I was pretty excited when I found out that The Infamous Stringdusters were hosting their own festival. I've written previously about how talented and groundbreaking the 'Dusters are, and I was intrigued at what kind of festival they would put together.
First of all, it's important to note that this was not a bluegrass festival. Almost every act had some connection to bluegrass, ranging from Pantherburn just having an electric banjo to Tony Rice having as compelling a guitar resume as anybody in bluegrass history, but there were almost no acts that were bluegrass in the sense that Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs would have understood it: five-piece fiddle / banjo / guitar / mandolin / bass, breaks and vocals, high lonesome, hard-drivin', country- and blues- influenced Bluegrass with a capital "B." Instead we had Crooked Still bringing in a cello and replacing Monroe's propulsive, concussive drive with a swath of dark tone and Railroad Earth adding drums to the mix and creating a sound almost entirely unlike bluegrass. Even the bands with typical bluegrass instrumentation had a non-bluegrassy feel; The Tony Rice Unit kicked off its set with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "My Favorite Things," and Josh Ritter's Love Canon String Band complemented Ritter's folky originals with covers ranging from Mercer and Mancini's "Moon River" to Dire Straits' "Money for Nothin'."
That brings us to the 'Dusters themselves, who since their debut album Fork in the Road have been shifting away from traditional bluegrass into ... I don't know. They do play some traditional bluegrass; they closed their Saturday set with Monroe's classic "Uncle Pen." But more frequently they're exploring the sonic textures they can create with traditional bluegrass instrumentation. Bassist Travis Book might be playing the typical 1-3 alternating stomp that services as the rhythm backbone of most bluegrass, but he might be bouncing notes up and down the scale throughout. Banjo player Chris Pandolfi and dobro player Andy Hall might be vamping on two and four like they're "supposed to," but they might be playing a background rift that adds texture behind the lead break or vocal. Bluegrass is typically single-threaded; you've got your lead vocal or instrument and everyone else is playing rhythm. That's not the case with the 'Dusters. A key to that is their sound man, Drew Becker, who finds a way to distill a comprehensible sound out of six instruments with pickups. Without plugging in and without a great sound man, it's hard to imagine the Infamous Stringdusters would sound the way they do. The band works very hard at this, too; they were very active on stage, moving around constantly depending on who was playing to get the right balance of sound.
And that sound! A friend with me at the festival, who had limited exposure to the Stringdusters and bluegrass in general, remarked "It hits you right in the gut! It's rock n' roll to me, man." The music rises and falls, from beautiful and melodic to percussive and driving, with solos by everyone in the band, rhythm from everyone, texture from everyone. They have an amazing sense of dynamics and getting the feeling from the songs. The best part of The Festy was seeing the Infamous Stringdusters, already a terrific live band, at their apex of energy and skill to please devoted fans who came from all over to their festival.
Some notes on the individual bands:
- Crooked Still, as always, was excellent. More to come on them in a subsequent blog post.
- Pantherburn was one of the pleasant surprises, a local act that I had never heard of. They rocked catchy tunes with a nice energy and literate lyrics. Their biggest quirk was an electric banjo that they didn't quite integrate with the rest of their sound; it was hard to tell if it was doing anything. Still, a band to watch going forward.
- Old School Freight Train was a skilled group of instrumentalists, but something seemed flat to me. Maybe it was guitarist / lead singer Jesse Harper's voice; it sounded too radio-friendly for bluegrass.
- It was a treat to watch Tony Rice; obviously he can still play. I was very impressed with mandolin player Josh Williams; I'd heard he was a talented guitar flatpicker but he really tore it up on the mando. He also had a nice singing voice.
- Railroad Earth played a completely different set than at Grey Fox just a couple months ago, which was a surprise. Their live jams can get tedious, but their strong songwriting distinguishes them from other jam bands. A highlight was an extended version of "Warhead Boogie," which ended in tumult before fading in to a gentle treatment of the Beatles' "Across the Universe." It was one of two tributes in honor of John Lennon's birthday, the other being Old School Freight Train with a nice rendition of "Instant Karma."
- Larry Keel & Natural Bridge were entertaining. Keel is a big guy with a bushy beard, a weathered voice a la Steve Earle (but he can actually sing in tune), and quite the flatpicking skill. His band had a loose, almost punk feel that was appealing.
- Josh Ritter & The Love Canon String Band were the highlight of the festival up to that point. I was very fond of Ritter's most recent album, but I wasn't sure how his sometimes quiet, lyrically dense music would translate to the live setting. The set list was terrific, varying between slower tunes and more uptempo ones. Ritter had a lot of charisma and always looked like he was enjoying himself. The not-so-secret weapon was bassist Zach Hickman, who has a moustache out of the 1920's and a strong sense of showmanship in additional to his skillful bass thumping. He also provided hilarious harmonies on a surprising encore cover of Journey's "Dont' Stop Believin.'" The music was terrific and the crowd was really into it. I will definitely check out Ritter again live in the future.
- Well, Ritter was the best performance until The Infamous Stringdusters' second show. Holy crap. More details above, but a particular highlight was their take on Peter Rowan's classic "Midnight Moonlight."
- Toubab Krewe was the Sunday night headliner, and, well, I wasn't a fan. I'll cover this in more detail in my next blog post.