ROCKYGRASS DAY TWO - Saturday, July 28, 2012
My arrival at Day Two of RockyGrass was a bit delayed, as I had to get my glasses repaired that Saturday morning in Boulder, but I did enjoy the last bit of Monroeville, an excellent hard-driving bluegrass band displaying the spirit of their namesake, as I made my way into the Planet Bluegrass ranch. I am lucky I was able to see the whole set by the terrific trio of women that call themselves Red Molly. While they have elements of bluegrass, mostly due to the dobro playing of Abbie Gardner, Red Molly is mostly an Americana band focused on the songwriting of the three members as well as covering songs by other folk, country and Americana artists, as they demonstrated on their kickoff number, "Walk Beside Me," written by Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, featuring their trademark three piece harmonies. Other highlights of their 13-song set were Gardner's bluesy original "Honey On My Grave" (on this and several other numbers, one-time Kansas Citian Craig Akin's fine acoustic bass playing added to the music), Laurie McAlister's lead on her own song, "Beaumont Rest Stop," and a powerful version of Doc and Rosa Lee Watson's "Long Journey Home" with lead vocals my Molly Venter. They got a big ovation (not easy with the crowd being baked by a hot sun!) for their lively closer, "Goodbye and So Long to You." (Red Molly plays in the Lied Center Pavilion in Lawrence on August 23).
Red Molly - "Honey on My Grave"
Wandering over to the Wildflower Pavilion, the relatively small covered performance area, I caught a bit of the always enjoyable band contest, but with no place to sit at this crowded stage (I did enjoy a band called the Squash Blossom Boys, although they did not make the finals), and feeling the heat, I decided it was time for a dip in the cold, cold waters of the St. Vrain River, which runs on one side of the festival grounds. While you can't see the stage, you can certainly hear the bands, and I enjoyed the set by The Hillbenders, a young, high-energy band. I particularly dug their singing "I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends" as I floated on the St. Vrain (while holding on to a rock with one arm to keep from getting swept downstream by the powerful current). Such St. Vrain moments are a highlight of RockyGrass.
Feeling refreshed by the cold, clear mountain waters, I enjoyed the clear, fresh and, even at age 81, powerful vocals of Bobby Osborne with his band, the Rocky Top X-Press. For decades, he and his brother Sonny Osborne had a distinctive vocal sound in their band, the Osborne Brothers, and mixed bluegrass with country music (i.e., electric guitars and drums, though they moved back to more acoustic sound in their later years). After his banjo playing brother Sonny retired Bobby kept the bluegrass flame burning with this new band. His voice is still strong, and he can still go get those high notes. The crowd roared with appreciation on Osborne Brothers hits like "Rocky Top" and "Ruby." In the middle of singing "Ruby," after hitting one high note after another, Osborne stepped back a bit from the mic and flashed a quick grin that seemed to be saying "I still got it!" With a standing ovation leading to an encore, Osborne said to the crowd: "I did 'Rocky Top' AND 'Ruby'...what else?" before the band launched into "Up and Down the Hill."
Bobby Osborne & Rocky Top X-Press - "Ruby"
Much as the Osbornes were on the cutting edge of bluegrass back in the 1960s, so are the Infamous Stringdusters today. A quintet of stellar instrumentalists, they bring incredible high energy and a palpable display of joy to the stage, where they move about with abandon, forming and reforming duos and trios while blazing away on their instruments. Early in the set, banjo player Chris Pandolfi and guitar player Andy Falco established their bona fides on short but telling breaks on "Ain't No Way of Knowing," which was followed by a killer version of the band's "The Weight," taken more uptempo than the original. After bassist Travis Book showed his lead vocal skills on "I Don't Know Where the Money's Gone," the band launched into what began as a fast, hard driving instrumental that got the crowd excited. In a quieter section of that tune, fiddler Jeremy Garrett played a sustained figure that was the backdrop for a guitar solo by Falco that began with a meditative feel before evolving into a very driving, almost jazzy solo with lots of powerful chords, leading into a guitar/banjo duet. Just plain dazzling! But there was no rest, as the band went right into the funky "Get It While You Can" (a song by one-time Bad Livers banjo player, Danny Barnes), which featured some downright greasy dobro playing by Andy Hall and even a bit of sexy hip movements by singer and bassist Trevis Book.
