I went to Bristol Rhythm and Roots mainly to see Dawes, Zoe Muth, Christabel & the Jons, and Spirit Family Reunion. Those were the artists I knew I didn't want to miss. But one of the great things about a music festival with 20+ stages and 160+ performers is the exposure to acts that you haven't heard. Here are a few impressive ones that were new to me.
This trio from Austin, TX packs a lot of fun into its vintage sound. Jenny Parrott has an infectious stage presence that extends all the way to the between song banter. Her original songs are unique, witty and tight. She is helped by skilled fiddler Katy Rose Cox and Andrew Austin-Petersen's thumping bass. I'd like to see Shotgun Party again before next year but I think they are calling it quits after this tour, unfortunately. Say it isn't so!
When I came upon this band their set was already in progress. It seemed like they were in the middle of an improvised jam. For a band with six guys on stage they navigated their way back into the song pretty effectively. They went on to play some exciting originals and put some unique twists on bluegrass standards such as High On A Mountain Top. From what I saw I would use the word jamgrass to describe them, with the understanding that there is more substance to this band than that word sometimes conveys. I even picked up the solo CD Pappy Time by Cabinet's Pappy Biondo which has a rootsy, hand-made, old-timey sound that I like a lot.
Sam Quinn and Taiwan Twin
For some reason I never listened to The everybodyfields so I really had no idea what Sam Quinn sounded like. When a band we intended to see at 2pm Sunday didn't interest us, we decided to pop into State Line Bar & Grill to check out Sam Quinn's set. It was packed, as I thought it might be, but we actually found a good vantage point. In hindsight, I almost can't imagine a better a better band to see in a crowded bar room on a lazy September Sunday afternoon than this band Sam Quinn had assembled. I didn't recognize any of his original material, but I liked the way he sang and played bass. I'm always impressed by anyone who can play at slower tempos but still retain the intensity of a faster song. He managed to work in cool, almost honky-tonk like covers of Pink Floyd (Vera), Grateful Dead (Peggy-O) and Neil Young (Transformer Man) that fit right in with the rest of his material. It helped that he had an intuitive pedal steel guitar player with him named Tom Pryor who came up with creative solos at almost every opportunity. I will definitely pay attention to Sam Quinn from now on.
These guys have a good time on stage so it's easy to have a good time right along with them. I like the way they handle traditional tunes like Big Scioty. The best cover of the weekend award definitely goes to the Westbound Rangers for John Hartford's Going to Work In Tall Buildings. There's a slight cheesiness and novelty factor to this band - they have their own theme song and they did a bluegrass take on a pop song by Coldplay - but that should only add to their popularity down the road.
Now onto the bands I originally went to see.
Dawes' two albums so far are brilliantly composed masterpieces, but live they add levels of urgency, umph and looseness to their songs. The impeccable musicianship and harmonies are still there though. Their outdoor set on the Piedmont Stage on Saturday had an energy that the audience easily connected with. I likened the experience to what it must have been like to see Springsteen or The Band in their prime. Dawes' current repertoire consists of one-hundred-percent solid songs so everything they choose to play - no matter what the order - seems golden. Seriously heavy lyrics keep coming at you back to back to back. We stuck around on Sunday to see them in the beautiful Paramount Center Stage theater, and what transpired there was a more nuanced but equally impressive performance. It was fun seeing them in both settings - from the raucous crowd cheering, clapping and singing on Saturday to the captivating and hushed performance on Sunday. Still pondering the meaning of the lyrics "You can judge the whole world on the sparkle that you think it lacks. You can stare into the abyss but it's staring right back." Go see these guys if you love great modern/classic rock n' roll in the vein of Wilco, the Hold Steady, Dr. Dog, and so on.
Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers
Zoe Muth (pronounced like "youth" with an M sound in front) played to smallish crowds on out of the way side stages, which is unfortunate because her pure, traditional country sound is well suited to Bristol. There's also a darkness and sorrow in her music that I picked up on. I haven't heard Zoe's newest album yet, but it was a treat to experience her newer songs for the first time here where the beauty of them really sank in. The interplay between her pedal steel/electric guitarist and mandolin player was some of the best musicianship I saw all weekend. I'm looking forward to seeing Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers this Thursday, September 22nd at Ashland Coffee & Tea.
Christabel and the Jons
I've been wanting to see this band again ever since I first saw them about a year and a half ago. Christabel is easily able to charm an audience. She casts a scintillating spell. It helps that the Jons are a great band in their own right. Their set at State Line was probably 2nd only to Dawes as my favorite of the festival this year. Loved the cover of Jambalaya that they pulled off!
Spirit Family Reunion
I'm not sure what to think of this band. What transpired at O'Mainnin's on Saturday night was something akin to Gospel. I'm pretty sure some audience members were speaking in tongues. Some were lifted up - perhaps to the point of levitation. Some may have fainted. Or maybe it was just the Jameson? I didn't see their set on Sunday but I'm sure it contained the same sort of magic and intensity. What fun they must be having bringing this music to audiences across this land. Very Woody Guthrie like.
Honorable mention goes out to the following bands that I enjoyed performances or partial sets by: the Red Stick Ramblers, James Leva & Danny Knicely, Jason Byrd & Friends featuring Patrick Turner on fiddle, Ian Thomas, Frontier Ruckus, and Dangermuffin. I hate to say it, but I completely missed seeing the following big names: Justin Townes Earle, Railroad Earth, Tony Rice, Robert Randolph, Marty Stuart, Danny Barnes, Darrell Scott, Jim Lauderdale, and the Seldom Scene. (You'd have a great festival if all you had were the artists listed in the last sentence that I missed seeing). Personally I would have also liked to have caught Ryan McGiver & Cillian Valley but I missed them too.
Until next year!