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Grey Fox 2005 Report
I've been attending the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Ancramdale, N.Y. most years since 1998 (along with my growing family). It used to be called Winterhawk (and there used to be three of us and now there's five) but hey, things change. But what remains constant is the high quality music and life experience that this festival provides. You can usually count on seeing Del McCoury, Tim O'Brien and Peter Rowan, as well as long established journeyman bands (Dry Branch Fire Squad, Southern Grass), younger “jam grass” groups (Nickel Creek, Leftover Salmon) as well as some bona fide legends (in past years, Earl Scruggs, John Hartford and Ralph Stanley). Not to mention the spirit of Bill Monroe looking down on all. This year was no exception, and after setting up camp Wednesday night and being treated to a showing of the documentary “Bluegrass Journey” (mostly filmed at Greyfox) we were in full festival mode.
Day One: Thursday
Things kicked off at 2 in the afternoon with Americana songwriter Julie Lee. Calling herself “a step child of bluegrass”, she never the less fit in well in her Grey Fox debut with her fine songs of longing and signature tune “Still House Road”. It didn't hurt that she was backed by the excellent New England Bluegrass Band. The Biscuit Burners were up next and I was mighty impressed with their fresh sound and subtly complex arrangements. Lead singer Shannon Whitworth is a distinctive vocalist and the song “Blue Eyes” recalls Gillian Welch at her best. I made a note to watch for their forthcoming CD Off to the Sea and jotted something about about “mod/trad” acts, trying to describe a wave of youngsters with strong old timey roots but a contemporary take on music as old as the hills. That designation that would also apply to Uncle Earl, five young women who turned heads and ears all week, playing two sets and appearing in the workshop tent. With at least three strong writers among them and a knack for finding great material off old 78s, they easily created the biggest buzz at this year's festival.
Dry Branch Fire Squad is the host band for the festival. They're probably the most underrated band in bluegrass today, playing a strong mix of real mountain style tunes and heartfelt gospel. Leader Ron Thomason's mandolin playing is fiery but never showy, and he has one of the greatest tones I've ever heard. Their recent live album captures all of the above plus a whole side dedicated to Ron's “Wit and Wisdom”, very humorous spoken interludes in which he fashions himself as kind of a down home/theorist libertarian preacher. Danny Paisley and Southern Grass performed that evening with their second generation traditional sound This is the real thing folks and may be the closest representation of Bill Monroe style seen in 2005. Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver followed with slick three part harmony and revival tent gospel influence, while the late evening found the ground breaking newgrass band PyschoGrass (featuring Tony Trischka, David Grier, Darol Anger) taking the stage but found us back in the family fold.
Day Two: Friday
The weather was hot and cloudy but the musical forecast excellent with Adrienne Young and Little Sadie leading the way. This was Adrienne's second year at the festival and last year she created a buzz with material from her homey-yet-sophisticated debut recording, Plow to the End of the Road, appearing for multiple sets. This year her afternoon set was her only appearance and we weren't about to miss it. Young and band quickly won over the crowd with bluegrass workouts interlaced with her philosophical roots pop (not to mention a drum kit, rare at Grey Fox) Little Sadie displayed a down home polish and an appealing take on acoustic roots music, closing with the Grateful Dead chestnut "Brokedown Palace". There's lots going on at Grey Fox besides the music on the main stage, with kid's activities, a dance tent, several work shop tents, jamming everywhere and even morning yoga classes. Friday found us indulging in much of the above, making sure to head back up the hill after the dinner break to catch another strong Dry Branch set followed by The Grascals, who alternate stomping breakdowns with traditional country songs. With strong three part harmony, youthful attitude (despite their journeymen status) and respect for their elders, they're definitely a band to watch. And they had the coolest shirts.
Greyfox favorite Tim O'Brien (pictured at right), followed, previewing songs from the two upcoming discs he's releasing this September, Cornbread Nation and Fiddler's Green. After last years Traveler, it seems clear Tim is at a musical peak, engaging the mind and soul as well as the ear. With resonant subject matter, winning melodies and expert playing, he brings a lot to the acoustic music table. That, and his live sets are a lot of fun, full of humor and spirit. The renowned David Grisman Quintet was up next, playing a traditional melody to welcome the Sabbath and blowing away the crowd with stunning mandolin, gypsy rhythms and jazz flute. Not really bluegrass but definitely Dawg music. At one point fellow mandolin legend Sam Bush joined Dawg on stage and the two players opened up a can of “mandolin monster”, the likes of which are seldom heard. The Sam Bush Band would close up the day after midnight but once again we were back in our tent, tired but sated.
Day Three: Saturday
The highlight of the afternoon were the young King Wilkie, who live play with an exciting, rock influenced edge and brought down the “hill” with the powerful (and powerfully funny) “Yankee Lad” and an encore of the Stones' “Dear Doctor”. They were followed by Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum's California-style grass and the Seldom Scene (who we actually didn't see. Really. But we could hear them in the campsite while cooking dinner). Everybody made it onto the hill for G.F. favorite Del McCoury Band, (pictured at top of page). Previewing songs from their new release The Company We Keep, the boys were tight and charming as always. Del's high lonesome vocals and the boy's amazing chops always please the crowd and make their sets a highlight. Their reaching out to jam band fans, Steve Earle fans and a surfeit of strong contemporary material make this group the most popular in Bluegrass today.
The Saturday night all star jam is a Grey Fox tradition, and it led off with Tim O'Brien and at least 6 fiddlers (and one cello player, Rushad Eggleston). Soon Peter Rowan showed up and led what was for me the most transcendent set of the week. Featuring his unearthly vocals on everything from "Blue Moon of Kentucky" to a mini set of songs from his latest release You Were There For Me (with Tony Rice), I asked myself: is there a better vocalist/writer/personality in all of Americana music? On this evening, as the stars came out and he led an all-star cast in “Midnight Moonlight”, the answer was certainly no, none better.
Day Four: Sunday
Sunday highlights are always Dry Branch's moving Gospel set and the Kid's Bluegrass Academy performing on the Main Stage. Lowlights include breaking camp (in the rain) and driving up a steep muddy hill (we made it!) before leaving the Rothvoss farm and taking notes on what we can do better next year, camping wise. We always meet up with old friends and make new ones, get a little jamming in with some fine musicians and watch our kids get into this wonderful American music. The tree Bill Monroe planted is a large one, and it's great to spend a few days under it's various branches and watch it grow.