There was plenty more excitement from the Stringdusters - so much that I even got up and went to the dance area, where all the cool kids like singer Aoife O'Donovan were grooving to the beat. I may have even grooved more than a bit myself, to a number of hot instrumentals, the Jody Stecher penned song "17 Cents," a "straight bluegrass" number called "A Hundred Years from Now," and their bluesy, blistering original "Fork in the Road." By the end of the set, they earned a wild standing ovation, leading to a great version of "Uncle Pen" (that song popped up a LOT this weekend) as the encore.
The Infamous Stringdusters - "The Place That I Call Home"
The legendary Ralph Stanley, now at age 85, was up next, with his band the Clinch Mountain Boys. I had seen Ralph backstage previously that day (actually, looked up from eating a bite of lunch and he was about five feet away), and he's noticeably quite frail. And early in the set, his voice seemed a bit tentative on "Man of Constant Sorrow" but was more confident on "Little Maggie." While Ralph Stanley was known for his powerful and distinctive banjo style, he had to give that up a few years ago, but Mitchell Van Dyke took a nice turn on banjo on the well-known Stanley banjo tune, "Clinch Mt. Backstep." The whole band was quite strong, especially guitar player James Alan Shelton, and bassist Jimmy Cameron sang a great version of "John Henry." But people were really there to hear the haunting voice of Ralph Stanley, and he delivered with a goose bump raising version of "O Death," as well as on requested songs, "Angel Band" and "Room at the Top of the Stairs." His son, Ralph Stanley II, did a nice job on "Old Black Veil" before the band closed out with "Orange Blossom Special," and a big standing ovation led to the encore of "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms." I had bittersweet emotions. I first saw Ralph Stanley some 20 plus years ago when I was asked to emcee at a IBMA fan luncheon and introduce Ralph and the band at that event. At that time, I was also able to hang out backstage where Ralph was being interviewed for a documentary. He was a quiet but exceedingly polite man, who revealed little in the interview but revealed lots of emotion in his bone chilling singing on the stage that day. He's just a shadow of that now, but still evokes powerful currents in his singing.
Ralph Stanley at RockyGrass 2012 - "Little Maggie"
One might think that there would be a massive stylistic change when Béla Fleck took the stage for the final set of the evening, but one would be wrong in this case, as the banjo master devoted himself to hard-core, traditional bluegrass, with a band featuring three members of the Del McCoury Band (mandolin player Ronnie McCoury, fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram) plus one of the greatest (and far too little known) singers of traditional bluegrass, guitarist Danny Paisley. With Béla's driving banjo and the powerhouse lead vocal of Ronnie McCoury, the set kicked off with "Why Did You Wander," and in the course of 20 songs, delivered a primer on no-nonsense traditional bluegrass. Fleck took very much a supporting role and was very much a member of the band as opposed to being a star or leader (Ronnie McCoury handled most of the stage announcements). On "Darling Corey," Ronnie McCoury channeled Bill Monroe on his mandolin break, and Danny Paisley delivered a knockout vocal, while Béla played a very bluesy break. Paisley was the definition of "that high, lonesome sound" when the band did Hank Williams' "I Heard that Lonesome Whistle Blow." Other highlights included Carter's gorgeous fiddle on "Kentucky Waltz," Ronnie McCoury's tune "Dawg Gone" (in honor of David "Dawg" Grisman), and a very Scruggs style solo by Fleck on "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains."
Béla Fleck with Alan Bartram, Jason Carter, Ronnie McCoury & Danny Paisley at RockyGrass 2012
Fleck, whose commentary during the night amounted to "I don't talk much. Thank you," took a rare vocal turn as part of a gospel quartet number "Gone Home," and when Ronnie thanked Béla for singing, Béla deadpanned, "It'll never happen again." Even if the Béla vocal never happens again, I certainly hope that he will at some point play in a straight bluegrass setting as he did here - it was one of the most memorable sets I've ever witnessed at a bluegrass festival.