2023 Bluegrass in La Roche report

The Truffle Valley Boys at Bluegrass in La Roche 2023 – photo © Elliot Siff

Hello bluegrass friends. This past week I had the pleasure of attending the Bluegrass in La Roche festival in the French Alps. Recently nominated for the event of the year by the IBMA, over the last 18 years La Roche has become the most important event in European bluegrass, providing an opportunity for musicians from around the world to meet and share music with each other.  

This was my second year at Bluegrass in La Roche, and I am happy to share some of my personal experiences with you here. 

The festival occurs on the first weekend in August, stretching for five days, two stages, and “off” performances at local restaurants near the festival grounds. With my son in tow, who attended the Kids On Bluegrass Europe camp that occurs simultaneously with the festival, I didn’t have the opportunity to see everything, and I missed the last band of every night. A special shout out to those bands, who represent some of the best in European bluegrass and could have given the performance of a lifetime:

 La Roche sur-Furon is easily accessible by car and train.  

We left Barcelona early Tuesday morning, spent the night in Avignon, ad arrived in La Roche on Wednesday afternoon, traveling by regional trains.

Traditionally, Wednesday evening at the Bluegrass in La Roche festival features bands playing at local restaurants in the quaint downtown of the city. The sporadic, rather light rain dampened some outdoor performances, but could not vanquish them. I saw a great French trio called Five and Dime playing old time while I was eating a tasty kebab at Efsan Kebab, and then I walked over to see Grassy Strings, a guitar mandolin duo from India, play the first of three shows outside of the local Indian restaurant, Noor Jahan. Because of the sporadic rain, the indoor venues were packed, and I could only stand outside the Brasserie Mino to listen to Blue Lass, from Great Britain, sing harmonies to an appreciative full house.

Thursday was the start of the Kids on Bluegrass Europe (KOBE) camp, and after dropping my son off in the morning, I made my way downtown, passing through a parking lot with a weekly open air market where I picked up a long, beautiful braid of garlic to bring home for the family. I met my musical friend from Barcelona, Joan Manel, near the pavilion off the square, where vendors had set up to sell records, sheet music, and all sorts of musician related merchandise like strings, picks, straps, etc.  He was playing mandolin with two French gentlemen. They still needed a guitar player and singer and invited me to join. We made a nice quartet of mandolin, banjo, guitar, and harmonica and had a lovely time. Of course, it wasn’t just us making impromptu jams. Like other bluegrass festivals, musicians were everywhere, carting their instruments around and looking for a corner to jam in.  

One of the reasons there was a disproportionate number of bluegrass musicians walking around is because there was an instructional camp the week before the festival. Every year the festival organizers will fly one of the bands from America in early to help teach the camp with renowned French bluegrass instructors. Thursday evening, the festival grounds opened with bands from the instructional camp, and then the official lineup began.

Sunshine in Ohio had a large ensemble onstage, with energetic arrangements, a heavenly string section, and impressive harmonies, a great performance that set the stage for the whole festival.

Damn Tall Buildings is a trio from the US on their first visit as a band to Europe, and they had every bit the energy and musicianship to match Sunshine in Ohio with just a trio: guitar, bass, and violin.

Friday featured more “Off” concerts at lunchtime, and The Vanguards, a traditional bluegrass band from Great Britain, opened the evening main stage. Johnny and the Yooahoos put on an energetic show with good musicianship and stagecraft. They performed last year on the small stage, and showed us they had the makings for a headlining act this year with a four piece banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, and three part harmonies with a great stage presence.

The Henhouse Prowlers had the headliner spot on Friday night. The group has a non-profit arm, an organization called Bluegrass Ambassadors that uses bluegrass to bridge cultural divides, bringing bluegrass to Africa, Asia and Europe.

