Current bass player, Alan Bartman, provided the high point of the night with his rendition of “The Kentucky Waltz.” His voice reminded me more of the old time crooner than the old timey holler. I left McCoury’s set feeling energized and ready to take on the campground and the late night pickin’ festivities.
The entire campground was charged and everyone was ready to pick, sing and party. I floated with some friends from campsite to campsite and picked as much as I could. After a few hours, I put my banjo away and went to listen to some picks. That is when I stumbled across Rushad Eggleston thumping away on his magical cello, wandering around the campground. Performers will frequently visit the campgrounds and add their musical voices to any of the picks. Thus strengthening the growing sense of community that was all around the festival. At some point I headed to my tent for a nap when the sky started to develop a tint of blue.
Saturday, July 27
My friends and I strolled down to main stage around 9:30 a.m. to listen to the instrument contest finalists. We were there to support our friends Alan on dobro and Katie on fiddle. We were all excited to find out that our friends had won the competition on their instrument a short while later.
The Deadly Gentlemen began their set around 11:30 a.m. and commanded everyone’s attention with a blazing opener. I was excited to hear their sound and enjoyed their set. I appreciated their technical contribution to the newgrass genre. The highlight came for me when – metal guitarist turned newgrasser – Stash Wyslouch blazed though his metal inspired instrumental tune. The whole band was locked in and did a great job of awakening the sleepy crowd.
After the Deadly Gentlemen’s set, I walked over to the Wildflower Pavilion to checkout the band competition and support my friends in the She Said String Band. Each group came out and wailed through their tunes with the hope of advancing to the finals the next day. Even though my friends played well, they did not make it. Oh well, there is always next year.
Rushad Eggleston is currently one of my favorite musicians. Hence this passage may seem a bit biased. During his tenure with the Boston-based band Crooked Still, Eggleston showed bluegrassers that the cello, like its cousin the upright bass, has a home in the bluegrass world. Eggleston can catch a melody on the cello and deliver it with a lot power and groove. The listener almost had no chance of resisting the urge to tap their feet or get up and groove a long to his playing. After leaving Crooked Still, Eggleston started his pun- inspired band Tornado Rider. Please, if you have not listened to Tornado Rider, I urge to take a half hour or so and watch a few videos on YouTube; they might just change your life.
Eggleston graced the Wildflower Pavilion stage wearing a flamboyant bellbottom-esque outfit. He wore his cello like a guitar and had a headset microphone; all of which were wireless. From start to finish, Eggleston entertained the crowd while educating us on the different possibilities of the cello in music. He played it in a traditional sense with the bow, he played it with a guitar pick and then played some country blues with his fingers. All the while, he jumped on stage, ran up and down the aisle and led the crowd in various sing-a-longs. At times, he had the entire crowd laughing hysterically and other times he had them intently listening and in awe of his skills. A true entertainer.
I returned to the main stage around 5:45 p.m. to catch the rest of Del McCoury and Sam Bush’s set. This was a treat. The camaraderie and respect the two had for each other come through in each song. The field was packed with festivarians soaking in the duo’s high lonesome harmonies and grassy instrumental sounds. The highlight for me came during the encore when Sam Bush picked a rendition of Bill Monroe’s “My Last Days on Earth.” The entire crowd was speechless and fully attentive when Bush plucked the opening lines to the tune. You could literally hear the haunting melody echo through the Planet Bluegrass ranch and canyon. A truly moving musical moment.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops took the stage around 7:15 p.m. and delivered a powerful performance. The group played a variety of tunes from old timey, to rags, to sea shanties. The Chocolate Drops also played the highest energy set of the festival. I found their sound to be a refreshing departure from the normal bass thumping bluegrass rhythms you normally associate with bluegrass. They also added a nice diverse element to the festival.
Sunday, July 28th
Sunday morning found me listening to the band competition finals, eating festy food and hanging out with some good friends. I eventually headed to the main stage for The Andy Statman Trio with Tim O’Brien and Michael Cleveland around 3:15 p.m. Like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the Andy Statman Trio brought a diverse and refreshing sound to the festival. Statman opened his set playing his clarinet and firing his way through some traditional Klezmer tunes. The weather was a bit cloudy and rainy, but Statman’s playing helped everyone forget about it for a while.
Sam Bush wrapped up the festival. He played a great set filled with traditional, newgrass, country and rock tunes. I have nothing but respect for Sam Bush and his playing. My buddy and I were in awe that Bush is 61 years old and still playing with as much fire as he did when he was in his 20s. I also enjoyed listening to Scott Vestal’s banjo playing. I think he is the perfect complement to Bush’s music. Sam Bush is also a great entertainer that brings everyone together. Through his music and stage presence, Bush willingly shares his love for the music, which in turn becomes contagious for the crowd.
RockyGrass is an incredible festival that brings everyone together for a few days to pick, share in some music and share in some good times. Even as I write this, I’m amazed by the sense of community that I see from my friends posting pictures on Facebook. Some shots are from the campsite while others show a picture with one of their musical heroes. For me, RockyGrass is the reason I moved to Colorado. I volunteered during the 2000 fest and was blown away by the sense of community the festival and state had to offer. The 41st RockyGrass may be in the books, but the inspiration and friendships will keep us all “truckin’ on down the line” until the next one.