Pokey Laps the Field at Day One of Red Wing

Pokey LaFarge at Red Wing 07 11 14The second annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival in spectacular Natural Chimneys Park began on Friday afternoon under a beautiful summer sky.  The promise of the inaugural festival – hosted by the Steel Wheels – brought out an even larger crowd this year.  And for the most part the music didn’t disappoint.

My friend Oakley Pearson and I arrived in time to catch the full set of Furnace Mountain, a band from the Berryville, Virginia, area.  Comprised of Aimee Curl on bass and vocals, Danny Knicely on mandolin and fiddle, Dave Van Deventer on fiddle, and Morgan Morrison on bouzouki, guitar and vocals, Furnace Mountain is a first-rate roots music band.  Knicely is an especially inventive mandolin player, and he displayed some great chops and songwriting skills in today’s set.

Caravan of Thieves was a band I wasn’t familiar with, but they grew on me very quickly.  Their web site has a catchy – yet pretty accurate – description of this group::

Driving gypsy jazz rhythms, acoustic guitars, upright bass and violin lay the foundation for mesmerizing vocal harmonies and fantastic stories. It’s theatrical and humorous. It’s musical and intense. It entertains, dazzles and defies classification while welcoming the spectator to join the band throughout the performance in momentary fits of claps, snaps and sing-alongs. If Django Reinhardt, the cast of Stomp and the Beatles all had a party at Tim Burton’s house, Caravan of Thieves would be the band they hired.

That last line is pretty funny.

Caravan of Thieves at Red Wing 07 11 14

The band plays hot gypsy jazz, but the vocals have pop sensibilities.  Fuzz (I’m not making that up) and Carrie Sangiovanni sing wonderful harmonies.  And these guys try anything – one of the wildest being their take on Sympathy for the Devil with a little bit of The Devil Came Down to Georgia and who knows what else thrown in.

Carrie Sangiovanni at Red Wing 07 11 14

 The Hackensaw Boys played a spirited set of old time music while we caught some supper.  Then came the best band of the day – by a wide margin.

Pokey LaFarge was playing his second Red Wing festival, but he put on a set as if he wasn’t going to get paid unless he won the crowd over.

Pokey LaFarge at Red Wing 07 11 14

With a mix of early jazz, ragtime, blues and western swing, LaFarge – backed by a hot acoustic trio and a three-piece horn section – grabbed the crowd with Bowlegged Woman and kept the joint jumping all the way through until Central Time.

Pokey LaFarge and Chloe Feoranzo at Red Wing 07 11 14

Pokey LaFarge at Red Wing 07 11 14

The songs – while they sound old – are often LaFarge originals.  They played a number of tunes from his newest self-titled CD (which was produced by Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor.  Column interruption:  Candice used to work for Ketch’s father in a Staunton-area private school and she taught his younger sister.  Who knew Ketch would go on to such stardom…in old time music!) 

In any event, LaFarge is a great entertainer with a hot band.  Pokey really did lap the field today.  If you get the chance to see them, take it!

The final full set we stayed for was for The Dukhs.

Jesse Havey 07 11 14

The Duhks at Red Wing Music Festival 07 11 14

The band was battling some sound system issues at the beginning, and was not as sharp as the reunion tour configuration that played Red Wing last year.  They featured songs from their new CD Get Beyond the Blue, and I always enjoy singer Jesse Havey and the band’s version of Death Came A Knockin‘.

The crowd quickly gathered at the main stage for what was clearly to be the night’s big act, Trampled by Turtles.  However, three songs into a very loud set that was all beginning to sound the same, we headed out into the night.  It was refreshing, after the overbearing noise of TBT, to get in the car and have Claire Lynch’s beautiful Dear Sister come up in the iTunes rotation.  Now that’s music!

But to remember the best of Day 1 of Red Wing Roots Music Festival II, let’s go out with a video of Pokey LaFarge’s Bowlegged Woman.  Whoa!

More to come…




Red Wing Takes Flight

Del McCoury Closes Out Day One at Red WingWell, that certainly was a promising start.

Day 1 of the 1st Annual Red Wing Roots Music Festival promised a talented and spirited mix of the roots and branches of American music.  And in spite of gloomy skies and the occasional (and thankfully brief) rain shower, this brand new festival – located deep in the heart of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley – pretty much delivered.

