Spring Pickin’ Bluegrass Review
May 1-4, 2014 in Blain, PA
written by Adam Geschwindner
photographs by Karl McWherter http://www.karlmcw.com/
Driving north through the Mennonite countryside west of Harrisburg on my way to Spring Pickin’ Bluegrass Festival in Blain, Pa., I must have passed at least four one horse buggies. The sight of the horses trotting down the blacktop with the blooming dogwoods and budding leaves dotting the hills with spring colors really set my mood as anticipation of the upcoming festivities steadily grew into a pleasant, warm glow. I had Doc Watson was on the stereo, and as I pulled up to the front gate I was welcomed with open arms and wide smiles. Blain picnic grounds, home of Monkeylion Productions’ Spring Pickin’ Bluegrass Festival and Kindroots Festival, is a fantastic venue to chill with some good friends and enjoy top notch musical acts. The entire campground is flat and impeccably maintained and there is plenty of deeply shaded camping. The venue also boasts both an indoor and outdoor stage, covered picnic tables, and a gorgeous trout stream. Monkeylion always does a commendable job providing concert goers with a clean, friendly experience. Shakedown street is always hopping with tasty and classy wares being offered that I would describe as a notch above. This is my third trip to Blain, and I am so excited to see the local friends I have made on previous trips, as well as friends who are traveling from out of state like myself.
I arrived just in time to get camp set up and head off to the main stage to see Seldom Said No. I was looking forward to their set as I had seen them at this show last year and they did not disappoint, featuring tight jams and strong vocals. After enjoying a beefy hour and a half set, it was time to do a little socializing as folks started arriving in earnest—but not for too long, because one of my all time favorite bands, The Hillbilly Gypsies, were scheduled to start a three hour set on the indoor stage. They did not disappoint! Taking only a brief break halfway through, they pounded out authentic appalachian music with virtuosic intensity, regardless of whether or not it was a fast song or a slow one, a sad ballad or a jolly drinking song. The late night set kept everyone dancing deep into the early morning with Hogmaw and The Blind Owl Band, both really high energy and jamming together like crazy. Rumor has it that The Blind Owl Band got their name when an owl flew itself into a window while they were sitting around jamming one evening!
Thursday was long gone and Friday morning well on its way before I turned in for a power nap. Fortunately for me, my creekside neighbors started playing music and cooking a late breakfast, the delightful sounds and aromas of which delightfully woke me with plenty of time to spare to check out Friday’s opening act, Bat’s Dynamic String Band, who got things started with a lively and eclectic set. Next up was another round of the Blind Owl Band and their high energy jamming, and at this point things started getting a little weird. There were these guys who were carrying around protest signs…one read “LET THEM GROW” and the other “END THE MADNESS”. It turns out they were protesting the fact that Larry Keel shaved off his muttonchops and were collecting signatures on a petition they planned to give to Mr. Keel after his set. I’m not sure how many people they got to sign the petition, but when I signed it there were already several pages worth and many hilarious moments. “Think of the children!”, and “Having muttonchops is the new not having muttonchops!”,they would implore if someone seemed hesitant to join the movement.
After the Blind Owl Band’s reprise set, a powerhouse bluegrass outfit from the greater metropolitan Morgantown area, The Weedrags, took the stage. Featuring blistering guitar riffs and hammer blow fiddle licks blended with sublime vocals and stirring harmonies, this is not a band to be missed or trifled with. Friday evening was really shaping up to be a doozy. After the Weedrags left us yelling for more, it was time to head back to camp and prepare ourselves for the impending explosion of Larry Keel and the Natural Bridge. If you have not seen this band, then my paltry words attempting to explain the pure magic and power of their music will certainly not do them justice. It is not a stretch, by any means whatsoever, to say that Larry is one of the premier guitar players in the entire country. (Even without muttonchops!) Their blend of hard hitting progressive bluegrass, always rooted deeply in the stomping traditions that spawned it all, really takes you on a wild ride. As an added treat, Gary Antol and Libby Eddy from the Weedrags stepped up on stage to jam with Natural Bridge on guitar and fiddle, respectively.
