Friday, February 8, 2013

About the state: Big Sky Big Grass Festival

Sunday update:

I was up too late Sunday night to post and too busy until now, so I'll hit the highlights.

My suspicions about the acoustic/sound problems in the ballroom on Saturday night were confirmed when I went to see the Traveling McCourys early Sunday evening in the same small venue that Special Consensus played. The Traveling McCourys are Del McCoury's band, only without Del McCoury and with a guest guitarist and/or assorted other guests. This evening, the guest guitarist was Bill Nershi of the Emmitt-Nershi Band. I didn't get to hear that band perform due to conflicts in my activity schedule, but Nershi was a fine addition to the McCoury band, led by Del's oldest son Ronnie on the mandolin and with all the band members other than banjo playing Robbie McCoury taking turns on lead vocals. They used the same old school double condenser mike setup to handle the core of their needs, and in the more intimate setting the sound was superb. I felt a little bad about leaving early, but the beloved was holding down seats at the ballroom and I wanted to join her there.

I was glad to have done so, since opening for Sam Bush was the (apparently) world-famous auto-harp player Bryan Bowers. Anyone (i.e., me) who thinks that the autoharp is little more than a guitar for dummies will get a rude awakening by hearing Bowers perform. There were moments when his playing was stunning, and others when it was merely transcendent, as in a slowed down, wistful performance of Ola Belle Reed's "High on a Mountain," backed by John Lowell on guitar and Tom Murphy on mandolin (of Bozeman-based Two Bit Franks). Del McCoury, who has probably done the most to make that song well-known to modern bluegrass audiences, had performed it the night before, but due to the afore-mentioned acoustic issues, its beauty wasn't really conveyed very well, so I was glad to hear it again. Bowers was at times a bit crude for my taste, but the old man has paid his dues with a lifetime of playing on street corners and smoky barrooms and has earned the right to be who he wants to be. Part of his point was that a lot of traditional and folk music has been sanitized over the years for more polite consumption, and he's certainly right about that.

There were parts that I liked better than others about his show, but I went from the starting point of "who is this old guy who's opening for Sam Bush?" to "I'm glad I got to hear this guy once while he's still alive."

The ubiquitous Sam Bush and his guitarist came out and played and sang on the last couple of songs in Bowers's set, and then was back not long later with his band with what ended up, with encores, being nearly a 3 1/2 hour set. Those who are familiar with Bush know that he is a rock star trapped in a bluegrass mandolin player's body. Well, that's really not true -- "trapped" would be one of the last words one could possibly use to describe Bush. He is his own man with his own style, fusing bluegrass, old-fashioned rock-and-roll, free-form jazz, folk, you name it... If you ever want to try to wrap your head around the idea of a rock band with screaming mandolins and banjos, go experience Sam Bush.

Bush is best known as one of the world's top mandolin players, but he made his name as a young man by playing the fiddle, and we were treated to him playing fiddle for perhaps the last quarter of his show, ranging from straight-ahead bluegrass to psychedelic jazz/folk fusion (really can't think of a better way to describe it).

For an encore, Bush started by coming out to sing a couple of his old crowd-pleasers: Van Morrison's "Hungry for your Love," and Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country," accompanying himself solo on the mandolin while his stage man set up for the finale. That finale was a "Sam Bush and friends" moment, with a stage full of performers from the week's leading bands (minus Special Consensus, of course, who were flying back from the Grammy Awards, where they lost to Steve Martin's Steep Canyon Rangers).

In typical Sam Bush fashion, the finale started with that old bluegrass standard -- Bob Marley's "One Love," and ended with a tribute to the recently departed Levon Helm: The Band's "Up on Cripple Creek." Everyone on stage and in the audience seemed to enjoy it as much as Bush, with Ronnie McCoury joining Sam Bush at the center microphone to do his best Robbie Robertson imitation. And needless to say, a good jam was had by all. This being a bluegrass festival, Bush knew how to end it, morphing "Up on Cripple Creek" into the bluegrass fiddle tune "Cripple Creek," accelerating until everyone's strings were ready to melt by the end.

Could my nearly 50 year old body and psyche handle the energy of another Sam Bush concert? Not sure, but I'm pretty that by the next time Bush arrives in Montana again, I'll be ready to give it a try.

Kudos to Steve Merlino for organizing a great festival.

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Saturday update:

Special Consensus played a great show early in the evening at a smaller, more intimate venue than had originally been planned for them. Plan A was for them to open for Sam Bush on Sunday night in the main ballroom, but then their latest album "Scratch Gravel Road" was nominated for a Grammy, which meant that they needed to fly out for the Grammy Awards just in case (they have stiff competition from Dailey and Vincent and the Grascals, among others), and then they are flying back to Big Sky to appear at a couple more events on Monday, including a benefit for the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center.

I had a chance to meet band leader and banjo player Greg Cahill before the show -- very unassuming both in person and on stage, and quite a performer. The rest of the band, as is so often the case in bluegrass music, were veritable kids by comparison -- and as is also so often the case, they all were incredible musicians. I've always enjoyed listening to Special Consensus on bluegrass radio, and wish them well at the Grammy Awards.

I originally felt bad for them, since their crowd was much smaller than it would have been (there were maybe 25 of us at the start of the show, but it had probably tripled by the end -- and it was an enthusiastic bunch). But by the end of the evening, I think that they perhaps got the better end of things in some ways, as will become clear.