The festival is the brainchild of an energetic, talented, and amazingly entrepreneurial (for a bunch of roots music players) band The Steel Wheels, fronted by one of the great voices in Americana music, Trent Wagler.  Candice and I arrived back in our old Valley stomping grounds (we lived for 15 years in nearby Staunton, Virginia) after the soggy drive down from Washington just in time to walk in on the 4 p.m. set of the hosts under the tent at the Carolina Old Time Family Stage.  And given the weather, could The Steel Wheels really begin this festival with any song other than their iconic Rain in the Valley?

This was the song that turned heads at Merlefest 25, and the Red Wing crowd – made up of the band’s many loyal fans and taking up every square inch of the huge tented area – exploded when Wagner took his cymbal stick (or whatever you call that thing he slams on the floor to set the beat) and was joined by Eric Brubaker, Jay Lapp, and Brian Dickel around a single mic for some amazing four-part harmony singing.

The Steel Wheels Kick Off Red Wing 2013

The hosts had a spirited hour-long set, with old favorites (Cluck ‘Ole Hen) and songs from the new album No More Rain. If you haven’t heard The Steel Wheels – on either record or live – both are highly recommended.  This is a terrific band.

The Steel Wheels Sing at Red Wing 2013

When The Steel Wheels finished rockin’ the final number (and Candice turned to me as said, “That feels like a song you end the festival on!” and not just the first of three shows they’ll have this weekend), we scooted across beautiful Natural Chimneys Park to the main stage to hear one of my favorites – the Claire Lynch Band. Claire is one of the originals in bluegrass music and gifted with one of the most beautiful and expressive voices on the scene today.

Claire Lynch and Matt Wingate

Claire is as unpretentious a performer as you’ll see on stage.  (At one point after the group was fumbling around a bit to get itself organized, she turned to the audience and said, “Let us know if we’re getting too slick for you.” Claire’s the antidote to the Dailey and Vincents of the bluegrass world – and in my book that’s a good thing.)  But her songwriting is superb (check out the beautiful Dear Sisters – the title tune from her new album – which is taken from letters written by Civil War soldiers before the Battle of Stones River in my hometown of Murfreesboro). And her band is killer (Matt Wingate’s take on Sting’s She’s Too Good for Me is a highlight). And that voice can do just about anything…from the lick-and-a-promise gospel of Children of Abraham, to the swing of Who Knows What Tomorrow Will Bring, to the hard-core bluegrass of the Osborne Brothers’ Be Alright Tomorrow.  After her too-fast hour-long set, I renewed acquaintances with Claire (my cousin Hershey produced the first Front Porch String Band album and wrote one of her festival favorite songs) and picked up my own signed copy of Dear Sisters. That’s what good festivals are supposed to provide – plenty of space and time for these amazing performers to have a “shake and howdy” with their fans.

Tim O'Brien at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

In fact, the first person I heard use the shake and howdy turn-of-phrase was the festival’s next performer, multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien.  Performing solo at Red Wing, O’Brien can still sound like a full band as he displays his impressive chops on guitar, mandolin, and fiddle.  But as impressive an instrumentalist and singer as he is, songwriting is where O’Brien really shines in my book.  He worked in originals throughout the set, along with great traditional tunes such the gospel number Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning that he recorded with Darrell Scott several years back.  But his encore is among my favorite tunes of all time, the beautiful Like I Used to Do. 

There was a time when we’d be the last to leave
Watching the sun come up while everyone fell asleep
The music was always loud and I’d smoke and drink too much
Until I’d fall in your arms and into your lovin’ touch
Now as the years roll by, time has reeled me in
I’ve slowed down a notch or two from the way things were then

Those old ways of mine, I’ve left them behind
Those crazy days are through
The only thing I still do like I used to do
Is carry this torch for you…

Simply beautiful.

At the 7 and 8 o’clock hours, we caught a couple of performers that were new to me.  Gregory Alan Isakov had a strong show on the main stage, followed by a loud…but not necessarily to my taste…performance by the band Yarn.  That gave us some time to eat dinner, catch up with long-time friends from Staunton, and buy my raffle ticket. (Yes, I will win that beautiful Huss & Dalton guitar.) And when 9 p.m. rolled around, we were back in our chairs for the kickoff show of the summer reunion tour of The Duhks.

