What a bucolic weekend of great music and good vibes. It had been approximately 20 years since I attended Rocky Grass due to having to always work on that special weekend of music at Oskar Blues. Planet Bluegrass seems like it has it down pat, a few guidelines and rules but not much and all aimed at having a special time and a very positive experience.
I reacquainted with many old friends and made a few new ones. Which I think is par for the course of most attendees, over and above the wonderful music that we all enjoyed. The music was far more diverse than I expected which kept me happy and very entertained.
All the festivarians, musicians and staff were so grateful for the events after missing last year. Many groups mentioned from the stage what a long, strange trip it has been. Everyone seemed so damn happy to be part of this, it helped the great fun-loving experience for all of us there.
Friday started off with Never Come Down, the winner of the RockyGrass 2019 band competition, a quintet from the Portland, Oregon area. They opened this year due to the fact that they didn’t get to do so last year. They show great promise and why they won in 2019.
Mile Twelve was next. They won the band competition in 2017. From Boston, they bring to the table a spirited blend of original and traditional bluegrass, folk and Americana music. I was very impressed by fiddle player Bronwyn Keith-Hynes.
Kieran Kane and Rayna Gillert, a very talented duo, brought Kane’s and Rayna songs to life in a very low key but special set. I was thrilled to see one of the Uncle Earl gals with one of my favorite Texas songwriters together.
Next was Special Consensus, an official International Bluegrass Music showcase band; and it’s not surprising now that the great Greg Blake has joined them. Their harmonies are impeccable.
The fabulously multi-instrumentalist and champion singer Tim O’Brien was next, and he killed it. Tim confessed to being a student of American history and preceded to knock off a song about Thomas Jefferson and his indiscretions with a slave of his. Also, a topical song that brought the crowd to its feet about John Lewis, a true patriot.
The incredible Tribute to Tony Rice brought an amalgam of the very best bluegrass musicians to the stage. To say I was impressed is a true understatement. Hearing Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Brian Sutton, Chris Ethridge, David Grisman, Michael Cleveland and Mark Schatz playing together was a once in a lifetime experience. There were a total of 22 GRAMMYs shared between those artists.
The Infamous StringDusters brought the jam band sound with smoke bombs and a very colorful light show to end the day.
Saturday some of my favorites were Sierra Hull & Justin Moses. Sierra’s mandolin was phenomenal for such a youngster.
The Lil Smokies, featuring Jake Simpson’s wailing fiddle and soothing vocals, brought the fans to their feet simply because they couldn’t sit still. The harmonies and musicianship, albeit with two new bandmembers, was first class. They should be headlining next year, in my opinion.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn put on a nice personal set which included a cameo from Juno Fleck, their son, dancing and singing with his parents, at eight years old.
To end the evening, the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band, complete with drums, kicked up the bluegrass another notch.
The marvelous Greg Schochet of Hi Beams fame won the guitar contest.
Sunday’s highlights for me were the exceptional The Old Gospel Ship set featuring KC Groves (Lyons local), Jake Simpson, Greg Blake, Eric Thorin, and Keith Tuttle. Sitting in were Dylan McCarthy, Abigail Washburn, Dusty Rider and Reb from the Smokies. Such a great vibe to start off Sunday with harmonies and musicianship bar none.
Next up, Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas as a duo were very cool and laid back.
The group Della Mae really caught my ears. They kicked Sunday up a few notches with their approach– which was no holds barred, wonderful harmonies, songs and presentations. They are a Grammy-nominated all-female string band that crossed many musical boundaries. They brought the audience to their feet with a very positive feminist song, “The Way It Was Before,” they penned that blew me away. I believe it was the only time this weekend that the audience got to their feet to applaud after an individual song. This band has what it takes.
I really enjoyed the traditional bluegrass of the Del McCoury family band. Son Ronnie announced Del’s 82nd birthday to one of the longest ovations of the day.
Bela Fleck’s “My Bluegrass Heart” (featuring five musicians) was a fitting end of a beautiful weekend.