Take a ride on Colebrook Road. It will take you to some fantastic places. One recent stop was Grey Fox 2019 and, man, that was quite a jaunt!
Colebrook Road, fully emerged, after being an emerging artist at Grey Fox 2018, kicked off Grey Fox Friday 2019. They seized the opening High Meadow slot and gave us a prime-time show. A couple hours later, they threw a throw-down at the Catskills Dance Tent, complete with a rip-roaring Whitewater with Artist-in-Residence Billy Strings. Bold move, boys. What a song choice! And, what a delivery! Point, well made. You can sing and pick with the best of them. It is a journey on that Colebrook Road, and you, no doubt, arrived in style at the Grey Fox milestone.
As for the audience, we rode that Colebrook Road over peaks of precise picking, into valleys of harmonious voices, on lanes of insightful lyrics, and through hollers and hollers of good old bluegrass with some jam slathered on. The band calls Pennsylvania home, but it is stretching its boundaries geographically and musically. During its Grey Fox sets, Colebrook Road mostly showcased original songs from its aptly named albums, On Time (their latest) and Halfway Between, with a few earlier tunes and covers sprinkled in. On Time is apropos given their impeccable timing, and Halfway Between fits because of where they sit in today’s bluegrass: one foot firmly in the trad world with the other pressing the gas pedal of progressive.
The band scorched the Grey Fox High Meadow in that hot morning sun with a sizzling set including The Caged Bird with those truthful poetic lyrics from Jesse Eisenbise, and poignant fiddle cries from Joe McAnulty; a fiery Feel the Bern where they unleash banjo-slinger Mark Rast; an effervescent Boy in The Bubble, envisioned by mandolinist Wade Yankey; and a marvelous, intricate instrumental called Mabon.
The band then lit up the Dance Tent with a lightening quick Sun Up, Sun Down; had us swaying in a virtual group hug with The Road We Travel, featuring a groovy solo by Jeff Campbell on the standup bass; encouraged our prancing around to the down-home beats of Bright Angel; and got us down to the rapid riffs of On Time. They even threw in Billy Joel’s Angry Young Man before igniting the place with their barnburner, Oh My Love.
Lucky for us, Colebrook Road took a little time after their sets to chat about their time at Grey Fox 2019 and, generally, what they are up to.
When asked about being invited to play Grey Fox 2018, and again this year, it was smiles by all as Jesse recounted that fateful awesome email from eminent Grey Fox organizer, Mary Burdette, who caught their show at DC’s Pearl Street Warehouse in early 2018. Jesse excitedly explained, “I got the email the next day that said, ‘You guys sounded great last night, and we’d like you to be the emerging artist.”’He said, “We were all like ‘What?’” Totally incredulous. Joe added, “We kind of sat back for a second and it was, like, Man! One of these things that we have been reaching out for finally showed up. It was pretty cool!” As for coming back this year, Jeff said Grey Fox was the focal point of the band’s summer; they made a point not to book anything during Grey Fox weekend. Wade emphasized, “We wanted to leave space in our schedule so we could be here if asked.”
Turns out, 2018 was the first time the band members had ever been to Grey Fox. That is, except for Mark, who said, “I started coming to this festival when it was the Berkshire Mountain Festival in 1980. Then, my kids did the Bluegrass Academy for years and years. I came almost every year.” He talked about his tradition of going to the festival with his brother. With a large grin, he said, “Moving from being a constant attender to getting to play on stage is a pretty surreal experience. I never thought that would happen.” Mark recalled seeing The Steep Canyon Rangers as an emerging artist at the old Winterhawk. With an even larger grin, he quipped, “Then, you know what happened to them.” Exactly!
