Walter Tunis: Festival of the Bluegrass hits its stride this weekend

Contributing Music WriterJune 6, 2013 

Jerry McCoury, left, Bobby Osborne, Del McCoury, J.D. Crowe and Bobby Hicks are Masters of Bluegrass. They'll play two shows on Saturday at Festival of the Bluegrass.

COURTESY OF MASTERS OF BLUEGRASS

  • THE WEEK THAT WAS

    Sturgill Simpson at Cosmic Charlie's: "We're going to slow things down a little," warned Sturgill Simpson as his spirited but all-too-short country roots party wound down.

    There was a time, during his waning days with the Lexington twang brigade Sunday Valley, when the Breathitt County native would have made good on such a promise.

    In fact, there were instances during the performance — which clocked in at one hour to the minute — when Sturgill luxuriated in a drag of heavy yet poetic country confession, such as the forlorn Water in a Well. But this particular threat of performance deceleration was, quite happily, a balk. Simpson and his very capable back-up trio responded with Railroad of Sin, quite possibly the highlight of his forthcoming album High Top Mountain. It ripped along with the speed and agility of bluegrass colored by an electric barroom flair that recalled Merle Haggard's more restless music from the '70s. Add in vocals reflecting the confident storytelling timbre of Waylon Jennings and you had an idea of the roots paradise from which Sturgill, now a Nashvillian, operated.

    But this wasn't some retro-country version of "spot the influence" either. The traditionalism in Simpson's songs illuminated storylines seemingly born in the shadows. "Sometimes I feel like cutting a vein just to watch it bleed," he sang in the show opening Some Days. The song's sense of autonomy emerged full blown during Life Ain't Fair and the World is Mean, a dark, frank view of corporate Nashville thinking.

    Musically, the show was equally engaging, thanks in no small part to a blend of warp speed picking and orchestral ambience from guitarist Adam Davis, who mightily filled the plentiful spaces on High Top Mountain forged by veteran Nashville steel guitarist Robby Turner.

    There was only one misfire: a contained, countrified cover of the Roy Orbison hit Crying. Aside from being way out of Simpson's vocal range, one was left wondering why Sturgill headed down such an obvious pop route when still several delights from High Top Mountain went unplayed. Original country music this solid and soulful deserved all the attention the singer could provide it.

Festival of the Bluegrass

June 7-9 at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Iron Works Pkwy. $10, $40, $45. (859) 253-0806. Festivalofthebluegrass.com.

The week's events paraded as Best of Bluegrass have all led up to this: the 40th annual Festival of the Bluegrass, which hits full stride this weekend at the Kentucky Horse Park.

While Dudley Connell of the Seldom Scene offers observations on his band's longtime involvement with the event on Page 7, let's acknowledge three other star attractions performing at this milestone festival.

Dailey and Vincent: The ensemble led by guitarist/vocalist Jamie Dailey and bassist/vocalist Darrin Vincent has crammed a career's worth of touring, recording and accolades into its five-plus years together. They have released six albums, each stressing strong ensemble harmonies and a mix of traditional and contemporary gospel. A tireless touring unit, Dailey and Vincent have earned over a dozen International Bluegrass Music Association awards. Both are tested road veterans, as well — especially Dailey, who has performed several times at the Festival of the Bluegrass before the group's formation as a member of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.

A special note regarding Dailey and Vincent's performance: While most of the festival's acts will offer abbreviated afternoon and evening sets this weekend, the duo will play a single concert-length set, approximately 90 minutes. (7:40 p.m. Friday.)

Masters of Bluegrass: When discussing the disbanding of his long-running band New South and retirement from full-time touring late last year, Central Kentucky banjo great J.D. Crowe mentioned a set of impending dates with all-stars Del McCoury, Bobby Osborne, Bobby Hicks and Jerry McCoury, Del's bass playing brother, in a celebrity ensemble titled the Masters of Bluegrass. Aside from having the opportunity to perform with a team of like-minded string-music elders, Crowe revealed one of the more subtle joys of the alliance, bragging rights to saying he plays with "The MOB."

