There were bigger, more well-known happenings this past weekend. So what was I doing in the middle of a pasture, in a 1975 Apache Mesa, covering the Grey Fox Music Festival? I was going through initiation. You see, this isn’t a festival. It’s a family; a tight knit group of Northeastern hippies, strict grass fans, old party hounds, their new-picking offspring and countless other factions who are represented in this family-friendly, hard partying, yet responsibly sustaining event.
Having survived the heat wave that fell on this same weekend last year, we were hesitant to go back to one of the bigger festivals this year, much less one that I hadn’t heard of before. As a reader of Grateful Web, you may not realize this, but we aren’t the royalty of media coverage; an ironic paradox wrapped up in an enigma based on the quality of this here writing, but I digress. Another hot weekend in the tight confines of our trail tent was not what our family envisioned as a fun weekend of music, so we bypassed the long standing gathering of the tribes to our Southeast and the new festival in my hometown, despite the air conditioned lodging my parent’s house could provide there, But when we heard about this pickers paradise happening only a few hours from our home in the Adirondacks, we were intrigued and with the help of some wonderful friends to make our camping experience like no other, we decided to go to Grey Fox. From the moment we made our new choice of summer festivals, we were met with approving stories of years past from friends of ours. Who knew that we were already in the midst of so many former attendees? All conversations about what Grey Fox had in store always started with the same question. “You haven’t been to Grey Fox?”, as if we couldn’t be true music fans without having experienced Grey Fox in our time on this green earth. Once we told these devout followers of the Northeast’s premier bluegrass festival that we haven’t attended before and, yes, it is amazing that we can still sleep at night, they step in, as if the information they are about to bestow is only offered to a chosen few. Their eyes dart from side to side and widen before they unleash all of the wonderful things we will experience. Is it only coincidence that none of these soliloquies start with the music? It’s always the amenities. But of course, it is the amenities that fill in the gaps between the sets you want to see.
After making the choice to come to Grey Fox, we agreed that what this festival offered us in worry free camping demanded that we borrow a friend’s pop-up to make the trip to the foot of the Catskills. On Thursday morning I arrived at my neighbor and good friends house, expecting to pick up his van and camper, offer perfuse and genuine thanks and be on my way in a few minutes. What I ended up experiencing over the next 75 minutes was an intense crash course in the set-up, breakdown and cultish history of the 1975 Apache Mesa pull-behind-pop-up. “There are groups out there that get online and talk about their VW buses and there are groups out there that talk about the Apache Mesa” he said with a face that neither confirmed nor denied how serious he was being. By mid-afternoon Thursday we had arrived and by early evening we had already had two people stop by to offer their praise and comments about our plastic, hard-sided, collectors item of a camper.
One of the maintenance men where I work who has been to more Grey Fox festivals than he can remember told me that, “getting into the festival will feel like a hassle, and it will be. It may also seem like some people are assholes when you are trying to park, and they will be. But once you get dug in, everybody will be great.” Correct on all accounts. For Grey Fox, people don’t get in line for their campsite the day before the festival, or the day before that. Try a week and a half early. There are “blocks” in the well-gridded, soft green grass roads that are perfectly set-up by all of the “family” occupying the 6-8 sites per block. The closer to the stages you get, you can count more and more on the people having stories about how much time they took off from their lives just so they could get all of the people to camp with them who could contribute to their campsite comfort. Most of these huge, party convention tents are set up only a few blocks away from where we found just enough room for the Apache Mesa and borrowed mini-van. For every block closer to the central part of the flat camping, we would have had to camp for days before even lining up at the gates.
That’s dedication. It is these campsites, attractions on their own, that you will find well organized kitchens, bars, games, furnished living rooms countless generator operated fans and fully functioning bathrooms. Picture how a sheik would party if most of the stuff he bought came from Wal-Mart and you are beginning to see what I saw every time I sauntered from my site and followed the green lush road about a mile to the stages.