The night's headline act was back over at the main ballroom, which is, to put it nicely, an acoustically challenged venue. It was great to see and hear a legend like Del McCoury in person, but it would have been nice to have been able to hear the music better. It was difficult to make out any of what was said between the songs, and not easy to hear the vocals. Granted, not all of this was the venue -- part was also the crowd. The main ballroom was packed and the same young and rowdy crowd that was so invigorating the evening before just didn't seem to be inclined to quiet down enough to let people hear. Still, you gotta love it when the vast majority of those turning out in force to see an old man with silver hair playing traditional bluegrass music are young enough to be his grandkids. I was particularly warmed to have a college-aged kid walk by during his performance of "Vincent Black Lightning" who knew the words well enough to be singing along.

McCoury is old school -- he and his band (which includes two of his sons) perform in dark suits and ties in the best bluegrass tradition. More to the point, he and his band perform with an old-school setup: a couple of multi-directional condenser microphones do most of the heavy lifting. This may have been part of the problem, since the opening act used a more modern setup, with miked instruments and individual vocal microphones -- and their sound projected much better. Sam Bush also uses a more modern mike setup, so I suspect he will sound better in this venue tomorrow night. We shall see...

Speaking of Sam Bush, he made a surprise appearance on stage to close out the set and play the encore ("White House Blues" -- an old 1920's tune that Bill Monroe turned into a bluegrass classic) with Del McCoury and the band. He and McCoury have been touring together as a duo, so they had plenty of material to choose from for this part of the show.

Bush said it best tonight: if there is a king of bluegrass today, his name would be Del McCoury. In spite of the sound problems (oh, and a temporary failure of sound and light systems worthy of this year's Superbowl), he held the young audience's attention just as well as Mumford and Sons could have. Another youngster (if they're young enough to be my kids they are youngsters) standing near me yelled into his friend's ear: "that's bluegrass royalty we're looking at up there on stage." Indeed.

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Friday: Well, posting has been sporadic, and I imagine that will be the case for some time to come. We are going to be a bit shorthanded at work for the foreseeable future, which has cut into my spare time a great deal. In addition, I've become addicted to my new mandolin, and when faced with the choice between learning to play a new fiddle tune and writing about current events... well, there really isn't much competition, to tell the truth. While I've certainly not shirked on being able to read music, this was one instrument where I decided that I was going to follow the advice that so many traditional musicians give: learn everything by ear. And I pretty much have, amazing myself with the fact that one can learn relatively complex tunes listening to them at regular tempo. Funny how those old-timers sometimes actually know what they are talking about.

And as the title indicates, I've taken a break from the rat race to come up to Big Sky to ski by day and listen to bluegrass by night. Tonight's opening evening was a showcase of bands from Montana -- a bit of a mixed bag as one would suspect, but a lot of fun. And New Belgium was on hand to showcase some of their specialty offerings -- with your entrance to the show, you also got a commemorative sampler glass and tickets for 10 fills.

As I had expected, it was a young and relatively rowdy crowd -- nice to be one of the oldest people at something rather than one of the youngest for a change. The beer was high-octane and so was the music. Think "Infamous Stringdusters" rather than "Blue Highway," if you know what I mean. Lots of dreads, a fair smattering of crazy ski-slope hats, and late into the evening I saw smoke rising from near the stage and knew it wasn't tobacco -- and indeed when it wafted back, it bore the unmistakeable scent of something Cab Calloway might write a song about. Probably one of the thousands of 20-somethings here in Montana that are dying from cancer, I suppose.

While there was another excellent band -- somebody and the Rusty Dusty Nails -- my favorite band of the evening was the Lil' Smokies -- apparently a Missoula-based band with what were easily the best mandolin and banjo players of the night and a dobro player laying down some very respectable rolls and fills. Their mandolin player was channeling Sam Bush, especially from a rhythmic standpoint.

[Thanks to Ed Kemmick, who point out that the name of my other favorite band of the evening was Billings-based Ted Ness and the Rusty Nails.]Speaking of Sam Bush, he plays here on Sunday night -- the keynote address of the conference, so to speak, and one of the big reasons I didn't want to miss this. He's on my bluegrass bucket list and all that. Anyway, I left a little early this evening to go pick up our tickets and was waiting on the beloved to come join me before I had my first sampling of what New Belgium had to offer. Turns out she had forgotten to ask me where the party was happening. Just as she was deciding which way to go, along comes Sam Bush, whom she decides to follow at a discreet distance, figuring he would know which way to go. Alas, she quickly figured out he was headed elsewhere and not planning to drop in on the evening's activities, so she did what everyone does these days when in doubt -- she shot me a text message asking where to go.

I was carrying my little book where I jot down the lyrics of songs I'm learning and where I keep a list of fiddle tunes I've learned so I can run through them. Armed with it and my trusty pen, I was ready to ask for an autograph in the very unlikely event that I ran into Sam or Del McCoury (the other big name here this weekend) -- so of course it would be the beloved who runs into him in the lobby on the first evening...

I'll update this as the weekend progresses.


Ed Kemmick said...

Ted Ness and the Rusty Nails. They're from Billings and they keep getting better, and faster. Geoff, the fiddler, also plays in the Billings Symphony.

Montana Headlines said...

Yes, I was finally able to find them on line. They were my wife's favorite of the Montana bands on Friday night, and as time has passed, I find that I remember more about their set than anyone else's.

Geoff was the best of the Montana fiddlers, by far. I will be watching the "Enjoy" section of the Gazette to see when they play local venues here in Billings.