The favored repertoire of these bluegrass MOBsters is strongly traditional. Previous performances have featured such as classics as The Old Cross Road, Sunny Side of the Mountain and Blue Ridge Mountain Home. (3:30 and 9:20 p.m. Saturday.)

Dry Branch Fire Squad: Another festival perennial, the Dry Branch Fire Squad remains one of the event's most traditionally minded acts with roots in folk, vintage gospel and pre-bluegrass country. The vocals have a suitably antique flavor and the musicianship is invariably precise. But what still makes Dry Branch so distinctive is mandolinist/vocalist Ron Thomason, a former teacher and part-time horseman. As the band's frontman, he is also a champion humorist. His delivery comes with a self-effacing, unassuming country air, but Thomason is very much a scholar. How many other bluegrass pros do you know who recite Shakespeare or Lewis Carroll at sound checks?

Keep in mind that Dry Branch will play Saturday before closing the event with a Sunday morning gospel show. The latter, performed on one of the secondary stages, is still among the most intimate, enlightening and overlooked delights of the entire festival. (6 p.m. Saturday and 10:40 a.m. Sunday.)

For a complete schedule of festival events and ticket info, go to Festivalofthebluegrass.com.

Interstate Trucker

The recommended road trip concert of the weekend finds Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood and the Downtown Rumblers (which boasts a pair of DBT mates, drummer Brad Morgan and keyboardist Jay Gonzalez) playing at the Southgate House Revival, 111 East Sixth Street in Newport, on Sunday.

Hood is still touring behind his splendid 2012 solo album Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance. Of course, a few Trucker tunes will get thrown into the mix, too. Recent setlists have included DBT faves like Bulldozers and Dirt, Daddy Needs a Drink and a reworked The Righteous Path. Keep your fingers crossed that Hood squeezes in a Lexington show before he reconvenes full-time with the Truckers. T. Morris Hardy opens. (8 p.m. $20. (859) 431-2201. Southgatehouse.com.


THE WEEK THAT WAS

Sturgill Simpson at Cosmic Charlie's: "We're going to slow things down a little," warned Sturgill Simpson as his spirited but all-too-short country roots party wound down.

There was a time, during his waning days with the Lexington twang brigade Sunday Valley, when the Breathitt County native would have made good on such a promise.

In fact, there were instances during the performance — which clocked in at one hour to the minute — when Sturgill luxuriated in a drag of heavy yet poetic country confession, such as the forlorn Water in a Well. But this particular threat of performance deceleration was, quite happily, a balk. Simpson and his very capable back-up trio responded with Railroad of Sin, quite possibly the highlight of his forthcoming album High Top Mountain. It ripped along with the speed and agility of bluegrass colored by an electric barroom flair that recalled Merle Haggard's more restless music from the '70s. Add in vocals reflecting the confident storytelling timbre of Waylon Jennings and you had an idea of the roots paradise from which Sturgill, now a Nashvillian, operated.

But this wasn't some retro-country version of "spot the influence" either. The traditionalism in Simpson's songs illuminated storylines seemingly born in the shadows. "Sometimes I feel like cutting a vein just to watch it bleed," he sang in the show opening Some Days. The song's sense of autonomy emerged full blown during Life Ain't Fair and the World is Mean, a dark, frank view of corporate Nashville thinking.

Musically, the show was equally engaging, thanks in no small part to a blend of warp speed picking and orchestral ambience from guitarist Adam Davis, who mightily filled the plentiful spaces on High Top Mountain forged by veteran Nashville steel guitarist Robby Turner.

There was only one misfire: a contained, countrified cover of the Roy Orbison hit Crying. Aside from being way out of Simpson's vocal range, one was left wondering why Sturgill headed down such an obvious pop route when still several delights from High Top Mountain went unplayed. Original country music this solid and soulful deserved all the attention the singer could provide it.

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