Hot Rize performed as one dozens of folk, bluegrass, roots and Americana-oriented performers at the 37th annual Rockygrass Festival in Lyons last Friday-Sunday. Photos by Brian Carney.
There’s nothing quite like pulling up to the Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons on a hot July day, making your way onto the grounds and stepping into the St. Vrain River for cooling wade while excellent musicians deliver the goods on the stage, filling the air with a brilliant musicianship, classic and new songs alike.
The music, combined with a crowd permeated with people who return year after year, leads the festival to feel, in the words of performer Sarah Jarosz (above), “like a big family reunion.” Jarosz, an up-and-coming Austin multi-instrumentalist, got her start by attending the RockyGrass Academy, an instructional week held the week before the festival, and has returned year after year.
Many performers at the 37th annual Rockygrass Festival, which took place July 24-26, alluded to having attended and taught at the Academy during the preceding week, including fiddler Casey Driessen, bass players Bryn Davies and Mark Schatz, guitarist Jim Hurst and Bearfoot.
So it was that, after negotiating ridiculous amounts of early-afternoon traffic in Denver and getting into Lyons (what idiot redesigned I-25 north to have a choke point between Broadway and Santa Fe during T-REX), that I sat down and prepared to be beguiled by brilliant performances for three days. While there were some letdowns, and the weather made Saturday less than pleasant, once again the Festival delivered enough highlights to last a summer.
First up for me on Friday were Darol Anger and Mike Marshall, who, an act of trans-oceanic pollination, shared the stage with Väsen, a bluegrass-oriented group from Sweden. Mike and Darol kicked off their set with “Borealis,” an instrumental showcasing Anger’s emotionally precise fiddling, done on a crazy looking striped violin. Väsen played several instrumentals, with Olov Johansson playing a nyckelharpa, a crazy-looking instrument that looks like a cross between a violin and a piano; the player hits wooden pegs with the left hand to sound notes while bowing with the right. All five meshed on a polska, a Swedish-style piece written by Marshall.
Longtime Planet Bluegrass festival performer Peter Rowan was next up with the dinner set, mixing in old favorites like “Panama Red” with clever ones like “Chopping Down the Trees for Jesus.” With Rowan, it’s all about his voice, and the songs tend to run together into one long, similar sound after a while.
If you want traditional sounding-bluegrass played by a super group, it’s hard to top the Del McCoury band. Guitarist/singer Del McCoury, joined by his sons Ronnie on mandolin and Robby on banjo, as well as powerhouse fiddler Jason Carter and bass player Alan Bartram, showcased their instrumental prowess on a variety of songs. Ronnie and Jason had excellent interplay on “Thanks a Lot,” while Bertram stepped up to the mic on “Rocky Road Blues.”
The Sam Bush Bluegrass Band closed the first night of the festival with a two-hour plus set. While Bush joked that the show, which they only play at RockyGrass, allows them to be quieter, it’s harder to take that seriously when he has a drummer onstage. Nevertheless, the set list was more traditionally-oriented, though Bush and company played an extended “Whayasay” early and really peaked with a set-closing “Same Ol’ River,” with guitarist Stephen Mougin taking a two-minute plus melodic solo and banjo player Scott Vestal showcasing his playing on a shorter one.
RockyGrass is all about group playing, whether it’s onstage or in the late-night campground picking sessions, so for an encore, Bush garnered many performers from the day for a three-song jam. Marshall, Anger, Mikael Marin (from Väsen), Ronnie, Rob, and Del McCoury, Bartram, and several performers who hadn’t been on the main stage — such as Yonder Mountain String Band mandolin player Jeff Austin, Dobro player Rob Ickes, Schatz, and fiddler Andy Leftwich — all came out for a three-song encore with Sam as ringmaster, starting with “Sweetheart of Mine,” sung by Del and Sam, and finishing with “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky,” with all the musicians taking solos, and some switching instruments during the jam.
Saturday kicked off early with Anchorage, Alaska’s Bearfoot. Jason Norris picked up the fiddle for a Cajun duo with Angela Oudean on “Rock the Cradle Joe,” while lead singer Odessa Jorgensen harmonized beautifully with the rest of the band on the sexy a cappella “Good in the Kitchen” from their latest CD, “Doors and Windows.”
Swiss musicians the Kruger Brothers found a good groove on a bouncy “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” while violin virtuoso Michael Cleveland dazzled on traditional material, including a Pete Wernick tune called “It’s in My Mind to Ramble.”
One of the excellent aspects of a Planet Bluegrass festival is the “workshops” held in the small Wildflower Pavilion performance space. Saturday afternoon, Driessen dazzled on violin, outshining what was going on out at the main stage. Driessen showed brilliant sense of rhythm violin playing while singing “Working on a Building,” and took several questions from the audience, including one about his pedalboard, which includes a loop station that he put to good use in creating a version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” brilliantly layering all the parts on the fiddle. Darrell Scott and Davies joined in on “Boogie on Reggae Woman.”
As bluegrass supergroup California showcased Byron Berline’s skills on fiddle on “Gold Rush” and harmonized on “Pig in a Pen,” the rain moved in and stayed in alternating drizzle and downpours for the rest of the night. The rain added an interesting atmosphere to Claire Lynch’s fey voice on “Up to Settle Down,” with Schatz adding a cool slapback bass line.
