The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival was on July 17 – 21 this year. This was my second trip there…last year I didn’t post a review until November, which meant I didn’t do a very thorough job of it. This year, the festival occurred during the middle of our Maine vacation, so I got to come back to the beach and relax another week. I headed out on Wednesday, stopping by at the house in Brookline to pick up the camping gear, etc. It was 101 in my driveway, according to the car temperature. And it didn’t get any warmer in Oak Hill, NY either. More on that later.
This was my bluegrass pickin’ summer camp for adults (although lots of kids attend, too). Fortunately, I had run into Mike O’Brien at work a week earlier and he offered to save me a spot at their campsite. I think there were about 30 people there from the 3 O’Brien families plus friends, so what’s one more?? It was certainly a big family atmosphere, reminding me of my youth with my cousins, but with music! I felt welcomed right in to the crowd and sweated through setting up my tent while everyone was waiting for the O’Cousins to do their Open Mike set in the dance tent (officially the Catskill Stage, but no one calls it that).
Here’s the campsite:
The jams happened under the white tent with some spillover to the blue one. 🙂 Thankfully we were along the east side of the farm near the woods, so we were somewhat protected from the sun and heat in the morning, until about 10 anyway. However, on Thursday morning we were jamming (and since I was just learning mandolin, I was using that) and I forgot that my guitar was in the tent until it was too late. It was burning hot in the case and this caused the glue to loosen on the bridge and start to pull up! Aaaargh. I loosened the strings and opened the case to let it cool down under the tent before playing it again later that night.
Every morning started with coffee and a jam session. Someone would just start playing and then others slowly but surely joined in. A most excellent way to start the day. Usually this went on until noon or so. I almost lost a hand playing mandolin, trying to keep up with Joe while he played Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.
It was so hot (95 + humidity) that I didn’t really feel like eating anything either, much less walking to the concert stages. Certainly going to the big stage (which is mostly in the sun, although there are some shade awnings up) was not going to be in the cards. I think I lost 2 lbs. every time I went into the porta-potty, too.
Every night ended with another session under the tent. At about 10:20 pm the first night (Wed), we got told by the authorities we were too loud since we were officially in the quiet camping area. Boo! Maybe it was the rowdy “Jambalaya”?? A fellow named Brad had drifted over to our campsite to listen and offered up his site, which was just over the line into Pickers Paradise, so we all trudged over there for a bit more hootin’. On Thursday and Friday nights we kept it quieter in our own site, which was challenging. Anyway, the dance tent was louder than us on most nights until about 1 or 2 am, so sue me! On Saturday night, we just played normally and it was fine.
Left to right: Steve, Ellen, Dave, Judy, Mike, Rick, Flan
Left to right: Mike, Rick, Flan, Joe, Steve, Ellen, Judy
A nice O’Brien tradition was to end the night with “Good Night, Irene”. The “Leadbelly version” I was told, which ends with “I’ll get you in my dreams.” None of that wimpy Pete Seeger stuff!! haha. On Saturday night, the O’Briens sang a song for their older brother, Don, who had passed at age 29, that was very moving.
There was an excellent line-up of acts, a good mix of the old guard and the up and coming bands. Here’s what I saw:
Wednesday night. The O’Cousins – O’Brien cousins Flan, Brendan, and Liam did 2 songs at the open mike. People really got into “The Weight” and we played it a few times at the camp site too. I also heard it one night when I was walking around the camp sites.
Thursday. Really too hot to do much during the day except sweat. Went up the High Meadow stage for dinner around 6 and listened to Milkdrive, the Deadly Gentlemen, sat at the charging station and listened to Devil Makes Three, then back up to the stage for Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Williams is quirky to say the least.
Friday. Made it to 23 String Band at 1 pm in the dance tent. These guys were awesome! Check ’em out if they come to your area. One mike to huddle around is always good. I went for food, then came back for the end of I Draw Slow, a great Irish band playing more traditional Americana (I suppose). After that I headed over to the masters tent (a.k.a. Creekside) since it was too hot to be anywhere else. There I saw Nora Jane Struthers and up and coming band, then got a seat right in front for Milkdrive and then the Travelin’ McCourys. In the past, this tent was supposed to be for ‘workshops’ but this year it was more just another, more intimate stage. The McCoury’s were the only ones who tried to encourage questions – they got a lot of tune requests but finally someone asked a real question about Rob’s banjo, which he got from his father-in-law. He said he put 4000 hours into it. Ronnie and Rob also answered a question about their kids and their interest in music.
