LIVE: Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival @ Walsh Farm, 7/16/15 (Day One)
Review by Richard Brody
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Under a crystal clear blue sky in Oak Hill, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival began with a stellar line-up and a multitude of activities on five stages. I spent almost all of my time at the High Meadow Stage that could accommodate the largest crowd. The line-up there featured a variety of bands from bluegrass traditionalists the Del McCoury Band to the jammy Infamous Stringdusters to relative newcomers the Stray Birds.
The Stray Birds – Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charlie Muench – are known for their tight playing, clear lead vocals and strong harmonies. While Muench stayed with his stand-up bass, Craven played Dobro, guitar, mandolin and fiddle with de Vitry on guitar and fiddle. Stand-outs in the set were two songs – “The Bells” and the title song from their most recent album Best Medicine. The former was a cautionary tale dedicated to all the people working for equality and featuring de Vitry on lead vocals with fine three-part harmony on the chorus. “Best Medicine,” with lead vocals by de Vitry and nice soloing by Craven on Dobro, featured three-part harmony on a chorus proclaiming music as the best medicine. They also paid tribute to their influences with some fine yodeling from bass man Muench on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel #7” and Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” with three-part harmony throughout and fine mandolin work by Craven.
Bluegrass godfather Bill Monroe helped launch many a musical career. Two of his former Bluegrass Boys – Peter Rowan and Del McCoury – brought their own bands to Grey Fox. Rowan paid his respects with a number of Monroe’s tunes, including “Uncle Pen,” “Brown County Breakdown” and “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” with superb support from his band – bassist Sharon Gilchrist, banjoman Keith Little, fiddler Blaine Spouse and Chris Henry, whose mandolin playing provided many of the set’s musical highlights. Rowan might not have the same vocal fire-power that he once did, but he pulled out some stellar yodeling on “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Called back for encores, Rowan introduced one his selections with some amusing stories about his former boss’ pension for running a very tight touring ship and then launched into “Keepin’ It Between the Lines (Old School).”
Rowan is also known for the other side of his musical life that included time spent with bandmate Jerry Garcia in Old and in the Way. Not surprisingly the crowd called out for a favorite from that band, “Panama Red,” but Rowan advised them that they would have to make their way down to the Catskill Stage a couple of hours later for his “alternative music.” And sure enough, Rowan and band treated the audience to sing-alongs when they hit that stage on both the aforementioned song as well as another crowd favorite “Midnight Moonlight.”
Del McCoury’s band paid their respects to Monroe with “In Despair,” a broken-hearted love song that the Bluegrass Boys frequently played during Del’s tenure. Every song in the McCourys’ set was worthy of commentary, but one of the highlights was “All Aboard,” kicking off with Rob McCoury’s banjo and featuring one of Ronnie McCoury’s lightning-fast mandolin solos. A McCoury Band show wouldn’t be complete without a murder ballad or two. The grizzly “Eli Renfro” about a husband’s murder of his wife featured the three-part of harmony of Del, Ronnie and fiddler Jason Carter on the choruses and solos by Ronnie, Jason and Rob. They took Richard Thompson’s classic “Vincent Black Lightning 1952” for a bluegrass ride that was highlighted by Alan Bartram’s bass lines along with fiddle and mandolin solos. Del took a little poetic license with the song’s lyrics by changing the English town in the original lyrics, Box Hill, to the close-to-rhyming, and a little closer to home, Knoxville. The band finished their set with “Cold Rain and Snow,” shining a spotlight on Del’s high lonesome vocal and solos by Rob, Ronnie and Rob.
The award-winning Gibson Brothers band set included several songs from their recent album Brotherhood. Early in their set, they turned in a fabulous rendition of “Bye Bye Love” that would have brought smiles to the faces of the Everly Brothers. Their rendition of the Monroe Brothers’ spiritual “I Found the Way” featured fine mandolin solos by Jesse Brock. The band was joined by mandolinist Chris Henry when they performed his song “Walking West to Memphis.” The highlights of their set were two personal songs “Farm of Yesterday” and “Safe Passage.” The former, sung by Eric Gibson, focused on life on the farm in upstate New York where the brothers grew up. The latter, sung by Leigh Gibson, told the tale of their family coming to America and their subsequent adventures to the present in establishing safe passage. The Gibson Brothers are noted for their musical prowess, and they delivered that big-time.
Hard drinking and broken romances are the themes that fired up a number of tunes from the SteelDrivers’ well-received set. “Long Way Down,” “Good Corn Liquor,” “When You Don’t Come Home,” “Drinkin’ Dark Whiskey” and “If You Can’t Be Good, Be Gone” were led by the vocals of guitarist Gary Nichols, bolstered by the harmony and fiddle playing of Tammy Rogers and aided by Mike Fleming’s bass, Richard Bailey’s fine banjo picking and Brent Truitt’s mandolin. However, the highlight of their set had nothing to do with drinking or loving; it was the Civil War song “River Runs Red” with heartfelt lyrics and an instrumental backing that heightened the song’s mournful feeling. As the song was ending, a brief chorus of “Dixie” could be heard.
The Infamous Stringdusters brought the curtain down on the Main Stage with a blazing set that featured all five members as lead singers and soloists. Some of the highlights were their renditions of Flatt and Scruggs’ “Head over Heels” that was led by Andy Hall’s Dobro and vocals, and Peter Rowan’s “Hobo Song” sung by bassist Travis Book. The band stayed true to the original for the most part, but jammed their hearts out for several minutes to end it. As with many of the songs in their set, every member got some time leading the band around the next musical bend. And I’m guessing that they might be the first bluegrass-type band to do a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”
As much as I loved every minute of the previously mentioned bands, my top pick of the day was Mr. Sun led by Darol Anger. Do I call him a fiddler or a violinist? You decide, but there were certainly times such as his lead on “Coal Burnin’ Grease Fire” that made the difference indistinguishable. Mr. Anger was joined by Joe Walsh on mandolin, Grant Gordy on guitar and Ethan Jodziewicz on bass. The versatility of the band came through on the rhythmically jazzy “Imaginatively Danny Barnes,” the Hot Club-inspired “Hunter’s Permit” and the swinging “Just a Little Lovin’.” This is clearly a band that will continue to push the boundaries of bluegrass in the best possible ways. And if any of this tickles your fancy, Mr. Sun with special guest banjo great Tony Trischka, will be performing at Club Helsinki in Hudson on Thursday, November 19.
It was a glorious first day of music at Grey Fox. And a big thank you to Mary Doub and her gracious staff who set the welcoming tone that is part of what makes Grey Fox so special.