Another day at the John Hartford Memorial Festival with Ol' Man River

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Published on: June 13th, 2018
Another day at the John Hartford Memorial Festival with Ol' Man River

    It's Friday and my third day but officially  the second day of the 8th annual John Hartford Memorial Festival and we survived tropical storm Alberto yesterday but this mornings forecast is calling for some heavy thunderstorms and then clearing out by this afternoon. I decided to keep an eye on the radar as some pretty serious weather appeared to be heading right for us. Thankfully we just caught the northern edge of a very large thunderstorm which brought straight line winds of over 30 miles per hour over the campground testing everyones tent staking skills and the skies turned very dark before the rain started which was heavy but did not last very long. Several miles away things were quite different where the rain was much heavier and lasted much longer. By noon the skies were clearing and it looked like we were heading for another hot Indiana summertime afternoon. 


       I would make it out just past noon to see an encore performance of the band Circus No. 9 on the Boogie Stage and this young band was as hot as they were yesterday and actually had some surprises that I didn't see coming. They had a couple of guests Jon Stickley on guitar and artist at large for the festival legendary fiddle virtuoso Darol Anger. Being the artist at large I was expecting to see Darol showing up at random sets as well as host his own workshop and be a guest at other workshops this would be my first of many Darol sightings over the next couple days. Darol and Jon's presence seem to really get the youthful members of Circus No. 9 pushing it beyond the intensity they brought yesterday and it was the perfect way to kick of a music packed Friday.

              This would be followed by a workshop featuring Danny Barnes considered a banjo virtuoso by many as well as one of the top banjo players in the country. You might remember Danny as one of the original Bad Livers out of Austin Texas a band that played New Orleans many times. In 2015 he was awarded the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. His workshop would include Grant Gordy on guitar and Joe K Walsh who help make up the Danny Barnes Trio with special guest Darol Anger. During these workshops there are many things covered that only musicians and music nerds might understand which I am not either  but in between the explanations of technique and style there was some incredible picking going on that had me mesmerized. 


      Next up for me would be a quick trip to the Hippy Hill Stage in time to see one of the final entries in the band competition which featured 12 bands vying for 4 finalist slots that would perform the following day. The  band I would see were The Goldsberrys from Gahanna Ohio anchored by husband and wife team James and Jen on guitar and banjo who were celebrating their 16th wedding anniversary on this day and that seemed to bring a little added excitement and energy to their set. Their quartet would also include fiddle and electric bass. Each entry were allowed to play 3 songs. I was very impressed with their performance. I would leave right after their set so I could catch the end of Chicago Farmer's set and I am glad I did. A few friends told me not to miss this group and although I was only able to catch the last couple songs of their set on the Hartford Stage I was not disappointed and really loved the songwriting of Chicago Farmer. I was given one of his CDs on the last day of the festival and I'm pretty sure I listened to it at least 3 times on the drive home. Keep your eyes and ears open for Chicago Farmer! 


      I would stick around the Hartford Stage for Chain Station out of Denver Colorado another group I was told was a must see and they also did not disappoint. They seemed to quickly be able to get the crowd on the dance floor even under a very hot sun. Their style range from some very fast paced picking as well as some laid back mountain music. This was a day were I would be forced to keep moving and making decisions because the schedule had many sets I wanted to see that were overlapping so it was back to the Boogie Stage.


      Putting on a workshop on the Boogie Stage was John McEuen of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame and being a workshop he was covering things that only a musician would understand and appreciate as well as entertaining the rest of us novices who were just music lovers. He once asked the crowd how many were musicians and the response was about 90% which was probably the case for most of the workshops. Toward the end of the set after being asked a question he played a seven minute song which was actually a poem called The Mountain Whippoorwill by Steven Vincent Ben'et which was the inspiration for the song The Devil Went Down to Georgia, made famous by The Charlie Daniels Band. John told a very entertaining story of how after the song became a hit he quit performing the poem so it was a real treat to see a now rare performance of it.  John would also be joined by festival artist at large Darol Anger. 

       After a quick trip to the campsite I would return to the Boogie Stage for a John Hartford jam session hosted by my campground neighbors the Short Round Stringband who are half from St Louis and half from Kansas City. The set was billed as a jam session and open to any musician that would like to join as they played all John Hartford compositions and to a very jovial and appreciative audience. After this the Short Round Stringband's set the following day would be one I was really looking forward to.


       Next on my hip hopping from stage to stage would be John McEuen & Friends on The Hartford Stage, this would be a bit of a Nitty gritty Dirt Band with 3 of the original members along with special guest Darol Anger. The set would include a number of Dirt Band originals and some standards and classics thrown in for good measure. It brought out the largest and most energetic crowd of the day so far and was the first of three big acts to close out the Hartford Stage. 


       The next act is one of the most energetic and exciting musicians there is on the  bluegrass festival scene these days, none other than 25 year old Billy Strings! Billy is an incredible flat picker who mystifies audiences with his speed an intensity yet still honors the tradition of such flat pickers as Doc Watson and Tony Rice. If you aren’t familiar with Billy yet, check him out. I have seen him now about a dozen times in different aggregations over the last few years but this set with his band was one of the best yet. They are touring in support of his recently released record Tinfoil and Turmoil. Rolling Stone Magazine said of his playing “The head-banging speed of a thrash metal band channeled through flat-picked guitar and mandolin, with a touch of end-of-the-world psychedelia.”  I must agree and on this night his mother would be up front on the rail right next to me and he was often playing to and for her, making this a very special performance.


        That set the stage for the nights finale by The Infamous Stringdusters a band who have really become a crowd favorite on the bluegrass festival scene. They’ve been touring heavily since picking up their first grammy earlier this year.  The Stringdusters have been around for 13 years and they do an incredible job of fusing Classic Bluegrass and Newgrass like only a handful of the bands have been able to do  in the past. Their respect for the tradition is evident in every set but they aren’t afraid to stretch themselves over into the Newgrass realm of music. Their set was on fire as they did mostly originals as well as a couple of John Hartford crowd favorites and some good ole Classic Bluegrass. They certainly left the crowd wanting more but that would be it for the stages tonight everything else would take place in the campground. 


     After The Stingdusters set on my way back to the campsite for some regrouping I would stumble upon what has become a Friday night tradition at the festival a Square Dance set on the Boogie Stage under the tent. I almost didn’t stop since my past experience with Square Dancing has been lackluster at best. But the music and energy drew me in as the dancing part was just beginning and the caller assured everyone that anyone could do this. The caller did a great job walking us through the first couple of dances and building confidence and the music was great just adding to the experience. It was after several dances that I realized how tired and hungry I was so I eventually left and headed to my  campsite for replenishments. As I arrived my neighbors The Short Round Stringband had their nightly jam session well underway and their picking motivated me to talk a walk through the campground and see what I could find and hear. 


        I heard a number of different jams from different circles as I made my way to the Artist Camping Area and when I got there I was taken away by the size of the circle there must have been 30 to 40 pickers there including Billy Strings and his entire band as well as Jon Stickley and his fiddle player. I am sure I would have recognized many more if it had not been so dark but I did see a few friends I have made over the past several years of attending festivals like this who just like to jam. It was such a treat to see them picking right next to some of their heroes. The music was amazing it  was the perfect way to and an incredible day and set the tone for the final day of the festival still yet to come.

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