Despite the hassles before we parked, the good-natured welcome from our neighbor as we sweated through the initial set-up of our lent testament to the age of plastics confirmed that we were to be welcomed into this new experience with open arms. The pair of young couples camping next to us with too many towheads running around to count met years ago at a Grey Fox festival before they both had all of those aforementioned kids. They told us about the secret path to the river. The lack of rain in this area over the past month or so has put the river at near record lows. The exposed shale and algae covered rocks make little more than an ankle deep wading possible within the safe reaches of the creek. The neighbors also pointed out the nearest water station built with shale and straw for absorptions and marked with a tall, solid blue flag. Simple.
But, even my description may lead you to believe that the amenities are the festival, neglecting the music itself.
We walked from our campsite towards the high meadow where the mainstage grew out of the pastures. Hay usually occupies all of the sprawl associated with the festival; tents, flags and cars as far as the eye can see.
Before we got to the mainstage, our ears perked up at the hard-driving String Fingers Band. Are they country? Maybe a little and led singer would be happy to hear you say it, says Dan Tressler, the fiddle player and stage presence most notable from the String Fingers. “Its in his tone and the melodies” confirms Bob Csugie, bassist form the band. Not only nice young men, but these guys are students of the music. I only caught up with them briefly when it appeared that only I got the memo that Friday night was the night to have a few and found myself on an island of inibreation amongst the teattolers of this music scene. We talked about their set and we talked about their sound and they helped me to understand what the sound is that makes country. They also helped me to understand that fans of bluegrass are not always fan of country and vice versa, leaving me with questions about whether or not our paths will cross again. But then I realized that their ability to comfortably straddle this divide in music is what thrust us into this time together and therein lies their niche.
After far too few of the songs from their set were caught, we made our way up to the mainstage for the first time. I knew not to bring any alcohol to this area and knew the smoking policy would keep the air around us relatively clean, there are always a few renegades, but when we got up the hill and saw the crowd, I was perplexed. I had read about the use of chairs in the main concert viewing areas and surmised that there would be a stagnant sea of beach chairs holding people’s spots for the entire weekend, a practice encouraged by the administrators of Grey Fox. What I did not count on was the degree of civility a weekend long seated show would bring to all the actions of the weekend. At most general admission shows, when the promoter knows they can sell more tickets by removing the civility of seats, you jam more people into a tight space then you do with the seats. But with a general admission festival where you can claim your small piece of real estate for the weekend, rows are formed, order prevails, and people can dedicate the energy they would normally dedicate to fending off all latecomers for the dance space they fought so hard to get towards their own positive experience. Sure, the sea is often dotted with many empty chairs, but that gives people the freedom to pick and choose and not worry about when they are going to get to the show. Our neighbors in the campground encouraged us to sit in empty chairs.”People are nice If you're in their chair when they come back, you just move.” Social dignity achieved through freedom of choice created a positive and calm atmosphere. It was then that I noticed the coolers. Sure, coolers are common at festivals, but tonight I saw people calmly enjoying their own beers. They were given the choice to buy from the Sierra Nevada truck, which many people were seen to be doing as well, but this freedom created an unspoken dignity in all of us and the responsible choices were made to not abuse this privledge. Trash and recycling were used and the grounds remained nearly untarnished for the entire weekend. Remember, there are always some renegades.
A dobro is like a steel guitar and a pedal guitar, but it is not a pedal steel guitar. Instead, it brings that wonderful pairing of sounds to the acoustic realm and, with the simple turning of the guitar to look like a table so to more easily use the slide on the neck of the instrument, it is one of the more atypical instruments that you may see 30 times at a bluegrass festival with 31 bands. Its appearance is easy to describe. It’s sound? That’s more difficult. Food sizzling? A motorcycle revving? A piano with sustain? Whatever that rumble of notes that flows up as if it is a stringed trombome sounds like to you, if you find the sound pleasant, than Blue Highway is a must hear. I caught enough of their set to notice the familiar instrumentaiton and stage presence of a seasoned bluegrass band, even if this one’s sound was anything but typical bluegrass. Joking with the crowd, self-deprecating, grinning from ear to ear and always being upbeat are the marks of an experienced showman on the bluegrass circuit and these folks had all of the above.