I went back to the campsite after this to chill out – not that it was possible in the heat. I actually took a shower in the gravity shower they set up. Let me tell you, that water was hot, too!! I played a little guitar, which is why I also missed Della Mae on the main stage. We had just seen them at Passim’s so I wasn’t too broken up about it.
I did make it back for Del McCoury and the Infamous Stringdusters, both fabulous in different ways. Del held down the fort with some classic numbers, such as Vincent Black Lightning and Rain and Snow to close it out. (I swear Ronnie sounds more like him every year, too!!) He was bantering with the crowd and having a good ole time. The Stringdusters just tore up it from beginning to end – fast and faster was the order of the day.
Saturday. After the usual morning jam session, I headed to lunch at caught the last part of the Lonely Heartstrings Band. They are one of the bands that Berklee seems to be churning out these days. The name comes from them covering Beatles tunes, which they did, but they also did some straight ahead bluegrass. Gabe Hirschfield on banjo is one to look out for. They did a Scruggs classic, which I can’t remember right now, which featured him. The vocals were strong, which is the only way you can get away with Beatles in bluegrass style.
It wasn’t as hot as the last 2 days, thankfully. I went back to camp for a while to rest up, then made my way back up the hill to see Tim O’Brien(m) with Bryan Sutton(g), Noam Pikelny(b), Casey Dressen(f), and Mike Bub(bs). Fairly straight foward set – I even noticed Thile checking them out in the VIP seating. Jerry Douglas hopped on stage for the last 2 numbers. After dinner, it was non-stop music.
Up first, Thile/Daves duo began the set with their usual Monroe tune, Evening Prayer Blues. From there they went into the standard repertoire they have done on their album (Rabbit in a Log, Sophronie, Loneliness and Desperation, Sleep with One Eye Open, etc) along with a couple of tunes from Tim Sparks and one they did for a documentary, called Richmond (which tagged on Soldier’s Joy). Fiddle tune request time was Scotland (A), Whiskey Before Breakfast (D), and Big Sciota (G). You can find the video here. Brilliant as always.
Next was the Jerry Douglas band, a.k.a. the Earls of Leceister, which does music of Flatt and Scruggs from the 50’s. Unexpected, but refreshing take on it. It seemed like a lot of people left the main stage to go see Rushad Eggleston at the dance tent. Video posted on youtube.
I had never seen the Carolina Chocolate Drops before, although I have a couple of their albums. Wow! What a show! Not only musically satisfying but also visually interesting. The crowd went crazy for them, too. Highly recommended. Here they are doing “Jackson“.
The Magnificent Late-Night Supersonic All-Stars was anchored by Tim O’Brien and included the base group of Thile, Bales, Douglas, Pikelny, Cushman, Driessen. Dom Flemmons from the Drops came back to hold down the fort on “Mama Don’t ‘low No Music Playing Round Here”. This gave every one a chance to stretch out, including him on harmonica. Thile did the Band version of Cripple Creek. Tim brought out Nora Jane Struthers to do Won’t You Sing with Me and another Hot Rize tune. I Draw Slow made an appearance for 2 songs. Courtney from Della Mae played a duet of I Am a Pilgrim with Bryan Sutton (Bryan mentioned that Tony Rice was not doing well…) Kimber Ludiker and Brittany Haas came out to lead Wheel Hoss. The highlight of the night might have been Rushad leading them on Mississippi Sawyer and I Peed on a Bird – pretty funny. Video here.
After that, we went back to the camp site for our own late night all star jam until about 3 am. Of course, the fie alarm sirens blasted everyone awake around 5 am!! By 8, it was time to pack up and leave another Grey Fox behind and return to civilization. My first stop was Starbucks on the turnpike, and I listened as I drove, to the audio I had recorded from the various sets I attended. Good stuff and kept me awake. After dumping off the camping gear at home, I headed back to Maine for the rest of the week.
Until next year…
Check out my tumblr for more pics of Grey Fox 2013.