Forget the groundhog and his dismal forecast of six more weeks of winter. I saw a sure sign Sunday night that spring – and bluegrass festival season – is just around the corner. The occasion was the All-Star Jam at the Birchmere Music Hall just outside the nation’s capital, where a couple of hours of hot picking melted away the grim realities of one of the coldest nights of the year.
Any time you get to hear Michael Cleveland’s burn-it-up fiddle licks, Claire Lynch’s sweet singing or Missy Raines’ drive on the upright bass, it’s a good night. The same goes for the graceful picking and exquisite harmonies of Kenny and Amanda Smith, the all-around talent of Josh Williams and the classy banjo work of Sammy Shelor. But when you get to hear them all on the same stage, at the same time? That, right there, is a sneak preview of bluegrass heaven.
For a couple of nights during the winter lull, these stars shed their bands and mostly set aside the material they play week in and week out on the road to focus on songs anyone who ever sat in on a jam session has heard or played.
So there was Michael, laying into Lee Highway Blues and Angeline the Baker with such gusto that I imagined the metronome in his practice room spontaneously combusting. And Claire, Amanda and Kenny harmonizing on Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight. If there’s anything more sublime than Claire singing, it’s Amanda adding the harmony. Any of the performances would have been a show stealer at most festivals, such was the quality of the musicianship. Even such chestnuts as John Hardy, which Josh called to kick off the second set of the night, or Sweet Georgia Brown, highlighted by swinging breaks by Josh on the mandolin and Missy on her old Kay, sounded fresh.
At one point, I found myself trying to count up how many IBMA awards were represented on the stage, either for individuals or their bands. But I gave up when I got to 30. Suffice it to say, the only place with more winners than that is the end-of-show jam on the Ryman stage at the end of the annual IBMA awards show.
“This is our chance to have a lot of fun, to do music that we don’t get to do in our shows,” Missy explained at one point.
And it was a chance for the rest of us to escape reality and imagine the sun-drenched festival fields that will soon beckon, no matter what that silly groundhog has to say.