The Duhks at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

I first heard this Canadian band – in the original incarnation – several years ago at Merlefest.  I’ve heard them off-and-on through the years, and while always strong, this particular line-up has always been a favorite.  Singer Jessee Havey has a voice that fits this energetic and innovative group, and last evening they had the crowd clamoring for more from the traditional jigs all the way through to Death Came a Knockin’. Percussionist Scott Senior adds an especially non-traditional beat to this neo-trad band.  Great show!

Scott Senior of The Dhuks

By 10:30 p.m., the moisture in the air was heavy, but that didn’t faze the wonderful hair – or terrific spirit – of bluegrass master Del McCoury.

Del McCoury at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

Playing with sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Rob (banjo), Del’s voice sounded a little tired but classic nonetheless.  (A tired Del McCoury beats about 99% of the lead singers in traditional bluegrass on their best days.) Candice had never seen Del’s act, and when he opened his mouth to speak, she turned to me and said, “He sounds like your dad!” which I took as a favorable comparison, since she loves Tom Brown.

Ronnie McCoury at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

Rob McCoury and Jason Carter at Red Wing Roots Festival 2013

The best place to watch a Del McCoury Band show is up-close and right in front.  There you get the interplay of the musicians – like a finely tuned machine – working that single mic.  Del mugs for the crowd, a fact which is lost in the back rows, and the sound washes over you like a rippling mountain stream.  When Del answered a request and played Richard Thompson’s classic 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, I knew that Day 1 of the first Red Wing Roots Music Festival had been appropriately christened by the master.

I said that Like I Used to Do was a favorite of mine, so I’ll take us out of Day 1 with an old video of the tune featuring a much younger Tim O’Brien (along with much younger versions of Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jerry Douglas, and Mark O’Connor).  Enjoy!

More to come…


New Wave and Old Standards Shine at Merlefest

Tony Rice

Merlefest Day 2 began bright and early for me this morning, with a rousing performance at the Americana Stage by the DC-based band Scythian. I caught the irony of having a band fronted by two Ukrainian brothers opening up the Americana stage, but that’s the joy of Merlefest and hey, it is a post-Obama election world.

Then came the first great surprise of the morning. I went to the Traditional Stage to hear the New North Carolina Ramblers, but walked in to a packed tent listening in rapt attention to 86-year-old festival patriarch Doc Watson playing a set with old time banjo wizard David Holt.  (It turns out the Ramblers were double-booked and so Doc and Holt were on-call.  And when I say packed, I mean packed.  The picture below was taken from the side because the front was crammed with kids and grandparents alike.) 

Doc was in fine form, playing guitar and singing with lots of strength and emotion. Fiddle tunes (Whiskey Before Breakfast paired with Ragtime Annie) were interspersed with Travis-style picking (Deep River Blues) and even a harp/bones duet. Holt taught everyone the Etta Baker version of Railroad Bill and had us all singing the chorus:

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill, Lights his cigar with a $10 bill and then rides, rides, rides

Watson and HoltDoc Watson (left) playing with David Holt ended their set with There Goes the Train That Carried My Girl From Town.  I’ve heard Doc dozens of times over the years (the first at Nashville’s old Exit/In as a college student), but this was a special set and I’m glad I caught it.

After watching a bit of the Welcome Home Super Jam on the main stage, I worked my way over to the Hillside to spend the afternoon. And what an afternoon it was.

The day’s second surprise was my introduction to the band Cadillac Sky. While their instruments gave the appearance of a straight-ahead bluegrass band, it took about 10 seconds to figure out otherwise.

After rocking through tunes such as Everybody’s Got a Good-Bye Story, they would shift gears and have guitarist David Mayfield play a little personal biography vignette that closes with an abrupt ending that suggests you’d much rather be listening to something else.   Mayfield’s stage persona is described on the Skaggs Family Records website as “poetic-demolition derby” and he proved it with a guitar-thrashing but amazingly entertaining solo version of Freeborn Man.  Jimmy Martin he’s not!

The Hillside Stage view at Merlefest 2009

And that’s not surprising.  Cadillac Sky cites influences such as Radiohead and Gnarls Barkley.  Not your typical bluegrass band but part of a new wave of “new traditional” (for lack of a better term)  bands that was very much on display today at Merlefest.  These guys are terrific musicians and lead singer Bryan Simpson has a great voice that’s supported by strong harmony singing by the band.  Check out Gravity’s Our Enemy, their new CD, but most definitely take the time to see them live if you get the chance.

