Michael Cleveland and the Fill-Ins

The schedule said Mike Cleveland and Flamekeeper. The ear, though, heard something else. And the eyes kept searching for familiar faces on the main stage at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival. In an ironic twist of fate, the band’s first appearance since the unexplained departures of Marshall Wilborn, Jesse Brock and Tom Adams happened in Tom’s hometown and plenty of folks were puzzled by his absence.

But the show must go on, and a fine show it was. David Peterson, standing in Tom’s customary spot at center stage, is one of the best traditional bluegrass singers around, as he proved again and again in Saturday’s first set. But save for one burn-it-up instrumental, this wasn’t a Flamekeeper show. It was, in a sense, David Peterson and 1946, albeit with a fiddle on steroids.

As he walked off stage, Dave told me his ride with Flamekeeper will be short. “I’m just helping Mike a little bit ‘til he gets a band together,” he said. “He helps me out, comes back and plays with me sometimes. I’m just returning the favor.”

The high-profile departures were recent enough to prevent the temporary players from learning much material from the newly released Fired Up.

With Michael the only band member remaining from the recording sessions – banjo picker Jessie Baker left earlier – I can’t help but wonder what impact the personnel changes will have on sales of the CD in the early part of festival season. It’s hard to sell a new project if you don’t play the tunes. It also might hurt the band in IBMA awards voting, which gets underway soon. Right about now, Ken Irwin at Rounder Records can’t be a very happy camper.

Of course, all of that can change if Michael hires another batch of great pickers and gets back to giving festival crowds what they’ve come to expect over the years. And he’s certainly capable of doing that. He is, after all, a bluegrass hall-of-famer in the making, and many players would jump at the chance to be part of the magic.

Besides, the story line of a band leader faced with the challenge of filling some big shoes is as old as bluegrass, itself. That Monroe fellow did OK after Lester and Earl hit the road.

His people say Mike was too busy to talk Saturday, but he did say he expects to have news about his new band members soon. But for fans, getting the flame burning again can’t happen soon enough.