The Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation takes care of people. That’s what it does. And, that is what it did on July 30th during the Susie’s Cause 2nd Annual Bluegrass-Folk Festival at Oregon Ridge Park in Cockeyesville, Maryland.
The venue could not have been better. The weather, unfortunately, could have been. Absolutely teeming at times. But, the downpour did not dampen the enthusiasm of Susie’s Cause organizers. Nope. They are a bunch used to striving in the face of hardship. And, the inclement weather instigated a one-of-a-kind experience that will long be remembered by those there.
Susie’s Cause Festival is held in honor of Charlotte Bohn, a musician and Foundation board member who lost her battle with colon cancer in 2015 at the young age of 38. The Foundation educates people about colon cancer, encourages screenings, and provides support for those with the cancer. Susan’s father, David, told us the Foundation deals with serious issues, but gets its messages out in fun ways. Indeed. Susie’s Cause gave us a great day of bluegrass from some of the best in the business. No better way to learn about and support a good cause.
Set at what seemed the end of a ski trail, with a beautiful green hill sloping upwards behind us, the vast field was adorned with hay bales for a down-home feel. Appealing aromas of pit beef and pork bbq wafted over us as we settled in and kicked back. The grand, enormous concert shell then held our attention for the duration as the spectacular line-up unfolded. Brad Kolodner from WAMU’s Bluegrass Country, who played earlier with the Ken and Brad Kolodner Quartet, was the perfect emcee.
The Stray Birds provided a boatload of unbelievable originals. Their multi-instrument mastery readily displayed this trio’s immense talent. Each song, it seemed Oliver Craven and Maya de Vitry were playing a different instrument. And, Charles Muench was straight true solid on the stand-up. Add their pipes? Come on! When I Die meshed Craven’s strong voice with Maya’s smoky vocals and Charles’ classic sound. Craven also sang us a great rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s Loretta, throwing his head back for each quick mando solo pick and Simple Man. Maya showed off her singing on several, including Never for Nothing and Harlem. You just want to carry that voice around in a Ziploc to take out when you need encouragement. It sounds like someone who has been through it and made it out okay. The Birds beckoned the sprinkles when they launched into Nanci Griffiths’ I Wish It Would Rain. On cue, it did.
But, the sun shone mightily for Mipso, that magnificent North Carolina quartet. They hooked us with Louise and then reeled us in the rest of the set. They threw some new ones at us, including their Maryland premiere of Hurts So Good. With its crisp fiddle and lilting melody, we were soft-shoe dancing in the damp grass. They gave us a great Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues: Joseph Terrell’s and Libby Rodenbough’s voices are just made to be together. Before closing out with hit, Marianne, Wood Robinson threw down that funky beat and Joe sang it true on Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes. It was just too good when the guitar, mandolin and fiddle kicked in to grass up this classic.
Rain break. And, I mean rain. No one left. Who would with the artists still to come?
No one minded the sky spitting on them as long as area favorite and national gem, The Seldom Scene, kept singing and picking. They got us smiling early with Through the Bottom of the Glass and took our breath away with Blue Ridge: Fred Travers’ voice hit us where we live and the harmonies knocked us out. The Scene introduced each of its members then featured them on a song: a neat way to sample their vast catalog. The musicianship was flawless, of course, and the vocals were perfectly pure. They gave us a romping What I am Doing Hanging Around; another epic display of harmonies on I’ll Be No Stranger There; the foot-tapper, Big Train From Memphis, and a white hot Sally Goodin, on which newest member, Rickie Simpkins, showed off his fabulous fiddling. ans loved their cover of Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather with Dudley Connell’s impassioned pipes and we melted with Wait a Minute. Undaunted by the rain, the crowd cheered for an encore which the Seldom Scene obliged with Walk Through This World With Me. One fan said aloud that he keeps waiting for the angels to circle, summing up the Seldom Scene’s heavenly sounds.
Weather.com showed nothing but red coming at us as we glanced at our phones. The sky opened up. Still, Sarah Jarosz and the Del McCoury Band were on tap. We weren’t leaving. We watched the stage crew work furiously to keep things rolling. We also noted that next year we might spring for a ticket upgrade as we peered out from under our hoods toward the VIPers noshing treats under their tent.
Sarah Jarosz and bandmates took the stage, but crew discussions continued. The sky would just not cut us a break, and when it unleashed some lightning even sound guru Drew Becker had to throw up his hands. And, when he did, we on the lawn finally saw what he was doing: he was beckoning us to the stage. No way! We sprinted and stopped only when standing shoulder to shoulder with our fellow festival-goers under the concert shell just feet from Sarah’s feet. Sarah’s trio then treated us to an unplugged performance that will go down in the annals of all things too cool.
The second they opened with Over the Edge, Sarah’s voice warmed us up and we started to dry off; it was a breath of fresh air in that dark and stormy time. Known for mandolin, Sarah showed off her guitar skills on the first four tunes, which included Green Lights, before switching to a digging claw hammer on Annabelle Lee. Our hearts leapt when she sang Dylan’s Ring Them Bells, we jumped around a bit during Say Darlin’ Say, and we were mesmerized with House of Mercy. Jedd Hughes slayed us with his guitar playing and Jeff Picker held it altogether on the bass, complete with an extended solo that the audience ate up. They wrapped us up with Tom Waits’ Come On Up To The House. We all joined in, overjoyed to have experienced that acoustic adventure with such great musicians.
And, then we literally all came on up to the house as we filed into the great lodge of Oregon Ridge Park to close out the Festival with the Del McCoury Band. Del and the boys were a magical sight when they came into the quickly assembled concert hall in their clean, pressed suits to a standing ovation receiving line of damp and muddy music-lovers. Mr. McCoury’s perfect hair and iconic smile lit up the room before the band nearly set it afire with their lightening quick picking. Without missing a beat in their unexpected surroundings, they masterfully launched into Traveling Teardrop Blues. Ronnie’s mandolin pinged off every wall, Robbie’s banjo popped all over the room, and Del’s distinctive voice dominated the hall. The crowd was fired up. Hoots and hollers and dancing ensued.
The McCourys rolled into Bluest Man in Town, with the fullest fiddle you ever heard, an apt Walk Out in the Rain, a too fun Nashville Cats, and Some Old Day, among others. Expert picking and smooth harmonies. The Band then took requests, which made the show even more of a party. Del dedicated High on the Mountain to a couple who had gotten married in the lodge years ago and sent Logging Man out to the daughter of a timberman Del used to work for back in the day. We all sang along to I Need More Time, and sat smiling in awe at 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. What a treat to have Del, himself, the bluegrass beacon that he is, with his super talented crew in such an intimate setting. Simply tremendous. Not how it was planned, but certainly a great result.
There are things we cannot control—like the weather. But, we can control whether we support organizations like Susan Cohan’s Colon Cancer Foundation. And, one easy way to do that is to do what we all love to do: enjoy bluegrass. Go to the Susie’s Cause Bluegrass-Folk Festival next year. Dance in the grass and enjoy time with the ones you hold dear. Rain or shine, you will be glad you did.