Any music festival that begins – begins, mind you – with J.D. Crowe has set its artistic bar almost impossibly high. But this year’s Christ the King Oktoberfest was clearly in the mood again to think big, especially when it followed the Kentucky bluegrass giant’s event opening set on Friday afternoon with an acoustic performance where headliner Sam Bush sat in with veteran Louisville songsmith Tim Krekel.
Things got dicier around dusk, however, when upstate New York roots revivalists The Felice Brothers took the stage. After two stabs at the spiritual Saved were stalled by a failing sound system, the band grabbed whatever instruments it could – in this case, two acoustic guitars, a washboard, accordion, snare drum and hi-hat cymbal – and merrily played them in the lap of the gathering crowd. The Felice team didn’t have the vocal might to carry on in an entirely unplugged setting, but the band gave everything it had to keep the festival moving. Still, despite singing their hearts out on Whiskey in My Whiskey and Two Hands, the Felices simply could not be heard. The sound was repaired in time for a run-through of Frankie’s Gun, Christmas Song and Glory Glory to offer a brief amplified look at the band’s Cajun/Acadian roots revival makeup.
Todd Snider then offered what was easily his most streamlined set ever on Lexington soil – 12 solo acoustic songs in 40 minutes. Aside from a little spoken commentary in Looking for a Job, one irreverent tune full of plain speaking, John Prine-style imagery with occasional rockish tempos followed another. In short, his set was all business. Snider’s new Peace Queer album, which is due out next month, was ignored completely. But the sly, country-laced political/cultural gap ramble Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males proved topical enough, especially given the performance surroundings.
The ever-tireless Bush wound things up with his current band and a typically far-reaching set that shifted from bluegrass to reggae to progressive jazz to jams where Scott Vestal morphed his electrified banjo solos into musical colors that appoximated B3 organ. The repertoire included material by John Hartford (a rugged, grassy On the Road), Van Morrison (a jubilant Wild Night), Jean-Luc Ponty (the new generation fiddle stomp New Country), Charlie Monroe (the traditional string band leaning Bringing in the Georgia Mail) and Bob Marley (a jam-savvy Is This Love?).
Krekel later returned to harmonize on his own All Night Radio before Bush switched from mandolin to fiddle to depart on an extended, Celtic-flavored medley that gave way to a snippet of the early ‘70s Allman Brothers Band instrumental Les Brers in A Minor. By the time The Band’s immortal Up on Cripple Creek closed things down, the clock was approaching midnight. Oktoberfest fever – judging by the massive, devout and enduring audience that stayed until closing time, was in full swing