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Rockygrass 2006: Happy Insanity!

For bluegrass and music lovers on the Colorado Front Range and beyond, the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival a.k.a. Rockygrass, celebrated its 34th year with another high quality lineup of artists, from perennial regulars like Sam Bush and Peter Rowan to newer favorites like Blue Highway and The Wilders to legends like Richard Greene and Roland White.

First, allow this music lover to throw in some biased comments, starting with three words: I love Rockygrass!! Since my first unforgettable experience in 2003, the last weekend of July has become a musical holiday of sorts; the Planet Bluegrass Ranch becoming my lazy Summer home where there is no other place I’d rather be. Between the colorful red cliffs, the flowing St. Vrain river, the variety of family activities, the wealth of picking parties, the stellar Planet Bluegrass staff and a vibe both family friendly and for those who prefer to let their freak flag fly, 3500 Festavarians made this special little section of Lyons their place of celebration.

Cooling off in the St. Vrain

This year’s festival could almost have been labeled Sunnygrass as the sun was a factor through the bulk of the festival, hitting 100-degree temperatures by Saturday. Thankfully, with the St. Vrain river, many a Festavarian cooled off, relaxed or went tubing. I estimated that I spent approximately a total of over four hours in the St. Vrain all weekend.

Arguably, this may have been the highest profile Rockygrass in its rich history: Festival passes were sold out over two months prior to the festival, and extra tickets were a legitimate challenge for those to acquire. Planet Bluegrass also made changes to their on site Thursday entrance procedures, with the initial vehicle line moved from Railroad Avenue to the Olson Property. These changes proved successful, giving those eager Festavarians their place in line while providing less inconvenience to the residents of Lyons.

The Arrival

For Rockygrass, I normally camp at Meadow Park, one block from the Planet Bluegrass Ranch premises. Because of the Rockygrass Academy that goes on all week leading up to Rockygrass, Planet Bluegrass and the town of Lyons makes Meadow Park available for camping as early as Monday (July 24th). However, several local Festavarians — in a manner similar to Town Park at Telluride — opted to set up their riverside campsites up to one week prior to the official opening (paying the town of Lyons per day in the process). After securing a nice shade-filled campsite on Monday, I was already taking a nice soak in the St. Vrain; then met some kind folks from New Mexico and got into a pick; one of many already taken place.

Nearly a handful of years ago, due to heavy demand and folks waiting all night in line, Planet Bluegrass adopted a random numbers system where at an untold given time after 11:00 pm, numbers would be issues. In this case, Planet Bluegrass waited until 3:30 am (!) to issue those numbers. I wound up drawing a very cool number out of 400: 69! It was the only time that weekend where the Deadhead in me had "Dark Star" playing in my head.

Friday: Legends go Yonder

The following morning was the tarp rush, taking place at 10:30 am. Planet Bluegrass has a well-honed system in place, with one security person taking the numbers in order and another person keeping the line in check. In these lines, you were respectfully treated like a human, as the Planet Bluegrass staff would always ensure fairness for everyone. After giving my number, I bolted to the grounds and scored a sweet second-tarp-row spot right-center of the stage; which guaranteed a killer vantage point and made other key area accessible: Namely, the standing-room-only area to the right of the stage and the St. Vrain River! As for the music, there really wasn’t an act I genuinely disliked all weekend, and there were plenty of musical treats abundant.

Friday traditionally starts off with a set by the previous year’s Band Content champion: Town Mountain started off with a spirited set, watermarked by strong lead vocals by guitarist/frontman Robert Greer, on-the-spot harmonies and well-detailed instrumentation by banjo player Jesse Langlais and mandolin player Jed Willis.

It was cool to see Richard Greene, a former Bluegrass Boy with some GD-related history, as he was part of Old & In The Way when Vassar Clements was unavailable; and his fiddle graced the studio version of the Grateful Dead’s "Mississippi Half Step." Mr. Greene was also Peter Rowan’s bandmate in Sea Train and Muleskinner. Backed by the Brothers Barton, Richard’s set primarily consisted of old-time and relaxed folk-flavored instrumentals with a subtle modern feeling.

Bearfoot Bluegrass, a group of Alaska youngsters, made for a nice follow-up, marked by the twin fiddles of Angela Oudean and Annalisa Tornfelt. The female harmonies reminded me a bit of the old Hit & Run Bluegrass, but with a softer, more feminine grace.

