Aiken Bluegrass Festival 2014
May 9-10, 2014 | Aiken, SC
Photos & Review by Tyler Davis
There are a few things you need to know before attending a bluegrass festival. First; wear comfortable shoes. Unless you are physically unable, you WILL be up and dancing at some point through out the weekend, I can almost guarantee it. Second; prepare to see nothing but peachy, smiling faces. The pickin’ of those strings up on stage bring out a friendly, child-like spirit among all the attendees. Also, don’t be alarmed when some of those friendly faces are seen dancing like a wicked spirit has taken hold of them, that’s just the bluegrass boogie deep down in their soul. Lastly, bring your family. If you don’t have kids, bring your parents, friends and neighbors. Experiences like this can create lifelong friendships and lasting impressions. We were all a part of one big happy family for a weekend in Aiken, South Carolina.
The Aiken Bluegrass festival celebrated its tenth anniversary this May. The festival has outgrown its location more than a few times, and was making its first trial run on the Aiken Fairgrounds. A choice location for a festival of this size, the fairgrounds made for an accessible and welcoming venue. Air conditioned bathrooms took away the porta-potty problems dealt with at most festivals. For those choosing to camp, primitive, RV and car camping were easily located right outside the festival grounds.
The spirit of 8,500 bluegrass fans was reflected by the charitable donations to STAR Riding, a theraputic horseback riding program that benefits disabled adults, children and veterans. I spoke with ABF’s director Christian Schaumann about the charity. “We’ve been honored and proud to work with this charity for the past 10 years,” Schaumann said. All admission and beer sales were donated directly, raising as much as $30,000 for the program. “I don’t do this to make money,” Schaumann said, “I do this because I love the music, and how it brings people together in support of such a worthy cause.”
The ABF was slated for an excellent collection of musicians for 2014. Some of the best and hottest names in traditional and progressive bluegrass had crowds on their feet. I asked Christian about how this impressive lineup came together. He said, “I asked myself, who would I want to see?” It seems our interests fall right in line with greats like; Larry and Jenny Keel, The Travelin’ McCourys, Keller Williams, Jeff Austin, Greensky Bluegrass, many of my favorites formed a hand-picked line up that would be hard to beat. With musicians of this caliber, the jam sessions and sit in were sure to be second to none.
Flat-picking legend Larry Keel and his lovely wife Jenny were joined by banjo man Cliff Lee. The trio were sharing the stage when we walked up Friday afternoon, playing soft-spoken melodies stitched together with exceptional picking on all parts. The sun began its descent into the horizon as this talented trio dazzled the Friday festival goers lucky enough to get out and witness this early weekend set. Assertive, appreciative glances are exchanged by Larry and Jenny as they harmonize their way through each tune. Lee and Keel exchanged in several pickin’ battles, never missing a note. Quite impressive stuff from a group overflowing with talent and know-how.
A quick run by the campsite for supplies, (beer, bugspray, a bite to eat) proved to last longer than we had anticipated. Upon returning to the stage area, Asheville’s Town Mountain was on the tail end of a blazing set of bluegrass. A more traditional sound, a 5-piece string band playing hard, fast tunes evoking a sound of bluegrass played a generation ago. These boys play bluegrass. They play it well, hard, fast and give no apologies for being some of the best at what they do. They make Western North Carolina proud. The crowd was up and dancing; kids grandmas, even the puppy dogs were here to have a good time.
It came time for my most anticipated show, Greensky Bluegrass. They have become a staple on many festival scenes, playing scorching shows to crowds across the nation. Hailing from Kalamazoo, Michigan, this progressive grass quintet shakes the rafters of venues small and large, touring almost non-stop.
The Greensky boys stopped in Aiken to play to a lively crowd of eager fans. This band has found it within themselves to push the boundaries of what it means to be just simple musicians. Greensky Bluegrass’ exceptional picking, spirited songwriting and collage of harmonies and melodies are all packaged together, making for one unreal musical experience. These guys like to have fun, and you can tell they are enjoying themselves on stage playing the music they love. Their sound is tough to categorize, but is built off of Mike Devol’s upright bass. Dave Bruzza both keeps the rhythm alive and also tears the strings off of his 6 string guitar. Mike Bont handles the banjo shredding and on the opposite end, Anders Beck slides up and down his dobro, adding a distorted gritty awesomeness to their sound. Finally, Paul Hoffman wraps things up with his outrageous mandolin picking. His solos and leads don’t dominate the tune playing behind him, but his notes gracefully dance among the rest of the band bringing them together in a perfect blend, creating a bluegrass feast for the senses. One of my favorite parts about Greensky’s music is their ability to jam. Every member of the band has their moment to shine. A 4-minute long, spaced out solo on the dobro will make you think, “Wait, what is this?” This ain’t your grandpas front porch pickin’. This is newgrass, and I’m addicted. The band played tunes spanning many of their albums. The set included a Larry Keel sit-in and closed with a hellacious ‘Midnight Rider’. The fans loved it. The band loved it.
