Jim Mills

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! 🙂 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?”. 🙂

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! 🙂

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!) 😉 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! 😉

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!

Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby at Wolftrap

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We saw this group at BB King in NYC nearly 18 months ago. I briefly mentioned the show, including that they were awesome, in my uber rediscovering live music post.

We’ve been to Wolftrap twice before, but both shows were at The Barns. Last night’s show was in the Filene Center, which is the main pavilion for concerts. It’s an outdoor venue, with a cavernous covered area with proper seating, and a large two-tiered lawn system that is completely outoors behind the main structure.

We bought our tickets months ago and even back then were forced to select seats way to the right of the stage. They were in the fourth row, so that part was great, but we were three and four seats off of the extreme right aisle. I’ll cover the opening act later (a group we’ve seen before and like as well).

Ricky, Bruce and Ricky’s band, called Kentucky Thunder came on stage at exactly 9pm. The crowd wasn’t just there for an evening out, as it was clear that they were giant fans of either Ricky, Bruce, or both (as we are).

Let’s do a 30,000 foot tour of what’s great about these guys:

  1. Bluegrass music is fantastic, and these guys are amazing, individually and collectively
  2. Ricky and Bruce have excellent voices, and sing great individually and collectively (great harmonies) together and most often with Paul Brewster
  3. Every single member of Kentucky Thunder is a phenomenal musician. I’ll call out three of them in a bit
  4. Ricky is one of the best mandolin players
  5. Bruce is a mind-bogglingly great piano player
  6. Each has written a body of music that stands the test of time
  7. They are fun and have tremendous stage presence

I could go on, but if you don’t get the point already, a few more whacks on the head won’t convince you. 😉

Last year they released a CD called Ricky Skagss & Bruce Hornsby (catchy title). In March of this year, they released another, named Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 & 1947. They played a bunch of songs from both CDs. They also played a few more of Bruce’s big hits, done reasonably differently than the original Bruce Hornsby and The Range versions.

For the most part, the Bluegrass versions (of Bruce’s songs) work great (even though I still prefer the originals). In the case of Mandolin Rain (which is on last year’s CD), it’s not even 20% as good as the original (IMHO). It’s cool, and if I didn’t know the original, I would like it more, but I feel teased when I hear this version. A better example is their rendition of The Way It Is (title cut from Bruce’s album of same name). It’s a really great Bluegrass version (though I still like the original a little more).

As you’ll see below, Lois didn’t have her usual unfettered access to the camera during the show. She didn’t get off many shots to begin with, and under the circumstances, most of the shots came out poorly at best (lots of ghosting and lighting problems). I would have foregone putting any pictures in the post, but Lois works hard for all of you, so to honor her effort, I’ll put them in. I won’t make any more excuses on each individual picture, this is my one disclaimer. Please don’t blame her photography skills for the results… 😉

I’ve already said that both Bruce (on piano) and Ricky (mostly mandolin, but also amazing on guitar on three numbers) are incredible. Let’s cover the rest of the band, left-to-right on the stage.

The only guy to the left of the grand piano, and reasonably far behind it in the back of the stage, is Andy Leftwich on fiddle. He’s truly amazing. We’ve seen some great fiddlers in the past year, so I’m not sure I can say that Andy is the best of the best, but I’m equally unsure of any flaws that he has that would keep him out of that group, so suffice it to say he’s a joy to listen to! Andy was obscured from our view the entire night, so unfortunately, no photos of him.

Behind the piano, just to the right of it, dead-center stage, is Mark Fain on upright bass. Excellent all night, but only highlighted in one number, late in the evening. Solid, never a distraction.

Mark Fain

Toward the right side of the stage were three acoustic guitarists in a row (slightlly unusual). The first of them is Cody Kilby. Of the three, he plays primarily lead guitar. Run, don’t walk, to his MySpace page and listen to the four songs on there. His fingers move so fast and his leads are extremely interesting. I had to stare at his fingers to really beleive that one man could make the sounds that came out of his guitar. It sounded like two great lead guitarists playing at the same time. Nope, it was all Cody. Wow! I’m definitely getting his new CD!

Next was Ben Helson. Bruce introduced Ben as being new to the band. Unfortunately, the Wikipedia page I linked to above shows him as a former band member, and still shows Darrin Vincent on the main page. In any case, it’s definitely Ben in the middle of the guitar trio. He plays excellent rhythm guitar and sings backup vocals on a very few numbers. Solid, but not highlighted at all.

Next was Paul Brewster. Also played rhythm guitar, but featured on background vocals on nearly every song. He has an excellent voice, complementing Bruce, Ricky and both together whenever he joined in.

The three guitarists together:

Kentucky Thunder Guitarists

Finally, Jim Mills on banjo. He has won quite a number of Banjo Player of the Year awards (the site says four, but I recall Ricky say six or seven when we saw them at BB King last year). He definitely deserves it. His banjo playing is so crisp, clean, fast, interesting, driving. We’ve seen some truly great banjo players in the past year as well (like with the fiddle and mandolin players), and for my taste, Jim is probably in third, very (very) close to number two. My top pick is Bela Fleck (more on him in a minute). Second is Ron Stewart (currently part of the Dan Tyminski Band).