David Bromberg was up next and on this tour he has left the Angel Band at home and really dug into the bluegrass backing band, even if his lyrical delivery is anything but bluegrass. David speaks, ranging within the barritone scale, but he does not stray too far from his natural tones when he sings. The stories of his songs are so often playful and personal, any time I have seen him I have been captivated by him as a storyteller as much as a singer. All in all, he is a performer.
The Infamous Stringdusters cannot help but always be their best at the end of the set rather than the beginning. It’s a byproduct of the physical nature of their set. Each time a song begins the boys move around the stage, congregating at the person who is leading the song and playing off of the sound that he is creating. This gets faster and more precise or slower and more improvised depending on the song. Regardless of the song dynamics, it continually gets stronger. Each player on the stage is the energy source for the other players. It’s an imperfect formula because the energy level has no maximum output, an error in calculation that benefits their live audience and this night was no exception. In their music I began to hear the influence of the popular music that was around when these guys came of age. Perhaps you too can remember the days of Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur. The Stringdusters represent a group of players that came of age in the era of rap and in their playing, it comes through loud and clear, most often in the backing of another player soloing. This is what makes this band comparable to so many others, regardless of their genre. They all have the ability solo, but when they aren’t the web of musical support they create for the soloist is as dynamic as the solo itself.
Thursday night was an early night for me. After the Stringdusters finished their set, it was off to bed on a nice cool, country evening.
The occasional spritz falling from the sky overnight crept into the day on Friday, keeping temperatures down and energy levels high. Of course, on paper, this appeared to be the best day at the festival and the line-up delivered on this belief. But Friday really started with ice. Actually, it started with “IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIICCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCCEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” I like to think of myself as knowledgable in the ways of music festivals. But, having never been to Grey Fox, I was not familiar with their only vendor that made his way into the campground. The ice man drove all day through the campground repeating a drawn out, grainy, single worded advertisement of for his product over a loudspeaker. Other than that, the streets of the hay field were clear of kids selling sodas and beers. There were no unlicensed t-shirts being held up in my face. Nobody was shadily walking past me, whispering the names of some substance that I had never even heard of, much less am interested in buying, into my ear. Complimenting the rumbling tones of the ice man was the sound and smell of bacon frying. I spent an hour or so talking to some devout bluegrass fans about the connection that a deadhead has with bluegrass and the ongoing connection that bluegrass has with the Dead. It was a beautiful day and it was only 10:00 AM.
From there, I made my way into the Bluegrass Academy, another one of the features that makes this such a hand’s on festival. In classes of 10 or so kids, usually grouped both by experience and age, students work with a professional on their chosen instrument. There were guitar, dobro, fiddle, mandolin and banjo classes and those are only the ones I could find. The Academy sprawled out from under its intended tent and these classes were going on wherever they could find space- between tents, between cars, on the edges of campsites and right beside the vendors, I found at least 10 or so engaged groups of students jamming on the teachers chosen riff or song. Whatever the case, it was all together the loudest and sweetest sounding way for me to be greeted back to the tent and stage area on day two of the festival.
Jessie McReynold’s set late in the afternoon might have been the set that truly caught my eye when we first began considering attending Grey Fox 2012. His 2010 release covering songs penned by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter was described to me as “not another ‘Pick On…’ album.” Those ‘Pickin On…” albums are similar to roller coasters. The first time through they are fun and bouncy and go in directions you don’t expect. After that, they just make you kind of sick. When I made it to the maisntage that night and walked into a beautiful mandolin rushing like water through “Black Muddy River”, I was immediately impressed. These men did not want to recreate art, they wanted to honor it. The songs that Jerry wrote with Robert Hunter are some of the most artistic songs the Grateful Dead ever played and these men showed they appreciated it, much in the way that I was appreciating this true bluegrass scene that I had so rarely entrenched myself in; with an open mind. As the set pushed through other beautiful melodies- Ripple, Loser, Franklin’s Tower- it became clear that, while none of the devout bluegrass fans in the audience that night were going to quit their job and head out on tour with Furthur- they were swaying to the sound of the music that I followed into this realm. The 81 year-old Jesse McReynolds stepped to the microphone before closing the set and thanked the crowd for “accepting the record. It’s helped me to meet people I thought I never would.” We’re all grateful to have had the chance to meet you as well Jesse.
