“Bluegrass – it’s legal everywhere.”
So read the T-short of a patron roaming the Kentucky Horse Park Campground shortly before dusk on an Thursday evening that felt more like mid-autumn than early summer. Askew climate setting aside, the surrounding and especially the sounds all signaled the 44th start to one of Lexington’s most honored musical gatherings, the Festival of the Bluegrass.
As has been the case for many years, the Lonesome River Band headlined the Festival’s first night with a set boasting a musicality both rustic and relaxed. Leader Sammy Shelor again typlified the mix. As an often awarded banjoist, he remains a retiring figure onstage, keeping his solos to a lean minimum in favor of piloting a richly rhythmic ensemble. You heard that with the percolating accessibility of “Thunder and Lighting” and a crisp, set-opening cover of “Ida Red” (the latter a preview of LRB’s forthcoming “Mayhayley’s House” album). But guitarist Brandon Rickman and mandolinist Jesse Smathers, who rotated led vocal chores throughout the performance also deftly decelerated LRB’s propulsion at times, as during the sterling weeper “Mary Ann.”
Flatt Lonesome, a youthful, gospel-rooted band with members spread from Alabama to Ohio, preceded LRB with a set that was akin to a round at a country music jukebox. Fronted by three siblings — fiddler Charli Robertson, guitarist Buddy Robertson and mandolinist Kelsi Robertson Harrigill, all of whom traded vocal duties — the band provided a youthful gusto to songs penned and/or popularized by Buddy Miller, Merle Haggard, Jimmy Martin and more. The opening “Cold Rain and Snow” set the pace, spotlighting a light instrumental fabric highlighted by dobroist Michael Stockton. The siblings’ harmonies regularly swooped either in three part symmetry or in beautifully splintered form, as the sisterly vibe fueling the Texas swing stride of “Never Let Me Go.”
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Rounding out the bill was Custom Made Bluegrass, a very capable band of Central and Eastern Kentucky performers with a bright balance of gospel originals, a far-reaching array of bluegrass standards (“In the Pines,” “Molly and Tenbrooks”) and a flair of retro-inclined country material (“Streets of Bakersfield,” “I Ain’t Broke But I’m Badly Bent”) that played nicely to the inviting vocal leads of guitarist Van Ramey and mandolinist Ron Bowling.
A footnote to last night’s program: Dolton Robertson, grandfather to the Flatt Lonesomne siblings, died Wednesday. The band canceled all of its weekend performances, except for the Festival of the Bluegrass. While the group didn’t arrive at the Horse Park until Custom Made Bluegrass was onstage, Flatt Lonesome began its set on time. “It’s been quite a week,” remarked Harrigill. Regardless of the loss, an strongly animated family spirit drove the performance.
The festival continues through Sunday morning at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground.
If you go
Festival of the Bluegrass
When: Through June 11
Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Ironworks Parkway
Tickets: $20 (June 8 only), $50 (June 9 only), $55 (June 10 only), $10 (June 11 only), $100-$115 (entire festival)
Call: 859-253- 0806
1 and 8 p.m.: Sideline
2 and 7 p.m.: Hammertowne
3 and 10 p.m.: Newtown
4 and 9 p.m.: Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper
5 p.m.: Cumberland Gap Connection
6 and 11 p.m.: Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out
Noon: Open Stage
1 and 10:30 p.m.: The Wooks
2 and 6 p.m.: Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers
3 and 11 p.m.: Town Mountain
4 and 7 p.m.: The Grascals
5 and 8 p.m.: Band of Ruhks
9 p.m.: Seldom Scene
10 a.m.: True Life Travelers
11:15 a.m.: Dry Branch Fire Squad