The RockyGrass festival celebrated its 40th anniversary in fine style over the weekend, bringing together artists that represent both classic bluegrass and cutting edge acoustic music.
“This is the first day of a three-day day,” Chris Thile joked during his set with Michael Daves early Friday afternoon. Thile played two full sets that day, and also sat in with two other artists, earning the “marathon man” title for the day.
Banjo player Noam Pickelny, runner-up to Thile for the title, delivered the first technically-brilliant set of the weekend on Friday, ripping into classic murder ballads like “Pretty Polly” while showcasing a very dry sense of humor.
Thile’s set with Daves was a fun romp, as the duo took requests from the audience, joked with the crowd, and sang in a classic high-mountain sound on tunes like “Whippoorwill.”
New-school artists Trampled by Turtles earned the distinction of being the only band to have amplifiers for all of their instruments. Their normal high-energy punk-style playing on songs like “Walt Whitman” was offset by a string of quiet ballads like “Alone.”
Thile returned with his virtuoso cohorts in the Punch Brothers for what was arguably the best set of the weekend. On the instrumental “Movement in Location,” Gabe Witcher’s fiddle playing mimicked an indie-rock keyboard drone, while a cover of “Ophelia” paid tribute to Levon Helm.
Sam Bush closed the first day with a well-received set of many of his favorite songs, including “Eight More Miles to Lousiville,” under an intermittent drizzle. On the encore, Bush brought out Peter Rowan, Jeff Austin and Casey Driessen for a “cluster-pluck” on “Sitting on Top of the World.”
After the initial mad dash for tarp space Saturday, most people relaxed while listening to the instrument contest finals. The Wildflower Pavilion was packed to overflowing for a noon workshop with Béla Fleck, Jesse McReynolds and Ronnie McCoury.
Main stage performances by Red Molly, which shone on “Walk Besides Me,” and the Hillbenders, who did an off-the-wall bluegrass cover of “Talking in Your Sleep,” set the stage for the Saturday evening performances.
The Infamous Stringdusters brought everyone to their feet with a rousing set that included a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone” and originals like “The Hitchhiker.”
Perhaps one of the most haunting moments of the festival was hearing 85-year-old Dr. Ralph Stanley, who was prevented from playing the banjo by his arthritis, sing an a cappella version of “O Death.” Stanley, looking frail, also touched the crowd with “Angel Band.”
Fleck got together with Ronnie McCoury, Jason Carter, Danny Paisley and Alan Bartram to close Saturday night with a classic set of traditional bluegrass, stepping up on old standards like “Dig a Hole” and “Shady Grove” to the delight of the crowd.
Saturday night was a big night for after-festival picking. Those who wanted a show got a treat with a late-night performance by Greensky Bluegrass in the Wildflower Pavilion. Many campground picking sessions went on as well, with varying levels of proficiency. While some were quite enjoyable, hearing a fast-paced bluegrass version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” is something no one should be subjected to.
Sunday gave the festivarians a cornucopia of diverse tunes, including many, many Grateful Dead covers. After hearing both the Blue Canyon Boys and Jesse McReynolds cover the Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower,” then hearing McReynolds and Seldom Scene both cover John Prine’s “Paradise,” it made you wonder whether the artists should share their setlists before playing.
McReynolds played plenty of other Dead tunes, including a somber “Black Muddy River” and a raring take on “Alabama Getaway.”
Rain, which had fallen intermittently during the first two days, finally came in earnest during the Emmitt-Nershi Band set, which got the crowd on its feet dancing the chill away on a fiery “Breaking Through,” with a great fiddle solo by Jason Carter. On a side note, it was the third consecutive Colorado show (two with String Cheese) in which Bill Nershi had brought rain by playing a water-themed song, in this case “Black Clouds.”
Carter returned with his cohorts in the Travelling McCourys, Ronnie and Robbie McCoury, as the backing band for a bluegrass set by Peter Rowan that honored Bill Monroe, including a sweet and sad “Walls of Time.”
Tim O’Brien and many friends, including his Hot Rize cohort Pete Wernick and bassist Edgar Meyer, brought RockyGrass to a perfect close with a brilliant set, including “Land’s End” and “This Land is Your Land.”