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40th RockyGrass Festival: Day One

RockyGrass Flickr_Josh-Mishell
RockyGrass 2006 (Flickr Photo by Josh Mishell)

RockyGrass-AcademyA scene from the RockyGrass Academy.


Forty years ago, the first Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival, produced by the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society with the hands on help and financial backing of Bill Monroe, was held at the Adams County Fairground in Colorado. Twenty years after that, the festival left the dusty, windy rodeo grounds for the setting of Lyons, Colo., nestled in the foothills of the Rockies northwest of Boulder, with the St. Vrain river on one side of the festival grounds, which are overlooked by a gorgeous bluff, and the management of the festival passed to the hands of Planet Bluegrass, who had been producing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Two years later, I made my first visit to the festival, which was becoming known by the informal name of "RockyGrass." and in 1998 the Planet Bluegrass folks were pleasantly surprised at the first time one of the days of the festival sold out. Since then, Rockygrass has become known as one of the premier festivals in the country. Unlike Telluride, the focus has remained squarely on bluegrass, both traditional and progressive, and the week-long Bluegrass Academy that precedes the fest attracts a very high quality of teachers and aspiring musicians. For the past few years, the festival has sold out months in advance, but Planet Bluegrass has resisted any urge to move to a larger site, because the intimate size (3,700 paid attendees per day) of this festival and the gorgeous location help make it special. Also, the festival continues to have one main stage and one set only for the various bands, although a small indoor stage provides a setting for contests, workshops and a few other special appearances.


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Gabe Witcher and Noam Pikelny of the Punch Brothers perform during RockyGrass 2012. (Photo by Bob McWilliams)
I've been lucky enough to attend many editions of RockyGrass since 1994, including the notoriously wet SoggyGrass of 2004, and somehow the festival keeps getting better, and the spirit of community among the musicians, as well as the audience, is quite remarkable. For this 40th anniversary, Planet Bluegrass booked a variety of bluegrass legends, rising stars and festival favorites. While I didn't quite make it for the Friday morning opening set by last year's band contest winner, the 23 String Band, I was thrilled to see one of the finest young banjo players today, Noam Pikelny (winner of the very first Steve Martin prize for excellence in banjo) with fellow Punch Brothers band-mates Chris Eldridge on guitar and Gabe Witcher on fiddle, plus two very young, very fine musicians, mandolinist Dominick Leslie and bassist Sam Grisman (both of whom I had seen at the New Bedford Summerfest with The Deadly Gentlemen) and the stunning singer Aoife O'Donovan.


Aoife-O'Donovan Dominick-Lesle_RockyGrass2012Aoife O'Donovan ad Dominick Leslie performing on the main stage at RockyGrass 2012. (Photo by Bob McWilliams)Focusing on music from his CD, Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, Pikelny (and the whole band) excelled at his uptempo romp, "All Git Out," but was even more impressive on the lovely "Milford's Reel" and the stately "My Mother Thinks I'm a Lawyer." Vocal highlights included O'Donovan singing "Fish and Bird" and her own gorgeous song, "Oh Mama" ("Oh Mama, sing me a love song, pour me some bourbon and lay me down low") and fiddler Witcher doing the old blues song "Bob McKinney." It was also fun to see Witcher's brother, Mike Witcher, make a guest appearance on dobro. Special mention also needs to be made of Dominick Leslie on his first "official" appearance on the RockyGrass main stage. The 22 year old has been a frequent presence at the Academy and Festival over the years and became the youngest contest winner ever at age 14 in 2004 (he's since won the Merlefest mandolin contest and placed second at Winfield). A number of musicians have invited Dom on stage for guest numbers in past years, but it was great to see him officially a part of the main stage proceedings.


Noam Pikelny & Friends - "Fish and Bird"


It's been many a year (well over a decade) since I last saw the trio called Bluegrass, Etc., centered around the guitar and mandolin playing as well as singing of John Moore, with banjo from Dennis Caplinger and electric bass and vocals by Steve Spurgin. Some of you might remember Moore and Spurgin from the band California, which grew out of the trio of Berline, Crary and Hickman. In that band, Moore never got to show off his excellent guitar flatpicking, since Dan Crary handled that, but here, Moore's guitar was in display to excellent effects, as it was on his tribute number to the late Doc Watson, "Black Mountain Rag," and on his guitar break to an uptempo version, with fine vocal harmonies, of "Children, Go Where I Send Thee." Spurgin is an excellent singer and songwriter, and among the standout numbers of this set were his songs "Goodbye to the Moonlight Motor Inn" and "A Walk in the Irish Rain."