The multi-colored sunset was a contrasting backdrop to the black and white on the stage when the Del McCoury Band took the stage; Del in an off-white suit, white shoes and his tuft of white hair quaffed to the hilt, the rest of the band with dark hair and dark suits. The black and white tones embodied the fact that, like Jesse McReynolds, Del is one of the matriarchs for old-time bluegrass. The world of bluegrass lost two of the pioneers of this truly America sound in Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson over the past year and now it is people like Del that will keep the purest of sounds ringing in our ears for years to come. The Del McCoury Band is perfect in their tone yet always in flux within each song, but with 53 years experience at the helm, such juxtaposition appears comfortable and natural. In a scene where songs are passed around like a joint at a jamband festival, it was not a surprise to hear so many Bill Monroe covers from Del, a former member of Bill's band. The harmonic and shrill squeal at the high end of bluegrass harmonies is both abrasive and smooth. This paradox is a defining characteristic of the sound of bluegrass and is never better than when Del, his sons and friends gather around a single mic.
I went to stretch my legs between sets and when I walked back, the David Grisman Sextet had already started. I had forgotten that the changeovers between bands are much shorter when nearly all of the instruments are acoustic. As I quickly walked up to our chairs, David’s ‘Dawg’ music was making me feel like the hero in an Italian spy movie. There would be no English dialogue in this movie, only subtitles, sunglasses and form-fitting suits. It is jazzy, sophisticated music with occasional funk and bluegrass riffs mixed together and projected through the mind of an artist who has seen his career go in a million directions- all remembered and all considered in every note he writes or plays. His precision was perpendicular to that of Del, but their intersection was what brought then to the same stage tonight and so many times in the past.
The late slot on the mainstage appeared to be the place where the progressive bluegrass was played and the Punch Brothers fit the slot like a glove. Since leaving ‘Nickel Creek’ which wasn’t a traditional band either, Chris Thile has explored the question of “what is bluegrass?” even further. At times, he and his bandmates crowd and pick at a feverish pace, just like so many of their forefathers. But more often than not, they are exploring ballads and symphonic arrangements, pushing the envelope of what the audience will accept.
I toyed with the idea of staying up even later and watched a couple of songs with the throngs of people under the Catskill Stage becoming acquainted with the earth rattling tones from the throat of Sarah from Sarah and the Tall Boys. I always love to see a band authentically touched by the response they get and seeing that turn into more energy on stage and Sarah had this with each explosive round of applause she received and rewarded. But, after only a couple of songs, I decided to walk the grass covered streets of the campground and listen in to a couple of the jam sessions going on in campsites. The scene was the same no matter where I went. There were 4 or 5 players, huddled around a lantern picking their way through with players they may have only met that day. Listening and learning were paired bueatifully at Grey Fox.
The big day for single-day attendees at Grey Fox was Saturday. Still, the campgrounds remained nearly pristine with only a bit of trash to be found on the streets through the campground and very few cars parked outside the intended space for camping. The bigger concern was becoming the hot and dry forecast. Near the front of the campground, where the most vehicular and foot traffic passed, the roads were quicky degenerating to dirt and dust, covering cars, tents and people with a thin coating of brown.
We decided to start our day with some dancing under the Catskill Stage. Unfortunately the clogging class did not improve my ability to barnyard slide, do the Tennesse walking step, or push up the hill. But it did help me to understand what a buck dancer is and why he would have a choice. Another lyrical “aha!” moment and another tie between this weekend’s festivities and the Grateful Dead.
As the heat increased in the afternoon, the beneficiaries were the bands and happenings under the tents, AKA the only shady spots to be found, As I stood in line to get my daughter’s face painted it also made me despise the number of people that I had to wait behind. Admit it, you would too. It also got me in the shade long enough to enjoy the sound of Bearfoot. Their ties to Alaska shine through in their willingness to be a step outside the norm. The harmonies of their two female singers and other male players are more reminiscent of the sound of bands like The Squirrel Nut Zippers, and their underlying playing sounds very influenced by honky-tonk.