Here is Kentucky Thunder, minus Andy Leftwich, who is to the left and behind the piano, out of our view:

Kentucky Thunder Minus Andy Leftwich

Here is a YouTube video of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. There are a few nice highlights of Andy playing fiddle, Ricky on the mandolin and Cody on guitar.

In the middle of the set, they asked anyone in the crowd who wanted to come up and do some clog dancing to join. No one volunteered, and you had to wonder whether people thought they were just joking around. After some more teasing a few people climbed the stage, which started a flood. There were roughly 30 people on stage with them, dancing around in a frenzy. It was cool.

Cloggers Ricky Skaggs

It also highlighted a truly idiotic policy on the part of Wolftrap. There are a few signs around (not all that prominent, but also not invisible) that there is no photography permitted (even without a flash). That’s just silly in this day and age. Of course, not only were tons of people taking photos throughout the show, many were doing it with flash on as well. Ushers were flying all over the place admonishing people, even as others a few rows away kept snapping.

The reason I say that the clogging highlighted it is that even with 30 people on the stage dancing around, clearly to the delight of the crowd, ushers were trying to stop people from taking pictures (of their loved ones, etc.). Truly silly, but what can you do… Lois got off some shots (and got yelled at once) but she took five percent of the number of shots she would have if it was permitted. She never uses a flash during a performance, even if it’s allowed.

I will come back to one cool part later (you’ll understand why I’ll tell that part out of order when I get to it).

They played an amazing 97 minutes before saying goodnight. After a rousing standing ovation, Ricky, Bruce and Jim Mills came out on the stage alone. For this one number, Ricky played the fiddle (really well!) and Bruce played the accordion (to the delight of the crowd!). Then the rest of the band came out and rocked the house with another full-energy number which ended with another standing ovation. Total time on stage 112 minutes of pure joy!

Here are Bruce on the accordion and Ricky on the fiddle during the first song of the encore:

Bruce Hornsby Ricky Skaggs

The opening act was Abigail Washburn and the Sparrow Quartet. They too have a new CD out called Abigail Washburn & the Sparrow Quartet. We saw them at Joe’s Pub in January this year, described briefly (by my normal standard) 😉 in this post.

I mentioned above that Bela Fleck is my favorite banjo player. He plays every conceivable style (bluegrass, classical, jazz, country, dirges, etc.), all fantastically. Abigail Washburn has a great voice, and plays the banjo extremely well too. Casey Driessen is an incredible fiddle player and Ben Sollee is a superb cello player who also sings gorgeous harmony with Abigail.

Here’s a shot of Abigail and Bela. Ben and Casey were obscured in this photo so I cropped them:

Abigail Washburn Bela Fleck

The four of them play extraordinary instrumentals. That said, while Abigail’s voice is wonderful, her song selection leaves Lois and I a bit puzzled (in both concerts). They could be a super group, but the selection will relegate them to also-rans in my opinion. Lovely sound, well executed, but just off target…

They came on stage at 7:58pm (two minutes early, a rarity indeed). They were introduced, and started playing at 7:59pm. They left the stage at 7:47, so they gave a very nice warm-up show, with very little down time between acts. I was very impressed by Wolftrap in that regard!

The surprise I alluded to above is that well into the Ricky and Bruce show, they invited Bela to play with them. He’s recorded with Bruce a couple of times (and probably Ricky as well). He was on stage with them for 25 minutes (very nice indeed) and on one number, played a cool banjo duet with Jim Mills. Tons of fun. Bela is just a superstar in my opinion.

Ricky Skaggs Bela Fleck

Wolftrap can hold 7,028 people in total (at Filene), with 3,868 under the structure and 3,160 on the lawn. During the Sparrow Quartet set, there were hundreds of seats empty including the six to Lois’ immediate left. There were entire sections left and right of the stage, at the back of the seating area, without a single person in them. We were shocked, given that I didn’t have that much choice when I purchased tickets months ago.

I assumed that when Ricky and Bruce came on, it would be full. It wasn’t. Barely a few dozen of the empty seats were filled in the intervening 13 minutes between performances, so we slid down five seats and got a better angle for the main event. By the time the show was over, the seats were practically full (an empty seat here or there, like the one Lois left empty between her and the person she slid down next to). I don’t know if people just showed up late, or if they allowed people from the lawn to come down. The lawn still seemed pretty crowded so it could have just been late folk.

Anyway, a fantastic show all around that we thoroughly enjoyed.

On the downside of the evening, getting out of the parking lot there is a total zoo. It took nearly 30 minutes to get out. Then we were making great time down I495/I95. When we were 15 minutes from the hotel, taffic came to a dead stop. Oh oh. Highway repaving. Fun. It made the last 15 minutes take 45 minutes, which turned out to be not as bad as it first appeared it would be. Still, we didn’t get to bed until nearly 1am, which for us, is the equivalent of dawn. We slept for 5.5 hours and came back to the office, exhausted, of course…