festival of the bluegrass: the gibson brothers/michael cleveland and flamekeeper/russell moore and IIIrd tyme out

gibson brothers

the gibson brothers: eric and leigh gibson. herald-leader staff photos by rich copley.

“Songs like that make me love the guitar,” said Leigh Gibson as the band he fronted with older brother Eric ripped through one of the most popular, though most treacherous, instrumentals in any bluegrass repertoire – Bill Monroe’s Big Mon.

The guitarist wasn’t gloating over any performance glories the tune brought his way earlier today as the Festival of the Bluegrass headed into its second day at the Kentucky Horse Park. In fact, quite the opposite was true. He was relishing sitting out of the Olympian sprints on fiddle, banjo (his brother’s weapon of preference) and especially mandolin that raced madly around him as the tune intensified.

As a whole, though, nothing The Gibson Brothers played, and certainly no one onstage playing it, could have truly been considered safe. The quintet embraced bluegrass tradition throughout but was hardly content to make the music seem like a museum piece. Leigh possessed an ultra persuasive country intent in his singing, whether he working alongside the natural acoustic groove of Wishing Well, spinning a grand rambler’s tale in Walkin’ West to Memphis or leading the elegant waltz melody of Dyin’ For Someone to Live For.

Eric, on the other hand, possessed a decidedly higher mountain tenor in his vocals, sounding akin to a young Del McCoury on Ragged Man and Farm of Yesterday, the latter being a chronicle of the brother’s younger days on their parents dairy farm in upstate New York.

But the onstage MVP of the Gibson Brothers wasn’t a Gibson at all, but fiddler Clayton Campbell. A player with an expressive, exact tone, he drove the band through its most dizzying instrumental runs (the aforementioned Big Mon) as well as its most jubilant gospel-rich works (Ring the Bell).

michael cleveland

michael cleveland.

The gospel mood was initiated earlier in the day through sets by one of the festival’s most frequent guests, Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, and the most prominent act making its debut at the event this year, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper.

IIIrd Tyme Out introduced a radically altered lineup, led by the festival introduction of Keith McKinnon, who replaced longtime banjoist Steve Dilling earlier this year. Also new was bassist Blake Johnson, who proved a capable vocalist during a playful cover of Jimmy Martin’s Hold Whatcha Got and a capable addition to the group’s a capella gospel quartet sound on We’ll Soon Be Done with Troubles and Trials.

But for all of IIIrd Tyme Out’s rapid fire instrumental work, its robust vocal harmonies and its ongoing dance between gospel and secular music, it was Moore who served as catalyst with a voice still rich in high tenor gusto.

Fiddler Cleveland was perhaps the sharpest player of the day, and it wasn’t just because of his speed and agility, Both were generously on display, though, during a succession of spitfire instrumentals, which might explain why Cleveland has been awarded the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Fiddle Player of the Year honors nine times).

Much of his most absorbing work came while underscoring the leaner, lighter Farewell for a Little While and the patiently paced, old-timey charmer Fiddlin’ Joe. But For pure performance dynamics, however, nothing beat Cleveland’s transformation of Shenandoah Waltz into a lovely serenade of slo-mo swing that beautifully complimented the sublime Friday afternoon weather that made the often sweltering festival seem like a springtime escape.

(View Rich Copley’s photo gallerry of this show here.)

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