Usually when dealing with a roster of artists akin to the lineup of schooled string music stylists that highlighted the Friday lineup at the Festival of the Bluegrass, reaching a consensus as to which act had the strongest showing isn’t easy. In an event like this, there exists a given symmetry, if not outright predictability, among the performers. Some may vary their styles slightly, but what frequently emerges is a similar mix of lightning pace picking, familial vocal harmonies and homespun sentiment.
Last night was different, though. All the artists taking the stage at the Kentucky Horse Park were engaging and proficient, yet there one undeniable titan among them. His name was Michael Cleveland.
During a late evening set with his band Flamekeeper, the fiddler covered all the requisites concerning technique, tradition and tone. But Cleveland proved to be such a versed player that he regularly expanded on the usual bluegrass diet of speed and flash. During “I Knew Her Yesterday,” an original instrumental from his splendid new “Fiddler’s Dream” album, he threw a curve ball by embracing a slower lyricism chilled with an engaging sense of honky tonk swing. Better still was a deconstruction of “Jerusalem Ridge” (one of several Bill Monroe classics within the set) performed as a spacious, astute but still playful duet with mandolinist Nathan Livers. The playing revived the tune’s inherent Celtic inspiration for a musicality that was remarkably worldly. Later, during an encore exhibition where he was left alone onstage, Cleveland summoned accents that sounded almost Eastern European in nature before landing with grace and vigor alongside Flamekeeper’s more overtly grassy camaraderie. In short, this was one of the great instrumental displays the Festival has seen in recent memory.
The rest of the bill was appealing, though occasionally perfunctory. Headliners Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out have not lost a step with its leader still full of a vocal bravado aged nicely by gospel and high lonesome soul (as on the chain gang requiem “Moundsville Pen”). Similarly, IIIrd Tyme Out alum Steve Dilling and his band Sideline balanced vocal might with jams that embraced the blues as well as Carolina-inclined ballads (the gentle title tune to the 2016 album “Colors and Crossroads”).
Two Kentucky-bred bands held their own on such a lofty bill. Newtown revealed additional maturity in its development of a steadfast ensemble sound with rich and often appealingly dark folk undertones (the transformation of Tyler Childers’ “The Crows and the Jakes” into Aoife O’Donovan-style Americana with help from Kati Penn’s soft focus vocals) while Hammertowne heavily favored bluegrass tradition, even though some of its material was welcomed from outside sources (including a surprisingly giddy version of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country”).
But this evening belonged to Cleveland and an instrumental charge fortified by taste, ingenuity and a sterling sense of musical adventure.
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
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