I entered the Greek Theater main stage of the Bluegrass Situation Festival on October 3, 2015 to discover Jonny Fritz already onstage, accompanied on guitar by Dawes front man, Taylor Goldsmith. I only heard a couple songs before he finished his set. He has a relaxed presence on stage, such that I thought perhaps he was still sound checking while I was finding my seat (I thought there might have been an announcement when the main stage performances began, but there wasn’t). Fritz’s latest album is called Dad Country. When he is not playing music, he does some neat leather work, including guitar straps, so check out his website if you are in the market for such things.
Hailing from Nashville, all female group Della Mae took the stage next with their country-tinged bluegrass music. What a treat to see these five ladies perform; each of them were fantastic musicians, with Kimber Ludiker on fiddle and Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin particularly standing out. All of the ladies had strong, pretty voices that blended together so well and they also took turns singing lead. Songs from their set included three off their self-titled album released earlier this year: “Rude Awakening,” “Good Blood,” and “Long Shadow.” They also played a traditional bluegrass breakdown, lead by fiddler Kimber Ludiker, with Celia Woodsmith on guitar, and Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin, each taking solos that let their talents shine. They finished their set with a faithful cover of the Rolling Stones’ song “No Expectations.”
Could there be a more humble musician than Gregory Alan Isakov? Never once during his set did he introduce himself or his band, which consisted of himself on guitar, an electric guitar player, a fiddler, and a bass player. Some of the songs from his set included: “Saint Valentine” from his most recent album The Weatherman; “The Stable Song” from That Sea, That Gambler; “That Moon Song” from This Empty Northern Hemisphere; and a new song with the line “Couldn’t find no love from the angels above nor the devil down below,” which will be on a forthcoming album; and one titled “Liars.”
I haven’t seen Isakov before and I am not very familiar with his songs, so there were a couple more that I missed noting down. He writes poetic lyrics underscored by mellow musical accompaniment that lull the listener from the beginning to the end of the song, like small waves lapping rhythmically on a beach. Though the band’s sound was big enough to fill the space, I felt like I should be watching them in a more intimate venue.
I had heard of The Lone Bellow before, but I hadn’t listened to any of their music before this concert. I didn’t write down any of the lyrics for the first song that they played because I spent the whole time dumbfounded by how great the music coming from this group was! Their strong, tight, three-part harmonies, exquisite melodies, and a full-sounding musical arrangement with driving rhythms fully grabbed my attention. Hearing them live, I instantly became a fan.
Their set included a mixture of songs from their self-titled album and this year’s release, Then Came the Morning, including: “If You Don’t Love Me,” “The One You Should’ve Let Go,” “You Never Need Nobody,” “Fake Roses,” “Marietta,” “Green Eyes and a Heart of Gold,” “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home,” “Watch Over Us” (with guitar player Brian Elmquist on lead vocals), “Call to War” (with Kanene Donehey Pipkin turning in a lovely performance on lead vocals), and “Teach Me to Know.” Lead singer and guitarist Zach Williams certainly put 100% effort into his dynamic performance and was clearly appreciative to be playing in the historic Greek Theater. They finished with the title track of their latest album “Then Came The Morning,” dividing the audience in two and having them singing the “ahs” of this song in harmony in the background. Immediately following their set, my friend and I headed to the merch table and I bought their two CDs — and you should buy their albums too. I would definitely like to see this band perform again in the future.
“My Oh My, what a wonderful day we’re having,” sang Punch Brothers as they began their set with a tune off their last album The Phosphorescent Blues (and I’ve borrowed this lyric for the title of this post as it fits the wonderful day I had at the Bluegrass Situation Festival). Their set contained a mixture of songs and genres, including songs from prior albums, traditional bluegrass-styled numbers, and Debussy arranged for bluegrass instruments. Led by mandolin player extraordinaire and lead singer, Chris Thile, and featuring highly accomplished musicians Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, and Paul Kowert on bass, Punch Brothers is one of my current favorite bands to watch live and the reason I attended this festival. These guys do some amazingly innovative songwriting, yet somehow still keep it accessible to the average music fan.
After “My Oh My,” the band jumped into another song from the same album, “Boll Weevil.” One I hadn’t heard Punch Brothers perform live before was “Watch ‘at Breakdown ,” which allowed all the members to shine and included some impressive banjo picking from Noam Pikelny. Chris Thile then sang lead on a few festival/newcomer friendly tunes: “This Girl” and “Clara” from the album Who’s Feeling Young Now and “Rye Whiskey” from Antifogmatic. Just when you thought they might be keeping it light all night, the band broke into their 10-minute plus mini masterpiece that opens the album The Phosphorescent Blues, “Familiarity.” This song sees fiddler Gabe Witcher doing double duty — playing percussion on stage. It is incredible to see this song live; it illustrates just how much they are pushing themselves to explore playing their instruments in non-traditional ways. “Brakeman’s Blues” steered us back to the bluegrass theme. Then they performed their beautiful interpretation of Debussy’s “Passipied.” We were treated to a more modern jam with “New York City.” Next a sweet ode to “Julep,” followed by the lightning fast playing of “Flippen (The Flip),” and ending with the alluring energy of “Magnet.” Though it was a pretty full set, the gentlemen left the stage leaving me wanting to hear more.
Closing the show was the band, Dawes, who have managed to hone in on the sound of the famous Laurel Canyon songwriters and bring it into the 21st century. I have a couple of their albums, which I have found quite enjoyable. They are a good live band, but what really gave them superstar power at the festival was the addition of guitarist, Duane Betts, playing a gorgeous gold top Gibson. I feel like he took their music to another level.
They launched their set with the first song off their recent album All Your Favorite Bands, “Things Happen.” This song has held a poignant message for me lately and I was glad to hear it live. Next up was the song “From the Right Angle,” which is on the album Stories Don’t End, and had an awesome guitar solo at the end. A couple more from the recent album were performed: “Right On Time” and “Somewhere Along the Way.” They made the day feel easy when they played “If I Wanted Someone” from the album Nothing Is Wrong. “From a Window Seat” was next, also from Stories Don’t End. The song “Fire Away” was played. I was happy to hear “It’s a Little Bit of Everything” in the set, as that was the song that made me take notice of Dawes as interesting lyric writers on my first listen through Nothing Is Wrong. Next was “When My Time Comes,” which has the thought-provoking line, “So I took what I wanted and put it out of my reach, I wanted to pay for my successes with all my defeats.” This was followed by the song “Most People.” The band closed out their set with the tune “All Your Favorite Bands,” which felt a little ironic as they sang “And we hope that All Your Favorite Bands stay together,” as the band had recently announced the departure of keyboardist, Tay Strathairn.
For a festival encore, Dawes stayed on stage and brought out members from each of the other bands that had graced the main stage for a singalong to Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” What remained of the crowd joined in for a stirring close to the long day of music.