Where else but at a bluegrass festival will you find the headlining band conducting a live survey of which audience faction – the Baptists or the Methodists – can hoist the most cups of beers for a toast.
For the record, the Methodists won out as the 42nd Festival of the Bluegrass got underway at the Kentucky Horse Park last night, but only because Lonesome River Band guitarist and co-vocalist Brandon Rickman goaded then on more. With an audience participation interlude this reverential, one couldn’t help but wonder what the tone will be for the gospel performances that will close the festival on Sunday morning.
For the Lonesome River Band, the set was a homecoming of sorts. Festival regulars absent from the lineup last year due to scheduling conflicts, banjo great Sammy Shelor and what is easily one of the veteran band’s strongest lineups returned with an assured set built around a roster of expert players (including mandolinist and Strunk native Randy Jones, who doubled as a commanding high tenor vocalist) and a setlist that leaned heavily on the fine 2014 album Turn of a Dime.
While tunes like Teardrop Express offered a checklist of requisite bluegrass woes (“heartache, trouble and pain”), the band continues to be driven by a level of musicianship that stressed ensemble feel over solo grandstanding. Even the jam Shelor instigated during Jack Up the Jail provided plenty of room to showcase fiddler Mike Hartgrove before the instrumentation giddily shifted gears.
Chris Jones and the Nightdrivers preceded with a set that stressed a hushed, husky vocal style akin to the singing of Gordon Lightfoot and a sense of stylistic variety also shared by the two Central Kentucky bands – The Velvet Blue and The Wooks – that opened the evening.
Jones and company opted for a country accent for much of its original material. Some tunes were decidedly contemporary by bluegrass standards (Lonely Comes Easy, the title tune to the group’s 2013 album). Others revealed a more vintage cast like the C.W. McCall spoken verse trucking song Wolf Creek Pass that closed the set. The biggest curiosity however, was a delicate and exact reading of Edelweiss that became an exhibition of brilliant tone by mandolinist Mark Stoffel.
The Wooks, with Frankfort favorite Kati Penn sitting in on fiddle, was by far the most progressively minded troupe of the night with a set split between jam-savvy originals (Turtle in the Creek) and covers of staples by Robert Earl Keen (The Front Porch Song), Bruce Springsteen (a take on Atlantic City that owed more to The Band’s 1993 remake than the Boss’ original) and the Grateful Dead (Franklin’s Tower).
The Velvet Blue asserted comparative traditionalism with a set-closing My Old Kentucky Home delivered as a weepy mountain ballad. Though purposely melancholy, it still got the festival crowd – Baptists and Methodists alike – on their feet.