Aiken Bluegrass Festival
Aiken, SC – May 13-14, 2016
Eric Rayburn Photography and Shelly Swanger Photography
Family is a special thing.
Outside of the family we are born into some of us are lucky enough to find others with similar loves and interests, a group of people with a deep love for something, be it motorcycles, model airplanes or music.
But in the case of the Aiken Bluegrass Festival, held May 13-14 in Aiken, SC, family is not only the core of the festival, it’s also it’s future. Founded in 2004, by Steve Groat, an Aiken horseman and steeplechase enthusiast, the event is held as a fund raiser for a local therapeutic horseback riding program. The program, Great Oak Aiken Therapeutic Riding Center, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping individuals with disabilities improve their quality of life through safe interaction with horses. All of the proceeds of the festival help to fund the center. When Steve died of cancer in 2012, his daughter Molly and her husband Christian Schaumann, took the reins, although Christian had been managing since 2007. They run the festival with a care and love that can only come from it being a passion project of a loving father. It is a tribute to them that artists ask to come back year after year.
This year’s line-up featured a combination of established groups- Fruition, Larry Keel Experience, Keller and the Keels, The Josh Daniel/Mark Schimick Project, Gipsy Moon, Blackwater Deep, and Doug and the Henrys along with one-off collaborations- The Paul Hoffman/Anders Beck Quartet with Travis Book of the Infamous Stringdusters and Jay Cobb Anderson of Fruition, Keel’s Aiken All Stars with Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, Keller Williams, Hoffman and Beck, Anderson and Mimi Naja of Fruition, Greg Burns and Friends with Kellen Asebroek and Anderson of Fruition and Beck fronted by Greensky Bluegrass’ tour manager and Front of House, Greg Burns on bass.
Schaumann said he deliberately picked artists who would compliment each other and he encouraged them to sit around and socialize and play together. The backstage area was alive with performers having impromptu jam sessions and telling stories. Many of these people have known each other for years and this lent the event an air of a large family reunion.
Put simply, at any given moment, no matter who was on stage, you had a chance of anyone walking out with an instrument, plugging in and playing.
Stand out moments on stage include Vince Herman sitting in with Nederland, Colorado’s Gipsy Moon (Herman’s son, Silas, plays mandolin in the band), the phenomenal All-Stars set which included up to 10 performers on stage at once and the emotional closing set by Fruition. The Portland, Oregon band made it’s debut at ABF in what is only the band’s third show in South Carolina and I think it’s safe to say they made some new fans as the crowd egged them on to a three encore set that ended with artists from all different bands, friends and festival staff singing “Meet me on the Mountain” on stage together.
On Friday night, there was a special reunion show of the Mountain Express Band a regional favorite from the 1990s. The band dissolved in 2000 after a career that saw them open for Widespread Panic among others. ABF marked their return, much to the delight of a devoted contingent in the audience.
The festival included carnival rides, games and a safe environment for the young ones as the older patrons seems to look out for them throughout the venue. Many of the patrons have been coming for years as the festival has grown and changed locations and has brought more world-class music to the town of roughly 30,000.
Make no mistake, this is not a traditional bluegrass festival. If you want only strict covers of Flatt and Scruggs by guys in suits you should look elsewhere. But if you want a family-friendly event that provides a chill environment with one-of-kind experience, then the Aiken Bluegrass Festival should be on your radar.