Roanoke’s FiddleFest is a bluegrass event held at Hollins University every year about this time. The weather is always hot, and it is always threatened by afternoon storms.
Kim’s firm, AECOM (formerly HSMM), is a sponsor of the event. We’ve been to 4 of these events, seeing groups that range from local talent to Rhonda Vincent and Ralph Stanley.
Kim got a nice digital slr camera for her birthday this year, and so we thought we’d team up. She took (several hundred!!) photos during the shows, and I agreed to write it up.
When we arrived, the main stage was empty, and judging by the weather, we figured it had been moved inside due to the heat and humidity. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a bluegrass festival where the weather was comfortable. It’s always hot. Seeing bluegrass inside just doesn’t seem right, but that’s what the festival folks had decided to do this time. It wasn’t more than maybe 90 deg, but the humidity was very high.
For the afternoon concerts, we were in this small auditorium. It might have held 300 people max. It was a great place to hear acoustic music, and they almost didn’t need amplification, but they used a little anyway. Here you can see the back of my head as I sit on the floor behind a short wall in the back of the room. Right behind me was the fire marshall nazi enforcer. She later kicked Kim and I out of a standing room only spot because it was labelled for handicapped, and rolled in someone in a wheelchair. Competition for spots was tight, and the room was air conditioned, but had that feverish radiated heat of a room with too many people packed too close together.
But we endured. We were there to hear bluegrass, and we were gonna do that regardless of the adversity.
Sandy Ridge was the first group we saw. These guys are what you expect from an experienced bluegrass quartet. Each was master of his axe, and they harmonized beautifully. This is really the staple of why we come to Fiddle Fest. We know we’re gonna hear groups like this that you may not hear on XM, but are still well worth hearing.
Herschel Sizemore played mandolin with Sandy Ridge for a couple of tunes. Herschel came back in the evening with a pickup band and played a bigger set on the main stage. It’s always good to see people who have been around the bluegrass scene for a long time live.
The setting was very casual, as is always the case at bluegrass events. In the padded seats and air conditioning it almost took on the feeling of a more high-brow anthropological study where you examine the customs of inhabitants of appalachia as if they are some unknown species. It seemed a little academic, but it also seemed to have attracted a younger than usual bluegrass crowd. In our mid-40s, Kim and I are accustomed to being the youngest folks at some bluegrass events. (Lots of retirees in RVs)
Notice the reflective window behind the musicians. This gave an eerie feeling of the audience actually being part of the performance in an unusual way. The stage was small, and with the reflection, the musicians were surrounded on both sides by the audience, so we got to see ourselves as the performers would see us.
The next band was Mountain Heart. Kim and I have seen these guys before at some festival, I’ve got a couple of their CDs. The band seems to have gone through a transition since we have seen them, but we thoroughly enjoyed the new incarnation, if that’s what it is. It seems the old band may have been more forgettable, since Kim didn’t seem to remember them. She got them mixed up with Blue Highway, which was a band I knew from festivals in California. They have similar styles, but are distinctly different bands.
Mountain Heart had a couple of distinguishing marks that made this performance memorable. The most obvious was a 6 member line up, with 2 guitars. The second was Barry Abernathy. Somehow he played the banjo as well as any other great banjo player, but does it with no fingers on his left hand. That’s how being unremarkable is so remarkable, if that makes any sense.
The final distinguishing mark on this performance of Mountain Heart was that they were joined by Tony Rice on guitar and Terry Baucom on banjo. So that’s 3 guitars, and 2 banjos for those of you keeping score. Tony Rice is of course mesmerizing when he gets out on one of his flat picking solos. Mountain Heart was eager to point out that Tony is single handedly responsible for the state of flat picking style in bluegrass today. Yes, he’s that big a deal. When he cuts loose, you know that there is not another talent quite like him.
Kim and I have only seen Tony one other time, when he was touring with Alison Krauss. Alison is a great entertainer, but if you go to her concerts to hear bluegrass, you come to appreciate Dan Tyminski, and other people she tours with, like Tony Rice. In our minds, after seeing that concert, Dan’s voice and Tony’s guitar far outshone anything Alison brought. But that’s because we were there for the bluegrass.
After listening to Tony, on the drive home Kim and I agreed that the last time we felt that psychadelic mesmerizing pulsatinging flow of fast notes streaming out of a guitar was when listening to Larry Keel last year on July 4 at Snowshoe, WV. We agreed that Larry probably modeled himself after Tony at least in part, but Larry takes it further out on the fringe, where long jamming bluegrass guitar solos fuse into a mesmerizing miasma of music. Larry is from Natural Bridge, VA, a local to be sure, and quite a bit younger than Tony, but having built quite a name for himself already.