At this point, having seen this much incredible bluegrass in one day, one would normally be content to call it a day well spent. But not at Spring Pickin’!! This party was just getting started!! After the Keels sent everyone reeling away from the stage in post-jam shock, we carried warm fuzzies with us as we went our separate ways to prepare ourselves for the next set—The Hackensaw Boys. Anytime they are on the bill is a good time. Infectious high energy, tight rhythms and captivating song writing skills are the highlights of these sons of Virginia, and they surely did not disappoint, whipping the crowd into a grinning, dancing, yelping frenzy. Once the proverbial dust settled, it was time to get down to some serious late night business as Hot Day at the Zoo lined up on the indoor stage for some great tunes that were on the bluesy-ragtime side of bluegrass, a highly danceable sound that had me wondering how much more I could take. The answer to that question was answered by local favorites and a band I always enjoy seeing—The Still Hand String Band. I once saw them jam on a Pink Floyd song for over twenty minutes! Those boys tore it up until nearly dawn, and I was fortunate to find a few of them jamming until deep into the morning at a nearby campfire.
Saturday opened with Pappy Biondo of Cabinet fame playing a wonderful set for the children. There were many young kids present at the show, and they came out and danced their little hearts out, singing along, smiling and giggling. Eyes were bright and good vibes were in the air: who doesn’t love to see the innocent joy of children discovering music? It was a truly heartwarming set and Pappy should be proud. Following this tough act was Reverend Willards Acoustic Circus, a band I have seen twice before. Once again, I was treated to a stellar set of old timey bluegrass, which, frankly, I can never get enough of. Mike Mitchell (from the Recipe) and the F Holes, in addition to banging out a stellar set, gets my vote for The. Best. Band. Name. Ever. Fox N Hounds took the stage next with their enjoyable blend of story songs and crisp picking. As the evening rushed toward “headliner time”, Sons Of Bluegrass got everyone warmed up with a spirited two hours of high fidelity, crisp picking.
At this point, I was wondering how the Saturday night headliner, Cornmeal, was going to up the ante. They immediately answered my question with the first of their two mammoth sets. Their ability to wind the music up to screaming crescendo over and over again left the dancers stunned and ecstatic. The musicians actually seemed to grow taller and taller as the the music repeatedly climaxed, and at times the diminutive fiddle player grew into a twelve foot tall dinosaur, stomping around the stage like Godzilla, towering over the entire stage in raging glory. Trading red hot, erupting fiddle bombs with towering guitar solos that took off like space rockets, and all nailed down by rock steady banjo work and stellar, grooving bass lines, Cornmeal was there to strut their stuff, and they did it with a piratical swagger that was good for the soul. Time after time they defied imagination as they climbed to higher and higher improbable heights and ever more sophisticated layerings. The first set ended amid howls for more, and more was promised after a short break. This is when Mother Nature threatened us all, as clouds swooped in to swallow the moon and blanket the stars; the temperature dropped noticeably and a brisk wind struck up. Soon the rain began beating down, sheets of it driven by the stiff breeze. I made my way to headquarters, planning on layering up so I could dance in the rain, hoping that Cornmeal would even play a second set…..and fifteen minutes later, the wind changed direction, the temperature grew noticeably warmer, and the rain let up as the stars and the fingernail moon peeked back out from the cloud cover. Mad cheering and yelping broke out all around me….it was as if the party was so magical that not even the weather had the heart to crash it. We made our way back to a dancefloor that was barely even muddy for a second set of Cornmeal that was, if you can believe it, even more intense than the first one.
Late night featured the stage hopping antics of Floodwood, whose energy kept the dance floor quite lively, particularly when the fiddle player, toting a wireless violin, ran out into the audience wailing away. Taking us into the wee hours was a formidable jam with the Sons of Bluegrass, gracing us once again with grit and style.
Sunday dawned cloudy and chill, but soon enough the clouds dispersed and the sun came out, warming everyone and offering some cheer to those who were sad to be leaving. The sunday morning kids set featured Anthony Hannigan, and following that we were treated to Mountain Ride, whose music I had been grooving on several times already, as they were camped near me and picked all weekend. After their set was over, I reluctantly made my way back to headquarters and began breaking down camp; this is always a sad time for me, watching all my friends and neighbors dismantle the community that surrounded us all weekend. Packed up tents left gaping holes in our ranks, somber folks loaded cars and helpful heads jumpstarted drained batteries. I wasn’t going to leave without a fight, however, and I made my way down past shakedown street, saying my goodbyes, and onward to the stage, where I was treated to the sweet sounds of David Gans and the Sycamore Slough String Band (with Todd Kopec and Dylan Skurskey of Cabinet!). The soothing strains of impeccably turned Grateful Dead songs really helped to make my bittersweet weekend nostalgia pleasantly bearable. I walked back to my packed up vehicle, put some Hillbilly Gypsies on the stereo, and slowly tooled down the gravel road, onward into the tiny heart of Blain, and out into the countryside, passing horse drawn carriages and waving to the folks inside as I made my inevitable way back to the outside world.