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John Moore (left), Chris Thile (center) and John Reischman during the mondolin session. (Photo by Bob McWilliams)
I had noticed that while there were three members of Bluegrass, Etc., there were five chairs set up on stage, so I was pretty sure there would be special guests, and I was pretty sure one would be mandolin great Chris Thile, who grew up living nearby John, who was very much a mentor to the young Thile. Sure enough, Chris came out on stage, plus another terrific mandolin player, John Reischman, who came to prominence as an original member of the pathbreaking Tony Rice Unit back in the early 1980s. Lots of hot picking ensued, especially on the fiddle tune, "Big Sandy," where John Moore told the band before kicking it off, "pretty uptempo!" After this three mando exploration of various fiddle tunes, the set capped off with Steve Spurgin singing Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues" in another uptempo romp, with dazzling solos from all hands, with John Moore switching back to guitar mid tune to reel off some powerful flatpicking runs.


Chris-Thile Michael-Daves_RockyGrass2012Chris Thile (left) and Michael Daves at RockyGrass 2012. (Photo by Bob McWilliams)In what turned out to be a very busy day for Chris Thile, he was back out on stage for the next set in a duo with guitarist Michael Daves. Thile and Daves, who recorded a well regarded CD this past year (Sleep with One Eye Open) but make few festival appearances, play and sing early bluegrass numbers as well as delving into the "brother duet" pre-bluegrass style. While very much grounded in those traditional songs, the duo plays with a reckless intensity and a wild abandon that is in direct contrast to the often very slick nature of many contemporary bluegrass bands. Their 75-minute, nearly 20-song set drove the audience into frequent raucous yells of support. Many of the patrons I chatted with over the weekend called this one of the festival highlights, and I can't disagree. From the no holds barred kickoff number, "Rabbit in the Log" and the high, lonesome sound of "Cry, Cry Darling," which followed, Thile and Daves kept the excitement level high all the way through the closing number, "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms." The visual contrast between Chris Thile, who bends and moves and shakes while he solos, and whose facial expressions follow the rapid fire musical twists and turns, and the more buttoned down Michael Daves, who also played straight man to Thile's often deadpan but hilarious humorous comments, helped make the set even more entertaining. Twice, the band asked the audience for fiddle tune request, and one time someone yelled out "Freebird" - to which Thile replied: "first, it's not a fiddle tune, and second, lots of other reasons, like general suckage." Those two medleys were great fun, the first starting with a very gentle and mellow version of "Angeline the Baker," and moving through "Road to Columbus" before a ripping version of Bill Monroe's "Rawhide" (which Thile called "Hide the Raw") and the second with a gorgeous, flowing mandolin version of "Chinkapin Hunting," a somewhat faster tempo on "Big Sandy," and then a way, way, way uptempo version of "Cherokee Shuffle." I was struck, however, that even at the fastest tempo, Thile makes it sound easy rather than forced.


Chris Thile & Michael Daves - "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms"


Sammy-Shelor RockyGrass2012
Sammy Shelor on the main stage at RockyGrass 2012. (Photo by Bob McWilliams)
Sammy Shelor is one of the premier banjo players on the planet; a four time winner of the IBMA Banjo Player of the Year award and the 2011 winner of the Steve Martin Prize for excellence in banjo. Since joining the Lonesome River Band (celebrating its 30th anniversary this year) in 1990, and becoming leader of that band in 1992, he's defined the sound of hard-driving bluegrass banjo playing. At RockyGrass, the Lonesome River Band rolled out many of their bluegrass hits, such as "Like a Train Needs a Track," "Caroline the Teenage Queen" and "Angeline the Baker," all with stellar playing from the charismatic Shelor. The highlights of the set for me were "Ain't That a Shame," with powerful lead vocals by mandolin player Randy Jones, a great foray on "I Know What it Means to be Lonesome," and stunning banjo by Shelor on "Fireball Mail."

