Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival Review
April 25th, 2015, Baltimore, MD
Low Down Reviews
with Milo Levine
photos and video by J William Taylor Hott
What happens when you put a bunch of folk and bluegrass fanatics in a park with some of the most promising up and coming bluegrass acts in the tri-state area? Pure magic. In a city so misunderstood by the public due to media and poverty, the Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival is a prime example of displays of raw talents and positivity sprouting from the tumultuous history of Baltimore. I look at it as a representation of what Baltimore could be in the future, seeing that even this festival is held in a park revitalized from it’s unstable history of high crime rates.
Arriving at the Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival on Saturday April 25, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Seeing that this was my first time at the annual festival, and many of the bands I had never seen live, I was anxious to see what I had gotten myself into. Let me tell you one thing, from the moment I got to the festival I knew I would enjoy it. From the big barbeque grill, to the good music I was home!
Walking through the door only to hear smooth picking, dancing banjos, and fast fiddlers brought memories of West Virginia nights filled with raw bluegrass, and dancing late into the night as adults drank moonshine and the kids played tag in the fire light. When speaking about bluegrass one of the biggest things to keep in mind is authenticity! Any time you go to a folk festival, whether it be in Atlanta, Georgia or Newport, RI, you know the music is going to be live and true to its roots. That’s what makes this art form feel so right. It’s never forced, and you can feel the power behind every story the musicians tell through song.
As the day progressed from the hot start consisting of bands like Fried Pickin’, Herd of Main Street and the talented Letita Vasant’s smooth as butter voice, the acts only continued to blaze hotter, despite the overcast clouds weather conditions. All thoughts of clouds left my mind when The Manly Deeds took stage. Their soothing, yet tight and well rehearsed, sound left one in a euphoric trans. Their combination of fun rhythmic bridges, and unique percussion section was a nice feeling of sunshine on an otherwise overcast day.
Next on the bill were Chester River Runoff and their clear old-time roots. The great vocals combined with their nice full low-end sound between bass and guitar, countered the highs of the fiddle and banjo nicely. This led to an all around solid set. Shortly after came Charm city junction. Their accordion player was on point, and that in play with a beautiful bowed bass sound created a great vibe.
Coming in at the seventh playing slot of the day is Grand Ole’ Ditch and their eclectic awesomeness. One of my favorites as far as energy goes, they must have brought the heat because once they started the playing even the sun couldn’t help but smile. The control by the musicians was awesome and was well executed. As Ray, the fiddler says, “Music is like a picture. It’s not always about what’s there, but more so about having control, and knowing when not to play.” Plus, how can you go wrong with a great bassist in overalls that really succeeded in his mission to “be the glue holding the band together”, a fiddle player that does his job to spice up the melody perfectly, and a nice rhythm section?!?! I got a chance to talk to the fiddler and bassist behind this great group and can tell you one thing, these guys are as cool off stage as they are off stage. All around great performance by them!
Again keeping on the trend of bringing the heat, the Bumper Jacksons did just that. Me being a huge jazz and New Orleans horn band fan, I really loved everything about the Bumper Jacksons. From the clarinet to the trombone and trombone kazoo, I was amazed at the level of talent all of the bands were bringing to the stage.
For those of you festival goers that aren’t really all that into constant crowds, have no fear the jam session’s here! I loved that whenever I needed to really relax for a few minutes I could retreat to a hill, where under a beautiful tree there were skilled bluegrass and folk musicians jamming out to standards. Me, being a bassist that rarely plays the genre, was made to feel right at home when asked if I would hop on the ole’ upright bass. Despite stumbling through chord progressions I didn’t know, it was still great to share an experience through music with multiple generations of fiddlers, guitarists, mandolins, harp players and standup bassists.
That theme of generations coming together seemed to carry to all aspects of the festival. From the toddlers running up and down the sea of blankets, to the college aged “dudes” playing corn hole it truly was a magical experience. One great musical moment was when the Seldom Scene came up to bat. Right off the bat they hit a home run with the smoothest pickin’ I’ve ever seen! Their great vocal range along with an incredible banjo player in Ben Eldridge, led to a truly magical performance by a band that has been responsible for inspiring many of the younger bands at festival.
Again I’d like to mention just what a great atmosphere there was at this event. This atmosphere that could be described in one word…“FANTASTIC!” This is the exact word festival goer, and eccentric personality Bob (spelled backward) used to describe the festival. This “fantastic” was followed by a glowing review of the bands, a life story, and some heart to heart lessons that I will never forget. It’s encounters like this that really make a person realize just how much of a connecting force music is between regions, generations and all walks of life.
The great performance by the Seldom Scene was followed by the hyped up Dirty Kitchen, and their fast fiddle. They brought a great energy that contrasted the more relaxing yet intriguing tunes of the Seldom Scene. Their great harmonies, and solid instrumentals turned into a great burst of energy in preparation for the Wood Brothers. It also didn’t hurt that I wasn’t sunburned to a crisp, unlike many other festivals by 3 or 4 PM.
Going into this festival I was probably most excited to see the Wood Brothers. Having been a fan ever since I heard a Luckiest Man cover at an open mic at the Daily Grind, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well Baltimore’s talents played to a top shelf act like the Wood Brothers. With one my favorite bassists in the genre, and a one man rhythm section that holds down the beat incredibly well, there are probably not many bands in the genre today that can rival their true sound. With increasingly escalating protests beginning to unfold over social media, there was no place I’d rather have been than listening to the chemistry of voices and instrumentals made by this group. The thoughts of thrown bottles and burning trash cans blocks away left my mind as I sunk into a “Wow…This is really happening” moment as luckiest man came blaring over the PA speakers.
With a storm fast approaching the Cris Jacobs rocked out with a killer set that complimented the Wood Brothers well. After Cris Jacobs and the fantastic fiddler came a real treat. If you trucked it out for the extent of the festival, and weren’t deterred by the guy running around with a foreboding whether map, you were in for a treat. The Travelin’ McCourys played a fun lineup of songs that held the rain off just long enough for me to slip in some sweet sounds before making a mad dash for the car.
All in all I had a great time at the Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival despite optimal conditions. The people I met, and music I heard was life changing in every sense of the phrase. The multigenerational crowd, combined with great musicians led to an unforgettable experience I will look forward to next year. In the end I guess if you can gain anything from this it would be to get out of your comfort zone. Buy a ticket to a concert, or festival you normally wouldn’t think of going to for any reason, and make the most of the people you meet and things you learn, because as I learned from Bob “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” You only have one life to do everything positive you can possibly do, so make the most of it. And with that I wish you all a good festival season, and keep rocking!