I had heard of the teenage mandolin phenom Sierra Hull when I was at Merlefest two years ago, but I’d never heard her front her band, Highway 111.  She’s an obvious talent and a fluid mandolin player who has – as Sam Bush notes on her website – tremendous potential for future growth.  Her voice is still that of a teenager (a similar issue with the Lovell Sisters), but her mandolin work already shows a lot of maturity and musicianship.  Hull ripped through  Smashville, a new instrumental written by Mountain Heart fiddle player Jim VanCleve.

From the youngsters, the Hillside StageWayne Henderson then turned to someone who was there at the first Merlefest 22 years ago – newgrass vocalist John Cowan.   With his bandmates in the New Grass Revival in the 70s and 80s, Cowan helped redefine bluegrass and also helped set the course for an inclusive, open, and experimental Merlefest.  Cowan started with the old NGR hit Callin’ Baton Rouge and inserted a bit of Blackberry Blossom in the middle.   His jazz-influenced drummer provided a unique percussive setting for the Bill Monroe classic – and Cowan staple – Good Woman’s Love.   All in all, Cowan was Cowan – and I like that very much.

After three hours of sitting on the ground and shifting around to try and stay in the shade, I was ready for a different venue.  I stumbled across guitar builder and picker extraordinaire Wayne Henderson (photo above) in a picker’s tent just playing with festival-goers who had brought along their instruments.  I listened to a bit of the Grascals on the main stage, but I’m not big fan so didn’t stay long and caught some dinner.

But in another surprise, after dinner I came across The Duhks playing in the dance tent.  I love The Duhks, but don’t normally go looking for music in the dance tent.  But the roof was pulsing with the energy coming from the Winnipeg-based band, and so I stopped by.  And that place was rocking! 

The Duhks at the Dance TentIt was a high-energy show throughout the set, but they took it to another level with an over-the-top version of Whole Lotta Love.  Being from Canada, they even added a verse in French.  Lead vocalist Sarah Dugas has a set of pipes and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a fiddle, banjo, guitar, and drums blasting out stadium rock.  Wow!

The day ended for me in a rain-marred show by Mountain Heart with special guest Tony Rice.  I entered with the band playing  a surprisingly good version of Whipping Post.  (Everyone at Merlefest wants to be the Allman Brothers, which is appropriate since the late Merle Watson – for whom the festival is named – always cited Duane Allman as his influence on slide guitar.)  After a short opening, Mountain Heart quickly brought out Tony and started working through his cannon.  Most turned out well.  Mountain Heart has a talented lead singer, a wonderful mandolin player (Aaron Ramsey), and the aforementioned Jim VanCleve on fiddle.  When playing straight-ahead bluegrass with Tony, such as Freeborn Man, they sizzled.  But on the Bela Fleck-penned Whitewater, they couldn’t quite match the original, even with Tony playing a great couple of solos.  I know, because I listened to the 20th anniversary jam version of Whitewater on the drive home tonight.  It isn’t surprising they couldn’t top Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, and Byron House.  Who can?

Tonight Tony played a beautiful solo medley of Shenandoah and Wayfaring Stranger (see photo at the top of the post) that led into the band’s version of Tony’s classic Manzanita.  A very satisfying show all around.

Soon after they left the stage, lightening and thunder led to a pause in the main stage activities.  I was tired (it was very hot on this day where we weren’t suppose to see any rain), so decided I’d miss Del McCoury and I’d catch the Waybacks at the Album show tomorrow.  Now that I’ve posted reviews, I’m off to bed to rest up for Day 3 at Merlefest.

More to come…


Irish Band Solas Plays in Arlington This Week – Recommended!

One of the great Irish bands of the past decade will be playing twice in Arlington, Virginia this weekend.  The band is Solas and since the late 1990s they have been hailed as the best Irish band to ever emerge from the United States.  I agree.  Led by the terrific Seamus Egen, they exhibit superb musicianship that is infectious, and their new album also includes duet work with the Canadian band The Duhks.  Solas will play at a CD-release party on Friday evening, and then will follow that the next day with a concert as part of Planet Arlington’s World Music Festival.

Solas is a great live band – which you can see in Arlington and (for those outside Washington) on the joint CD/DVD album SOLAS:  Reunion – A Decade of Solas A great concert and a great band.  More to come…