While Driessen’s set was the only mind-blowing performance during the day, the evening session kicked off in grand style with Earl Scruggs, one of the founding fathers of bluegrass. Scruggs invented the three-finger roll technique on the banjo and was a member of Bill Monroe’s band before heading out with Lester Flatt and bringing bluegrass to Hollywood with “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” two songs he dazzled on at the ripe age of 85 Saturday under a steady rain.
Other highlights of his set included a soulful “In the Pines,” with Scruggs’ son Randy playing a Fender Telecaster, “Earl’s Breakdown,” and the “Lonesome Ruben” encore.
Saturday closed with a performance by Steve Earle and the Bluegrass Dukes, comprised of Scott on banjo, Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Driessen and bass player Dennis Crouch. Playing around a single microphone, the band played a mellow set in the chill of the rain. Driessen stepped up with brilliant fiddle on “Hometown Blues” while Scott and O’Brien harmonized well on “Raleigh and Spencer,” and Earle introduced the political “Jerusalem” by saying he’d sing it until it came true. Earle encored with a dreamy “Copperhead Road.”
Fans who hadn’t had enough music flocked to the Wildflower Pavilion for a late night set from Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers. Red and his band, including Waldo Otto on steel guitar, electric guitarist Wendell Mercantile and bass player Swade, have been known for inexplicably following Hot Rize around the country, begging Colorado’s preeminent bluegrass band to allow them to play while Hot Rize rested their blazing fingers, and Tim O’Brien, Nick Forster, Pete Wernick and the late Charles Sawtelle, who has been replaced by guitarist Bryan Sutton, have been known to, unfortunately, indulge them.
Red and company indulged in their western swing style music on “Always Late” and “Buffalo Gals,” as well as their version of ’60s hits “Red Remembers the ’60s.”
Sunday started under clear sunny skies, and the mud dried out for the most part. While rain threatened in the afternoon, festival-goers were spared Mother Nature’s tears and were rewarded with several excellent sets.
Lyons locals KC Groves and the Blue Maddies kicked off the day with a traditional gospel set, including “Glory Train.” Dobro player Todd Livingston, another Lyons local currently touring with Earl Scruggs, joined in, and also brought out Evergreen resident and mandolin player Dominick Leslie out for a duet on “Wade in the Water.”
Every year, RockyGrass hosts a band contest. While 2002 winners the Steep Canyon Rangers were ripping it up on the main stage, showcasing fiddle player Nicky Sanders on a searing “Orange Blossom Special,” San Francisco quartet 49 Special won this year’s contest in the Wildflower Pavilion, earning themselves a main stage appearance at next year’s RockyGrass.
Jarosz, who first played a tweener set on the main stage at the age of 11 after attending the Academy, got her first full billing on the main stage in the afternoon, mixing in strong covers like O’Brien’s “Land’s End” with original songs from her debut CD “Songs Up in Her Head,” including an excellent, melancholy “Tell Me True,” on which she played clawhammer-style banjo. For an encore, Jarosz paid tribute to her first appearance on the mainstage back in 2002, repeating her emotive “Shenandoah.”
Darrell Scott might be one of America’s greatest songwriters, and his songs have appeared on over 70 CDs. The Dixie Chicks had a hit with his “Long Time Gone,” from a CD he did with O’Brien called “Real Time.” O’Brien joined Scott, along with Davies and banjo player Matt Flinner of Leftover Salmon, for a great afternoon set, kicking into high gear early with “Family Tree,” with Davies belting brilliant harmony vocals. Scott, who has written so many excellent songs, showcased several songs from his 2008 collection of covers, “Modern Hymns,” including a too-fast version of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going” and a sly “Jesus Was a Capricorn.” Other highlights included “Banjo Clark,” with excellent fiddling from O’Brien, and a fierce version of “With a Memory Like Mine.”
Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass played the dinner set, a slight downer after the two brilliant preceding performances. Paisley sang much in the style of Bill Monroe during his set, including a good “Little Maggie.”
Festival-goers looking at the lineup for RockyGrass 2009 saw TBA, or Special Guests, listed in the 6:45 p.m. slot. Reading the program description, it was easy to glean that the guests were Nederland’s Yonder Mountain String Band, returning to Lyons 10 years after their first performance there. Yonder dedicated their set to KGNU’s Daniel “Buck” Buckner, who used to emcee RockyGrass. The band also made joking references to Steve Martin, who was originally rumored to be the TBA artist.
Yonder’s high-energy “speedgrass” brought most of the crowd to their feet, dancing along to tunes like “Boatman.” Austin and guitarist Adam Aijala shined early on “Casualty,” while the band displayed a pop sensibility on “Complicated,” from their forthcoming album. A long “Traffic Jam” closed the show, with Dave Johnston stepping up on banjo; bass player Ben Kaufman introduced the song by saying it was the second he ever wrote, and he didn’t need to play nearly the number of notes as his bandmates. The encore included a smooth “Troubled Mind.”
Hot Rize ended the festival, playing many crowd favorites, starting early with excellent harmonies on “Blue Night” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.” Wernick stepped up with excellent banjo work on “Frank’s Blues.”
Red Knuckles and the boys somehow cajoled Hot Rize into taking a break and stepped out late in the set with “I Know My Baby Loves Me.” Mercantile didn’t want to leave the stage however, vamping on “Piles of Styles” before Sutton reached over and pulled his guitar cord out of the amp, allowing Hot Rize to play a brilliant “High on a Mountain.”
Aijala, Austin, and Johnston joined in on the encore of “Won’t You Come and Go” and “Life’s Too Short,” closing the 37th RockyGrass in grand style.
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Brian Carney is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.
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