The State of American Acoustic Music

Punch Brothers, I'm With Her, and Béla Fleck at the American Acoustic Music Festival in Washington, DC (June 25. 2016) - photo by Jen HughesMy fellow Americans: the state of acoustic music in our country is strong.

Earlier last week in our Nation’s capital many were sitting down for principle. By week’s end, throngs were standing up in repeated ovation for American Acoustic music, recognizing it as a national treasure that should be protected and nurtured.

Enthusiastic audiences had the treat of a lifetime at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts from June 22-25, 2016.  Chris Thile, 2012 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and mandolin phenom, curated a fabulous series with bluegrass envoys to make up the American Acoustic Music Festival. Genius idea. Expertly executed. An absolute monumental affair.

The festival included a performance of Chris Thile and Michael Daves; a show of Thile, Gabriel Kahane, Julian Lage, and Merrill Garbus; a family show with Chris Thile; and workshops entitled, “How to Play with Others” and “How to Sing with Others” in which, respectively, the Punch Brothers demonstrated instrumental collaboration and Thile and singer-songwriters Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz demonstrated vocal and string performances.

From all reports, each show had its own magic and was enjoyed by the masses. Two of the week’s performances stood out in particular: the capstone concert of the Punch Brothers, Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, and I’m With Her and the Evening Jam Session. In a city of pomp and circumstance, the magnificence and grandeur of these shows to bluegrass and acoustic music fans could not be topped.

Friday night, Punch came out of its corner swinging in the sold out concert hall and knocked us right out with its opening set for the capstone concert. Thile and the boys delivered a flawless set of four hits that immediately had us seeing stars. Their picks were perfect to show off their abilities and breadth. They went from the jaw-dropping Julep to the romping Magnet to the hopping Hops of Guldenberg, and then fan-favorite Rye Whiskey, which got the Kennedy Center crowd hooting and hollering.  Oh boy!! Super-group I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan) came next with vocal harmonies to die for and musicianship to boot. Fiddle, mandolin, guitar, ukulele, banjo: they made it look so easy as they rotated instruments and picked the different strings for the assorted songs. They laid down See You Around, Game to Lose, and Bright New Day, before a stunning John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters. We simply melted when they all sang together. Should we just call them Seraph Watkins and Seraph Jarosz, now? As angelic as they are, it certainly seems fitting. And, it was obvious that O’Donovan keeps the legendary warrior princess, Aoife, alive and well especially with the way she slayed us with Thile on Goat Rodeo favorite Here and Heaven.

Banjo and bass senior statesmen, Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer, took the stage for an exquisite set of Bach and originals. The Music for Two heroes provided music for an enthralled 2500, complete with an unblemished rendering of their complicated Canon even in that most intricate part which is the stuff from which movies are made. Bubbles from their Melody of Rhythm and Pile Up allowed them to unleash, pop those strings, and bow as low as you can go. Our jaws were barely back up off the floor before intermission was over.

The show’s second half was collaboration time and it was fantastic. Moments in history in a town steeped in it. The Punch Brothers joined Béla and Edgar for an unreal and other-worldly version of Strength in Numbers’ Blue Men of the Sahara. Punch joined Bela for See Rock City from Fleck’s ground-breaking Drive album, which Thile admitted influenced all of the younger set on stage. Noam Pikelny even hopped in on banjo lead during it. Edgar Meyer joined I’m With Her to deliver I Think of You; the women’s talents overlaid with Meyer’s elegant bass elevated us to another echelon. Punch then gave us the mesmerizing Familiarity.

With the eternal flame for the one who inspired the building we were in glowing right across the river from us, another eternal flame, of this music, was shining brightly inside that night. Bela and Gabe Witcher honored Dr. Ralph Stanley with a poignant performance of Hard Times. Fleck’s high banjo string bends reminded us of our dearly departed’s distinctive voice.

Those not performing at the moment in the second half took a seat on stage to watch the others. What a cool feature to be able to see our musical heroes as audience members soaking it all in just like we were. Feet tapping, heads nodding, the looks of realizing the beauty of it all.

They were all in for John Hartford’s Long Hot Summer Day, singing hearts out. Then, a piece they simply referred to as a fiddle tune medley turned into another outstanding part of the show. Paul Kowert and Edgar Meyer started out with a buzzing bass duet. Sara Jarosz and Chris Thile joined in on mandolins; then Chris Eldridge and Aoife on guitar. Noam and Béla next hopped in with banjos. Finally, Sara Watkins and Gabe leapt in with fiddles. The layer-upon-layer approach was not only exciting, but also heart-warming as we got to see some of these best and bright younger musicians pair up with their varsity counterparts. The resulting tune and jam, spinning basses and all, confirmed that all are major league material and that this was an all-star exhibition.

The Evening Jam Session held the night before was a looser version of the capstone concert. It also included Michael Daves, Gabriel Kahane, Julian Lage, and Merrill Garbus. It was too much fun in the standing room only crowd as the Jam gave way to more throw-downs, more extended solos, and chances to dance and sing along which we all did, especially to The Weight, their group-hug of an encore.

President John F. Kennedy said,

I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.

The contribution to the human spirit of these musical ambassadors convening in our Nation’s capital to celebrate a unique part of our American culture through this American Acoustic Music Festival was nothing short of immense.  It will be remembered, and America, no doubt, will be remembered well for it.

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About the Author

Jen Hughes

Jen Hughes is a devoted bluegrass enthusiast. An Upstate New York native who resides in Washington, D.C., Jen attends shows in and around the Nation’s capital, a bluegrass haven. She also makes the trek to as many festivals as possible each year. The sweet sounds of New Grass Revival took hold of her in high school and she has studied up on the genre backwards and forwards since then. Her hope is to get even more people hooked as she is on bluegrass music and its extraordinary artists and community.