Everybody experiences growing pains. Even music festivals.
2016 was the fourth year for the Red Wings Roots Music Festival held in the beautiful Natural Chimneys Park in Mt. Solon, Virginia. Hosted by the Steel Wheels, this regional Americana and roots music gathering in the Shenandoah Valley has been eclectic from the beginning, and not all the musical acts have been of the same quality. But the festival had maintained a nice balance between audiences that were there to party and have a good time and for those who came to listen to some of the country’s best acoustic musicians. (Chris Thile, Sam Bush, I’m With Her, Tim O’Brien, Jon Jorgenson, Claire Lynch, Sarah Jarosz, Del McCoury, and Darrell Scott all showed up over the first three years.)
But with the ominous warning on the front page of this year’s festival guide that there would be more “plugged in and turned up” bands, a shift was clearly underway. Friday’s lineup confirmed that approach…and the balance between the different audience shifted. Not for the better.
I can take electric guitars and drums with my roots music, but the result better be worth it. We arrived on Friday in time to catch the end of what appeared to be an energetic set from Front Country, with spirited vocals from Melody Walker. Our real goal was to hear the full set of mandolin phenom turned thoughtful adult musician Sierra Hull.
I’ve heard Hull play over the years at Merlefest, beginning in her mid-teens, and she always had the chops to play amazing bluegrass and traditional music. She was the first bluegrass musician to win a Presidential Scholarship at the Berklee College of Music. Her first album post-Berklee hinted at some new directions, but it wasn’t until the recently released Weighted Mind (produced by Bela Fleck) that she came into her own and broke away from the “I can play incredibly fast and clean bluegrass” camp.
At Red Wing on Friday, she and bassist Ethan Jodziewicz (recommended by no less a talent than Edgar Meyer) displayed her stripped down music, often featuring just the mandolin or octave mandolin and bass in songs and tunes both beautiful and complex. The duo was expanded on about a third of the set to include dobro and banjo player Justin Moses, which allowed Hull to showcase more of her traditional chops (on the tune “Bombshell” for instance, which closed out the set). Her “Black River” video is a great example of the direction of her new work.
Hull’s 75 minute set was the highlight on Friday, which was otherwise filled with forgettable music (with the exception of Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens). The biggest disappointment was The Steep Canyon Rangers, who have left their smartly crafted bluegrass songs to become a noisy party jam band. Too loud, too much smoke, too many flashing lights, too much dancing around the stage by the fiddle player. Please.
So expectations were low for Saturday. Thankfully, the musicians more than beat that low bar.
First up was Don Flemons. A founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons was the consummate old-time entertainer in the style of Uncle Dave Macon and other pre-WWII acts. His work digs…
…deeply into ragtime, Piedmont blues, spirituals, southern folk music, string band music, jug band music, fife and drum music, and ballads idioms with showmanship and humor, reinterpreting the music to suit 21st century audiences.
He had the crowd in the palm of his hand after the first song and never let up.
So that was a satisfying start to what ended up being a very nice day of music.
The next true revelation was Mipso, a North Carolina tradition-based band that writes and sings very smart songs with contemporary themes. Mipso’s four members – Jacob Sharp (mandolin), Joseph Terrell (guitar), Wood Robinson (bass), and Libby Rodenbough (fiddle) – sing beautiful harmonies around intricate tunes and rhythms.
In both theme and temperament, the (band’s recent) album finds an interplay between the sunrise and the twilight – a tug-of-war that’s itself an old-time tradition. From “Eliza,” a lively waltz-time romp, to “Bad Penny,” a surrealist dream sequence with an Abe Lincoln cameo, the album revels in the seesaw spectrum of experience and memory, where technicolor carnival hues blend with grown-up sadness and the whispers of ghosts. Mipso’s color palette, like its soundscape, is radically inclusive.
“We come from a place where traditional music is a living, changing thing,” fiddle player Libby Rodenbough said. “So we feel like having an ear for all kinds of stuff is not only true to ourselves, it’s a nod to the tradition.”
Take a listen to “Bad Penny” and you’ll get a feel for the dark Southern Americana where this band – playing music that sounds like the 1920s and 1930s but with themes as relevant as today’s headlines – resides. (And to keep the surreal vibe going, it is recorded in a Colorado canibas factory.)
The rest of the day’s music continued at this high level. Chris Smither combined wonderful fingerstyle guitar with well-written songs (and a beautiful cover of “Sitting on Top of the World”). Multi-instrumentalist Tony Furtado – supported by mandolinist extraordinaire Matt Flinner – had the crowd in awe of his instrumental talents, especially on slide guitar. And finally, the host for the festival – The Steel Wheels – put on their usual high energy show and added a few friends to the mix.
We headed out satisfied, thanks to Saturday’s wonderful music (and Sierra Hull’s beautiful set on Friday). Let’s hope that for the 5th Red Wing Roots Festival next July, we’ll see fewer plugged in bands and more of the incredibly talented acoustic musicians who have made this such a wonderful way to spend a summer weekend.
More to come…