Tony Trishka and Roland White

Tony Trishka’s Bluegrass Band featuring Roland White leaned more towards traditional, the band also augmented by special guest Darol Anger. While there was plenty of crisp interplay, I also found the band to be very traditional in their musical approach. The majority of the set’s moods were casually upbeat, via songs like the bouncy "Polka On The Banjo,", a subtle take of the late Jimmy Martin’s "Sunny Side Of The Mountain" and a crispy "Rawhide".

Mountain Heart made a bigger impression on me than in years past, with Adam Steffey’s driving mandolin the catalyst of the band (Steffey was a member of Union Station in the 90s). However, I found myself paying attention to Barry Abernathy’s banjo, especially given that Barry has a deformed left hand so he can only use one finger and thumb, yet if you closed your eyes and listen, you would have been unable to notice. As a banjo student, I found Mr. Abernathy’s playing, spirit and professionalism to be genuinely inspirational. Mountain Heart offered plenty of spirit and drive in a performance strong in tradition.

Sharon Gilcrest, Bryn Davies, Peter Rowan, Tony Rice and Richard Greene

Peter Rowan & Tony Rice Quartet were superb as usual, playing a somewhat different set than at Telluride. One favorite of this somewhat abridged set (65 minutes) was "Ahmed the Beggar Boy", which depicts about the ongoing wars in the Middle East, with Peter soulfully crying, "Is this Armageddon? Is this Armageddon?" Tony Rice’s playing was deliciously masterful as always, while Sharon Gilcrest’s mandolin contained plenty of confidence and grace. Of course, Bryn Davies continues to throw it down on upright, continually giving the quartet that added spunk. Midway through the set, Peter welcomed his old friend Richard Greene, whose fiddle added a nice extra dimension to Tony Rice’s "Shady Grove" instrumental, and also sparked Peter’s upbeat "Vassar Clements" tribute song. The now-quintet closed the set with a blistering "Wild Mustang", but there was surprisingly no encore.

Next up was a heaping of instrumental brilliance by three masters: Russ Barenberg, Edgar Meyer and Jerry Douglas, known as "Skip, Hop and Wobble." That is actually a fine instrumental album the trio recorded in 1994, which a good portion was featured. There were several new instrumentals which were unnamed, but where this set could have been dry, there was a warmth to the trio’s playing, particularly the Other Jerry’s, that kept things flowing smoothly.

Friday night was capped with a strong 90-minute set by hometown heroes Yonder Mountain String Band, with its "official fifth member" Darol Anger on fiddle. It’s hard to go wrong with a YMSB set when they open with one of Jeff Austin’s best "epic" songs, "Dawn’s Early Light" (even if I find it resembling Peter Rowan’s "Land Of The Navajo" in the instrumental breaks), and the energy escalated with "Follow Me Down To The Riverside." By the set’s third song, an upbeat cover of John Hartford’s "Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie", a good portion of the seated crowd were now dancing. Also, this was not a "new album promo" set, and there was a strong combo of "Steep Grades, Sharp Curves" into a typically sound version of "Mother’s Only Son", with the Yonder interplay fully intact. Casey Driessen lent his fiddle to the set-closing stretch of "Keep On Going > Death Trip > Keep On Going", doubling the spice with Darol. Bryn Davies also teamed up with Ben Kaufmann on an upright bass solo before Austin led the quintet to a typically-riveting "Death Trip." A straight-up "Troubled Mind" served as the encore of a superb Friday of music.

Moongrass: A New Rockygrass Tradition

Hold it…not so fast! This year, Planet Bluegrass initiated a new series of late-night low-cost shows dubbed MoonGrass, taking place at the Wildflower Tent, normally used for workshops during Rockygrass, the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival and Festival of the Mabon.. Thus, I attended the first-ever MoonGrass gig at the, hosted by Uncle Earl. This is a work in progress, as you had to wait for the festival ground to clear, then line up outside the main festival entrance, then walk 50 yards or so to the tent. With a great history of always improving their festival system, Craig Ferguson and the Planet Bluegrass staff will figure out a way to improve access in due time.

Erin Coats, KC Groves and Kristen Andreassen

As it is, the g’Earls of Uncle Earl were superb, playing primarily a mix of old-time string band material. Abigail Washburn (banjo) led the quintet in a playful "Walkin’ In My Sleep" while founder KC Groves (mandolin, guitar) gave us a brief preview of new material from their forthcoming new album, scheduled for January 2007 (and produced by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones). Rayna Gellart displayed the quintet’s soft side, with a pretty rendition of the elegant ballad "Sleepy Desert."

