LIVE: Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival @ Walsh Farm, 7/15/16 (Day Two)
Review by Richard Brody
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Welcome to the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. As they do every year, the Grey Fox organizers present a variety of acts that range from the traditional to the pioneers of newgrass to the up-and-comers. There are five music stages with three dedicated solely to performers, two others that vary between performers and music workshops, as well as a family stage that provides a variety of activities for people of all ages, particularly the young’uns.
Up first were the Stray Birds: Maya de Vitry, Oliver Craven and Charlie Muench are all classically trained multi-instrumentalists whose tight playing, superb lead vocals and strong harmonies blur the distinction between bluegrass, country and folk traditions. While Muench stayed exclusively on the upright bass for this set, Craven played steel string and resonator guitars, mandolin and fiddle, while de Vitry moved from guitar to fiddle.
They opened with “When I Die” from their soon-to-be-released album Magic Fire. The opening three-part harmony sung into a single mic and the simple but fine instrumental playing sounded like they were entertaining you from their front porch. The song has evolved from lines provided by the band and friends.
Other standouts included a swinging version of the traditional “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor” often credited to Mississippi John Hurt that featured great vocal harmony, stinging solos by all three members and great lead vocals primarily by Muench. A fine rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s “Loretta” with three-part harmony and stellar mandolin playing by Craven closed the set, but it was a stirring rendition of “Best Medicine” that was the set’s highlight, and its thematic verse got plenty of volume from the crowd:
“If the body is a temple
The soul is a bell
And that’s why music is
The best medicine I sell”…
The Lonely Heartstring Band led by the Clements brothers – George on guitar/lead vocals and Charles on bass with Matt Witler on mandolin, Gabe Hirshfeld on banjo and Patrick M’Gonigle on fiddle – were certainly capable of playing traditional bluegrass as they did with their up-tempo version of “Born to Be with You” popularized by JD Crowe & the New South. Hirshfeld’s banjo and Witler’s mandolin provided the musical fireworks while George Clements and M’Gonigle provided the vocal harmony.
However, they strayed from the traditional songbook with sterling versions of Paul Simon’s “Graceland,” CCR’s “Long as I Can See the Light” and the crowd-pleasing encore of George Harrison’s “Something” that featured M’Gonigle on fiddle. But the most heartfelt song by the band was their original “Songbird” about open pit mining and the impact that it has on rivers and the birds who make sanctuary there:
“The water that was crystal
Is now turning black
The songs of the river
Will never come back…”
Mark O’Connor is an extraordinary musician, composer and bandleader, and his current group is the O’Connor Band. In addition to Mark, there is wife Maggie on fiddle, son Forrest on mandolin, Kate Lee (Forest’s fiancée) on fiddle, as well as Joe Smart on guitar and Jeff Sauders on bass and banjo. They took the crowd for a musical ride that left no stone unturned, or in O’Connor’s case, no instrument un-played.
From Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” that had a distinctly classical-like ending, to “Jerusalem Rings” that had a Jewish folk beginning that quickly made its way to Appalachia and featured Mark’s violin, Craven’s guitar and Forrest’s mandolin, to the fabulous vocal performance of Kate Lee on “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man,” the set didn’t seem like it could get better. But then they launched into “Fisher’s Hornpipe” with the violins (they didn’t sound like fiddles on this one), mandolin and guitar complementing each other at every turn. That was soon followed by “Macedonia” from Mark’s time with Strength in Numbers. For this tune he picked up the mandolin and did a little duet with Forrest.
But perhaps the surprise of the set was the encore “Those Memories of You” with Kate’s vocals and Matt’s mandolin setting the tone, with the others joining in on this beautiful ballad that, as it faded, suddenly took a sharp turn into a very up-tempo version of “Johnny B. Goode” that gave each musician the spotlight and a fiery farewell.
One of O’Connor’s early experiences was playing in several of David “Dawg” Grisman’s quintets. Grisman’s Bluegrass Experience now consists of Grisman on mandolin, his son Samson Grisman on bass/vocals, Keith Little on banjo/vocals, Jim Nunally on guitar/vocals and Chad Manning on fiddle.
Nunally kicked off “Walkin’ the Dawg” with guitar and vocals and was soon joined by Grisman and Little for some fine three-part harmony. Manning provided the intro for “Muddy Roads” with Little’s banjo coloring the song’s mood.