Terry Baucom was a name I have to admit I wasn’t familiar with, but he has played with many big names, including IIIrd Tyme Out, Doyle Lawson, Ricky Skaggs, Lou Reid, Dale Ann Bradley, Boone Creek, and others. He’s got that strong driving 3-finger banjo style that is what drew me to bluegrass in the first place. It was in some ways unfortunate that he was on stage with Tony Rice, because we didn’t get to hear Terry really cut loose. While Terry is an important figure and a phenomenal player, Tony Rice casts a long shadow in any company.
After Tony and Terry left the room, a lot of space in the small auditorium opened up. I can understand coming to a festival especially to see Tony Rice, but I can’t understand leaving and missing all the great talent that followed.
Anyway, the next band was Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice. Junior is clearly in command of a great bluegrass tradition. Sometimes when you see bigger name bands like Mountain Heart, the music is great, but it strays from the strict bluegrass theme. Junior put the audience back on the straight bluegrass track. He played some of my favorites.
Many of his band were local-ish musicians, from south central VA and NC. It turned out that his mandolin player for this gig was a favorite fellow from the Deer Creek Boys we saw at the same event in Snowshoe where we saw Larry Keel. “Sweet Potato” played the bass for Deer Creek and mandolin for Junior, but he laid down a nice 9 pound hammer for Junior. Here is a link to Sweet Potato at Snowshoe doing Jimmy Martin Sunny Side of the Mountain…
Blue Moon Rising was the final band in the cramped but wonderful sounding small auditorium. These guys were also worth the extra time. We actually got to sit in padded seats for their performance. The guys were all from Kentucky. We found two parts of this group to be memorable. Justin Jenkins was the young banjo player, getting married in a couple of weeks, and with a banjo album coming out shortly. Great banjo player.
The other bright spot here was Keith Garrett’s vocals. Blue Moon got very bluesy here and there. They weren’t just straight up bluegrass, but they were well worth listening to.
Overall, the bands were great. I really enjoyed the music. But I have to say that the venue would have been fantastic if there had been about 100 fewer people there. The fire marshal nazi enforcer woman was trying to kick out festival volunteers to allow paying customers to get into the room and have a seat. Many people including performers were sitting outside in the lobby, where you could still hear the music with the auditorium doors open.
After a little mexican food for dinner, the evening concert was back outside, where I think bluegrass belongs. The sun was tilting lower, and the occasional cool breeze would waft across the crowd. A good turnout for the event was a good thing to see. We had been disappointed to see the Salem bluegrass festival last only two years, but this is the fourth Fiddle Fest for us.
As the sun was setting, the sky kept teasing us with hints of rain, but we all stayed dry.
They went back through the lineup of the earlier afternoon concerts, so we got to hear Paul Williams and the Victory trio. We had just heard Paul at a festival in Louisa county a few weeks ago. Such a strong voice. I don’t think the audio folks really count on his voice being so strong. I will always associate Paul Williams with the image of an axe splitting my head open from ear to ear. Paul brings back the old gospel quartet style with a bluegrass instrumentation.
The ladies who sat in front of us entered in the fellow in the raffle drawing, and of course he won. One of the things he won was a Fiddle Fest bumper sticker. One of the ladies was a big trouble maker, and spotting me easily as another big troublemaker, she enlisted me to put the bumper sticker on the back of the wheel chair. Mean? Having fun at the expense of the handicapped? Maybe.
Mountain Heart played another set with their two guests. Of the whole day, the only musical criticism I would give would be aimed at these guys. No one doubts that they are fantastic musicians, but Kim and I lost track of the broken strings on the stage. Tony Rice played the pants off of his instrument, and never broke a string.
It’s acoustic music. I get the fact that if you want to “turn it to 11”, you have to press harder, but I don’t think the additional intensity was necessary, and sometimes it just detracted from the music. In rock and roll, you add distortion. In acoustic music, you just have to apply some edge. I thought the guitars and mandolin especially went for that extra edge a little too frequently. And frequently they were breaking strings. You can be an amazing musician without beating the daylights out of your instrument or making it sound harsh. Tony was superb, and never made his Martin sound ungentlemanly, nor did he break any strings. C’mon, guys, this is not Aerosmith. Intensity is cool, but there is a limit to how intense you can make acoustic music before it becomes something less.
Anyway. Great music, great festival. Rethink the inside option next year. Being able to see the band would be an advantage, even at the expense of the air conditioning.