The g’Earls also welcomed over ten additional musicians onstage, including Tony Trishka, Rob Ickes (the great dobro player for Blue Highway), Darol Anger and his fiddle ensemble and Sharon Gilcrest (an Earl alumni) for a couple of upbeat fiddle tunes. When Kristen Andreissen was not singing softly and playing any instrument with strings (fiddle, guitar, etc) or harmonica, she gave an expert demonstration on clogging. Erin Coats, formerly of Hit and Run Bluegrass, provided rock-solid bass and sweet vocal harmonies while Rayna Gellert’s dancing fiddle kept things lively throughout.

Finally, the g’Earls started a tradition which several Festavarians spread…HAPPY ROCKYGRASS! During the show, the glee-filled fivesome changed the sentiments to HAPPY INSANITY! For the $10 admission, plenty of fun and insanity — was certainly had.

After the show, I immediately bolted to the big "number" line to get my number for the following day. Fortunately, the numbers were issued 15 minutes after I had arrived, so I could make it back to my campsite for last-minute picking and a handful of hours of sleep.

Saturday In The Sun

Thanks to getting a sweet number in line (#14 out of 500!), after the customary wait and entrance, I found myself with a killer front row right-center tarp spot. "Front row" is a bit subjective, since there is a VIP section with six rows of folding chairs in front of the stage. Still, the vantage point was mint for enjoying a fully loaded day of music, weather, the St. Vrain River and the joys of Festavarianism.

The band contest normally starts the Saturday festivities, but I opted to bolt back to my campsite where my camping group and I whipped up brunch. Arriving back to the Ranch 15 minutes into Crooked Still’s tasteful folk-edged set, I wound up paying attention to banjo player Dr. Greg Liszt, who utilized a unique four fingered banjo technique, an extension of the infamous Earl Scruggs three-fingered style. Rushad Eggleston’s cello was the instrumental fulcrum of the New England based band while Aoife O’Donovan’s ethereal vocals possessed an understated quality a la Margo Timmons of Cowboy Junkies, but with a more earthy feeling.

The Infamous Stringdusters

As far as "new bands" go, The Infamous Stringdusters are one key band to watch. The young sextet shined all the way, each musician clearly an excellent, seasoned listener despite most of the sextet being in their 20s. Flatpicker Chris Eldridge is the son of the Seldom Scene’s banjo player Ben, while bassist Travis Book was previously in the locally popular Broke Mountain Bluegrass. Jeremy Garrett not only plays some roaring fiddle, but possesses a rich and distinctive tenor vocal that gave several songs robust flavor. Andy Hall’s dobro was both lively and tasty, and he also possessed a wide vocal range. I was familiar with banjo player Chris Pandolfi via a couple of Drew Emmitt Band shows from last year, and he is also the first Berklee School of Music graduate for banjo; however, there is plenty of grit to his polished picking. It is merely a matter of time before The Infamous Stringdusters quickly become a staple at many a bluegrass festival across the country, and a group with immense musical potential. Watch these guys!

Darol Anger’s Republic Of Strings played a spirited set of a variety of string music styles from across the globe. DAROS featured Scott Nygaard (former editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine) on acoustic guitar, prodigy Brittany Hass on fiddle and special guest Bryn Davies on upright bass. The all-instrumental set struck many moods and elegant styles, but there was also room for several tasty rave-ups as well.

Blue Highway has been a Rockygrass staple, and like two years ago, had sets lined up for Saturday and Sunday (as a gospel set). Polished musicianship, strong four-part vocal harmonies and a natural feel for gospel, Blue Highway played a rock-solid smart, confident set. Fifteen year old phenom Sara Jarocz assisted on their encore, a ripping take of "The Road is Rocky."

KC Groves, Abigail Washburn, Rayna Gellert, Erin Coats (back) and Kristin Andreassen

Clearly buzzed from the previous night, the g’Earls of Uncle Earl played a set filled with grace, dignity and hoe-down spirit. There were some repeats but there were numerous gems such as the sassy "Spatula, Behave!", a spunky take of "Ida Red" and the sexy "Sugar Babe" with soothing lead harmonies by Abigail Washburn and KC Groves. Rob Ickes (Blue Highway) lent his dobro on "Don’t That Road Look Rough and Rocky" and a spunky "Black Eyed Susie" near the end of the winning set, one which the g’Earls continued their Happy Insanity in merriment.

