The elephant in the room was more like one stomping about in the campground of the Kentucky Horse Park yesterday as Blue Highway took the stage for its afternoon set at the Festival of the Bluegrass. The elephant, in this instance, was the absence of dobroist and co-founder Rob Ickes, one of modern bluegrass music’s most recognized and awarded instrumentalists, who split amicably with the band late last year. Blue Highway guitarist and co-vocalist Tim Stafford wasted no time in addressing the question of “Where’s Rob?” But the explanation became more of an introduction for 20 year old Gaven Largent, Ickes’ replacement.
The Virginia native turned out to be quite complimentary to the rest of the Blue Highway lineup, which consisted exclusively of founding members. But it was also a wisely paced introduction. During the afternoon set, Largent largely sidestepped the kind of hearty soloing that distinguished Ickes and opted more for a natural integration into the band’s song structures, whether he was weaving his playing around the breaks of banjoist Jason Burleson and fiddler Shawn Lane or fortifying the leisurely paced Just to Have to a Job.
Largent wasn’t the only new face in Blue Highway yesterday. Daniel Salyer sat in for bassist Wayne Taylor who is recuperating from cardiac bypass surgery. Salyer more than stepped up to the plate by adding to the gospel quartet harmonies of Bill Monroe’s Wicked Path of Sin and supplying accomplished high tenor lead vocals to covers of the Stanley Brothers’ Little Maggie and Flatt & Scruggs’ The Old Home Town.
In contrast, a following set by Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out, a longtime Festival of the Bluegrass favorite, was largely business as usual.
Designed as a celebration of sorts for the band’s 25th anniversary, the set drew upon songs vintage (the hard labor lullaby Moundsville Pen from IIIrd Tyme Out’s self titled 1991 debut album, which Moore curiously said “set the tone” for the quintet’s music) as well as numerous tunes from 2015’s It’s Almost Tyme. Highlights included I’m Leaving You and Fort Worth Too, which underscored the tireless drive of Moore’s singing, and the expert Wayne Benson instrumental Spindale, with the latter dispensing swiftly animated but unhurried runs on mandolin.
The Missouri band Blue Mafia, making its Festival of the Bluegrass debut, closed out the afternoon and early evening program with the day’s most traditionally minded performance, right down to the dark contours of Your Last Breath, a eulogy mandolinist and co-vocalist Dara Wray dubbed “a love song.”
The playing and harmonies were all crisply delivered, but Blue Mafia still has a ways to go in establishing a musical identity of its own. While it was refreshing to hear the band avoid the pseudo country accents that plague many young bluegrass acts, what was on display yesterday was largely perfunctory. As amiable and adept as the performance was, one hopes the band can develop a voice of its own to stand out more in a bluegrass field that the festival yesterday reminded us was still as stylistically diverse as it was vast.