“It’s another hot one, isn’t it?”
That was the observation of Town Mountain’s Robert Greer as yesterday afternoon’s temps shot near the ‘90s at the Kentucky Horse Park for the Festival of the Bluegrass. The heat may have sent many patrons scrambling for the shade, but the sounds served up for the remaining faithful combined for a remarkable showcase of two bands representing two string music generations.
The ascension of Town Mountain as one of the festival’s premiere acts was demonstrated in a set that emphasized the North Carolina’s quintet’s obvious strengths – specifically, a rugged ensemble charge (showcased at once during the show opening Tick on a Dog), ample stylistic dexterity (the honky tonk drive of Whiskey With Tears) and individual firepower (Greer’s joyous vocals, Phil Barker’s quick-witted mandolin picking).
Curiously, the ingenuity of Town Mountain’s set came down to two cover tunes. The first, the Grateful Dead by way of Johnny Cash classic Big River was all jovial country reinvention while the Cash by way of Sting gem I Hung My Head, with Lawrence County bassist Adam Chaffins on lead vocals, ignited the country core of a pop nugget, transforming it into a woeful Western epic that equaled classics like The Long Black Veil.
Yesterday afternoon also sported the return of The Seldom Scene, a festival mainstay and, until last year, the event’s Saturday evening headliner (Town Mountain now has that distinction). But with the addition of banjoist Rickie Simpkins on banjo, the band added a new dimension to an already diverse sounding unit, not to mention a welcome boost of new artistic blood.
The band’s three vocalists – guitarist Dudley Connell, dobroist Fred Travers and mandolinist Lou Reid – boldly spelled out the range of the current Scene lineup. Connell offered a sobering and solemn reading of Blue Diamond Mine while Travers’ high tenor singing brought new life to What Am I Doin’ Hangin’ ‘Round (a tune that reaches back to the band’s 1972 debut album, Act 1). But Reid pretty much owned the show with a galvanizing vocal lead on the plaintive ballad I Couldn’t Find My Walkin’ Shoes, a wild harmonic wail under Connell during the tipsy waltz From the Bottom of the Glass and nimble mandolin runs during a white hot Sugarfoot Rag that sent Simpkins over to fiddle. The combined firepower suggest a hearty renaissance for The Seldom Scene may be at hand.
In between the two titan bands during the afternoon was Missouri native Valerie Smith and her group Liberty Pike. Smith took perhaps the boldest chances of any act on the festival bill in terms of repertoire and sheer vocal stamina, both of which reflected plenty of genre hopping.
The set list was hit and miss. Some of the curiosities of her show, like George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun, proved an ill fit. But other, more extreme choices such as the 1975 Jessie Colter country hit I’m Not Lisa revealed a surprisingly fertile framework for strong harmonizing. For her wildest choice, Smith and bassist Tom Gray (curiously, a founding member of The Seldom Scene) soared out of bluegrass altogether for the jazzy stride of Buzzed that made for a fun and audacious festival diversion.