in performance: festival of the bluegrass (friday)

The Cleverlys. Clockwise from top left: DVD Cleverly, Cub Cleverly, Sock Cleverly, Ricky Lloyd and Digger Cleverly.

You got the sense the kids staged a takeover as the Festival of the Bluegrass’ Friday night lineup got underway at the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. That’s an exaggeration, of course. But with usual Friday headliners Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out unable to take part this year, the festival took the almost radical step of allowing a local band to top the bill – not just that, but a still somewhat-young troupe with strong regional and mounting national followings.

The band is question last night was The Wooks, the Central Kentucky string outfit with myriad inspirations, many of which were placed on full performance display. Though the Wooks have been recording with former JD Crowe protégé Rickey Wasson in Clay City of late, much of its set was devoted to its still-popular and progressively-minded debut album “Little Circles.” The fare shifted from the brisk sweep of “Out of Mine” (which set the pace for much of the performance) to the woozier, waltz-inclined sway of “County Girl” to a cover of “Atlantic City” that owed more to The Band’s mandolin-driven 1993 version than to Bruce Springsteen’s somber 1982 original.

Fortified by the instrumental drive of its two newest members, mandolinist Harry Clark and banjoist George Wagman, the Wooks began previewing new music in the middle of the set through tunes geared alternately to jam-style accessibility and traditional finesse.

The Wooks still lean heavily on cover tunes to flesh out their sets. Last night, some worked better than others. The traditionally inclined “Down the Road” (a staple of Wasson’s tenure with Crowe) and a spirited take on John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream” fit nicely within the band’s cross-generational matrix. But a few Grateful Dead-leaning works – in particular, “Franklin’s Tower” – seemed a little static aside from a durable vocal lead by bassist Roddy Puckett. Though still a young band, The Wooks have matured well past the point of having to rely on such overly familiar jam band staples to flesh out setlists.

Before that was one of the festival’s all-time great curiosities, the Arkansas pseudo-family band known as The Cleverlys. The quintet that continually referred to itself as a trio was, on many levels, a comedy act that translated contemporary pop, rock and even hip hop tunes into bluegrass excursions. As an example of its irreverence, The Cleverlys opened the set with an instrumental that revealed considerable chops among all five members followed by a brief, choral-style salute to Bill Monroe. Then the band jumped off the stylistic cliff by playing “Gangnam Style” complete with Korean verses and beatbox-style percussion.

In the 90 minutes that followed, The Cleverlys provided string band reworkings of the Blackstreet/Dr. Dre mashup “No Diggity,” Yes’ 1983 comeback hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” and Beck’s ‘90s moodpiece “Loser.” Curiously, guitarist/frontman Digger Cleverly led the band through a straight-faced version of Herb Pedersen’s “Wait a Minute,” a tune long ago adopted as a performance centerpiece by The Seldom Scene.

“You must have been starved for that,” Cleverly remarked after the song concluded without jokes or a drastic stylistic makeover. “Especially after all that junk we’ve been playing.”

The elders had their say when the evening began with the return of Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time. The Lawrence County native, making his first festival appearance in nearly two decades, went right for the narrative jugular of bluegrass – meaning he sang a lot of songs about death. There was plaintive and poetic death (“Where the Mountain Lillies Grow”), remorseful death that even spiritual salvation can’t redeem (“Pud Marcum’s Hangin’”), the metaphorical death of traditional country music (“Murder on Music Row”) and, at its most extreme, the death of a chicken destined for a skillet (“Yardbird”).

While much of his material – and, at times, delivery – generously leaned to country as much as bluegrass, Cordle proved an amiable and open frontman, whether he was delivering the hapless road reverie “Highway 40 Blues” or celebrating string music’s communal disposition with the new “Bluegrass Junction.” Both were light, inviting works highlighted by sterling dobro playing from Kim Gardner that pulled Cordle and company above the levels of murderous elegance that inhabit many of his songs like dinner guests.

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