Sunny weather, temperatures in the 80s, and music to die for greeted bluegrass fans last Saturday at Grey Fox in the foothills of the northern Catskills. The four-day multistage concert is the top annual acoustic-music event in the Northeast, and this year’s lineup lived up to the festival’s high standards. You could hear everything from the unvarnished exuberance of old-string band music to Jimi Hendrix’s 1967 hit “Hey Joe” done bluegrass style. This year I was lucky to see some especially tasty bands for the first time.
The first of these was Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, who took the main stage at noon. Solivan, who sings lead vocals and plays mandolin and fiddle, performed for six years with the U.S. Navy’s bluegrass group before leaving the service to play the civilian bluegrass circuit. The quartet began with a fast instrumental that allowed each player to present his musical bona fides. Solivan was particularly impressive with his amazing speed and precision on mandolin as the group tore through the unidentified tune’s modal chord changes. Banjoist Mike Mumford was also impressive with his Scruggs-style picking on Ginger Boatwright’s “Somebody’s Missing You,” and both Solivan and guitarist Chris Luquette fired off lightning-fast 16th-note runs on the rock-flavored stomper “Too Far Gone.”
The Creekside tent offered shelter from the scorching sun, so at 5 PM I caught multi-instrumentalist and tenor singer extraordinaire Tim O’Brien of Hot Rize, who is perhaps the most talented musician in bluegrass today. In honor of Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday, O’Brien fingerpicked his old Gibson guitar and spun off a string of the Dust Bowl balladeer’s songs, including “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You,” and even “This Land Is Your Land.” He then switched to fiddle for a string of fast, cleanly bowed reels, and later, mandolin for a funkified version of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”
Following O’Brien at Creekside was the high-voltage trio of guitarist Brian Sutton, fiddler Darol Anger, and banjoist Tony Trischka in an all-instrument set. They opened with the fiddle tune “June Apple” and what came to mind was the early description of bluegrass as “hillbilly jazz.” Having taken turns playing the tune straight, each launched into improvisations over the chord line in the theme-and-variations format that has marked most jazz since its birth in New Orleans. Trischka smoked on Earl Scruggs’ “Pike County Breakdown,” and Anger shone on the fiddle chestnut “Boston Boy.” Here again, improvisations followed the opening statements of the melodies. When an audience member asked Trischka who he turned to for musical inspiration, he drew laughter when he replied, “Justin Bieber.”
Back at the Main Stage during the evening concert, the Nashville-based band the SteelDrivers offered an appealing blend of bluegrass and country sounds. They too were new to me, and I was soon won over. Guitarist and lead vocalist Chris Stapelton sang well in a gruff, growling baritone reminiscent of Travis Tritt on their opening number, a paean to moonshine entitled “Good Corn Liquor.” Exploring some creepy territory, he later sang a song from a stalker’s point of view called “I’ll Be There.” The minor key, pop-tinged chord changes gave a jilted lover’s promise to be wherever the object of his obsession would be an appropriately sinister edge.
The last act I stayed for was the supergroup Hot Rize. Attired in suits like old-time bluegrassers, they kicked off with “Hard Pressed.” Backed by electric bassist Nick Forster, banjoist Pete Wernick, guitarist Brian Sutton, and Tim O’Brien, now on mandolin, played as well as any group ever seen at Grey Fox. Sutton paid homage to the late Doc Watson with the fiddle tune “Black Mountain Rag,” and the whole band took turns excelling on my favorite tune of theirs, the plaintive “Colleen Malone.”
Mountain Heart closed the show, but by then I had fast-running eighth notes coming out of my ears and was weary from a long day in the sun. Still, I wouldn’t have missed this festival for the world.