LIVE: Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival @ Walsh Farm, 7/14/17
Review by Richard Brody
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Welcome to Mud Fox. The on-and-off torrential rain the previous two days left the roads in and out of the Walsh Farm (as well as the parking lots) in treacherous condition. That left the staff and volunteers of the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival – who always do a superb job monitoring the grounds and creating the community spirit that defines the festival – with a lot of extra work. Fortunately, they were more than up to the task.
I didn’t see one concerned or sour look on the face of anyone all day, and why should there be? We were all there for the music, and that went on without a hitch.
And what better way to start doing that then listening to Sarah Jarosz and band. Jarosz demonstrated her instrumental virtuosity throughout the set on guitar, banjo and mandolin, but it was her songwriting and voice that were front and center this day. Her most recent album, Undercurrent, chronicles the emotional rollercoaster of early adulthood and becoming your own person. Jarosz and her band began the set with “House of Mercy” from that album: a song about a double-crossing lover.
Don’t try to change my mind
That knock gets louder all the time
Don’t try to wear me down
You’ll never get inside this house
Throughout her set Anthony da Costa dazzled us on acoustic and electric guitar, playing leads that always served the song, and this was best exemplified by his electric playing on “Take Me Back,” perfectly capturing the emotional mood of the song. Bass man Jeff Picked was also given room to move, and he was more than able with his solo on Prince’s “When Doves Cry.” He also made fine use of his bow on the introduction to “1000 Things.”
The lyrics for “Comin’ Undone” captured the role that music plays as the saving grace for Jarosz’s spirit when the world is coming undone. The song was led by her soothing voice, and her guitar work, along with Anthony’s, was complemented by Picked’s basslines that brought the song to an end.
Trout Steak Revival followed Jarosz. The five-member band displayed their versatility throughout their set as each band member led songs vocally and instrumentally. “Union Pacific” was led by banjoist Travis McNamara with fine support from Bevin Foley’s fiddle and vocals. Bass man Casey Houlihan led the vocals on “Ours for the Taking.” Guitarist Steve Foltz led the vocals on Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is to Fly” with the remaining band members adding fine four-part harmony on the chorus and supportive playing that was highlighted by Will Koster’s Dobro. The band ended their set with the up-tempo “Pie” that gave all the musicians room to stretch out and bid the audience a foot-stompin’ goodbye.
Former Kentucky Thunder and Hot Rize guitarist Bryan Sutton and his band kicked off their set with “Tomorrow Is Just Too Long” that provided space for mandolinist Casey Campbell, bassist Sam Grisman and fiddler Mike Barnett to show off their chops. As good as they were, it was Mr. Sutton’s fretwork that wowed us throughout the set. Sutton and band performed a number of noteworthy songs including “Swannanoa Tunnel,” a traditional song, set in Sutton’s hometown of Asheville, NC, and Doc Watson’s rendition of Roy Acuff’s “Streamlined Cannonball.” The band’s cohesion and the obvious joy they had playing with each other was greeted with a standing ovation as the final notes of Tim O’Brien’s “High Road” rang.
I tried to make it down to the Catskill Tent to catch the end of the Travelin’ McCourys’ set, but I got waylaid by members of bluegrass’s next generation who were playing to raise money for a Grey Fox tradition: The Bluegrass Academy For Kids. I was wowed by a seven-year-old banjo player performing “This Land Is Your Land.” He knew all the verses!
I finally made it to the McCourys in time to hear their last song, a blistering paced “Travelling” with solos from the entire band that left the crowd screaming for more.
At 6pm the high meadow stage opened for the day with 14-time Grammy winner Ricky Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the instrumental prowess and the great three- and four-part harmonies that Skaggs and the band provided. As a fiery version of “Wheel House” concluded, Skaggss’ commentary said it all: “If we got paid by the note, we’d get rich tonight.”
He honored his mother’s Kentucky words of wisdom, “can’t never did nothin’” with a beautiful version of “Mother’s Only Sleeping.” He brought bass man Scott Muldehill up front to lead and provide outstanding vocals for Jimmy Martin’s “20 20 Vision Walkin’ Round Blind.” Skaggs honored some of his bluegrass heroes playing guitar on a spirited version of Doc Watson’s “Tennessee Stud” and delivering a stunning version of Flatt & Scruggs’ “I Heard My Mother Call My Name” that featured four-part harmony on the chorus. He brought out two former Kentucky Thunder guitarists, Bryan Sutton and Cody Kilby (of the Travelin’ McCourys) to join in on the encore of Bill Monroe’s “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray.” Needless to say the fretwork was amazing and that included Sutton’s re-tuning of Jake Workman’s guitar as Workman continued to play. Not a note was dropped. It was the perfect ending to a great set.
If you like your bluegrass laced with punk energy, guitarslinger swagger and musical chops to match, then Billy Strings is your cup of tea. Strings won 2016 International Bluegrass Music Award Instrumentalist Momentum Awards for banjo and mandolin in addition to guitar. By the second number, “Train Train,” the heat was turned up, the solos were blazing and the High Meadows crowd responded in kind. While there is no doubt that there is some rock ‘n’ roll in his blood, Strings paid his respect to some of the bluegrass legends with his performance of the Stanley Brothers “Lonesome River” with Lindsay Lou accompanying him on vocals, and Merle & Doc Watson’s “Hold the Woodpile Down” that slowed the tempo down.
Cody Kilby joined Strings and band for “These Old Blues” and a spirited version of “Me and My Uncle” that had the two guitarists playing off each other and upping the ante with each solo before Strings closed the set with Bill Monroe’s “Roll On Buddy Roll On.” It will be very interesting to follow Mr. Strings’ musical journey.
Nicky Saunders got my Fiddler of the Day award for his ability to take the Steep Canyon Rangers to another musical level. When the Rangers set needed a shot of adrenaline, Saunders’s whirling dervish stage presence both fired up the crowd. And it was a great counterpoint to the fine lead vocals provided by guitarist Woody Platt and the harmonies of Woody, Graham Sharp (banjo), Mike Guggino (mandolin) and Saunders. I left Grey Fox as the Rangers were demonstrating their versatility with a performance of Dylan’s “Let Me Die in My Footsteps”.
As a former Deadhead I truly wanted to see Jeff Austin and the Travelin’ McCourys playing the Grateful Ball, but that was not to be. I sure hope that they played “The Music Never Stopped,” the Dead song that truly symbolizes Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival.