Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers at RockyGrass 2019 – photo by Kevin Slick
One of my favorite historical figures is the legendary designer Charles Eames. He said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.” I find this quote both profound and inspirational in countless ways (replace “design with “music”), and it seems to be a guiding principle for the RockyGrass festival. Planet Bluegrass shows excellent attention to detail as they serve up the best in traditional bluegrass, showcase some of the most adventurous new acoustic music, launch noble environmental efforts (“sustainable festivation”), support great food vendors – and it all happens on a gorgeous and spectacularly manicured festival grounds. While every act on the Main Stage killed, I am choosing to highlight a few things that struck me above and beyond the extraordinary cavalcade of vocal harmonies and fast 16th notes (i.e., any artist not included here is only for reasons of concision).
Lonesome Ace Stringband
There is something unique to this guitar-less trio from the Great White North playing old-time music. Without the midrange all taken up, it leaves space for Chris Coole’s top-notch clawhammer banjo playing, and highlights all the detail in his delivery. Besides, with no guitar, there is more space for John Showman’s modern fiddle chop to carry the rhythm and drive the band. Max Heineman’s singing brings it all over the top. After their mainstage set, they played another phenomenal hour of just John Hartford tunes in the Wildflower Pavillion.
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen
Amidst the unabashed testosterone on stage with this band, I find a compelling honesty to their music and delivery. And they can kill! After cranking the energy up to 10 for most of the set, they laid into the Mike Munford showpiece, Line Drive, and brought it up to 11. After all that, they brought it up to 12 (maybe 13) with a blazing 10-minute closer of the Allman Brothers’ Whipping Post. We all had to cool off in the St. Vrain River after that set.
Edgar Meyer, Mike Marshall, and George Meyer
Most bluegrass festivals reserve their primetime slots for hard-driving seasoned acts the fans can all count on for a good time. Leave it to Planet Bluegrass to program deep instrumental music on Friday night. And guess what — the audience ate it up. Edgar’s son George plays the violin and, no surprise here, he sounds fantastic. They performed the second piece George every composed (as of yet unnamed), and he nailed all of Joshua Bell’s parts on the pieces from Short Trip Home (including a Death by Triple Fiddle where Mike Marshall took the best fiddle solo of the set). Other repertoire ranged from Tennessee Blues to a dazzling traditional Bulgarian piece in ⅞ to an arrangement of Edgar and Béla’s piece, Duet, for this trio.
“The most important thing is that you love what you are doing, and the second that you are not afraid of where your next idea will lead.” — Charles Eames. I am entirely taken with Che Apalache’s cross-cultural blend of bluegrass and activism. The idea of blending their political convictions (especially in this divided time) into a genre that seldom if ever confronts politics is bold and admirable. There has been previous discussion on these pages about their piece, The Wall, and here at RockyGrass, they received a standing ovation in the middle of their set for this piece about human rights on our southern border. Amongst a million reasons, the combination of phenomenal singing in both Spanish and English, their genre-hopping into traditional Japanese music, creative percussion motifs on their bluegrass instruments, and Joe Troop’s southern preacher-style introduction to an Argentinian folk song left me awestruck and inspired. Their new album, Rearrange my Heart (produced by Bela Fleck), drops August 9, and they are touring all over this year.
I’m With Her
Where have I been for the last 4 years not seeing this super-group a dozen times? The transcendent 75-minute set left me speechless. From their meticulously arranged harmonies, to their nine instruments on stage, to their incredible matching Fort Lonesome jumpsuits, the details are endless. They seem to never try to be a power trio. Instead, they are drawing the listener in more with each turn of phrase, each chorus, and every note. Highlights for me included the John Hartford classic, Long Hot Summer Day, the Bill Monroe classic, Toy Heart, and the Joni Mitchell classic, Carey.
“Art resides in the quality of doing, process is not magic.” — Charles Eames. Hawktail is incredibly thoughtful about their collaborative process, their compositional statements, not repeating themselves, and creating a singular voice amongst these four incredible musicians. While everyone is showcased in their performance, I found my attention consistently drawn to bassist Paul Kowert. He uses what is called “solo tuning” on his bass (EBEA vs. the standard EADG) which allows for more ease in bowing fiddle tunes, and a bit more projection on the upper strings. His musical voice in the band is far more pronounced than a standard bluegrass bassist, and his ability to control the dynamic flow is unparalleled. Contrasted with Punch Brothers, where the collective is built around the quintet and his role is a bit more traditional (a bit!), he shines in Hawktail. And with the indomitable fiddler Brittany Haas, they create earth-shaking fiddle tremendousness. Check out their sublime original Abbzug which is 3 minutes of fiddling, yet their meticulous orchestration over the tune draws you inside their art and process. The results, especially live, are pure magic.
Noam Pikelny and Stuart Duncan
These two titans of banjo and fiddle played a magnificent set of music and comedy. It was wonderful to hear Noam’s piece, Moretown Hop, arranged for the duo with solos over its lengthy form and beautiful chords. Also, from Universal Favorite, Noam played arguably the most beautiful banjo piece ever written, Waveland. Once again, another set of music that left me speechless. They may not be out touring for another five years, but it’s worth seeing this special collaboration if you can.
“Genius? Nothing–we just worked harder.” — Charles Eames. This band (a collection of musical geniuses) consistently gets better by working so hard. Their collective sense of time, their breadth of experience, and the depth of their material are unprecedented for a stringband. They have at least the requisite 10,000 hours for expertise in terms of band practice and rehearsal, and that is piled on their individual instrumental prowess. Any performance of theirs is a force to behold, and they never fail to deliver. For this only at RockyGrass set entitled “Punch Brothers Play and Sing Bluegrass,” they covered the entire Tony Rice Church Street Blues album. Their arrangements ranged from bluegrass to beyond (search it out on YouTube)
Let it be said here: Dave Sinko deserves an IBMA lifetime achievement award (dig his AllMusic credits). For the band to be able to confidently relax into their stage sound to this degree is quite extraordinary, and a significant part of what makes them come across as well as they do. His role as the 6th Punch Brother is essential and undeniable.
Even though their festivals sell out in mere hours, they continually work hard every year to make it a better experience in nonmusical ways. This includes a bold environmental initiative called Sustainable Festivation. Their move towards zero waste includes using hard plastic reusable plates and real silverware that are washed every night and reused the next day. There are no trash cans on-site, only bins for recycling and compost, and a bucket for your plates.
After this treatise on mostly new and creative acoustic music, I should be clear that this year’s lineup also roundly covered its traditional bluegrass bases with great sets from Del McCoury, Rhonda Vincent, Larry Sparks, Earls of Leicester, and Dan Tyminski with the Soggy Bottom Boys. And a campground chock full of bluegrass jams from 10:00 p.m. to 10:00 a.m. every night.
As per usual, this year’s RockyGrass festival was basically perfect (admittedly I am biased as I have attended 23 of the last 27 RockyGrass festivals). Tickets for the 48th RockyGrass go on sale in November. Be there or be square.