This report on the 2013 Festival of the Bluegrass is a contribution from Jim & Valerie Gabehart. Jim shared the review, and Valerie the photos. We have a great many additional photos to share taken by Estil Robertson. Look for those over the next few days.
What does a working musician do when he/she gets a weekend off? If it happens to the be the weekend of the 40th Festival of the Bluegrass in Lexington, Kentucky, the answer is go listen to some great music. There are plenty of things that need done around our home (the joys of home ownership nobody tells you about, or you don’t listen to, when that dream house you built ages about 20 years and becomes a nightmare on Elm Street), and summer weekends at home are rarer since we decided to get active in touring with our music a few years ago. I was figuring to check a few items off the honey-do list when Valerie called me at work on Thursday afternoon and suggested we make last minute plans for a weekend getaway. After scouring the event listings for the weekend, I was happy to find our open weekend coincided with the 40th Festival of the Bluegrass in Lexington, less than three hours away from our home.
The Kentucky Horse Park is a great facility, easily found, easily accessed (no holler, mountainside, gravel road obstacle course), with hundreds of full hookup campsites in addition to primitive camping and well laid out day parking areas near the stage. Dailey & Vincent were taking the stage as we arrived, and their performance proved why they’ve become a juggernaut of sorts since their formation a relatively few years ago. Although criticized by many for straying from mainstream bluegrass, the variety they offer can hardly be matched by any other band in bluegrass and given an extended (90 minute) set, they included something for everyone and elicited what appeared to be the strongest response from the audience of the two days we spent at the festival.
In addition to their variety in material, the scripted and unscripted humor, impressions (among others, regular banjoist Jessie Baker did a very good Grand Ole Opry performance of Lester Flatt and Marty Robbins), Gospel quartets (featuring Christian Davis, who I believe is one of the best, if not the best, bass vocalists ever in bluegrass music), tight harmony, and great musicianship, one thing unmatched throughout the rest of the weekend was the quality of sound in their show. This is not intended as a negative commentary toward the “house” sound technicians, but a sound technician who knows the group (their material, arrangements, their tones, habits, strengths and weaknesses, etc.) starts with a huge advantage. Whatever the reason, Dailey & Vincent sound technician Key Chang had them sounding better, more consistently throughout their show, than any other group. While times have squeezed everyone, the additional overhead is a sound investment for them (yes, pun intended).
Speaking of the sound system, after some technical difficulty (power related) killed the sound for about 20 minutes or so, Dailey & Vincent jumped off the stage (OK, actually they walked down the steps at the rear of the stage) and went into the aisle and started playing, jam-session style — a patented move in that situation, but always a crowd pleaser.
The lineup was full of all stars, including Dale Ann Bradley, whose band includes Steve Gulley, and more recently the return of Phil Leadbetter to active touring. Friday’s concert was closed by Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out. Great as always, it was particularly heartwarming for a West Virginian, feeling a little nauseous in a sea of UK blue, to hear their rendition of Country Roads. It was almost surreal when on the final chorus the band stopped singing, and the crowd of Wildcats was singing, enthusiastically, “almost heaven, West Virginia.” Enough to bring a tear to a glass eye.
The only disappointment we had was after roaming the camping areas for nearly an hour around 10:00 p.m., we encountered very little jamming, but this was before the stage show ended, so we may have been too early.
After spending the night at the Holiday Inn Express and waking feeling like our IQs had jumped ten points, we arrived back at the festival grounds on Saturday and the first person we saw as we approached the stage area was our old friend, J.D. Crowe (I mean he has been our friend for about 30 years or so, not that he’s old; honest, J.D.) standing with fiddle legend, Bobby Hicks.
Onstage for their first set was Blue Highway. Valerie and I host a festival in West Virginia and Blue Highway was part of the lineup several years ago, but when they departed, Shawn Lane left behind a garment bag containing several changes of clothes, including a sport jacket I believe. I understand from Tim Stafford that Shawn’s oversight was nothing unusual, and that he has scattered a trail of items all over the country during Blue Highway’s travels.
Since I knew we’d be seeing him, we brought Shawn’s garments with us. As we approached the stage area from the day parking lot with his garment bag slung over my shoulder, we managed to catch his attention and he got quite a chuckle from the sight, which Valerie was able to catch on film (OK, it’s digital, no film anymore). They put a great show, as always, complete with an impression of Tony Rice by Tim Stafford marking Tony’s 62nd birthday.
The Boxcars took the stage next. A band for musicians, connoisseurs, and serious fans of bluegrass, they don’t resort to the theatrical to entertain, they just play and sing at the highest level and leave it to the audience to decide for themselves. The lineup also included Town Mountain and a fixture at Festival of The Bluegrass, the Seldom Scene. A special event for this year, a rare appearance of the Masters of Bluegrass, was a highlight of the weekend.
The Masters of Bluegrass, affectionately called the MOB (this is one MOB I’d be happy to work for or be connected with), consists of J. D. Crowe, Del McCoury, Bobby Osborne, Bobby Hicks, and Jerry McCoury. While the Bluegrass Album Band may not have been the first “super group,” following their success, a number of all-star groups followed, including the original Masters (sometimes also referred to as the Masters of Bluegrass), which featured Kenny Baker, Josh Graves, Eddie Adcock and Jesse McReynolds, but it would be hard to match the historical stature of the current MOB. Age and less frequent performance take their toll on all musicians, but it was nothing short of amazing to see and hear what Bobby Hicks is still capable of doing on the fiddle. To top that off, he was featured as lead vocalist on a country flavored ballad, Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go), no doubt surprising many unfamiliar with his vocal talents. While there were a few stumbles here and there, the audience loved and embraced these legends, and after an encore brought them back to the stage, they closed with a blistering rendition of Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms (which clocked in at a surprising 160 beats per minute).
The good news is that if your cable or satellite television programming has KET (Kentucky Educational Television) or your local public broadcasting affiliate carries the KET series Jubilee, you’ll have the opportunity to watch the whole festival. At least some of the festival was broadcast live (our Directv programming carried Saturday’s show live, which I programmed our DVR to record while we were at the festival), but the entire festival was recorded and will be chopped into weekly segments for airing on future Jubilee programs. What I watched since returning home looks very good, no surprise since it was filmed with no less than 6 cameras at any one time — two onstage, one at either end, one on ground directly in front of the stage, one on scaffolding back near the sound mixing board, one on a crane, and one flown overhead by a little helicopter contraption (that’s the technical term, I believe).
A great festival, and a great time, and more memories to treasure. We’ll be back on the road performing in North Carolina and Maryland over the next couple weeks, but I’m sure the house won’t fall in anytime soon, and maybe I can keep the grass and weeds from taking over.