In the best moments of its 44th edition, the Festival of the Bluegrass highlighted both the power of the individual musician and the joy of collaboration in and beyond bands.
Usually when dealing with a roster of artists akin to the lineup of schooled string music stylists that highlighted the Friday lineup and most of the weekend at the festival, reaching a consensus as to which act had the strongest showing isn’t easy. Some may vary their styles slightly, but what frequently emerges is a similar mix of lightning pace picking, familial vocal harmonies and homespun sentiment.
Friday was different, though. There was one undeniable titan in the lineup, and 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.
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Saturday night, it was time to party.
As day turned to night, Lexington’s own The Wooks took to the stage, mixing covers such as Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” with a plethora of originals. The group, which is set to depart for a west coast tour on Tuesday that includes a spot at the illustrious Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, had the crowd more animated during its late set than any other band Saturday with popular originals like “White Lines and Neon Signs” and the instrumental “Wookie Foot Shuffle.” “Shuffle,” which closed the set, featured dynamite performances from guitarist CJ Cain and mandolinist Galen Green.
Capping off Saturday night was Town Mountain, which came out firing on all cylinders with a threesome of songs off last year’s highly acclaimed “Southern Crescent”, including “Whiskey with Tears,” “Arkansas Gambler” and the title track, featuring the smooth howls of mandolinist Phil Barker on lead vocals. Barker’s infectious howls continued into the ever-popular “Lawdog” before jumping into the Jesse Langlais-penned “I Miss the Night.” Barker later premiered a new tune dubbed “Underdog” prior to welcoming members of The Wooks and guitarist Chris Shouse of Louisville’s The 23 String Band to the stage for a three-song jam and encore. After that, music lingered on into the wee hours of the morning in the Kentucky Horse Park campground.
The finale — save for a pair of gospel sets scheduled for Sunday morning — capped off a weekend that began Thursday night with familiar opening night headliner the Lonesome River Band and the youthful Flatt Lonesome. In addition to The Wooks, a number of local acts graced the fest stage over the weekend including Hammertowne and Band of Ruhks making their Festival of the Bluegrass debuts, NewTown giving its current lineup a fest debut and Custom Made Bluegrass opening the proceedings.
According to fest co-director Roy Cornett, the festival’s preparation had a few road bumps, but nothing out of the ordinary. Cornett added that ticket sales were up considerably from years past, but he wasn’t yet able to provide an estimated head count for the weekend.
“I’ve always said I’d rather sell one weekend ticket over 50 day passes, because those people are here for the long haul,” Cornett said. “We have the best fans in the world.”
Walter Tunis covered the festival Thursday and Friday, Matt Wickstrom was there Saturday.