LIVE: Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival @ Walsh Farm, 7/20/18 (Day Two)
Review and photographs by Richard Brody
The musical event that is the crown on my summer musical enjoyment is the annual Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. The Walsh Farm setting in Oak Hill boasts multiple stages, and the gracious crew of workers who provide the welcome and keep things running smoothly, are essential elements of the experience. But it is the outstanding array of musicians who embody both the tradition and the constantly changing landscape of bluegrass that keep me coming back.
One of those groups is the Songs from the Road Band, which has existed as a special project studio group for almost a decade. They put out albums but didn’t tour. Touring began when bass player Charles Humphrey III decided to leave the Steep Canyon Rangers, opening space and time for him to launch a tour with the Songs From the Road Band. The members come from jam band and jazz as well as bluegrass, and those different pieces were highlighted in a roaring rendition of “Suspicious Minds.” Mandolinist Mark Schimick’s lead vocals were punctuated by guitarist Sam Wharton’s humorous falsetto, while James Schlender’s fiddle and Ryan Cavanaugh’s banjo provided the instrumental charge that segued into a lightning fast “Sailor’s Hornpipe” (aka the intro to “Popeye the Sailor Man”) and got them a loud standing ovation. We were also treated to the title song of their just-released album Road to Nowhere and another opportunity to hear the band stretch out on “I Am Superman.”
There were not many female musicians on the schedule this day, but the number of young women who were carrying and playing instruments on the grounds was evidence that change is coming. And who could be a better role model for those young women than Molly Tuttle. 2017 was a great year for Ms. Tuttle. She was the first woman ever to be nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Award Guitar Player of the Year Award and she won. From her opening song “Good Enough” (about the trials and tribulations that we all encounter and try to make peace with by thinking that the glass is half full instead of half empty), Tuttle’s sensational flatpicking and vocals wowed the audience. It was not all Tuttle. Banjo man Wes Corbett provided fine playing throughout the set and the vocals for their cover of the Stanley Brothers “Think of What You’ve Done,” while bassist Max Johnson and fiddler Duncan Wickel lent great support on the up-tempo “Moonshiner.” I’ve heard “Cold Rain and Snow” many times, but Tuttle’s vocals really brought out the emotional sorrow in the lyrics for me in a way that I had never heard before. And let’s not forget Tuttle the songwriter. “Lightning in a Jar” captures a piece of childhood that will reverberate with any listener.
Although I spent the better part of the day at the High Meadow stage, I went down to the Creekside stage to catch portions of several performances. First was Mile Twelve, who I missed the night before at the Music Haven in Schenectady. The quintet is Boston-based, but bass player Nate Sabat is a transplanted New Yorker whose song “Soldiers and Sailors” (about a Civil War monument located on the upper west side of Manhattan where he grew up) was a standout. As was lead singer and guitarist Evan Murphy’s “Call My Soul” about how his grandfather’s funeral shone a light on his own mortality. The five pieces of the band fit together like a well-constructed puzzle, and that was on full display during their take on Bill Monroe’s “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome, Too.”
I also caught a snippet of a storytelling tribute to the late John Duffy with hilarious stories about Duffy told by Ron Thomason and Jerry Douglas. I saw Duffy a couple of times as the front man for the Seldom Scene and the stories at Creekside captured his sense of humor, which could be more than biting at times. A little later in the day Bryan Sutton, Joe Newberry and Billy Strings performed songs in a tribute to Doc Watson that drew a full house at Creekside. Sutton led the way on a hilarious introduction and led the playing on “Give Me Back My Fifteen Cents”.
There aren’t many Dobro players who can captivate the High Meadow stage solo, but Jerry Douglas certainly can. From his opening homage to Josh Graves, his first musical mentor, to his spellbinding finale of Duane Allman’s “Little Martha,” Douglas was on fire. He gave us a bluesy version of Tom Waits’ “2:19,” and a humorous toast to his wife with the contemplative “Senia’s Lament” that exchanged fire for beauty, but he seemed to have the most fun when he shared the stage. First out was the festival’s artist-in-residence, guitarist Billy Strings. Douglas introduced the song that they were going to do as “one from my favorite bluegrass guitarist, Jimi Hendrix.” Thereupon the two kicked off a rollicking rough-and-tumble ride through “Purple Haze” that brought out big smiles on both players and a standing ovation from the crowd. As the song ended and Strings left the stage, Douglas looked out at us and said, “I think the future of bluegrass is in good hands.” Next up was Hot Rize’s Tim O’Brien who joined Douglas for an up-tempo romp through Don Stover’s “Things in Life” that gave both players room to explore and exchange ideas, and left the crowd asking for more. They would have to wait until the Hot Rize set when Mr. Douglas returned the favor.
When Hot Rize came out for their set, bassist, vocalist and frequent front man Nick Forster was missing. It was reported that Nick was injured earlier in the week while riding his bicycle. A raccoon jumped out in front of him, and Forster lost control of the bike and crashed, breaking his clavicle. Banjo master Pete Wernick joked that “the perpetrator was not identified. The only description authorities received was that he was wearing a mask.” Mark Fain filled in on bass and that meant guitarist Bryan Sutton would be handling Nick’s vocals. He was more than up to the task. This being their 40th anniversary tour, the band had a lot of years to cover, and what better tune from their first album to include than “Empty Pocket Blues.” Tim O’Brien picked up his fiddle and started things off, before handing the lead off to Wernick, who handed it off to Sutton on guitar. The soloing, as it was during the entire set, was concise with each instrument exquisitely adding a necessary ingredient. “This one goes back to the 1950s when rockin’ and boogiein’ were new on the country scene” was the introduction to a powerhouse treatment of “Radio Boogie” led by O’Brien’s mandolin that gave each member an opportunity to do a little strutting. Jerry Douglas joined the band for the second half of their set beginning with their romp through “This Here Bottle” and provided one of the four great solos on the humorous “Huckling the Berries.” It wasn’t all high velocity. The band did a great job on O’Brien’s country style ballad “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” and Wernick’s “Just Like You,” a poignant song about aging led by O’Brien’s lead vocal with great three-part harmony on the chorus.
I probably committed an unpardonable bluegrass sin by passing on the Del McCoury Band to made my way down to the Catskill stage to catch the Wood Brothers. I knew that there was no way that I would be present for the brothers’ 12midnight set at the High Meadows, and I needed a little of what they provide: some folk, blues, funk, rock n roll and a high-energy good time. They have set the bar so high that I knew that eventually there would be a night when they would be good, but just don’t get over the bar, and for me this was that night. Don’t get me wrong, the crowd that seemed to grow larger with each song loved them, and they played a number of crowd favorites that had the audience loudly singing along on the choruses of “Mary Anna,” “Ophelia,” “Who the Devil” and their encore “Luckiest Man.” Jano Rix held down the beat, Oliver Wood switched effortlessly from electric to acoustic using his slide as needed, and, of course, Chris Wood was the master primarily on his stand-up bass and even throwing in a little slide on his electric for “Where My Baby Might Be,” but something was missing. Perhaps it was the absence of Rix’s shuitar that frequently leads to the trio gathering around “big mic” for an old-timey sound that is one of the elements that sets them apart and provides another dimension to their shows. Or maybe it was the absence of Chris Woods dancing with his stand-up bass. Or maybe it was just me.
The music continued, but my day was over. I headed home with a big smile on my face, the day’s music still buzzing in my head, and the promise of returning for next year’s festival.