Among the more enlightening attributes of a bluegrass festival is its ability to uncover stylistic distinctions within a parade of acts operating within the same musical genre sporting largely identical acoustic instrumentation.
If you think such a setting can’t help but stifle variety, then you should have been on hand last night as the second day of the 40th Festival of the Bluegrass drew to a close at the Kentucky State Park.
On one hand, you had Dailey & Vincent, the wildly successful duo that made its Festival debut with an extended 90 minute set at dusk. Fronting a tireless six member unit, guitarist Jamie Dailey and bassist Darrin Vincent dressed the part of stars with smart looking suits, a touch of performance attitude and a fondness for bluegrass gospel and country tradition as well as the determination to broadcast it all within the space of their set. Even with double the stage time of any other act last night, it was still a tight fit.
There was no denying the vocal strengths, from the Dailey’s wild mountain tenor during the show opening Steel Drivin’ Man to the booming bass vocals guitarist Christian Davis brought to deep pocket harmonies during a trio of tunes popularized by the ‘70s/’80s-era country ensemble The Statler Brothers, the best being the light and lyrical Atlanta Blue.
Performed with equal gusto were sets of warp-speed instrumentals, finely nuanced a capella gospel tunes and, for the most dynamic portion of the evening, a selection of impromptu and unamplified songs that sent the entire band out into the audience after a generator failure cause a brief power outage onstage.
On the entire opposite of the performance spectrum was the 23 String Band. As choreographed and presentational as Dailey & Vincent were, the Louisville based group was rustic and unassuming. Utilizing the bluegrass tradition of playing and singing around a single microphone, the band introduced itself with East Kentucky Water, a sobering romp that suggested the drinking water in rural regions of the state outranks the rankness of water in Mexico.
After that came a version of Tom Petty’s Listen to Her Heart performed with railroad work song vigor, the wild acoustic fusion of the instrumental Catch 23, a new original celebrating the joys of junk food titled Top Shelf Temptress and a suitably murky but workably rhythmic encore revision of Nirvana’s Breed that solidified the performance’s youthful earnestness.
Current International Bluegrass Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year Dale Ann Bradley inserted a more moderate set between the two extremes. Fortified by a band that boasted RenfroValley/Doyle Lawson/Mountain Heart alum Steve Gulley and the great dobro stylist (and longtime J.D. Crowe ally) Phil Leadbetter, Bradley’s program was, as always, very well served by the subtle country flair of her singing on Anyone Else’s Heart but Mine and an exquisite reading of fellow Kentuckian Dottie Rambo’s New Shoes.
Capping the evening was a nicely paced set by current IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out. The performance rightly placed Moore’s very capable singing front and center, from the opening country comfort of the John Hartford staple Gentle on My Mind to the massive mountain wail of Little John I Am that sent this bluegrass feast howling into the midnight hour.