in performance: festival of the bluegrass

NewTown: Jr Williams, Kati Penn, Travis Anderson and Mitchell Cannon.

It doesn’t matter how glorious the music becomes or how blissful the outdoor setting might be. Being a patron at a music festival in the rain can be an exercise in misery.

Given Friday’s near ceaseless showers, some compromises became necessary for a visit to the Kentucky Horse Park for the Festival of the Bluegrass.

That meant a later than usual arrival time (apologies to evening opener Turning Ground) and an earlier than expected departure (sorry, headliner IIIrd Tyme Out). But the climate control also brought about an unanticipated opportunity to view exclusively two 80 minute sets by a pair of Kentucky acts that made braving the elements worthwhile.

When Dave Adkins took to the stage around 7:45 p.m., the rains were subdued but steady, so the Elkhorn City singer faced an uphill battle. Full of country boy vigor and a deep tenor vocal command that sported a gutbucket bottom end, the singer presented himself as something of a vintage country jukebox.

His 18-song set may have been bluegrass in its instrumental design. But the repertoire went reeling through vintage country eras beginning with an animated take on the 1965 Harlan Howard-penned Lefty Frizzell hit “(She’s) Gone, Gone, Gone.” It quickly worked backward. The hit parade then hit the ‘50s (Roy Acuff’s “Once More”) and even the ‘40s (Bill Monroe’s take on the gospel confessional “Cryin’ Holy Unto the Lord”).

But the lead inspiration in Adkins’ set was clearly Merle Haggard. Adkins went to the well for three late ‘60s Hag staples – “Sing Me Back Home,” “Today I Started Loving You Again” and, best of all, the giddiest take on “The Fugitive” you’re likely to hear without electric instrumentation.

There were a few instances where Adkins’ sheer jubilance got the better of him, making his booming vocals seem a touch overcooked. But his good-natured performance demeanor and expansive understanding of making vintage country songs thrive in a traditional bluegrass setting nicely compensated.

The rains subsided when NewTown followed with a radically different jukebox strategy. Like Adkins, the band – fronted by Lexington-based fiddler Kati Penn and husband, banjoist and co-vocalist Jr Williams – didn’t favor original material. But NewTown’s collective ear for outside music has proven especially keen in establishing its considerable stylistic, instrumental and vocal dexterity. Curiously, the source material came largely from a team of contemporary writers led by Lawrence County Americana sensation Tyler Childers for a sound that often possessed a traditional air. And by traditional, we mean music that it bypassed bluegrass’ regional roots in favor of the music’s overseas ancestry.

There were numerous instances Friday evening when Penn’s fiddle lines exhibited an antique and almost Celtic flavor. There were even more song examples (Martin Gilmore’s “Laura Lee” being one) where ancient imagery boldly upheld the rustic instrumentation. No wonder NewTown’s most recent album was titled “Old World.”

The defining moments of the 16-song set came early when Penn and Williams guided NewTown through three masterful Childers tunes intercut with a sublime take on the late Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” (one of the more human snapshots of Ireland offered by an American songsmith). The brewing destitution in the aptly titled “Hard Times,” sung with chilling candor by Williams, was quickly established by a Childers-penned checklist at the song’s onset (“I bought a house at the mouth of the holler, a ring at the pawn shop and a crib for the kid”). Then came the Clark tune, followed by Penn’s dizzying take on “The Crows and the Jakes” and the sobering, ancient tones of “Harlan Road” (which served as the title tune to a 2016 NewTown album)

Fortifying all this was an ensemble sound that revealed itself though taught, efficient instrumental breaks until “Gonna Take a Train” allowed all five band members extended solos that veered outside bluegrass convention into more jazz-like fields of improvisation.

It was a splendid outing by a Kentucky band that sounds more engaging and adventurous every year at the Festival of the Bluegrass.

With that, we bid adieu for the evening. Good thing, too. Within minutes of Newtown’s stage exit, the skies opened again.



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