City Slickers Bluegrass Festival

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This past Saturday, May 9th, 2009, seven of us attended the City Slickers Bluegrass Festival in Richmond, VA. How and why we came to attend will be the subject of my next post, this one will just cover the event itself.

There were three headliners and one opening act. The opening act, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon came on at 3pm. We weren’t able to get there until 3:30pm, so we caught the last 30 minutes of their set. Nothing worth mentioning (sorry), so I won’t waste space on them.

At 4:25pm, the first of the three headliners (and the one I was most curious to see live) came on, Sierra Hull. I was familiar with Sierra Hull because a very good friend of mine (an American who lives in the UK) bought me her CD (download on iTunes) a while ago. I loved it from the first listen (thanks again Chris!).

What I didn’t pay attention to until long after I loved the album was that Sierra was only 17-years-old (still is!) and that she plays the mandolin in addition to singing lead. I feel silly saying plays the mandolin, it sounds so mundane. I really love the mandolin, and I try to pay attention to the difference in style and abilities of the various top players.

Up until now, I would have rated my top three favorite mandolin players as follows:

  1. Chris Thile
  2. Adam Steffey
  3. Ricky Skaggs

Choosing between #2 and #3 above is a little arbitrary, they’re both so good. #1 however is a no-brainer for me. That’s still probably true, but I have to tell you, that after seeing Sierra Hull play for nearly 120 minutes (in two sets) on Saturday, I might slip her in between Chris and Adam. And, she’s only going to get better, I’m sure!

Lest you think I’m dissing Adam Steffey, here’s a quote on Sierra Hull’s site (front page) by Adam Steffey himself!

Sierra Hull is without doubt my favorite mandolin player!

See! šŸ™‚ Sierra also played guitar (beautifully!) on roughly four numbers, but she was born to play the mandolin!

Backing up Sierra is a group called Highway 111.

Clay Hess plays the guitar and sings a ton with Sierra (lead and harmony). Clay is an awesome flatpicker, and he sings really well too.

Corey Walker played the banjo and sang as well. He’s really good. It was hysterical to hear Sierra (all of 17-years-old) saying “Can you believe how good Cory is, and he’s only 19?”. šŸ™‚

Jacob Eller rounds out the band on the upright bass. Wonderful in every sense of the word.

The four of them blend beautifully together. Sierra is also as personable and commanding a stage presence as you could imagine, a seeming enigma for someone so young. The show would have been worth it just for Sierra’s two sets, but wait, there’s more! šŸ™‚

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Lois got her picture taken with Sierra right before Sierra’s second set. According to Lois, she’s as sweet and personable one-on-one as she is in front of the entire crowd!

Lois and Sierra Hull

Lois and Sierra Hull

At 5:45pm Seldom Scene came on the stage. As much as I love Bluegrass music (and trust me, I’m totally in love with the genre), I’m not a real aficionado of enough of the leaders in the category. I know a lot of groups which I love, but there are so many more that I’ve either never heard of, or have heard of but don’t really know their music.

Seldom Scene has been at the top of the Bluegrass world for over 30 years, but they fell into the category of heard of but not known by me. One of my friends (Richmond-based, but unfortunately out of town this past weekend) is a major fan, so I was really looking to finally getting to know them.

Wow! Even though these are no youngsters, they jam as well anyone blessed with youth. Their voices are amazing, individually and when singing harmony together. They are superb musicians, though none of them stood out to me like Sierra (folks, that’s not a complaint or a put-down of Seldom Scene band members). The songs were fantastic, and their 80 minute set was outstanding from the first note until the mandatory encore!

Seldom Scene

Seldom Scene

The second (literally) that the encore was over, the heavens opened up. They had predicted possible thunderstorms throughout the show, so it was nice that it held off until after 7pm, and waited until a natural intermission too. Severe lightning caused them to power down the sound board and stage. Better safe than sorry.

Sierra Hull was scheduled to come back on the stage at 7:30pm. Amazingly, shortly after that time, the rain stopped, and we were blessed with a cool evening. The show was only delayed 10 minutes, as Sierra was back on at 7:40! As I already noted above, she blew us all away again.