Trampled by Turtles (Photo Courtesy of Artist)

I'd heard a lot of buzz about Trampled by Turtles, but must admit I was pretty underwhelmed by their set, which might be termed as alt-folk thrashgrass. They use bluegrass instruments, such as banjo and fiddle, and have some nice vocals and songs, but the primary appeal seems to be wild and over the top, but without anything like the instrumental ability of, say, the Punch Brothers. They could and did play very loud and very fast, with lots of attitude, which some audience members totally lapped up, but I was just bored. And note I am far from a bluegrass purist, and have always been a fan of newgrass, progressive bluegrass, and bluegrass and beyond. By contrast, the Punch Brothers are also rooted in traditional bluegrass instrumentation, and also play little that could be termed bluegrass, as they explore rock and other influences, but they do so with fantastic musicianship, as they showed in their set, which opened with their fast, high energy version of Gillian Welch's "Wayside/Back in Time." A number of instrumentals showed off stunning playing, including the bowed bass work of the often overlooked Paul Kowart. As always, Thile's mandolin playing was jaw-dropping, and fiddler Gabe Witcher, banjo player Noam Pikelny and guitarist Chris Eldridge were excellent, as well. Other highlights included the spine-tingling "Rye Whiskey," and a very exciting version of "Train on the Island" for the encore.


It just wouldn't be RockyGrass without Sam Bush, with what was billed as the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band, as opposed to the Sam Bush Band. What's the difference? Well, as Sam joked during introducing guitarist Stephen Mougin, "on ACOUSTIC guitar. No, no on electric" and when introducing drummer Chris Brown, noted Brown was "on the drum." Just one drum, as used in the past by the likes of Flatt and Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers, Jim and Jesse, and others. With that nod to RockyGrass, Bush pretty much played a typical Sam Bush set, though a bit more heavy on traditional bluegrass. Before the band came out, Bush did a quick duet with Chris Thile, before Thile and the Punch Brothers hurried to catch a redeye flight to North Carolina. Then Sam opened his set proper with a catchy mandolin solo before bassist Todd Parks joined in, followed in turn by guitarist Mougin and banjo great Scott Vestal, and the music morphed into a high energy romp through the bluegrass standard "Fireball Mail," followed by Sam switching to fiddle and singing Peter Rowan's song "High Lonesome Sound." Among the highlights was a gorgeous version of the Dillards' song "There Is a Time" (I don't think I have ever heard Sam do that one in concert), "Eight More Miles to Louisville" and "Riding that Midnight Train." Bush tipped his hat to the late, great John Hartford with "Steam Powered Aero-Plane," and led a singalong by a number by that bluegrass great "Billy Bob"...Billy Bob Marley, that is, with "One Love." Bush struck a more poignant note by making a dedication to all the victims of the Aurora movie theater shootings, and playing a bit of "The Girl I Left Behind Me" on his mandolin before morphing into the song "One Tin Soldier." Lots more music followed, with an encore highlighted by Bush singing Bill Monroe's classic number, "Uncle Pen," sending the festivarians off to jam and party, and in some cases even sleep before Days Two and Three of RockyGrass.


Sam Bush Band - "Bringing in the Georgia Mail"

RockyGrass StVrain_Flickr_Jordan Klein
Festival-goers enjoy the RockyGrass from the St. Vrain River. (Flickr Photo by Jordan Klein)
(IF YOU GO: Note that you can buy either passes for the entire festival or single day passes, but that tickets sell out months in advance. Camping is limited close to the festival grounds, but there is more camping near the parking area, from which you can ride a shuttle bus or walk the 3/4 mile to the fest (I always walk). There are also lodging options in Lyons and especially in Longmont, Estes Park and Boulder (the latter two about 15 minutes away) Seating is general admission, with tarps and low backed chairs only for the bulk of the grounds, but you can put up small tents and use lawn chairs near the rear. There are dancing areas, as well, where you can get closer to the stage and dance without blocking the views of seated folks. Typically, there is intense and hot sunshine on most days, and also a shower or thunderstorm most afternoons, and temperatures can drop quickly at night. So bring a wide range of clothing and LOTS of sunscreen. You can also cool off with a dip in the very cold waters of the St. Vrain, right on the festival grounds. Note that children under 12 are admitted free with paying adults, and this is a very family-friendly festival. There is lots more information and an extensive FAQ at

40th RockyGrass Festival: Day Two

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