Last September, massive floodwaters from the St. Vraim River devastated the small Front Range town of Lyons, Colo., including the Planet Bluegrass Ranch, site of the annual RockyGrass and Rocky Mountain Folks Fest. While the main stage survived the floods, the Wildflower stage, office buildings and much of the rest of the ranch was swept away or buried in mud and other debris. But as soon as the waters receded, the Planet Bluegrass staff embarked on a crash recovery program to ensure that this year's festivals would go on. I can bear witness to both the amazing restoration of the festival grounds and the very impressive music at this year's RockyGrass festival. The entire Planet Bluegrass staff, led by Craig Ferguson, is to be highly commended.
Trail Mix I'm not going to go into a set by set review of this summer's RockyGrass, but want to mention some of my favorite moments. Hot Rize, which has only performed a few dates a year for many years, has a new CD out this fall and will be embarking on an extensive touring schedule over the coming year. They were in superb form this year, with many great new songs (most notably Tim O'Brien's "Blues Is Fallin'"), and their traveling companions, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers were there as well, with special guest trailblazers Elmo Otto and Waldo Otto (the two bore some resemblance to Sam Bush and Darol Anger). If Hot Rize comes to your town this year, do not miss them. In their first appearance together in six years, Uncle Earl showed why they were a beloved all-female string band, with zesty playing, singing and a bit of clogging, as well. Abigail Washburn of Uncle Earl is mostly busy these days both being a mom and playing duo shows with her husband, banjo legend Béla Fleck. Their set was outstanding, and they announced they are recording a duo album--you can bet you will be hearing that (and that new Hot Rize) on .
Three other special duo sets captivated me. Banjo player Noam Pikelny, best known for his work with the Punch Brothers, played music from his recent CD, "Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe" in the company of legendary Nashville fiddler Stuart Duncan. And Jazz met Bluegrass as guitarist Julian Lage (who was hired by legendary jazz vibist Gary Burton when Lage was in his teens) and guitarist Chris Eldridge were adept at both light fingered jazz and hard driving bluegrass. Meanwhile, on the smaller Wildflower stage, another guitar duo, of Grant Gordy and Ross Martin sparkled, even doing a tune by legendary bebop pianist Bud Powell. Speaking of jazzy bluegrass, the Matt Flinner Trio had dazzling improvisations in music that drew on both traditions.
Young bands who impressed me included last year's band contest winners, the Railsplitters, whose banjo player Dusty Rider (yes, his real name) was stranded at his home in Lyons during the floods, and Della Mae, a high energy, all-female band that includes the fantastic fiddler Kimber Ludiker.
One of the most purely FUN sets was Darol Anger's Big Chill. The fiddler—and mentor to so many young string musicians—led a large aggregation through pop music of the ‘60s (with songs by the likes of Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and the Kinks), concluding with a very cool version of the Rascals' "Groovin', with the line "You and Me and Leslie" changed to "You and Me and Leslies," at which point mandolinist Dominick Leslie was joined by his parents and siblings for a dance across the front of the stage.
There was plenty more great music. Alison Krauss and Union Station were totally at the top of their game, with especially strong performances by banjo player Ron Block and dobro master Jerry Douglas. Peter Rowan was a treasure, focusing on traditional bluegrass (or, as he sang "Keepin' It Between the Lines), while Laurie Lewis and her Right Hands were a delight. The Steep Canyon Rangers showed they don't need that Steve Martin guy to put on a great show. Pert Near Sandstone provided a blast of youthful energy. I had to leave before Sam Bush's closing set started, but it was a blast to just being around Sam before that. His enthusiasm and energy are a real hallmark of RockyGrass.
My advice: if you want to go to RockyGrass, go to the Planet Bluegrass website and sign up for their email list. This year's festival sold out very quickly way back at the start of the year. And check out the Rocky Mountain Folks Fest that happens every August. I am not able to attend that this year, but it is on the same beautiful site and always has great lineups.