Bluegrass in La Roche Street Festival offers free music

One very attractive feature of the Bluegrass in La Roche weekend is its street festival, where bands play free concerts on the terraces of the bars and restaurants around the La Roche-sur-Foron town center, at the foot of the French Alps.

With one exception (Indian duo Grassy Strings), only bands not playing the main festival are playing the Street Festival, so there are plenty of new acts to see.

Among these are two all-female line-ups at the Street Festival, one from France and one from the UK. 

One of the organizers of the biggest festival dedicated exclusively to bluegrass music in Europe, Christopher Howard-Williams, relates …. 

“This will make up for a lower-than-average female contingent on the main stage, with only six bands with leading female musicians this year. 

Not for want of trying, as we pitched for two female-led US acts and one all-female US act, but none of them worked with timing, unfortunately.

Overall, since the festival started in 2006 we have booked over 100 bands that were either all female (like Della Mae), female-led (like Molly Tuttle, AJ Lee and Blue Summit), or with strong female participation (like Mile Twelve, Lovers Leap).”

Blue Lass is a five-piece bluegrass group, consisting of Ruth Eliza (vocals, clawhammer banjo), Philippa Ogden (vocals, fiddle and guitar), Abbey Thomas (vocals, mandolin), and Holly Wheeldon (vocals, guitar and fiddle), all from the north of England, who make up the core of the band – and Steph Doe (Pig Society), who will be deputizing for Cat Rebecca playing double bass. 

They play a combination of original and traditional bluegrass and old-time songs and instrumentals. Their music has a raw and organic sound, and their sets range from energetic instrumentals to moody songs which transport the listener with their stories. Through meeting and jamming together on the festival circuit, the members felt inspired to arrange some pieces to perform together – from there, Blue Lass was born.

The band’s playing is reflective of their love of the great bluegrass of the 1950s, but they also take a more contemporary approach in their arrangements, and blend old-time pieces into their sets. Each member takes their moment to lead the songs, adding variety to the mix, and the band’s strong harmonies help them to stand out in a line-up. Their dynamic performance, each stepping towards the single mic to improvise a solo, gives their shows an authentic vintage feel.

Blue Lass, live at Chellington, 2022, singing Molly Tuttle’s Crooked Tree

Cow Comino Train is a bluegrass/Folk band based in Lyon. This female quartet rearranges and modernizes traditional bluegrass/old time tunes while adding country, folk, and blues colors to their music. Myriam Bakhtaoui (vocals, mandolin, fiddle), Noémie Charmetant (vocals double bass), Caroline Penot (vocals guitar), and Coraly Harps (harmonica) make up the group. 

Caroline Penot provided a bit more about this fledgling band that is trying to make “their voices and instruments ring to make the audience travel in the vast American lands, on playful and rhythmic instrumental, or sung in vocal harmonies songs.”

“The band started with me and Myriam when we met in the bluegrass jam in Lyon four years ago. We wanted to share the American roots sounds we both loved so much. As soon as Coraly and Noémie joined the band, we started to play live in and around Lyon. 

2023 is the year of the first festivals for Cow Comino Train (Grésiblues Festival, La Roche Festival, Summer Festival). And now that the band’s identity is clearly defined it is also the year of the first written songs together.”

Lyon unplugged featuring Cow Comino Train performing Bluebird Blackbird (lla Mae)

The leader of another band making its debut at La Roche is Jean-Baptiste Cardineau, a French/American mandolin player and singer/songwriter “on a mission to reclaim the poly cultural quintessence of traditional acoustic music.”

He told me this about himself and The Baptiste Cardineau Band … 

“I was born in Phoenix, Arizona and moved to Prévessin-Moëns, France, as a child where I lived for a total of eight years and moved back to the United States at age 17. Since moving back to the USA, I have been lucky enough to play on some of the biggest bluegrass stages in the world, most notably the Rockygrass main stage in 2020.

Before moving to Boston, I lived in Montréal, QC for five years or so to play with Canadian bluegrass outfit Crooked Creek.

While living in Montréal, I met Franky Soucy, a guitarist and composer who has played on some of the biggest gypsy jazz stages in the world, and was blown away by his guitar playing, orchestration skills, and overall musical temperament. So much so that I asked him to be my mentor. Instead, we became musical counterparts and have played together ever since.

Frank and I hired our friend Johnny Sunshine from Sunshine in Ohio (also playing at La Roche) to play bass for our sets. 

La Roche is a bucket-list gig for me, so I am looking forward to entertaining the folks and going along for the ride in some new places.”

These bands and others will be performing over three days from Wednesday, ​August 2 – before Bluegrass In La Roche kicks off – to Friday, August 4, 2023. Bluegrass In La Roche continues on the Saturday and Sunday (August 5-6). 

The Street Festival page on their web site includes a guide to the restaurants and bars, and to the two other private venues that are hosting a free concert open to the public.

Three-day and four-day passes (12€ and 15€) are now available

​Daily tickets (5€) will be on sale soon, “probably next week.” For those under 13 entry is free. 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.