Mark regaled us with other tales of Grey Fox old as the rest of the band (and I) sat in awe – and envy! A banjoist focusing on the banjos shared some banjo lore: he said he saw Béla Fleck with Spectrum and Scott Vestal with Livewire during Grey Fox of yore. Wow! He also recounted, “One thing I really remember was years ago Béla Fleck and the Flecktones played at Grey Fox, and it was just an incredible set! And, we were like, ‘Okay, who is going be able to follow that?” Pause. Answering himself, Mark exclaimed, “Del. It was Del! And, it was so good! Who could follow? Del could!” Jesse chimed in, “You know how you are at a big festival trying to figure out where you’re going and who you are going to see? Well, Wade said it once and now we live by it: you don’t miss Del!” Respect. Nodding, Wade said, “We definitely caught Del’s [Grey Fox] set. I haven’t smiled that hard in a long time.”
The band’s comraderie and joy of storytelling were apparent. So was their enthusiasm for talking about their music and what they are all about. When asked how their new album, On Time, developed and what they were going for with it, Joe explained,
“Getting enough tunes for the album is an organic thing. Jesse just keeps bringing new ones in, and we decided on the Paul Simon tune. We really wanted to do one and Wade brought Boy in the Bubble in, and, you know, we just worked at it and worked at it. And we needed an instrumental, and I wanted to do that [referring to Mabon]. By the time we were ready for the album, we had all the tunes.”
“It was also a reflection of all the traveling and gigs that we have played leading up to going in the studio last November. We had Grey Fox under our belt at that point. We had played most of those tunes here to a great reception. We arranged and changed them and tweaked them, and most of them, with the exception of two or three, we had played hard for at least a year, if not more. So, the album was kind of like a showing of all those live shows. Playing the songs over and over and over, that is how they get locked in to be ready to record, instead of the other way around.”
Mark made the point that, “it was the first time we got to record in a studio that has done bluegrass. That is what they do,” indicating the difference that makes in the end product. Wade said that he did not “think there was a conscious decision to do something different than what we had done before. I think we just picked the best songs that we had and put them forward.” When prompted about the choice to do Boy in The Bubble, Wade explained, “It is a cool song. I have been a little obsessed with that particular song for quite a while, and I finally found somebody who will play it with me.” Thank goodness. What a creative rendition.
When asked what is next on the docket for Colebrook Road, Joe answered simply and emphatically, “More bluegrass!” He expounded, “We are trying to do this a lot more: getting out to see as many people and venues that we can. We all have other things going on, like families and such, but we have been growing this for a while and we like to see where it’s going.” Those of us paying attention certainly have a good idea where it is going, and we have to say we like what we see!
Jesse said, “We’re really expanding the audience. In the last calendar year, we are going to states some of the guys have never even stepped foot in. It is just because of the music, and that is really exciting to me!” “A lot of these songs are about where we live in Pennsylvania. My upbringing,” he added, “But, we are getting them out there. I always used to say years ago that if people could hear this, I think they would like it. But, it is hard to get people to hear it.”
More and more people are hearing it though as the band’s tour schedule expands beyond their home region, and, once people hear it, it truly is hard not to like it. Their tunes, their picking, and their lyrics hit all the good stuff. Jeff observed that there seems to be two camps in bluegrass: traditional and progressive, and said “we don’t really understand why there can’t be a middle ground,” explaining that Colebrook Road bridges the gap between the two. Mark and then Wade chimed in to say that “Grey Fox feels like a place with the middle ground,” and “Grey Fox does embrace both of those worlds.”
Colebrook Road could not have enough good things to say about the Grey Fox Festival. Jesse said, “There is so much good vibes and so much love at this festival in particular.” Mark noted, “Grey Fox is so well run too. It looks like it is just a big party, but, man, they have this thing dialed in, and I think that is why it is so fun to be here.” Wade added another great Grey Fox feature, saying,
“Also, it has maybe the most rabid music fans I have ever seen anywhere. 11:00 a.m. and hundreds of people are out somewhere watching music. At other festivals, people are hunkered down at their campsites or trying to pick or stay out of the sun. But, at Grey Fox, all day and all night there are just so many people just all about hearing bands.”
We are so glad Colebrook Road was one of those Grey Fox bands again this year!
Hop on Colebrook Road online. It really will take you to some amazing places. All you have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.