The final headliner to take the stage was The Grascals. Lois and I own three of their CDs, so we’re familiar with their music, and love it. I’m going to gush about them in a minute (including covering them individually), but take the time to read their bio to see how many awards they’ve won in their impressive but reasonably short career!

OK, you don’t win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Entertainers of the Year award (in consecutive years no less!) without being something extremely special. They are indeed very special. This was our first time seeing them live, and I was really looking forward to it!

They are all superb musicians, but the focus is really on the fiddle, banjo and mandolin. The bassist is superb, but not really highlighted, and the two guitarists support the sounds wonderfully, but they are never highlighted (even less than the bass!).

Standing left-to-right on the stage:

Danny Roberts on the mandolin. He’s really good. Very fast, very clean, very interesting licks. Highlighted a lot in most of their numbers.

Jeremy Abshire on the fiddle. Holy Cow! This guy is amazing. If I had to make the call, I’d say that The Grascals highlight him slightly more than the rest, but who could blame them. He’s outstanding in every respect. Fast as greased lightning, but always interesting.

Jamie Johnson on vocals and guitar. (No particularly good link to him personally, sorry.) Jamie is the main MC (Master of Ceremonies) for the group. He also sings a slight majority of the leads. He’s very funny, has a good voice, and keeps the action rolling throughout the show.

Terry Smith on vocals and bass. (Also no good direct link.) Terry anchors the group nicely on the bass. On one number, he played slap-style, and was awesome. Terry sings on all of the songs, lead on a few. More on that in a minute.

Terry Eldredge on vocals and guitar. (Again, no good personal links. This isn’t as big as surprise to me, as I mentioned above that neither of the guitarists is a solo star in their own right.) Terry shares the MC duties (he’s quite funny), and sings lead just a tad less than Jamie, otherwise singing on every number.

Kristin Scott Benson on the banjo. Another Holy Cow! Kristin is the current IBMA Banjo Player of the Year! A month after winning that honor, she joined The Grascals. (They need to change the picture on their site to include her!) šŸ˜‰ Folks, she’s amazing! I think they highlight Jeremy on the fiddle a drop more than they do her, but not by much. On a few numbers, she plays a mind-boggling riff, and Jeremy follows it on the fiddle in his own mind-boggling way, and then Kristin goes again, in a dueling fashion. Incredible!

OK, since I did my three favorite Mandolin players above, I’ll do my three favorite Banjo players here:

  1. Bela Fleck
  2. Ron Stewart
  3. Jim Mills

As with the mandolin, I’m being somewhat arbitrary in ranking #2 and #3 above, as I could listen to both for hours on end. Also like the mandolin, I think Bela is simply the best, no questions asked. Ron Stewart currently plays banjo with the Dan Tyminski Band, and Jim Mills plays with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

Anyway, while I might not alter the above list (as I think I would for Sierra Hull), it would be a close enough call to consider Kristin for the #2 or #3 spot, and I’ll confidently declare her in my top four! šŸ˜‰

Terry Smith is probably the strongest vocalist of the three as a soloist, but he rarely solos for them. The other two (Jamie and the other Terry) are both good individually, but really nothing special in my opinion. But, when the three of them sing together (which is on nearly every song), they produce magic. The three of them are so tight, and their voices blend beautifully.

The Grascals are fantastic, and I look forward to seeing them live again.

Sorry about the quality of this next photo. It was already dark, and the lighting wasn’t good enough for our compact camera:

The Grascals

The Grascals

This was our first festival, so we were nervous whether we’d be able to sit outdoors, on folding chairs, for seven hours. It was a piece of cake, with fabulous music, good food (BBQ) and a well-run show.

Here we are, enjoying ourselves completely!

Lois and Hadar

Lois and Hadar

Thank you Rotary Club of Richmond, VA for putting on a helluva show. We’re already planning on returning next year!

Here’s a shot from behind the stage, to give you a sense of the beautiful and relaxed atmosphere of this event:

Behind the Stage

Behind the Stage

P.S. If you’ve made it this far, Bravo! I know I rambled on about how awesome Sierra Hull is, and perhaps you don’t want to hear any more about her. But, if you have more patience, here is a long, but fantastic article profiling her five years ago, when she was all of 12-years-old! Read it all the way to the end, it’s priceless!