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Strictly Bluegrass

By Glenn Weiser

Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival

Walsh Farm, Oak Hill, July 18

Because the performers at the annual Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival are cherry-picked from the genre’s top tier of talent, it’s hard to imagine writing an unfavorable review of this four-day concert. For the audience of 6,000, this year’s Saturday lineup at the event’s new site in the hills of Greene County was pretty much hog heaven as usual.

On the main stage at 2 PM was one of bluegrass’s ascending lights, the angel-faced young singer and mandolinist Sierra Hull of Tennessee, taking her band through her “That’s All I Can Say,” which in May topped the Sirius/XM Bluegrass Junction broadcast’s Most Played Tracks list. Hull, 17, has been gigging since she was 10 and has a pure soprano voice that recalls Alison Krauss. Although she is already a formidable picker, her playing sounded a little stiff owing to a lack of legato technique. But it was clear that, given her youth, she is all but destined to become a smoother and even better player. And then, look out.

Up next was the festival’s host band, the Dry Branch Fire Squad. First, Ron Thomason, the group’s drawling spokesman, sat down on a chair and began with a hambone routine, patting out rapid rhythms on his thighs and chest as he sang. Then the quartet assembled around a single microphone as the first bluegrass groups did in the 1940s, and sailed through a string of chestnuts including “Pain in My Heart,” “Midnight on the Stormy Deep,” and the wistful “Aragon Mill.”

Over at the Masters Tent, where the performers delve into their playing styles, three flatpicking guitarists, Josh Williams, Danny Knicely and Chris Eldridge, focused mostly on fiddle tunes. Their superb efforts, though, were marred by repeated failures of the sound system (the wet ground, soaked from Friday’s heavy rainfall, could have been a factor). Still, the show went on. Williams sang beautifully on Norman Blake’s “Ginseng Sullivan,” Knicely spat fire with dizzying 16th-note riffs during the reel “Cattle in the Hay,” and the influence of jam-band guitar could be heard in Eldridge’s noodlely variations on “The Big Scioty.”

Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives led off the evening’s bill on the main stage with a ripsnorting set of mostly famous country tunes. Stuart, whose baritone vocals are consistently clear and strong throughout his entire range, was for my money the best singer of the day, and more than any performer radiated the sheer joy of musicmaking. Although the band shined on classics like “Long Black Veil” and “Working on the Building,” the standout was a killer boogie-woogie guitar solo by Kenny Vaughn on “Walk Like That.”

Representing old-school bluegrass were Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, who paid homage to Bill Monroe. “Honor thy father,” the devout Skaggs intoned, citing the Fifth Commandment, and explained that for him, keeping Monroe’s music alive was part of abiding by the Biblical injunction. Once church was out, the band tore into the canon of high lonesome classics: “Uncle Pen,” “Mother’s Only Sleeping,” and a performance of the Louvin Brothers’ “The Family That Prays” rendered with such righteousness that it could have raised the dead. All of Skaggs’ soloists were outstanding; Jim Mills in particular played Scruggs-style banjo with verve on the warhorse “The Bluegrass Breakdown.”

Topping the bill were mandolinist and tenor vocalist Tim O’Brien and his band. O’Brien writes some refreshingly goofy songs, such as taking the fiddle tune “Cotton Eyed Joe,” with its “Where did you come from/Where did you go” chorus and hilariously substituting Osama bin Laden for old Cotton Eyed Joe. He ended the night back where bluegrass began: Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women, Grainbelt

Revolution Hall, July 17

Among his numerous talents , Dave Alvin also is an ideas man. He knows a good idea when he thinks of it, and he delights in seeing it through to fruition. In the aftermath of the death of his friend and bandmate Chris Gaffney last year, he set aside his band the Guilty Men and formed the Guilty Women to accompany him on a new album and tour. It was a good idea, but like all of his good ideas, the idea is a catalyst that is then superceded by the work that it sparked. Good ideas are a dime a dozen, and what separates the artists from the artisans and charlatans is the ability to transcend the concept with deeply resonant execution. Dave Alvin is not a slave to his ideas; the ideas are the tools with which he fashions greater truths.

Last Friday’s performance by Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women at Revolution Hall in Troy was one of the premier events of the year. This was Alvin as bandleader, fronting an ensemble that he proudly declares can “kick his ass.” While that statement has the unabashed flair of showmanship to it, toying with default expectations of the public at large, the couple hundred in attendance already knew the truth: Dave Alvin will not let you down.

The half-dozen Guilty Women first came together last fall when Alvin hastily convened the band to perform at San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Most had never worked together previously (though Alvin had with some), and they had little time to rehearse prior to their debut appearance. By the time their set was done, the event’s magic had united them all.

The undeniable fun these musicians have working together was both palpable and contagious at Revolution Hall. While acoustic instruments made up most of the frontline (Alvin’s guitar and the twin violins of Laurie Lewis and Amy Farris), the rhythm section of drummer Lisa Pankratz and bass guitarist Sarah Brown provided unrelenting momentum, sliding easily from supple Western swing to bluesy wallop. Cindy Cashdollar, on various steel guitars and Dobro, was the primary soloist, adding dazzle that’s she’s previously brought to the bands of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Bill Kirchen. Christy McWilson was Alvin’s vocal foil, singing along with him most of the night as well as taking a couple solo turns.

Most of the night showcased the band’s new self-titled release, though highpoints also included the back-to-back western landscapes of “King of California” and “Abilene.” Lewis’ mandolin was a sweet detail on the former and hers and Farris’s dual violins added an expansive majesty to the signature melody of the latter. Two-thirds of the way through the set Alvin switched to his Stratocaster, launching the band into “Haley’s Comet” followed by “Ashgrove.”

The two encore songs subtly stated the impetus behind this band being launched. Chris Gaffney’s “Man of Somebody’s Dreams” (also the title of the recently released Gaffney tribute album Alvin produced for his fallen friend) was followed the song of existential acceptance which also closed the new album, “Que Sera Sera.”

Howard Glassman’s Grainbelt opened the show. They’re a lively quartet as honest and no-frills sturdy as the prairie states to which their name can be traced.

—David Greenberger

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Act Like You Mean It

Kevin Costner was at Northern Lights on Tuesday fronting Modern West, the country-rock band he formed with some old friends a few years ago. Currently on tour in support of their 2008 album Untold Truths, the group recently earned a CMT Music Award nomination for the “Backyard” clip. Funny, we never would have thought a movie star could make a decent music video.



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