The beauty of this Rockygrass is that when any Festavarian is asked about his/her favorite sets, many an artist from each day will be mentioned. That said, to these eyes and ears, the Manzarita set was clearly special, a one-of-its-kind celebration save for one performance of the album over a quarter century ago.. Tony Rice’s groundbreaking album was one of those that led to bluegrass’ New Acoustic movement in the 1980s, where jazz elements started to take influence and changed the string-laden landscape . The bluegrass classic was given a spirited reading by a rich "all star" lineup, who did the album and numerous bluegrass classics more than justice: Tony Rice (acoustic guitar, of course), Jerry Douglas (dobro, harmony vocals), Sam Bush (mandolin, vocals), Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Dan Tyminski (acoustic guitar, vocals) and Barry Blades (upright bass). Like the original recording, Darol Anger was brought up to reprise his fiddle role on the album’s title track. With all the instrumental firepower at hand, the Manzanita set wasn’t just a matter of show-off licks, but watching the sextet quickly gel and soar as an ensemble. While Tyminski handled a fair portion of the singing (as Tony Rice cannot sing anymore due to throat problems), Sam Bush provided the remaining vocals and band leadership while Jerry Douglas was the anchor for keeping all players in check. Similar to the “Best Band In The Land” set from Telluride, the Manzanita set lived up to its billing…and then some!

Casey Driessen, Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott (back), Steve Earle and Dennis Crouch

Another "all star" roster of musicians followed, in the form of the Bluegrass Dukes backing Steve Earle. The Bluegrass Dukes — Tim O’Brien (mandolin, fiddle, harmony vocals), Darrell Scott (banjo), Casey Driessen (fiddle) and Dennis Crouch (upright bass) — huddled up on a single microphone a la original bluegrass tradition and provided steel-driving accompaniment to Steve’s powerful songs. Of course, there were plenty of politics in the set, but I happen to agree with what Steve preached. However, some of the songs spoke for themselves, such as "Rich Man’s War" (despite a lyric lapse) and the bittersweet "Christmas In Washington." Powerful, honest and gripping: The best three words to describe the Saturday night set-capper.

From there, it was back to the big line to get my number, which this time I drew #298 (out of 500). After getting my number at 2:00 am, it was back to the campsite. Tim O’Brien and his band played MoonGrass, which I had respectfully opted to pass in favor of finding a couple of picks near and on my group campsite.

Sunday Blurbs

The heat continued on Sunday morning, as I trekked to get in line. A kind soul upgraded my ticket number from #298 to #239, and I wound up snagging a nice front-of-board spot to the far right, a couple of tarp spaces away from the standing room only section, and very accessible to the St. Vrain River. Given my past two days of stellar vantage points, there was no reason to complain about this one.

Unfortunately, due to brunch running late — well, I should take some of the blame — I wound up regrettably missing a good portion of Blue Highway’s gospel set. What I did hear was superb, especially when they sang a cappella most crisply.

Casey Driessen and Abigail Washburn

Abigail Washburn’s set consisted primarily of songs from her solo album Song Of The Traveling Daughter, which includes several songs in Chinese. Soft, tasteful, elegant and soulful, backed by Casey Driessen on fiddle and Ben Sollee on cello, Abby’s songs were as relaxed as the sun-soaked day, and proved to be a fine set for a relaxing mode (and for soaking in the St. Vrain). In addition to her banjo skills, Abby possesses a haunting soprano so chilling in effect that it gives her music a genuine "old time" aura of many decades ago. Given that some of the songs played were derived from old 78-RPM vinyl, a good portion of the set felt like the trio were literally playing out of a victrola! Also notable was Abby’s cover of "Keys To The Kingdom" with just Casey’s fiddle augmenting her lonesome soprano, and a surprisingly deeper feeling than the "all star" version from Uncle Earl’s Friday night MoonGrass gig.

Since first seeing him a few years ago, Darrell Scott has become a must-see for me every time he is in town. Like Tim O’Brien, Darrell is a multi-talented singer-songwriter whose credits including writing big hits like “Long Time Gone” for the Dixie Chicks, as well as a highly regarded session musician, proficient on guitar and banjo. Backed by the ever-so-busy Casey Driessen on fiddle, Nick Forester on mandolin (the bassist for Hot Rize and founder of the great live music radio series e-Town) and electric bassist Matt Mangano, a portion of the set was denoted to the songs from Darrell’s new album, Invisible Man. Highlights of the set included an intense "River Take Me" (often covered by Sam Bush) and a sweet cover of Paul Simon’s "American Tune."

