festival of the bluegrass: the seldom scene/23 string band/joe mullins and the radio ramblers/the grascals
The biggest celebrity of Day 3 at the Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park wasn’t onstage. It was everywhere else. The star was a low humidity Saturday with temps in the 70s with no threat of rain everywhere. The performing artists remarked on it, the vendors at the festival beamed about it and neighboring patrons soaking up the pre-summer sun were literally having a field day with it.
The music responded in kind. Mainstay headliner The Seldom Scene, which seemed to be in a bit of a performance rut at recent visits, dusted off a few gems and re-examined several audience favorites. Old Train and Muddy Water sounded alert and vital, a pair of John Fogerty covers (110 in the Shade and Big Train from Memphis) reaffirmed the band’s stylistic dexterity and dobroist Fred Travers’ gentle vocal turn on Heart and Soul upheld the strength of the Scene’s recent material.
Also adding to the band’s renewed vigor was mandolinist Lou Reid, whose fearsome high tenor vocals drove several wailing exhibitions of three part harmonies (with Travers and guitarist Dudley Connell) that served as codas to several songs.
Louisville’s 23 String Band has become a fast new generation favorite at the Festival. While the quintet saved material from its soon-to-be-released 23*SB album for its evening set, the band’s afternoon outing had members huddled around a single microphone for the playful sighs, shouts and harmonies of Bees’ Knees, the still-dramatic new grass instrumental Catch 23 and a feverish cover of Tom Petty’s Listen to Her Heart (in all likelihood, the only tune of the entire four day event to reference cocaine) that led to a blazing solo from the band’s sharpest soloist, fiddler Scott Moore.
The preceding set by Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers could not have differed more. Where 23 String Band’s youthful gusto would have been right at home in a prohibition era speakeasy, banjoist Mullins (a veteran Ohio broadcaster, hence his band’s name) went for traditional bluegrass and contemporary gospel, the latter stretching into fairly starched Bill Gather territory. Still, the band couldn’t help balancing new works from its forthcoming Another Day From Life album, the gospel quartet-driven No Longer an Orphan and the high lonesome thread of I’ll Be There, Mary Dear with the moonshine themed Katy Daley. As always, for every Sunday morning in bluegrass and country music, there is a Saturday night.
One of the biggest non-weather hits of the day was the Festival return of The Grascals, whose music has been edging away from the heavy country slant of its early albums. That said, three tunes from the band’s 2005 self-titled debut album – Leavin’s Heavy on My Mind, Where the Corn Don’t Grow and Me and John and Paul – contributed greatly to the band’s rootsy stride. Of course, having a star instrumentalist like Kristin Scott Benson showcasing Earl Scruggs-style banjo picking when the solo spotlight came her way helped keep The Grascals on the traditional path, as did the consistently strong high tenor vocals of Terry Eldredge. As a side note, The Grascals were the only band allowed an encore during the afternoon sets.
Old-timey fave Dry Branch Fire Squad turned in a fine set as well as the Festival broke around 7 pm for dinner. Well save observations from that performance when we review Dry Branch’s Festival-closing gospel set on Sunday.