“There’s no place like RockyGrass, I’ll tell you what,” said bluegrass legend Del McCoury during his headlining set Friday at the 41st annual RockyGrass Festival, held at the Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons.
It was a celebration that brought together many longtime favorite performers at the festival. Many of them did double and even triple duty, playing on each day with different acts, and almost every performer throughout the weekend commented on the beauty of the setting and the appreciative audience that makes the festival such a special event.
Perhaps no artist was busier during the weekend than Tim O’Brien, who played twice Friday, once Saturday and once Sunday, and also sat in at other times. O’Brien, who used to live in Colorado and is a member of the famed Hot Rize, first stepped up early Friday afternoon as part of the Lomax Project, a band put together by banjo player Jayme Stone to explore some of the lesser-known recordings by famed folklorist Alan Lomax. O’Brien shone vocally on “Diamond Joe.”
After four other sets that afternoon, including an incredible performance by the Steeldrivers, who got the crowd up on “Better Side of Me,” as well as the Kruger Brothers, who played a spot-on cover of “People Get Ready,” O’Brien returned to the stage. He performed a solo set backed by an incredible group that had Mike Bub on standup bass, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Bryan Sutton on guitar and Casey Driessen on fiddle. O’Brien mixed in originals like “Workin'” with covers like “Tombstone Blues” to great effect, with every song a launching pad for strong solos by his band members.
Del McCoury closed Friday with a set of traditional bluegrass that showcased the 74-year-old’s incredible high lonesome voice on “Nashville Cats” and “Lonesome Wind.” While most of the artists on the day had used acoustic instruments with pickups, McCoury and his band — including sons Ronnie and Robbie and fiddler Jason Carter — simply played into microphones, going for purity of tone rather than volume.
Saturday afternoon started by showcasing the next generation in the form of the Deadly Gentlemen, a group of young pickers that have been playing bluegrass for years, including Sam Grisman, son of David Grisman on bass.
Many in the audience had been anticipating the set by Sam Bush and Del McCoury, and the two legends didn’t disappoint, recreating the feel of the picks that they have in their houses in Nashville. Whether it was originals like “I’m Blue” or classic bluegrass songs like “High on a Mountain,” the duo cast a spell over the audience with strong picking and singing.
Carolina Chocolate Drops took the stage for the dinner set just as a light rain started falling. If anyone can make an audience forget inclement weather, it’s the Drops, who got the crowd up and dancing on “Run Mountain” and the tender waltz “Leaving Eden.” Fiddler Rhiannon Giddens even sang one tune in Gaelic.
O’Brien was back in Saturday’s closing set as part of Dobro player Jerry Douglas’ tribute to Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, a set titled “The Earls of Leicester.” The sextet tore through many Flatt and Scruggs’ favorites, including “Martha White” and “Get in Line Brother.”
For many festivarians, part of the attraction of RockyGrass is the campground picking. Indeed, it sometimes seems like the music on stage is secondary, an inspiration for those listening to apply to their own playing. As the last notes rang out Saturday, the picks, which had been going on all day in the campground, picked up in number and intensity, with many lasting almost all night. Those who weren’t picking either listened in or got a space in line for the tarp run on Sunday morning.
As is tradition, Sunday started with a gospel set, this one from Douglas and fellow Dobro player Rob Ickes, who delighted the crowd with a couple of instrumental takes on Beatles’ songs, including “Good Day Sunshine,” ironic considering the overcast skies. A steady drizzle started toward the end of their set, and while it never turned into a downpour, the rain did seem to turn the mood of the festival to something almost Scotts-Irish.
The Planet has always worked to take care of local, upcoming bluegrass acts, from Leftover Salmon to String Cheese Incident to Yonder Mountain String Band. In that tradition, Fort Collins band Head for the Hills made its RockyGrass main stage debut, playing the title song of the band’s album, “Blue Ruin,” to get the crowd to dance the rain away. On the encore, the band played “Call Me the Breeze” to honor J.J. Cale, who died Saturday.
“Playing the main stage at RockyGrass was probably the most amazing feeling we’ve had so far as a band,” said guitarist Adam Kinghorn. “Being a Colorado band, that’s kind of the pinnacle of what you want to do as a bluegrass group, so that was really special for us.”
O’Brien made his fourth appearance of the festival accompanying mandolin virtuoso Andy Statman and the Andy Statman Trio on an exploration of everything from jazz to gospel, including the incredible “Mando at the Flambo,” a brilliant instrumental that spotlighted Statman’s technical and compositional skills.
The Deadly Gentleman made its second appearance in an afternoon set at a packed Wildflower Pavillion, showing off different tunes than they had played Saturday, including mandolinist Dominick Leslie’s “‘Rado Times,” an instrumental tribute to his home state of Colorado.
To close the festival, the Planet had three legends lined up. First was Peter Rowan, who got his start playing with bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe. Rowan tipped a nod to his past on “Little Maggie,” but also spotlighted several songs from his new CD, including “Letter from Beyond,” which Rowan introduced by saying it sometimes felt like Monroe was standing next to him singing.
In one of the more unusual pairings of the weekend, Keller Williams paired with the Traveling McCourys (Ronnie, Robby, Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram). Williams, acting as ringmaster, led the band through covers of the Grateful Dead’s “Candyman,” Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff,” crazy originals like “Bumper Sticker” and Keller originals like “Freaker by the Speaker,” done in bluegrass style. Ronnie and Bartram sang harmonies while Williams took the lead.
Sam Bush, the “King of Telluride,” closed the 41st RockyGrass. When Bush plays RockyGrass, he is billed as the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band, in part because he doesn’t use his electric mandolin and the drum kit is scaled way back. Still, the set included many favorites, including “They’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” and “Whayasay,” leaving fans with fantastic playing and showmanship to send them home happy.