Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival Review

We knew a couple of things going into this year’s Grey Fox; the line-up was perhaps the strongest it has ever been (which is saying something) and the weather was probably going to be hot and dry.  Correct on both accounts; the 2012 Grey Fox was a festival to remember, a truly joyful time held under mostly hot blue sky listening to the finest in acoustic music.  In fact there was so much music at times that it became very difficult to choose what to see and some really tasty stuff just had to be missed.  That was my only complaint — sometimes I had to miss something really good, otherwise it was a perfect festival, so well run and so much fun to be at.

While the majority of festival goers arrive on Wednesday to set up camp and renew friendships, my travelin’ picker and bud, Chas and I had to work so an early Thursday arrival was the best we could do.  That said, the drive was fantastic, blasting through winding high country farm roads, then arriving to such a well organized and friendly entrance just set the tone for the long weekend.  We found a nice spot in the middle of Pickers Paradise, got set up, started meeting our new neighbors and then went down and caught our musical host — the Dry Branch Fire Squad and their annual bluegrass welcome, great mix of humor and music.  On the way back to camp, strolling along the main strip if you will, my buddy Chas stops for a henna tattoo and we feel under the spell of the Black Dirt Goddess, Ms. Michelle Dawson whose skills in body art and power yoga are unmatched.  Freshly inked we rushed over and caught one of the festival highlights, a workshop with Michael Daves who quickly called up his buddy Chris Thile.  Telling funny stories and blistering their instruments, classic versions of Body and Soul and Sophronie were not to be missed.  Having such a good time there in the Creekside Stage tent we stayed the rest of the afternoon.  Only a fool would walk out on Della Mae. Yes they are beautiful women, but the fact is they can sing and play.  Lead singer Celia Woodsmith has a terrific voice and the fiddle, mando, flatpicking guitar behind her will get your toes moving. The tune My Dixie Darling was my particular favorite.  Original crazy man David Bromberg came next; this is a great example of the musical diversity we enjoyed throughout — a little blues, a little flatpicking and some generally very funny tunes.  We had to cut it short to run up to the High Meadow (main) Stage for more of Thile and Daves.  Well worth it, especially Darling Corey and the great horse-race tune, Molly and Tenbrooks. Hard to say anything new about these two, save to say they are as enjoyable as it gets… speed, showmanship and great old time song selection.  We wanted a change of pace and ran back down the hill to catch the emerging artist showcase featuring the young Americana band, Three Tall Pines.  Great talent, nice folks and they get my vote to be invited back.  Back to the High Meadow Stage for the full Bromberg band, nicely joined by Pete Wernick on Dark Hollow.  The evening’s formal music ended (as there is always picking in the campground until the wee hours) with the Infamous Stringdusters.  The Stringdusters would lay on us one of my top three sets of the festival.  Their brand of music is all attack, all the time.  They don’t stop to introduce folks or take a breath; sometimes they run a tune through the fiddler Jeremy Garrett; sometimes through the insane flatpicking guitar of Andy Falco.  The clean vocals of Travis Book need to be praised.  Covers of Cripple Creek for Levon Helm and the Dead’s He’s Gone took the large crowd to another level of dancing.

Friday was a perfect day.  The day broke with some very light rain sprinkles but they soon were gone and we were down for some festival yoga at the dance tent run as always, by Lucy Weberling and assisted this year by Rick Manning laying down some very tasty mandolin. Feeling refreshed it was off for some music lessons at both the Grassroots tent and the Slow Jam tent.  I need to put in a plug Joe Lurgio from Three Tall Pines, and to fiddlers Brittany Haas and Lauren Rioux for two great days of lessons.  The first music of the day was to sit not ten feel from Mr. Jessie McReynolds and try and soak up some of his still (at 83 years young) powerful talent.  He can still split strings, and is a perfect gentleman, but to hear Old Slewfoot or Are you Missing Me?,  was a true gift.  Speaking of gifts, we ran back up the hill for a tribute to the music of four of our musical giants who passed this year: Everett Lilly, Doug Dillard, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. The big jam hosted by Tim O’Brien was tight and poignant; My Long Journey Home was especially true. Some dinner, then back up the hill for one of the top sets of the festival: Jessie McReynolds doing songs of the Grateful Dead.  Say what you want, but he himself told me that this music just fits what he has always done and he backed that claim up, he understood each tune’s essence and the jammed out version of Franklin’s Tower would have made Jerry proud, I am sure of it.  Talking about legends, this set was immediately followed by Del McCoury and for once, the band played to a beautiful summer sunset (rain the last how many years) and they were hot, as Del sang I’m Blue and Lonesome too.  Next was the toughest call of the festival; High Meadwo (main) Stage had David Grisman; the dance tent had Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers.  I went with the latter, and it was a fantastic choice, one of my top three sets, hysterically funny, musically perfect, Del joined them for three songs (he was dubbed “White Knuckles” I figure on account of his hair), the version of Walking the Dog had the tent screaming. Back up the hill for the Punch Brothers. I thought they were really good, but not great: musically they are as good as it gets, I think the songs themselves could be stronger, but I am sure that many folks will tell you that it was the set of the festival.

Frankly I was a little slow getting up Saturday but got a shower in (as good a $4 as I spent at the festival) and had some more great music lessons, got some good calluses on my fingers and was ready to get up that hill in the hot sun and catch the first of Claire Lynch’s two sets. She is the singing hummingbird, backed by a great band.  That was nicely followed by banjo wizard Tony Trischka and his band Territory (featuring Michael Daves).  Some dinner, some picking at the campsite, caught New York’s Gibson Brothers and the edgy, soulful Steeldrivers set, before one last huge musical night.  Hot Rize with a mid-set change to Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers followed by Mountain Heart.  Hot Rize played across their career but a special nod goes to the version of Radio Boogie.  Red Knuckles had me bent over especially their walk through hits of the late 1960s rock scene played in true in 1950s Western style. Mountain Heart followed and they really only know one way to play, fast and long. Great set.

Sunday, we just futzed around, not wanting to leave.  The festival is so well organized, it is hard not to have a good time.  Met so many people; such a friendly vibe.  Here is a little known fact, they pay to have the Port-O-Potties cleaned three times a day, most festivals do it only once and yes that does make a difference.  The iceeeeeeeeeeeee truck guys always keep the most important things cold. I could go on and on, mostly I lay in wait for July 2013 and four more perfect days.

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