2022 Bluegrass in la Roche – Europe’s largest bluegrass festival

Country Gongbong at the 2022 Bluegrass in la Roche – photo by Emmanuel Marin

This report on the 2022 Bluegrass in la Roche festival is a contribution from Michael Luchtan.

August 3-7, the town of la Roche sur Foron, located in the French Alps, once again became home to the largest bluegrass festival in Europe. Cancelled in 2020, highly scaled back in 2021, this year bluegrass aficionados came out in full force thanks to the hard work of festival organizers Christopher Howard Williams and Didier Philippe, and an indispensable team of 250 volunteers.

The festival had actually started earlier in the week, when instructors from the Colorado band Rapidgrass, who were playing at the festival, came in early to teach instrumental workshops side by side with local french bluegrass musicians like Raphael Maillet, to bluegrass musicians from France and beyond who had traveled to this small town just 30 minutes south of Geneva. The bands that formed in the workshop opened the festival on Thursday afternoon.

The festival featured over 30 bands from America, Europe, and even Asia. Country Gongbong is a promising bluegrass band from South Korea. They made their western debut at la Roche after the organizer, Christopher Howard Williams, discovered them online during a virtual IBMA showcase. Some of the highlights from Europe include Emmy & the Bluegrass Pals from the Netherlands who played steady bluegrass, Long Way Home, a duo who meet in ETSU’s bluegrass departament but are now based in Europe, the German based bluegrass group Bunch of Grass, and the legendary mandolinist from Czech Republic, Radim Zenkel, who performed in two different formations with the multi instrumentalist, Ondra Kozák. Carol Duran, Lluís Gómez, Maribel Rivero, and Javier Vaquero presented arguably the most inspired and innovative concert of the festival with FlamenGrass, a mixture of bluegrass with the flamenco music from their native Spain. Their professionalism and musical talent kept the crowd entranced and talking about the performance for hours afterwards.

On Saturday, Kids on Bluegrass made its debut in Europe, with help from the European Bluegrass Music Association and the French jam hall association. Four instructors, ti Pierre (from France), Maribel Rivero, Lluís Gómez (both from Spain), and Juilia Zech (from Germany) taught a workshop each morning to a group of kids from around Europe, and they performed at noon on Saturday for a supportive crowd.

One of the headlining acts, Crying Uncle, grew out of the original Kids on Bluegrass, which was started in California at the legendary CBA Father’s Day Festival. This young act was one of the headliners from America and their performance was inspiring to the local musicians who have not had the advantages of growing up in the bluegrass festival season culture that lives and breathes in the states.

The festival was more than just the main stage: the principal festival grounds had two stages and down the street was another one in front of the city hall. In addition to the shows, there was an active campground, a college dormitory taken over by visiting musicians, plus jam sessions on restaurant terraces, park benches, and in pubs all across the city. Inside the main festival grounds there were vendors selling bluegrass and Americana related goods, a well run kitchen with great food for a fair price, bars with several world class beers and wines to choose from, a dessert tent serving crepes, ice cream, and other goodies, a VIP tent where artists could relax and interact with one another, an instrument check where you could leave your instrument for a bit, all staffed by an amazing crew of 250 volunteers from the lovely town of La Roche. In the Luthiers building, which featured some of the best luthiers in Europe, you could meet Piotr Bulas from Poland, along with Tom Nechville from the USA, and festival goers had the opportunity to try out the travel mandolin built and donated for the festival by French luthier Jean Lacote.

Sunday was the final day for the festival, and we got to see one more time some of the great bands from the USA that La Roche had brought over. Mike Compton, who has had an influence on mandolin players in Europe for some years, and his partner Joe Newberry, played once more, as did Missy Raines, the award winning bass player and band leader, and her band Allegheny. It’s worthwhile to note that the mandolin player from her band, Tristan Scroggins, also grew up in the Kids on Bluegrass in California.

I hope that the Kids on Bluegrass in Europe, started this year at la Roche, can one day produce such talented bluegrass musicians as the young men who performed for us this year in the Crying Uncle band, whose last performance on Sunday night brought down the house with an encore performance of Neil Young’s Old Man. The final act was a last minute substitute, and Rapidgrass rose to the challenge to present yet another set, completely different this time. Their musical selection this time paid tribute to the great and lasting influence that France has given to musicians world wide, Manouche, or as it is better known in the states, gypsy jazz.

The festival closed with a moment of sadness. Just that morning we learned that Anthony Hanigan had died after a long battle with cancer. Anthony and his band the Hickory Project was the first American to play la Roche, and he was a big factor in it’s success. Many of his friends were gathered at la Roche, one of his favorite places, and for the last song of the festival everyone joined in for a collective rendition of the Grateful Dead song, and acoustic picker’s classic, Ripple. At the end, the tired but appreciative musicians and music lovers walked home through the streets of this picturesque french village in the shadows of the Alps feeling the ripples of love and international friendship that bluegrass music helps create.