Whatever fears that may have hit when the inaugural Crave Lexington opened its gates Saturday to skies of rain and gray had to have been distant memories by the time the festival hit its stride Sunday afternoon. For my money, a brilliant first day of autumn, a plate of chicken chimichangas and a concert length set by the 23 String Band makes any festival a winner.
A Louisville-based group (although its members hail from throughout Kentucky along with one evacuee from North Carolina), the 23 String Band reflected the youthful gusto of new generation pre-bluegrass country groups. Granted, when the band chose to serve the bluegrass straight, it did so beautifully. Such was the case with a regal reading of Bill Monroe’s Kentucky Waltz. Mostly, though, bluegrass was a springboard for string sounds that incorporated classical, European swing, jazz, new grass, folk and, on occasion, pop.
Sometimes the genre jumping was obvious, as in the headfirst leap the band took from fellow Louisvillian Stephen Couch’s East Kentucky Water into a hopped up hoedown version of Tom Petty’s Listen to Her Heart. Juxtaposing styles became more ingrained when the quintet turned to the staple Stewball, where string tradition was accented by call-and-response verses that sounded more like the product of a vintage chain gang song.
But for all the stylistic standoffs that took place within the 23 Band’s repertoire, the most dynamic musical offering was also the most progressively minded. On the instrumental title tune to the band’s 2011 sophomore album Catch 23, the ensemble recalled the jazz-like dexterity and compositional depth that champion new grassers Bela Fleck and Mark O’Connor exhibited three decades ago. Violinist Scott Moore and mandolinist Dave Howard were in the driver’s seat for much of the composition. But it was the ensemble dynamic that astounded most during a series of dramatic but unforced crescendos that often deflated so the tune’s lighter lyricism could take flight. Then, in almost respiratory fashion, the tune built and climaxed again.
Put all of that under a sky of crystal blue with eats as far as the eyes could see and you had one hearty gala welcome for fall.