The two annual festivals at Gettysburg, in May and August, always have the feel of a family reunion. You catch up with folks that you haven’t seen for a few months, hear some terrific music, stumble across some interesting characters and leave already looking forward to the next edition.
This year, that seemed especially true.
For starters, fans were treated to Wayne Taylor’s first festival appearance since the Blue Highway bass player underwent heart bypass surgery a couple of months ago. “I feel great,” he said from the stage during the band’s first set on Saturday. “It’s great to be here. I’m just happy to be anywhere right now.”
I caught up with Wayne backstage before the band’s evening set, and he recounted his ordeal. I had seen him at Circa Blue Fest in West Virginia back in May, and he seemed in fine form. But the next day, he had back spasms and had to sit on a stool to play. A day later, he was resting at home in his recliner when he experienced tightness in his chest.
The common reaction at first is to explain it away as indigestion or a sore muscle, but Wayne, 61, wasn’t about to take any chances, since he’d had a heart attack 15 years ago that required angioplasty. He went to the hospital, where he had major surgery and stayed for a little more than two weeks.
“It was scary,” he said. Wayne reports he still isn’t 100 percent, but is steadily building up strength. He looked great, though, and his playing and singing were, as always, impeccable.
It was great to see him back in action.
It was also a treat to see Ben Eldridge, the retired Seldom Scene banjo man. He steered clear of the stage, but signed autographs in the merchandise tent after the band’s two sets on Saturday.
“It was strange” sitting in the audience, Ben told me after the first set. “I wanted to be up there.”
Eldridge stepped down earlier in 2016, after more than 40 years with the iconic band. He was the last original member, but the band is still going strong. Rickie Simpkins is the newest member, doubling on banjo and fiddle, and sharing the stage with his brother, Ronnie, the Scene’s bassist. And the band is in the planning stages for a new CD.
Rickie Simpkins did double duty with bands, too. After his second set with the Scene on Saturday night, he was called out twice for some twin fiddling with Jason Carter during a sizzling two-hour set by the Travelin’ McCourys that was, to these ears, the best music of the long weekend. The band is always tight, but the addition of Cody Kilby on guitar has pushed the unit to a new level.
The band’s energy and virtuosity was especially evident on Walk of Life, written by rock guitar wizard Mark Knopfler. I expected the song’s signature lick to come from Kilby. Instead, it was delivered by Carter on fiddle, setting the stage for Alan Bartram’s soulful vocals.
Like any big festival, Gettysburg attracts its share of characters, from normally demure grandmotherly types who get a little too wound up trying to get their chairs in the front row on the Sunday before the festival to the occasional inebriated fan whose persistent demands for a song becomes disruptive enough to lead to his removal.
This year, though, one of the most interesting characters was a cat – a tubby, hairless feline that wore sunglasses and was around the grounds in a baby carriage! The cat caught the attention of Sally Berry after she performed with her mom, Rhonda Vincent, and her husband, Hunter Berry, on Saturday afternoon. For a few minutes at Rhonda’s booth, Sally’s snuggles with the eccentric creature drew as much attention and attracted as many photographers as Rhonda did while holding court a few yards away.
Just another interesting week at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival.