After two days under wilting heat, the 39th annual RockyGrass festival closed Saturday with a more relaxed vibe and an interesting blend of old and new favorite acts that balanced bluegrass with modern acoustic Americana, showing that a new generation is taking the bluegrass artform and bending it across genres. There was even a little late evening shower to cool things down.
There were two younger acts that could easily slot in at Folks Festival as much as at Rockygrass. MilkDrive, a young alt-folk band from Austin, Tex., mixed jazzy-sounding instrumentals with traditional-type originals like “Getting Back.” MilkDrive’s mandolin player is Dennis Ludiker, whose sister Kimber is a fiddling champion and a member of another youth generation bluegrass ensemble, Della Mae, which played Saturday.
Another one of the Boston-based bands, Joy Kills Sorrow, straddled folk and bluegrass while balancing singer Emma Beaton’s ethereal vocals over the strong picking of guitarist Matthew Arcara and mandolin player Jacob Jolliff. The band has a new album coming out in September, and spotlighted several tracks from that release.
After the newer approach, it was back to tradition, as a special Open Road reunion got fans dancing to tunes like “Cold Wind” and “The Wandering Blues.” In addition to South Carolina transplant Caleb Roberts, Open Road brought out Lyons local Sally Van Meter on Dobro and Colorado bass player Eric Thorin.
While the main stage had a wide variety of music going on, the Wildflower Pavillion offered fans a chance to hear (and play) several artists in a smaller setting. Hot Rize banjo player Pete Wernick and his wife Joan led an open bluegrass pick, and you only needed to know four chords to participate! The Wernicks led strummers through tunes like “Little Birdy” and “Jambalaya.” The workshop is a condensed version of the bluegrass jam camps Wernick teaches. Also on tap at Wildflower was a fiddle duet between Brittany Haas and Lauren Rioux, and a Darol Anger and friends tribute to Kenny Baker. Anger graced the festival with his talents on the main stage and Wildflower all three days.
Family acts, like the Carter Family, have a long tradition in folk and bluegrass. O’Brien Party of 7 brought together Hot Rize mandolin player Tim O’Brien with his sister Mollie and brother-in-law Rich Moore, as well as four of their kids, for a take on a lot of Roger Miller tunes. The vocal harmonies were stunning, whether on tunes like “Reincarnation” or the traditional “Shut De Do,” which they sang a cappella.
Sam Bush, the “King of Telluride,” closed the festival with his only-at-RockyGrass Sam Bush Bluegrass Band. Bush’s relentlessly upbeat, almost rock approach to some songs, like “They’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” drove the festival to a rousing close. Bush also tipped a nod to Telluride in “Circles Around Me,” referencing Bridal Veil Falls. Bush’s guitarist, Stephen Mougin, harmonized well with Bush on several songs, including the John Hartford classic “Steamboat Whistle Blues.”
Click here to revisit our coverage of the 2011 Telluride Bluegrass Festival.