Another thing about a spring/summer music festival; you’re not going to be sleeping in much. That is unless you arrive in a nicely cooled RV. The sun comes up, and inside that tent you’re peacefully sleeping in the temperature hits 100 degrees by 8 AM. It will get you up and out. After a few chugs of water and some bacon and eggs cooked on the trusty Coleman camp stove we proceeded to have a bloody mary and talk about the day ahead. At noon, Whitewater Ramble kicked the day off. We could hear the band start from the stage, time to make a move.
Once inside, we were soothed by the sweet sound of Jerry Garcia tunes. Larry Does Jerry, some what of a challenge issued to Larry Keel by Christian Schaumann. “Larry played my wedding, and we’ve remained close friends over the years” says Schaumann. “My vision was to shake Keel up a bit.” He and Keel discussed it and agreed, he wouldn’t just cover Garcia’s songs, but honor and respect the tunes and play them the way Larry Keel would play them, “Ripping and roaring the way Larry plays,” Schaumann recalled.
After a nice nap in an ENO Hammock, the Travelin’ McCourys were taking the stage. I had previously seen them once, in support of Yonder Mountain String Band in Asheville. This set went on to prove to me that they are nothing short of outstanding. These fine gentleman all have the soul of bluegrass running through their blood and it shows. Ronnie McCoury’s likeness to his father Del is uncanny. His vocals echo the classic tenor voice of Del’s. Upon their introduction, the McCoury’s launched into a breakdown fast enough to make your head spin. Ronnie’s mandolin pickin’ is flat out inspirational. Fiddle player Jason Carter keeps things on an even keel. Speaking of keel, Larry joined the band for the entirety of their set. A highlight for me was the tune ‘Lonesome, On’ry and Mean’ but every minute of the set was enjoyable. These guys give a nod of respect to their bluegrass elders, while staying on the frontline of the new grass movement.
Now we move to the part of the day I like to call Keller Fest. Keller Williams began his afternoon with a solo set, jumping across the stage and looping funky guitar and bass riffs. Throw in a basic drum beat and add a dancing crowd, you’ve got yourself a Keller Williams show. Keller loves to play with other musicians and that’s obviously reciprocated. First joined by banjo king Danny Barnes of The Here and Now (Jeff Austin’s new band.) The duo played a few songs, complete with Keller’s custom vocal trumpet. The sky crept toward dusk as the Keels joined Keller on stage. After releasing an album together, the three musicians obviously have a conversational relationship on stage. Keller and the Keels delighted our ears with the likes of Tom Petty’s ‘Breakdown.’ The crowd was showing all the collaborations the same love they showed us. Asking Christian about how he planned the schedule, he put it like this; “I told the musicians to play like it was a living room jam session with all their best friends and players. The different jam sessions with Keller just rolled out organically.” Jeff Austin, recently departed from Yonder Mountain String Band, was the next to join Keller for a jam session. A favorite album of mine is Grateful Grass, which featured Keller, Austin, Keith Mosely of String Cheese Incident and others. This was a slightly more bluegrass version of that set up. A lot of Dead was played on this eventful weekend and for that the crowd was for sure grateful. Full darkness had finally set in as the Travelin’ McCoury’s took the stage for a second time on the day. Keller and the McCoury’s mesh together nicely as well, belting out classics and covers anyone could dance to. Songs of the Appalachians filled the night air as the festival began to come to a close.
One final band to take charge of the crowd was Jeff Austin and the Here and Now. Stuff had hit the proverbial fan with the announcement of Jeff Austin’s departure from Yonder. Fans either love him or hate him, but think what you want, it was his time to move on. It was clearly evident that Austin has gotten over the initial shock and empty feeling of leaving your original band. Jeff Austin is unstoppable. A man with an appetite for fiery improvisational mandolin picking was hot and hitting all the notes. It was an excellent way to send Aiken Bluegrass Festival out with a bang. It wasn’t over yet, however. Not before the Aiken Bluegrass Ball took place. New to the festival this year, the all out jam session had the entire festival on their feet including Keller Williams, Jeff Austin and members of his band, Larry Keel, members of the McCoury’s and Town Mountain. It was a sight to behold, never seen so many talented string players on a stage at once. A true spectacle, a highlight of the festival and the perfect way to end an awesome weekend in South Carolina.
If an opportunity presents itself to go to a bluegrass festival, take my advice and GO. It’s a once in a lifetime experience to share with friends and family. As previously stated, if you can’t go with your family, you’ll find one. This kind of music has an intrinsic spirit about it that brings out the best of people. Bluegrass isn’t just a music genre, it’s a lifestyle. Anyone can join, just make sure you bring your dancing shoes.