in performance: festival of the bluegrass (saturday)

Town Mountain. From left: Zach Smith, Jesse Langlais, Bobby Britt, Robert Greer and Phil Barker. Photo by Sandlin Gaither.

Which acts took top honors last night at the Festival of the Bluegrass? Why, the same ones that have been headlining the event’s Saturday evening slots for decades.

The festival’s reigning kings of Saturday night remain the members of Town Mountain, the Asheville, North Carolina troupe that inherited headlining status three years ago. Though the band plays locally, usually in rock clubs, once or twice during the year, the festival is where Town Mountain’s continued artistic and performance growth is best revealed. That was certainly the case last night.

Much of its late evening set leaned heavily on new material from the forthcoming “New Freedom Blues” album due out in October. But what fascinated most was how the songs placed into renewed focus already familiar strengths. Case in point was guitarist/vocalist Robert Greer. What “Witch Trials in Arizona” and “Lazy River” brought out were elements of traditional high lonesome color in his singing mixed with a winding, country vigor that enforced the song’s storylines. These qualities have always been there, but last night’s performance, together with the fresh compositions, strongly underscored them.

Then there was the general clarity and taste that the rest of the band brought to the set, especially fiddler Bobby Britt, the chief engineer of Town Mountain’s instrumental drive both in his own dizzying solos and in the more subtle colors he supplied under the leads of older music like the band’s popular cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”

The other Saturday night special was The Seldom Scene, the band that bequeathed headlining status to Town Mountain. With roots to the festival that are longer than the tenures of all the band’s current members, it’s easy to dismiss The Seldom Scene as being a bit long in the tooth. To be honest, some of the band’s sets at the festival over the years have been. Not so, last night. Fortified by new banjoist/fiddler Ron Stewart (whose many previous credits include an extended stay with JD Crowe and the New South), the Scene sailed through an early evening set highlighted by the giddy waltz within “Through the Bottom of the Glass” and the show opening blues of “Muddy Waters” (tunes that reach back to the band’s mid ‘70s catalog) as well as a starkly dramatic reading of Merle Travis’ coal mining requiem “Dark as a Dungeon” by guitarist/vocalist Dudley Connell that, amazingly, had some audience members dancing.

The highlight in a set that continually honored the past without succumbing to it was the 1974 instrumental “Appalachian Rain” that Stewart played as a light, spacious bit of darting blues dedicated to the tune’s composer, the now-retired founding Scene banjoist Ben Eldridge.

The acts before and between the two Saturday chieftains were opposites of each other in style, intent and delivery.

Staunch traditionalist Larry Sparks proudly championed bluegrass’ gospel and country heritage during a late afternoon set. “I don’t have to change,” he told the crowd, referencing a 50-plus year career that began during the final years of the Stanley Brothers. “And I won’t.”

With that, Sparks’ strong-as-oak tenor singing ignited “New Highway” and bolstered the a capella “I Don’t Regret a Mile,” both title tunes to late career gospel albums that revealed an unwavering resilience to contemporary intrusion. Ditto for Sparks’ country-esque hit “John Deere Tractor” and the wildfire instrumental “Katie Hill” that illuminated the giddy stride of his Lonesome Ramblers band.

The odd act out was Nashville’s Hogslop String Band, which played between Seldom Scene and Town Mountain. Versed as a square dance group and promoted as an old-time string band, the quartet seemed in search of a sort of primitive traditionalism that groups like Old Crow Medicine Show have efficiently adopted in recent decades.

There was an obvious disconnect in presenting that mission last night, however. Clawhammer banjoist Daniel Binkley and especially fiddler Kevin Martin were up for that challenge, offering an earnest, edgy drive to tunes like “Hell’s Broke Loose in Georgia” and “Greasy Coat.” But Casey “Pickle” McBride, who played the single-string washtub bass, spent much of his stage time boasting of his inebriated state, which seemed to, at times, understandably perturb his bandmates. “Boy, you’re making a fool of yourself,” remarked guitarist/vocalist Gabriel Kelley at one point. Yes, he was.

In an evening dominated by artful and decisive bluegrass command, this set was amateur hour.

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