Next up were The Wilders from Kansas City, whose high-charged honky tonk workouts got many of the crowd dancing, similar in vein to their debut at Telluride last year. Fronted by guitarist Ike Sheldon (who almost looked like a thin Charlie Daniels crossed with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons), the quartet’s consistently upbeat moods — even when playing an occasional ballad — kept things on the upswing. Betse Ellis’ fiddle was one of perpetual motion while Nate Gawron’s bass glued the upbeat country chaos. It was also during the Wilders set that Mother Nature decided to give us Festavarians a well-deserved break from the sun, as a series of large clouds settled in, cooling the hot temperatures…except for onstage.

Danny Barnes & Tim O’Brien

Next up was Timbo and his band — Tim O’Brien, of course — and it was a typically superb and high quality set. Timbo’s band was a bit different from Telluride — the effervescent Danny Barnes on banjo and electric guitar, Casey Driessen on fiddle and Dannis Crouch on upright
bass. Highlights included the hilarious "Republican Blues", plenty of Timbo’s Cornbread Nation material, Danny Barnes’ jovially playful "Rat’s Ass” and (like Telluride) the hysterical-but-too-true "Republican Blues", all in a typical high-quality O’Brien set.

Earl Scruggs

It was now time to pay respect to one of bluegrass’ giants: the father of three-fingered banjo, 82-year-old Earl Scruggs. His band included Brad Davis (electric guitar), Bryan Sutton (acoustic guitar), Hoot Hester (fiddle), John Gardner (drums), Rob Ickes (dobro), and his son Gary (bass, band director). For the latter half, Sam Bush chipped in for a typically hyper drive "John Hardy" and remained onstage. The setlist contained all the Scruggs standards — "Earl’s Breakdown", "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", "The Ballad of Jed Clampett", etc. — along with numerous bluegrass standards and a nice cover of Bob Dylan’s "You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere." To these eyes and ears, Mr. Scruggs felt more present than at Telluride last year. As I’m learning Mr. Scruggs’ three-fingered technique, I found it once again a privilege to get to experience The Father Of Bluegrass Banjo share his legend one more time.

Rockygrass 2006 was capped by the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band, as Rockygrass is the only place where Sam intentionally keeps his sets steeped in bluegrass. With his fine new album Laps In Seven, songs like the driving "Ridin’ That Bluegrass Train" and "The River’s Gonna Run" are welcome additions. There were plenty of the Bush standards, including a ripping "You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone." Sam also continued the political tread set by Steve Earle and Tim O’Brien by adding a mocking verse of his own to a torrid cover of "The White House Blues".

Although scheduled for 90 minutes, Sam is notorious for extending his sets and pushing the time frame limits, which in this case added another half-hour. His two-song encore brought many players to the stage. For a reggae-influenced take of "Wabash Cannonball", guests included Tim O’Brien (fiddle), Bryan Sutton (acoustic guitar), Jeff Austin (mandolin), Hoot Hester (fiddle) and Rob Ickes (dobro). Chris Eldrige (acoustic guitar) and Casey Driessen (fiddle) would slip in for the set’s and festival’s final song, a bouncy "Nine Pound Hammer" (and a repeat from the previous night’s Manzanita set). Sam also made sure that every guest received a chance to solo, then capped it all home with his own. A superb, driving set to cap Rockygrass 2006 in typical high style.

As it has been since my first Rockygrass in 2003, I felt traces of sadness in walking back to my campsite, knowing another Rockygrass has come to a close (there was a Wilders MoonGrass show going on at Oskar Blues, which I decided to pass on). A few beverages and relaxing with friends and campsite neighbors was a nice way to cap the evening and to continue that Rockygrass glow.

Monday Morning: The Aftermath

By 5:00 am on Monday morning, I was awake and already tearing down my campsite, which always appears to be much harder upon leaving Rockygrass than in pre-festival preparations. This year was both psychological and physical, as after three days of sunshine and Rockygrass, I was clearly weary but managed to make it through the return to reality. Upon one last look at the red cliffs and the flowing waters of the St. Vrain, the reflection of another Rockygrass and its many lasting memories are the cloth of which I fondly look forward to the next scheduled bluegrass holiday at the Planet Bluegrass Ranch.

Happy Rockygrass…and Happy INSANITY!!!

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