LIVE: Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival @ Walsh Farm, 7/21/18 (Day Three)
Review and photograph by Glenn Weiser
While other regions of the country endured sweltering heat waves, the northern Catskills of Greene County on Saturday saw temperatures in the 70s under sunny skies. Given the fair weather and the usual high caliber of bluegrass and New Acoustic music the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival offered on their four stages, there was no place a fan like me and several thousands of other attendees would rather have been than on Oak Hill’s Walsh Farm.
Kaia Kater, a clawhammer banjo player and fine alto singer, took the High Meadow Stage at 11am with a mix of originals and old-time chestnuts. Accompanied by the capable Jared Engle on upright bass, the first song I caught was her zesty delivery of Tommy Jarrell’s uptempo old-time classic “Let me Fall,” whose lyrics start out “Let, me fall, let me fall, if I get drunk, little darling, let me fall.” Kater’s banjo picking was fast and precise, and Engle also flashed his jazz chops with an up-the-neck jazz style-solo. But during “Paradise Fell,” a slow original, I strained to understand Kater’s lyrics and wished that she had enunciated her words better. For a singer-songwriter, getting your verses across clearly is vital, especially if the music is more of plain backdrop to the story line, as it was in this case. She bounced back, though, with a sultry version of the of blues standard “Trouble in Mind,” accompanied by only the bass in a way that recalled Peggy’s Lee’s famous rendition of “Fever.”
At the Grass Roots Stage at 12noon, guitar master Byran Sutton, assisted by Steve Mougin, led a Q&A workshop on flatpicking that any six-string player could have benefited from. As an added treat, Sutton demonstrated examples of his picking wisdom on a 1936 Martin D-28 that had the deep, rich tone those Golden Era guitars are famous for. He talked about his beginnings with Ricky Skaggs and described how even though he could play fast and clean, he wanted to be more musical and rely less on the stock riffs bluegrassers all know. “I needed to uncover a more artful version of myself,” he said. Helpful hints included the idea of coping with very fast tempos by playing less ornate versions of a tune, which he illustrated with licks on his guitar, and the value of listening to other instruments for fresh ideas. My favorite piece of advice was a quip of Mougin’s – “When you steal from one person, it’s plagiarism, but when you steal from everyone, it’s research.”
At 3:30pm mandolinist Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver were at the Catskill Stage, the festival’s dance hall. Wearing the snazziest country music jacket ever – light blue rhinestone scorpions on black fabric – Lawson, a Tennessean who usually sticks to sacred songs, dwelled instead on everybody’s favorite subjects, love and heartbreak. Opening with the uptempo “Jealous,” the picking and three-part harmonies were as smooth as George Dickel No. 12 whiskey. The aptly named Josh Swift offered a hot Dobro solo that stood out in particular. Fiddler Stephen Burwell likewise plunked down some fine playing on “I Don’t Care (Just as Long as You Love Me),” whose theme was that no calamity will phase the song’s lover as long as his girl is true. In a nod to Bill Monroe, the band also served up a superb rendition of Big Mon’s instrumental, “Cheyenne” featuring the banjo work of Joe Dean and Burwell again on fiddle.
The duo of guitarist and banjoist Joe Newberry and Canadian fiddle whiz April Verch were at the Catskill Stage at 6pm with Newberry’s singing and Verch’s dazzling fiddle. They led off with a set of reels that included “The Arkansas Traveler” and ended with the lovely Ms. Verch showing off her Canadian clogging steps. Newbery sang a traditional song of eastern North Carolina, “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still” that was recorded by tenor Edward Johnson on the Victrola label a century ago. “Della and Jim” was a touching Newberry original that retold O. Henry’s famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” In introducing the midwestern fiddle chestnut “Jimmy in the Swamp,” Newberry described the rustic practice of playing an E major chord on guitar against an E minor section of an old-time fiddle tune (don’t try this at home), and even seemed to revel in the ear-bending dissonance it produced in the B-part of the breakdown. Verch showed herself to be a top-notch fiddler throughout the set, and her pairing with the talented Newberry has given us some fine music.
At 7:15pm on the main stage, the elfin mandolin prodigy Sierra Hull played a set of mostly original New Acoustic. Hull writes enigmatic songs of soul-searching without ever quite revealing what she finds, so of course you have to keep listening for a clue about what makes her tick. What makes her pick, on the other hand, is obvious – having taken up the instrument at an early age, she is now one the best mandolinists in bluegrass. Her touch is clean and fluid, and her improvisations effortless. With a band consisting of electric guitar, fiddle and upright bass, she led off with “The In-Between,” which starts out in typical Hull fashion: “There is no in-between, I tell you, and if you think there is you’ve been lied to, you’re only high or low. Nowhere between, nowhere else you can go. What do you see inside the mirror?” After more of her marvelous head-scratchers like “Weighted Mind,” Hull got back to earth to with Loretta Lynn’s “You Wanna Give Me a Lift,” a honky-tonk song about a woman fending of the advances of a drunk, and a speedy Bill Monroe instrumental.
Rain was expected later in the evening, so the last act I stayed for was newgrasser Sam Bush at 8:30pm. The Kentucky mandolinist and fiddler opened with a high-octane version of Jeff Black’s “They’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.” Bush’s mandolin soloing was red-hot, and banjo player Scott Vestal turned in a fine Keith-style solo, something I never hear enough of in bluegrass. Switching to a funk groove (yes, the band has a drummer), they played Allan Toussaint’s “Sneaking Sally Through the Alley,” a song about illicit romance. In a tribute to the Dillards’ Dean Webb, who passed away on June 30, Bush sang “Dooley,” a tale of a moonshiner just trying to make a honest dollar at an illegal trade. During the minor key instrumental “Greenbriar,” Bush played so hard he broke his pick, something I’d never seen a mandolinist or even a guitarist do in 50 years of concertgoing. The band encored with Flatt and Scruggs’ “That Little Girl of Mine in Tennessee,” which, as you’d expect, was graced by a fine banjo solo by Vestal.