I had to endure the heat in order to catch the Gibson Brothers’ set on the mainstage. The intentional religious overtones of their music did not overshadow their strength as players. On the bluegrass continuum, their sound falls close to the traditional, but the players are as skilled as any others in the scene today. The Berklee School of Music should be proud to have their mandolin player on staff and his students should be honored to learn form him.
The maintenance man where I work who told me all he knew about the festival also told me to keep an eye out for the SteelDrivers set. They were as close to a loose, party style bluegrass band as the mainstage would allow. Their line-up has changed repeatedly over the years, but their fun-first attitude seems to infuse their players, no matter the line-up. At times, it seemed like their name really came form their music; had I heard a steel hammer pounding out the rhythm, I would not have been surprised. It was appropriate for their driving sound. Choo Choo indeed.
Hot Rize is a band that has always been in my thoughts. Loving to read the insights of the artists I listen to, I had heard their name from many of the newgrass players that fall in the jamband scene. When I finally saw this quartet on Saturday night, I immediately recognized the seedling that they planted in all of those players they influenced. Their solos are much more exploratory than the traditional bluegrass band, allowing the tempo to change, the mood of the song to wander, all based on the improvisation of the leader at the time. And this band does not lack for a talented leader when it comes to playing, as well as creative song crafting. With Tim O’Brien on guitar, mandolin and fiddle, Pete Wernick on banjo, Nick Forster (the host of E-town on NPR) on bass and Bryan Sutton on guitar, this band is as recognizable individually as they are as a unit. When they left the stage and returned portraying their alter egos in the band Red Knuckles and the trail Blazers, their influence on players like Jeff Austin, Michael Kang and Mike Gordon was truly evident.
I stayed long enough into Mountain Heart’s set to hear them strip the stage of all instruments, save a piano and violin, and play a beautiful rendition of Billy Joel’s ‘New York State of Mind’ before I wandered back home. Once again Sarah And the Tall Boys were playing to a packed tent and once again the energy was reverberating through the crowd and the band. And, once again, my night was completed when I heard the countless jam sessions in the campground. It had been the hottest day of the festival. The music of Friday was better, but the scene was a buzz from the influx of people and the heat from above. I was happy to stay on the periphery. We took our first dip as a family in the stream that was a river in the hedgerow behind our camp and for the rest of the day, we all stayed cool. Always, stay cool.
Sunday is the day of rest, the day of prayer, In addition, at Grey Fox, it is the day of celebration. The music started early with gospel from the Dry Branch Fire Squad and the rest of the day celebrated music that began its transcedence in the Northeast and other music that is just beginning to transcend. Case, in point, The Sleepy Man Banjo Boys. These 3 pre-teens are sponges absorbing everything they here and have the finger pickin’ skills to give it back to their audience in an upbeat and diverse package. Soon after their set concluded, the festival turned its attention to presenting scholarships, picking winners in the amazing raffles and the graduation gig for the students of the Bluegrass Academy. Our attention turned to the deconstruction of our home in the pasture. We broke down the Apache Mesa, hooked it to the hitch and began the trip home. Natalie was asleep within minutes.
I use my love of music from so many musical genres, my musical ADHD, as a defense. I never have to commit. To make a decision to submerge myself in nothing but bluegrass for 3+ days was a scary thing for me, What I realize now is that this is the only way to truly experience a genre, if that genre is my home field of jambands (which, in and of itself, embodies my musical ADHD) or a single, deep genre like that of bluegrass. There is no better way to experience it then at a festival like Grey Fox and, like all those who described it to me, I found that in the amenities that filled in the gaps between the many wonderful sets. Grey Fox is a well kept secret. It sells out or comes comfortably close every year because they have been having the same party every year. It’s a party that everyone comes back to and, if the Apache Mesa can make it there another year, so will I.