Saturday at the Red Wing Roots Music Festival was one of those days when the music starts off great and then – when you think it can’t possibly be sustained – it keeps getting better. (The last day that rivaled this one at a festival was day two of Merlefest 25. It is interesting to note that the Steel Wheels were involved with both!)
Duets were the order of the day in the early afternoon at Red Wing II, beginning with Bernice and Bryan Hembree playing as Smokey & The Mirror. He writes great songs (St. Alban’s Day, Will and Woody) while she has a powerful and beautiful voice (showcased on a cover of Dylan’s Buckets of Rain). They were the first out of the chute today, and the Hembrees set a high bar.
Mandolin Orange – an acoustic duo featuring Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz – were up next and played a beautiful set that we caught while eating lunch (and Kline’s ice cream!). With just a guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, they crafted songs that were simple yet compelling. At the end of this post, I’ve included a beautiful video from FreshGrass at MassMOCA with Mandolin Orange playing Hey Adam.
This year the Red Wing folks figured out how to stage their shows where it was possible to walk back and forth between two stages and hear all the major acts with no interruptions. So up next was another duo, Eric Brace and Peter Cooper. I met Eric a few years ago when his band – Last Train Home – played at the National Trust conference in Nashville. And when we caught up later in the day, I was able to tell him what a terrific job he and Peter Cooper did in the blazing afternoon sun. Cooper has my dream job – professor of country music at Vanderbilt – but he’s a pretty good songwriter and musician in his own right. Both Brace and Cooper had strong originals in their show, but the first highlight of their set was a beautiful cover of Herb Pedersen’s Wait a Minute, which Brace dedicated to the late Mike Auldridge.
The duos gave ways to a trio as The Stray Birds followed Brace & Cooper. I called out The Stray Birds as a band to watch in my Best of Bluegrass 2013 post, so I was eagerly awaiting their set at Red Wing. They didn’t disappoint, with a wonderful hour of soulful country singing. Maya de Vitry and Oliver Craven, along with Charles Muench on bass, sing and play songs that sound as old as the hills, but with an understanding that seems impossible given their relative youth. Craven contributed an original (Come Back Today So I Can Sleep Tonight) and their version of Blue Yodel No. 7 is sublime.
The only bluegrass band (of sorts) on the bill on Saturday followed, as The Brothers Comatose from San Francisco took the main stage for an energetic and satisfying set. Two brothers – Alex and Ben Morrison – front the group, which included a terrific fiddle player named Philip Brezina.
At this point in the afternoon, I joined my friends Oakley and Kay at Tim O’Brien‘s songwriter showcase. He began with his well known hit for the Dixie Chicks, More Love, and then worked his way through songs he’d written (a recent one about the Charleston, WV, chemical spill) and those of others he admired (Mick Ryan’s Lament). The hour zipped by.
The incredibly talented Sarah Jarosz (photos at the top of post and above) then took over the main stage. Playing a beautiful octave mandolin for much of the set, she displayed impressive songwriting, singing, and instrumental chops (the latter featured on mandolin during the instrumental Old Smitty). Alongside a cello and fiddle, this roots chamber music recalled everyone from Norman and Nancy Blake to Crooked Still and much more. Check out the video of Build Me Up From Bones.
It would take two old pros like Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott to follow Jarosz without feeling intimidated by the youthful prodigy. And these two incredible instrumentalists, songwriters, and singers put together a hell of a show. I can’t recall the last time I stood for an hour to listen to music and felt like the time rushed by. That happened today.
I’ve heard With a Memory Like Mine on multiple occasions, but Darrell’s gripping tale of a father meeting his soldier son returning from war – written with his father Wayne Scott – was especially powerful this afternoon. Likewise, these guys ripped through Long Time Gone and traded licks until you figured they had to have used them all up…then they had some more. O’Brien’s Not Afraid O’ Dyin’ led to some on-the-spot arranging, as Tim called out chords for Darrell in a bit of an improvised interlude stuck in the middle of the tune. Seeing Scott play guitar up close – and hear him sound like an orchestra on just six strings – was a revelation. It was an unbelievable set, that they closed with the gospel tune House of Gold.
Then finally, it was time for our hosts for the weekend.
The meadow in front of the main stage was full-to-overflowing for The Steel Wheels – hosts of the Red Wing Roots Music Festival II. The set was largely familiar, but that’s just what the friends, family, and fans had come to hear. Trent Wagler has one of the most distinctive voices in Americana and roots music, and he was supported by the tight and talented Steel Wheels. Rain in the Valley ended a 70 minute set that closed out all too soon for most at the festival.
With a drive home set for early tomorrow morning, we took off knowing that whatever followed, we had heard an amazing day of music in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Thanks Steel Wheels for a second great year. May there be many more to come.
Let’s end with two beautiful videos – Mandolin Orange and Sarah Jarosz. Enjoy!
More to come…