Saturday began with the Kids on Bluegrass Europe concert on the small stage. 14 kids from around Europe played Cripple Creek, You Are My Sunshine, and Will the Circle Be Unbroken for an enthusiastic crowd of more than parents and family. Thanks to the organizers and teachers who put this camp together, my son had a fun time and learned with the Wernick method taught by Petr Brandejs from the Czech Republic. A special thanks to Ti’Pierre and his fellow organizer, Philippe Boutet, from the French youth music program Jam Hall, teacher Thomas Marinello, and house bassist Nathalia Tournier. The KOBE website has a full report of the camp.

Grassy Strings played the last of their sets on the small stage at 2:00 in the afternoon. They had worked with the Henhouse Prowlers during a Bluegrass Ambassadors tour through India, and Nabanita Sarkar, a musician also from Calcutta, joined them onstage for a song. Nabanita was traveling with the Bluegrass Journeymen, a non-profit collective with similar initiatives as the Bluegrass Ambassadors. It’s great to see organizations working to connect individuals and cultures by tapping into music’s ability to bridge cultural divides.

Stereo Naked and Rookie Riot are two bands, from Germany and Sweden respectively, who played the small stage at La Roche last year and were given the chance to come back again on the main stage. Rookie Riot, whom you might remember from an earlier Bluegrass Today article, said they are headed to the US after LA Roche and will be rambling around the Appalachian mountains to soak up the roots of the music, so keep an eye out for these young folks if you happen to be in the region.

A big highlight for me was the opportunity to see Special Consensus, led by banjo player Greg Cahill. I was really looking forward to seeing Greg Blake perform, because he is such a good singer and a monster guitar player, but I was equally impressed with Michael Prewitt, an excellent mandolinist and a talented singer.

Special C is one of those legendary bluegrass bands with a legacy that spans over four decades. Special C might have been the oldest, but this year also featured Bluegrass Stuff, a group from Italy who have been playing, recording, and performing since 1977. And Nugget is from the same vintage, celebrating almost fifty years as keepers of the bluegrass flame in Europe. Originally from Austria, in addition to the only remaining original member, Helmut Mittereger, on mandolin, the band now has an international lineup with members from Slovakia, Netherlands, Austria, and the Czech Republic. The bassist is younger than the band!

Saturday night also featured the Tim O’Brien Band, a group from the US of such renown that little more can be said of them. It was a great opportunity for a European audience to catch these talented musicians.

Sunday – The final day

Since the kids concert was on Saturday, my son and I had Sunday morning off, and we made a short trip to Geneva for some sightseeing. Unfortunately, that meant I missed the afternoon concerts on the small stage. I missed Mathis & Benoit, although I have seen videos of this talented guitar duo online, The Yonder Boys, who were returning after playing the “Off” festival last year, and The Boatswain Brothers and the Pitch Hill Boys from Great Britain.

We made it back in time to catch The Slo County Stumblers, from the US playing a western flavored old-time music.

As the evening began to set on the last night of La Roche, The Truffle Valley Boys from Italy huddled around a mic to play music in the spirit of old time barn dance radio, with sharp matching outfits and a humorous self-effacing banter.

The last slots of the festival were for the Sunday evening “almost but not quite bluegrass” session, featuring A Murder in Mississippi from Belgium and La Foxy Family from France, playing music described as “somewhere between the Alps and the Appalachians.”

I had a great time at Bluegrass in La Roche. I highly recommend attending, you might even consider adding it to your yearly festival calendar.

Back home, we are already dusting off our French with DuoLingo and making plans for next year. Hope to see you there!

All photos © Elliot Siff

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About the Author

Michael Luchtan

Michael Luchtan is a musician and scholar raised in the Appalachian foothills of Northeast Georgia, now living in Barcelona, Spain. He has been awarded research grants from prestigious institutes such as Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in Western North Carolina, Berea College in Kentucky, and East Tennessee State University, where he received a master's degree in Appalachian Studies in 2019. Funded by a grant from the Open University of Catalonia to examine the circulation of embodied knowledge, his comprehensive research on Barcelona's bluegrass scene and its surrounding communities has positioned him as a prominent authority on European Bluegrass. As a correspondent for Bluegrass Today, he enthusiastically covers festivals, events, and communities, sharing his unique perspective on the genre's global resonance.