The inaugural Red Wing Roots Music Festival in beautiful Natural Chimneys Park held out a great deal of promise as The Steel Wheels pulled together friends and musical heroes for a wonderful three days of music in 2013. So I returned last year for Red Wing II, and found that the festival had grown and built on that promise. Naturally, Candice and I returned this weekend for the third annual Red Wing festival with our friends Margaret and Oakley Pearson from Staunton. This is becoming a habit. The signs of the festival’s growth and increasing popularity are everywhere, beginning with the size of the crowd. Then the line-up gets stronger, as bands and musicians learn about this wonderful, small (compared to Merlefest and Telluride), and welcoming festival with knowledgeable fans. (Folks in the Shenandoah Valley know their music.)
Candice and I were late arriving (don’t ask…part of it had to do with sitting still on I-66 for 20+ minutes), so we missed the first band I was hoping to hear – Mandolin Orange. I enjoyed their music at an earlier festival, and Oakley said they were equally captivating in 2015. We did arrive in time to hear the Colorado-based Elephant Revival, and they were a revelation. Bonnie Paine on washboard, musical saw (thankfully, only one tune), and lead vocals was amazing – leading the band through its blend of Celtic, folk, roots indie music.
The bluegrass band Chatham County Line was up next. I’ve heard their music over the past couple of decades, but had not had the opportunity to see them live. They began with the beautiful Sound of the Whippoorwill, and continued through an engaging hour-long set. For an encore, they brought out members of Mandolin Orange – one of those nice moments that festivals can produce. A change in the line-up brought the band Matuto to the main stage. Their music is described as an Appalachia-gone-Afro-Brazilian sound. Well, I didn’t hear much of the Appalachia piece, but guitarist Clay Ross and accordionist Rob Curto exchanged some mean licks in extended jams, all underpinned by a steady bass. This would be a great band in a New York club (where they are based).
The Travelin’ McCourys – along with special guest Andy Falco of The Infamous Stringdusters – hit the stage hard and kept the pace up with their blend of traditional bluegrass and more progressive sounds. These sons of legend Del McCoury know their traditional music, but they shined while playing some Dawg music, progressive bluegrass, and other tunes outside the boundaries of their dad’s bluegrass. It was especially nice to hear the Tony Rice version of Old Train as played by the band.
I’ve heard Jason Carter play his wonderful bluegrass fiddle before, but he has a great lead voice when singing that’s seldom heard (at least in my experience) when he’s playing with the Del McCoury Band. All-in-all a very satisfying show by Ronnie, Rob, Jason, Andy, and bassist Alan Bartram. Which then led to the night’s headliner…the inimitable Robert Earl Keen.
We were flagging after a very long day, but Keen’s music and breezy, boozy style (he couldn’t remember the name of his “bluegrass drummer” until about three songs into the set) soon won us over. Keen clearly has a huge following, and the quality of the songwriting shows why. When he explained that he had to search to find a “bluegrass drinking song” for his new Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions album (because “all my songs are drinking songs”), he then tore into Hot Corn, Cold Corn. His band was all acoustic for this set, and the addition of Kym Warner of The Greencards ensured some hot mandolin picking. We packed it in before the end of the set (Saturday’s music promises to run over into Sunday morning, so we have to pace ourselves)…but it was a good start to a weekend of satisfying music.
More to come…
Image: Robert Earl Keen performs at Red Wing III