Bluegrass overcomes rain and Covid in Czechia

Grand finale with Marian at Mohelnický FolkFest in Czechia – photo by Matt Scutchfield

This review of the Mohelnický FolkFest in Mohelnice, Czechia is a contribution from Matt Scutchfield, a music vlogger, journalist, graduate of Berklee College of Music, and current associate concert producer at The Wild Rose Moon Performing Arts Center in Plymouth, IN. He is of Eastern European descent, and has a strong connection to Czechia as an ethnomusicologist. 

At a time when everything in the world is still all mixed up due to the ongoing pandemic, one thing was like a beacon of hope and a true source of joy for all that attended: the Mohelnický FolkFest in Mohelnice, Czechia. It has long been known how much bluegrass music is loved in Czechia, and even with a pandemic going on, I was able to make my way to Mohelnice to take in two days of amazing music.

The festival, titled FolkFest, of course, represented more than just bluegrass, including a good amount of Czech folk music, such as the first band of the festival Madalen which included band member Jan Štaigl, organizer of the festival. Jan was an amazing host, great musician, and probably the calmest festival organizer I’ve ever seen! At all times, he could be found casually chatting with festival goers, while two stages of music were going on.

On Friday night, after a few bands of folk music, I heard the familiar sound of hard driving bluegrass rhythm (in B!) doing a sound check, and I immediately made my way to the main stage. What came next was pure, hard-driving, perfect bluegrass by the Barbecue Bluegrass Band. They nailed it – and in two languages! They started out with a Czech version of Colleen Malone and later Whiskey Lullaby, but also sang English versions of bluegrass classics such as Blue Moon of Kentucky and Why Don’t You Tell Me So. The band is lead by Pavel Handlík, who told me that he has been playing and singing bluegrass since he was 16 years old. He explained that he first heard Czech bluegrass bands such as Greenhorns and Poutníci, before discovering modern bands like New Grass Revival and then going to the source, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs. The mandolinist, Eda Krištůfek and reso-guitarist Roman Zajíček are not only great musicians, but they both built the instruments they perform on – and the instruments sound as great as ever! The band is rounded out by bassist Jiří Šubr and banjoist Alexey Chudinov, who moved to Czechia from Russia to join their band.

Saturday reaffirmed that bluegrass is in good hands, with the performance by the band Blue Night, an amazing group of youngsters that were assembled by their mutual music teacher, who thought they would all enjoy playing bluegrass. It seems they did enjoy it, because now they’re regularly playing, and their love of it is truly visible on stage. They told me some of their favorite bands are Blue Highway and Sideline (perfect choices!). All in the audience hope they will continue in their pursuits.

Other highlights on Saturday included the band Bluegrass Comeback, Radim Zenkl, Svaťa Kotas Band, and Druhá Tráva. Bluegrass Comeback is the Czech representation of bluegrass’ first generation of performers, culling their inspiration from Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and The Stanley Bros. They all dressed in suits and hats, and were the only band to utilize a one microphone setup, something I heard people in the audience commenting on, and admiring the choreography it takes to move in and out when taking a solo/playing backup.

Radim Zenkl, a wonderful Czech multi-instrumentalist that has also spent many years stateside put on a wonderful concert with Ondra Kozák. Together, they played a plethora of different instruments, and put on an incredibly high-energy set, including a rousing rendition of Angeline The Baker on fiddle and didgeridoo! Following them was the Svaťa Kotas Band, which is lead by Svaťa Kotas, former banjo player with iconic Czech band Poutníci. They also put on an incredible set of super hard-driving bluegrass. The newest addition to their band is Loes van Schaijk who is from the Netherlands but now based in Prague. She will be releasing her debut album later this month and is an in-demand musician in Prague.

By the end of the night on Saturday, the big park that started out with just a few people on Friday afternoon was now entirely full, filled with dedicated patrons that stood through two days of scattered rain, cold temperatures, and COVID tests, to see the legendary Druhá Tráva. Druhá Tráva, now in their 31st year, sounds better than ever and is still experimenting and innovating, as well as delighting audiences. As the last note of their last song rang out, the amount of love and admiration for them was over the top. They provided an encore of Bob Dylan’s Señor in the Czech language, along with some new experimental electronic effects triggered by Luboš Malina’s banjo. The crowd wanted more and more, but alas, it was time to bring up band Marian, that closed the festival with a set of familiar Czech folk songs that brought back feelings of nostalgia and happiness. As I was leaving the festival about 1:30 a.m., sounds of jams could still be heard off in the distance.

Lastly, a big round of thanks to the organizers of the festival, not only for the great music and great times, but for doing their part in making sure we were all safe. A negative test result or vaccination card was required to enter, and was strictly enforced. No complaints were heard – only a desire to see old friends and hear great music were expressed. Until next time, Mohelnice!

Live stream recordings of all the performances can be viewed on YouTube.