It was the night that BOB officially became a grown-up.
After showering the city with string music for the past four days, the performance celebration known as Best of Bluegrass bloomed into the 40th Festival of the Bluegrass last night at the Kentucky Horse Park and got down to serious business.
The headliner was a Festival regular, the Lonesome River Band, a group that last year came off a pretty heady anniversary of its own. But the quintet lineup that group leader and longstanding banjo titan Sammy Shelor showcased last night was as musically tight and adventurous as any in the LRB’s 31 year history.
It’s easy to place the spotlight on Shelor alone. He is a player who distains flash and keeps his solos efficient but brief. But what he packed into songs like Who Needs You were passages of effortless rhythmic drive and huge expressive color. But mandolinist/vocalist Randy Jones regularly matched Shelor in terms of tone, precision and pure musical agility. Then the entire quintet loosened up during a series of jazzy, round-robin solos that led into Hobo’s Blues to reveal the complete scope of the LRB’s instrumental maturity.
Last night was also the only evening of the Festival’s three night run where young local and regional acts were given prime time performance spots. In the case of Newtown, which has maintained a very high profile during BOB week, its Festival return revealed a versatile and highly accomplished ensemble personality that has very much come into its own.
Credit fiddler Kati Penn and banjoist Junior Williams, both of whom doubled as commanding lead vocalists, and a batch of expert original songs, many of which came from guitarist C.J. Cain., as the primary fuel for Newtown’s rootsy authority and variety.
The all-female Coaltown Dixie (three Eastern Kentucky artists and one Georgia native) and the West Virginia-based Grass Stains opened the evening with slightly less defined sets that balanced often appealing original works with curious covers (Coaltown Dixie took on the Beatles staple I Wanna Hold Your Hand while the Grass Stains tried on Train’s annoying Hey, Soul Sister). Fun sets, to be sure, though both were very much works-in-progress compared to the wonderfully complete stamps that the LRB and Newtown placed on their strong string sounds.