One of the hits of the set was their rendition of Grisman’s “Dawgy Mountain Breakdown” that more people probably know as the theme song for the much beloved NPR show “Car Talk.” Little’s banjo led the way, but everyone joined in and got a little solo time. When Grisman introduced “I’ll Keep on Loving You” and with its opening line, “So long everybody,” the set seemed to be coming to an end, but Grisman’s lead vocals with Nunally and Little joining him on the chorus provided an upbeat ending.
There was no way the band was getting away without an encore, and they obliged with a tribute to the recently departed Ralph Stanley with a rendition of “The Life of Sorrow” that gave Grisman one last opportunity to wow the crowd with his mandolin and Nunally and Little to join in on some three-part harmony. Grisman made the only overt political commentary during the day. He dedicated Doc Watson’s “Trouble in Mind” to all the Republicans, and as he was leaving the stage at the conclusion of the set, he flipped over his mandolin to display his “Bernie for President” sticker. You can’t keep a good dawg from doin’ a little barking.
The Earls of Leicester were formed by dobro master Jerry Douglas because he felt that the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs was not getting enough recognition at bluegrass festivals for the role that they had played. His great band includes Shawn Camp on guitar/lead vocals; banjo master Charlie Cushman; Barry Bales on vocals/bass; Russell Moore on mandolin/vocals (filling in for Jeff White, who is currently touring with Vince Gill); and on fiddle Johnny Warren, who provided the genetic link to the Flatt & Scruggs band. His father Paul played fiddle in that band, and he passed his fiddle and bow on to his son.
The playing throughout the band’s two sets was spectacular. Camp’s vocals were spot-on recalling Flatt, but also occasionally bringing to mind Hank Williams. While Camp was the lead vocalist, the three, four and occasionally five-part harmony pushed the vocals to even greater heights. The soloing tended to be relatively brief with Warren’s fiddle, Cushman’s banjo and Douglas’s dobro getting slightly longer runs.
Some of the highlights were “Big Black Train,” “Earl’s Breakdown,” “Let the Church Roll On,” “Doin’ My Time” and “Hot Corn, Cold Corn.” As much fun as the band had bantering with the crowd and each other, they were far more serious when they introduced “Pray for the Boys” a song that the Stanley Brothers wrote for the soldiers who were fighting in Korea. When Douglas introduced the song, he commented that the song was as relevant today as it was when it was written over 60years ago.
The Del McCoury Band has been headlining bluegrass shows for several decades. It features McCoury on guitar, his sons Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo, Jason Carter on fiddle, and Alan Bartram on bass. The band members have garnered enough awards from the International Bluegrass Association to wallpaper a room. Awards aside, the players keep their solos short, and it’s the tightness of the band along with McCoury’s high lonesome vocals that define their sound. These qualities were fully on display in their rendition of “Cold Rain and Snow.”
Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning” has become a staple of their set and while they certainly put their bluegrass stamp on it, the emotion that is so present in Thompson’s performance is not felt as much in McCoury’s vocal. However, that was certainly not the case in the band’s presentation of Verlon Thompson’s haunting “I Need More Time.”
Several years ago McCoury was asked by the Guthrie family to compose music for some lyrics that Woody had written but never recorded. One of those songs, “Ain’t a Gonna Do,” received an up-tempo treatment with some blazing mandolin by Ronnie. Another of the Guthrie/McCoury songs, “Left in the World All Alone,” featured Cole Quest, one of Guthrie’s grandsons, sitting in on dobro. The band finished their set with a crowd favorite “All Aboard” that gave everyone a chance to provide rapid fire solos.
McCoury left the stage, but not for long. He was soon back to do a Del & Dawg set with Grisman. The first performance that the two played together as a duo was 50 years ago on the RPI campus in Troy. The two kicked off their set with Bill Monroe’s “Toy Heart” and followed with the Stanley Brothers’ “East Virginia Blues” that had some fine duet singing with Grisman handling the lead instrumental work and McCoury playing rhythm and tossing in some of the G-runs that he is known for. Grisman wrote a song for McCoury called “G Run Blues” that put McCoury’s guitar front and center. It had been a long day, way past my bedtime, and I left the festival with Del & Dawg harmonizing on “Dark Hollow.”
Four of the bands will be returning to Greater Nippertown in the fall. The O’Connor Band will be at The Egg in Albany on October 16; the Lonely Heartstring Band will be at Caffé Lena in Saratoga on October 23; the Stray Birds will be at Lena’s on November 15; and Del & Dawg will return to RPI for a 50th anniversary gig at EMPAC on December 10.
It was a great day of music made even better by the wonderful job done by the Grey Fox staff and their volunteers. I am counting off the days to Grey Fox 2017…
Tara Linhardt’s review at Bluegrass Today