Back to Field Notes.
After sharing the good word about Northfield with Brent Truitt from The Steeldrivers and a handshake to Mr. Douglas of course, we set off to explore the rest of the fest… mainly the vendors. I’m a sucker for handmade art. Again, I was simply blown away with so much cool stuff. It felt like we were walking down the Park Avenue of Shakedown Street.
Altogether there were five established tents and stages throughout the farm/campground that had pickers, pluckers, singers, fiddlers and the likes pouring their hearts out. The smaller three being perfect for performances, workshops, kid friendly shows and jams. Sierra Nevada’s Catskill stage and the High Meadow main stage was sponsored by Northfield, as well as the other main event sponsors. While grabbing a bite along our tour of the lower vendors campsites, we encountered miscellaneous pockets of break out jams, with people I later came to recognize on stages. These were the people that really lived this bluegrass life. It was fascinating to observe the comparison of how awkward it seemed at times to speak to each other just to pick a tune, but then how indefinitely loquacious their musical conversations were. Players of all levels from school age students to road pros could be seen engaging in these sporadic discussions, and they each had some of the most beautiful points to make. If you could imagine the exact opposite of any political debate, there were strangers sharing in their wonderful community, as if old friends over some beers.
With the heat being as oppressive as it was and only one misting tent available, we found staying up that first night to be difficult. We were able to catch a bit of Del McCoury and his band up on the main stage though, before my 7 year old had to crash. The effect of seeing such a legend was apparently lost on her. Her transcendental experience was still yet to come tomorrow. We made our way back to the pop up, catching snippets of the shows still going on at the Catskill stage, starts of late night jams, and a hypnotizing collection of floating colorful lights coming from some random campsite. Which we found our way to like following the North Star. Continually being blown away by the welcoming sense of community artistry and appreciation for life through music.
Now, my wife is a very intuitive person and could tell right away I wasn’t going to be able to sleep with so much still left to see and do. Consequently she sent me right back out so they could peacefully prepare themselves for the next day. I all but ran back to the Catskill stage to experience Front Country and the Railsplitters teaming up for an amazingly lively dance hall get down. Matuto took the stage right after to bring their Brazilian bluegrass hybrid sound. I admit it was surprising to see electric guitars and drums, as they seemed so out of place in this world, but then put them alongside an accordion and highly enthusiastic samba rhythms, not to mention dancers that had no intention of slowing down, and you had the ingredients of a epic late night party.
We woke Saturday ready and ambitious to get back out see everything we could. Knowing what I had seen last night with the Railsplitters, I knew we needed to head up to the high meadow to see their set. This turned out to be what first piqued my daughter Stella’s understanding of why she was here. She immediately fell in love with Lauren Stovall’s voice and then the rich harmonies between the other members. Not to mention Leslie Ziegler’s exuberant chops on her upright, Peter Sharpe and Dusty Rider on mandolin and banjo respectively. The typically shy manner she often has around strangers just evaporated when she saw them coming off stage afterwards — she had them each sign her new Faster It Goes CD. Her next was seeing the virtuosic mandolinist Sierra Hull. She was accompanied by Edgar Meyer’s protege Evan Jodziewicz on bass and equally dynamic multi instrumentalist Justin Moses. Sierra was promoting her new album Weighted Mind produced by Bela Fleck, which of course had to become part of our signed collection as well. Her music spanned some of the most intricately complicated lines across that tiny neck to melodies so smooth and angelic, such as Lullaby from her previous recording. We caught her again later down at the Catskill stage where she was joined by, not only Evan and Justin again, but also the master himself Bela Fleck. As fantastic as this lineup was, they had the audacity to take it step further and cover Prince’s Raspberry Beret. And I tell you they owned it.
Right before our second installment of Sierra Hull we saw the end of Della Mae’s first set, another group that set our minds a flame. Fortunately we had a couple more chances to see them later that night, as well as to close out the weekend on Sunday morning.
Now being an avid and longtime Nickel Creek fan I had to of course make sure to see Sara Watkins at the Creekside stage. One of those tiny intimate setups in a small tent. After much running around and gear schlepping of her own accord, Ms. Watkins stepped up to a single microphone with a well aged Gibson, to give the most stripped down versions of some of her favorite solo works and personal NC selections. Including some crowd participation on her Uke tune Anthony.
The rest of the night we went back up to High Meadow for some bewilderingly tasty food (had a yamadilla and if you’ve never had one you absolutely should) and possibly the most incredible night of my musical life. The Gibson Brothers and then Della Mae again set the stage for the grand event. Joe Craven introduced them in a fashion so dear to my heart, as The Jedi knights of the banjo and mandolin. Bela Fleck and Chris Thile came out and sat down on two bar stools and a microphone each. The two proceeded to hold every single one of us in the audience completely captivated with runs, riffs, and rhythms that just seemed impossible for one person to keep track of, let alone share with another. To see this musicianship up so close has truly changed my entire perception of everything. Let alone how I could just turn my guitar into a coffee table, because there’s just no way to match that.
Sara Watkins came out and did another set with her full band in tow before bringing as many fiddle and banjo players along, with basically anyone that felt the interest in joining, for the Tribute to the late great Ralph Stanley. Beginning with, appropriately enough, a group rendition of the Dead’s “Brokedown Palace”. The tribute continued with group after group coming up to salute Ralph through his most well known songs, with a collection of performances that seemed barely organized, but sounded gloriously triumphant to celebrate such an important songwriter’s life. Truly beautiful!
As mentioned, Sunday morning finished with Della Mae but started with the dry branch fire squad gospel set, the Mike+Ruthy Duo, the Stray Birds and then a bit more from, the master of ceremonies, Joe Craven. The sun was out but the heat had settled down to a much more comfortable way to close out an absolutely magnificent experience on the Walsh Farm. Unfortunately we had to leave before being able to see the performances from the Grey Fox Bluegrass Academy for Kids. I can only expect that was just as remarkable as everything else had been. Fortunately there will always be next year and now that we know this event exists we plan to never miss it again. I also, of course, recommend anyone else reading this, to find your way out to the Catskill region of NY next July, set up camp, and give your life new meanings. A special thanks to Northfield Instruments and the Bagale family for allowing us to share Grey Fox together as a family.