No matter where you may live, it’s always good news when a new bluegrass event launches, just as it feels like the loss of a friend when one closes down. Here in Bristol, Virginia this weekend, we’re watching the first iteration of a new festival, the Bristol Bluegrass Spring Fest, host by Jeff Brown and Randall Hibbitts at the Holiday Inn & Convention Center.
After a successful first day, it seems clear that Brown and Hibbitts know their audience, and are well on their way to establishing this event as a premiere destination festival for theTennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia region. It should prove to be a strong prelude to Bristol’s big summer fest, the Rhythm & Roots Reunion held downtown each September.
This is bluegrass country, where folks are well-informed about the music, and its history, and have a fine appreciation for the old time sound. On Friday, the schedule featured powerful performances from local favorites Tennessee Skyline, sets from the hosts (Jeff Brown & Still Lonesome and the Randall Hibbitts Band) and the Kody Norris Show, plus evening highlights shows from Newton & Thomas, Darrell Webb Band, Ralph Stanley II, Junior Sisk & Rambler’s Choice, and Marty Raybon & Full Circle.
They played before an enthusiastic, near-capacity crowd on a simple ballroom stage. Audio was clear and professionally handled throughout, with multiple examples of spontaneous audience feedback. These people know what they like and don’t hold back when they hear it.
Highlights were plentiful. Steve Thomas is as natural a showman as you are likely to see in our music. It doesn’t matter whether he is on fiddle or mandolin, singing lead or harmony. His sincere joy in performing is apparent, and he was rewarded by the house several times in his set with Mark Newton.
Kody Norris may be a ham, but he puts on a lively show filled with echoes of the great Jimmy Martin. He brings the giant smile, the cornball humor, and the shiny suit along with some powerful grass.
Randall Hibbitts assembled a band for last night’s set quite different from his usual gig playing bass with The Clinch Mountain Boys. He picked up the guitar and sang lead on a strong program of very traditional bluegrass, all of the super soulful variety, and much from his latest album.
Nobody does high-energy like Darrell Webb. His show is lively on stage, with he and his band using instrument-mounted microphones, which allows for freedom of movement on stage. He had a new group, about which we’ll have more to say later this week. After an opening volley of 4-5 driving songs in B, one after another, they settled into a well-balanced set of songs Darrell has written and/or recorded. Special kudos to new reso-man Andy Ruff, who also nearly stole Hibbitts earlier show with his blistering slide work and moving left hand bends.
Ralph Stanley II was an obvious crowd favorite, and could do no wrong before this gathering. It helps that he has two of the best entertainers in bluegrass in his band. John Rigsby on fiddle and Alex Leach on banjo sang and played their way into the audience’s heart from the first note. Witnessing a room driven to applause by a well-played Stanley-style forward roll banjo break was a treat.
Knowing of his recent neck surgery, and current head cold, the assembled fans were ready to cut Junior Sisk some slack. But there was no need. His nearly hour-long set was a polished and professional as ever, and his newest edition of Rambler’s Choice showed a youthful energy and spirit that was attractive to the eye as well as the ear. Jason Davis on banjo was the only holdover from this time last year, and he put on a clinic. Perfect as ever, he introduced a new number to the show, Earl Scruggs’ Randy Lynn Rag, a real men-from-the-boys tune, which he nailed to the floor. Jonathan Dillon on mandolin and Kameron Keller on bass served up the perfect harmony vocals for Junior, who sounded as fit as ever – though he could be seen with his neck brace after the show, Jamie Harper on fiddle and vocals added a new dimension to the show.
Things closed out with Marty Raybon, who showed what a professional stage artist he truly is. There are few voices more recognizable in bluegrass or country music, and you got the impression that much of the audience was there to hear his mournful, hit-making vocals. Supported by his brother Tim on bass and tenor vocals, Raybon delivered country hits and bluegrass favorites for still-full room. He has a busy 2015 lined up, with a full-sclae reunion tour with Shenandoah, along his regular show schedule with Full Circle.
Here’s a video recap from our Special Bluegrass Correspondent.
The Saturday show has already started, and promises a second day of top flight bluegrass. Come on down!