All burdens and worries lay crumpled on the asphalt behind us as cheery festival staff lasso our wrists with those colorful Charm City Bluegrass bracelets. We are in the grass now, folks; scanning the enchanting scene from the ridge. Baltimore’s beautiful Druid Hill Park with its ancient name and ancient trees has come alive on April 30 with swarms of festival fairies and elves. And, it is absolute magic.
Sierra Hull’s angelic voice and mandolin beckons us closer, welcoming us to the noon hour. Without hesitation, we bound down the natural amphitheater’s hillside and stake a claim among the camp-chaired faithful. Some kick back and soak it all in.Others run free to frolic upfront. Yes, the Summer festival season is here, and Charm City Bluegrass welcomed us into it with kindness, class and gusto.
Charm City ingeniously uses two side-by-side stages so no one misses a beat. Festival wizards set up one stage while a band performs on the other. We merely shift our focus from right to left and the energetic emcee runs back and forth between the stages to announce the next show. With the Union City Brewery Tent steps away and the oyster tent (!) not far beyond, we are more than content; our focus affixed to the stages. With a line-up like Charm City’s how could it not be?
Sierra Hull, young woman on fire, delivered a stunning performance featuring songs from her new release, Weighted Mind, a collection of sophisticated originals. Soon after, Steep Canyon Rangers in broad daylight! Blow Me Away is right. Man, did the Rangers bring it for their first Charm City. Fresh from singing the national anthem at Camden Yards the night before, they completely knocked it out of Druid Hill Park festival day. When asked how they choose the set list for their first time at a festival, they simply said that they want it to be their best and they want it to be diverse. Spot-on on both fronts, Rangers, spot-on! With their talent, rich sound, and creativity, they could have hit us with any of their songs and they would have scored. What they did pitch our way was right down the pike. From top to bottom these guys wowed all with their masterful picking, unbelievable vocals, and rocking energy.
The Steeps get it and are taking it there. One minute they picked trad sounds with Woody or Graham belting out with mighty voices and the next minute Nicky wailed When Doves Cry and Mike laid down the mandolin law in Looking Glass. They slayed us with favorites, Radio, Stand and Deliver, and As I Go, and had us rapt with the swingy Diamonds in the Dust which they took to a heightened jam before dropping it delightfully into Simple is Me. And the percussion? Drums are not taboo to them, they say. No, they celebrate the drums. And, did they ever with their too-cool percussive mix during Monumental Fool. It is not often we get a mando/cajón/cymbal jam session, but we should. Listeners practically ran to the merch tent after their show.
Hard to believe that it was only late afternoon! 4:20 p.m. to be exact when Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys took the stage. How do you not smile along with Keller: that bundle of positive energy? And, with the Travelin’ McCourys? Come on! Just perma-grin from start to finish. This amazing combination of effervescent Keller and some of the brightest in bluegrass gave us groovy vibes, mean picking and merriment for almost two full hours. It was fantastic.
Aptitude apparent by all in It’s All in My Mind. Keller neatly sang the complicated lyrics, Ronnie joined in with precise harmony, and they all showed us how fast their fingers fly for a fabulous romp. Jason’s fiddle was wholly unleashed for this one. They rolled right into another hot, hot, hot one with blistering breakdowns by Robbie and Ronnie and too fun singing on Hot Stuff. More joy came with What a Waste of Good Corn Liquor; the witty Broken Convertible; On the Lonesome Wind, which Ronnie sang true; Pumped Up Kicks; and Freaker by the Speaker. They are right: we just cannot seem to get enough. Amidst all the exuberance, they also gave us Price Tag, with Jason’s fiddle mustering us to identify what it is really all about.
Almost nobody spied that wonderful puff of white hair backstage before the festival surprise was revealed. Del McCoury, himself, joined midstream on It’s Hard to Mow My Lawn When My Grass is Blue. The crowd lost it. What could be better than that? Nothing but hearing Del shout, “It’s good to be here in Baltimore,” and then belt-out 1952 Vincent Black Lightening with that gift-from-God only Del voice. Tremendous. Rain and Snow followed! It was Robbie’s birthday, but, we got the present.
Cabinet revealed to all what it has in store. Their funky, progressive style attracted a mob down front. They set the stage with a scorching Susquehanna Breakdown. Whoa, Nellie! They launched us into incredible grooves with Treat Me So Bad and Easy Wind; all heads were bobbing and weaving straight through that trip. For another outstanding voyage, Cabinet took the grassy Hit It On The Head into a hip segue to the awesome Mysterio. And, was that Jet, we heard? Very cool. The crowd bounced through all of their set which included Aint’ Gonna Work Tomorrow, Bottom of the Sea, Cut Down Tree and Celebration. It was a celebration, indeed. And, yes, we now know what love is.
Earlier, Cris Jacobs’ pipes commanded the crowd. Even the guys serving ice cream in the far corner of the park were paying attention to what Jacobs had to say. He sang his heart out, grabbing ours, and also showed us his playing prowess. He gave us gems of Station Blues, Be My Stars, and Breaux Bridge Rag. And, what a treat to see Jacobs and other local, Patrick McAvinue, get gritty on Bron-Yr-Aur-Stomp. Much earlier, Colebrook Road riled up the crowd with originals from its new album, Halfway Between. They included a Spanish-hinted tune, The Road We Travel, the bouncy, Shallow River Blues, a down-home stomper of a love song, Hey Girl, and the red hot, Feel the Burn.
Legend, Ricky Skaggs, took the stage, with force of nature, Kentucky Thunder, to close it out. Right out of the gate with a swift How Mountain Girls Can Love, they showed off their nimbleness for which they are known. They then proceeded to roll into a dozen and a half more doozies for a straight-up bluegrass show to the crowd’s delight. Ricky and the boys certainly sawed on those strings Bluegrass Breakdown broke our brains with the bountiful talent displayed. Mando, fiddle, banjo, guitar: each musician showed us how it is done. The Celtic- flavored Crossville gave Ricky and fiddler, Andy Leftwich, in particular, a chance to show their timbre. 20/20 vision put bassist, Scott Mulvahill, in the center of our sights. Ricky’s vocals were as solid as ever throughout and the Thunder’s harmonies rang especially true on Rank Stranger. Their raw bluegrass of Uncle Pen, Tennessee Stud, and Sally Jo and the sweet sounds of Highway 40 Blues, Sis Draper, and Little Maggie kept us captivated. Ricky and the Thunder ended with a roaring Black-Eyed Suzie. Hey. Ho. A perfect way to end a perfect day.
Del McCoury told us there were small audiences when he used to play in Baltimore clubs a long time ago. “So,” he said, “when I see this crowd like it is now here at Charm City, and how bluegrass really draws a great crowd of people, it makes me feel real good to see this.” Us, too, Mr. McCoury. Us, too! Thanks for being a central part of making that happen. And, thanks, Charm City Bluegrass, for kicking the season off in style.