Mountain Song Festival 2016

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11 September 2016 Brevard Music Centre North Carolina 

Brevard, North Carolina is about forty-five minutes away from my hotel in West Asheville.

During my journey, a version of Johnny Cash‘s ‘Big River’ by Darrell Scott was blasting on the Outlaw Country airwaves.  I wondered whether this was to be prescient.  Once I was off the main road and followed the narrow and windy path up a hill, the beauty of the area unfolded.  Guided by numerous, friendly traffic volunteers, I passed a lake, a very large performance structure built into the terrain with the stage at the bottom, open on both sides and grassed areas for those with their own chairs.  I drove through as instructed through the first car park which, while having a sizable capacity, was full and further up to an overflow area.  The first performance was still to commence, but obviously people are primed and ready.

 

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Now, some facts about The Mountain Song Festival.

The Brevard Music Center’s Whittington-Pfohl Auditorium serves as the main stage for Mountain Song.  There are 1800 permanent seats under the covered section with ample lawn seating on both sides of the open air venue.  Nestled into a beautiful cove with Pisgah National Forest as a backdrop, it is one of the most inspiring locations for musical performance I have witnessed.  Going to Bluegrass Underground which is 333 feet below ground was an incredible and unique experience last year, but this site today was almost beyond words.

A choice of comfortable inside seating, laying or sitting on the laws, walking down to the majestic lake, checking out the interesting stalls which all were in keeping with the surrounds.  The vibe was very relaxed as well.  It was quite breathtaking, and the music had not even started!

Local heroes The Steep Canyon Rangers host and curate the festival which is in fact a three-day event but yours truly could only fit in the final, shorter day because of other live shows and travel logistics.   The rest of the 2016 line-up included Jerry Douglas and the Earls of Leicester, Tim O’Brien, Don Flemons Trio, Shannon Whitworth and Barrett Smith, The SteelDrivers and Front Country. Today there were only three acts, the Rangers, The Kruger Brothers with the Kontras Quartet and the one that appealed to me the most, Darrell Scott.

The Steep Canyon Rangers clearly showed they own this turf, like home-town sporting heroes that can do no wrong.  And, of course this accomplished six-piece are at the top of their game and were in front of an adoring crowd – what is not to like?  I had first seen the band as a support outfit for the talented and scene-stealing Steve Martin in New Orleans a ways back, and subsequently on their own twice at the IBMA’s World of Bluegrass in Raleigh North Carolina.  I have had, however, little exposure to the band’s new 2016 album Radio and there seemed to be nowhere better to experience it than here.

‘Radio’, ‘I Can’t Sit Down’, ‘Be Still Moses’ were excellent and then The Kruger Brothers were invited on and played on a mighty instrumental which featured not less than one fiddle, two banjos, two guitars, acoustic bass, electric bass, percussion and a mandolin.  It was magical.  The Rangers then came back for an encore, the uplifting ‘The Mountain’s Gonna Sing’.

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Multi-instrumentalist singer/songwriter Darrell Scott was solo today, the first time I had seen him with no accompaniment.  He has been on a long tour and is toward the end of it following on the release of his latest, The Couchville Sessions. It is his first album in four years but there is a back story of note here.

Scott convened in his living room on Couchville Street around 2001 with legendary acoustic bassist Danny Thompson, drummer Kenny Malone, and pedal and lap steel guru Dan Dugmore.  Together they recorded fourteen tracks, (nine originals, five covers) live to tape.  Those tapes, however, sat collecting dust for fifteen years until Scott recently revisited them.  He brought in Little Feat co-founder Billy Payne and others for overdubs and has now thankfully released them.

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The five covers are Hank William‘s ‘Ramblin’ Man’, Cash’s aforementioned ‘Big River’, Peter Rowan‘s ‘Moonlight Midnight’, ‘Loretta’ (Townes Van Zandt) and James Taylor‘s ‘Another Grey Morning’.  One of the originals,  ‘Down To The River’ features a memorable voice-over by the late Guy Clark.

The set was a treasure – an electric guitar boogie take on ‘Big River’ and ‘With A Memory Like Mine’ featuring some exceptional playing.  But it was the next trio of songs that bowled me over – Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’ (perhaps because it was the anniversary of September 11 this day?), ‘Down To The River’ with his references to the last time he played with his old friend Clark and then a beautifully moving cover of Clark’s ‘Desperadoes Waiting For A Train’.  It was an emotional ride.

‘River Take Me’ and ‘You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive’ followed and then into a free-form, creeping tremolo take on ‘Ramblin’ Man’, Ben Bullington’s ‘Lone Pine’ (another deceased friend) and he finished with the rousing ‘The  Beggar’s Heart’.  This man is an exceptional artist and this was one of my shows of the year.  The good part is that I get to see him next week at Bristol’s Rhythm & Roots Reunion.

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Born and raised in Switzerland, brothers Jens (banjo) and Uwe Kruger (guitar) started singing and playing instruments at a very young age, performing regularly by the time they were eleven/twelve years old, and began their professional career in 1979.  Later, the brothers teamed up with bass player Joel Landsberg, a native of New York with an extensive upbringing in classical and jazz music.  The trio has been playing professionally together since 1995.  They moved to the US in 2002 and are now based in Wilkesboro, NC.

The Kruger Brothers are known for their remarkable musicianship, creativity and ability to fuse classical and folk music with a unique sound that has made them a fixture within the world of acoustic music.  In addition to their regular concert schedule, The Brothers perform these classical pieces regularly with orchestras and string quartets regularly including the renowned Kontras Quartet.

For more than forty years, the Quartet – David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola) and Sunny Yang (cello) – has combined innovation with commitment to continually re-imagine the string quartet experience.  In the process, Kontras has become one of the highly regarded quartets, releasing more than fifty recordings and commissioning more than 850 works and arrangements for string quartet.  In 2011, Kontras became the only recipients of both the Polar Music Prize and the Avery Fisher Prize, and has a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance (2004) and “Musicians of the Year” (2003) from Musical America.

Well, as you could imagine there were not many fluffed notes in their set!  Seriously, it was a remarkable performance where you just sit and take in the excellence and try to comprehend each musician’s story, their talent, discipline and creativity.

As well as managing Mountain Song, the Brevard Music Centre has a summer music festival series – around symphony, opera, chamber, pop, jazz and bluegrass, including a June Blues N’ BBQ Festival.  It was announced that this festival has raised over $600,000 for charity.

After a while, I decided that I should go. It had been a pretty hectic three days and I had a full agenda tomorrow.

A tasty meal at a family, no-chain restaurant just down from hotel – The Stone Ridge Tavern – for tomorrow I head north.

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Author: Rob Dickens

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