Hartfordfest Quite The Boogie
by Tom Wickstrom
The secret is out! Everyone is learning that the John Hartford Memorial Festival(JHMF) is the most laid back festival in the Midwest. Held for its 7th year at the Bill Monroe Memorial Bluegrass Park & Campground, JHMF has established itself as a premiere destination for bluegrass, americana & related musical styles. The entire lineup was stellar from top to bottom. This would be the 4th time in the last 5 years that I would covering the festival and it was nice to see how much the festival has grown over the last few years. There are 3 stages:Hartford (main) Stage, Hippy Hill Stage & Boogie Stage and they all stayed busy throughout the weekend. There is a curfew for amplified music at JHMF, but that’s when everyone heads back to the camp sites for late night picking until dawn.
I arrived on Wednesday and I was able to set up camp right behind the Hartford Stage. Although Thursday is actually the official start to the festival, there was music on the Hartford Stage on Wednesday night and many others besides myself showed up early to grab the best campsites and enjoy the music. Flatland Harmony Experiment kicked things off with their twist on bluegrass infused music. Avocado Chic, a band made up of rotating group of regional musicians with no permanent members fired up the crowd with their unrehearsed & energetic set of tunes. Growler, based out of Chicago, followed & delivered a foot stomping set of their own. The Tillers out of Cincinnati then closed out the night and had the audience moving & grooving up until curfew. What a great early bird night of music.
Thursday started off with the official Opening Ceremonies and was followed by Betse & Clarke With The Aching Hearts delivering an All-Hartford set. Since I was camped right behind the main stage, I focused most of my attentions there due to the stacked lineup of artists performing there. Up next was Farmer & Anderson. Consisting of folk singer Chicago Farmer & Backyard Tire Fire’s Edward David Anderson, this unique pairing created one of the many surprise highlights of the festival. The Dead Winter Carpenters & Old Salt Union then offered lively sets f their songs. The Lil Smokies from Missoula Montana are quickly becoming a favorite of mine and I thoroughly enjoyed it when they covered Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” and Elton John’s “Rocket Man”. The Larry Keel Experience followed with a great set of tunes interpreted in a way that only Larry can do. Larry is one of the best flat picking guitarists and since he started using pedals a few years ago, his sound has elevated to another even a higher level. Closing out the evening was the Rumpke Mountain Boys. Based out of Cincinnati, Rumpke has been a strong supporter of the festival since the beginning and it was fitting for them to headline the first night with their “Trashgrass” style of music. They never create a set list in advance and offered a very Hartford heavy set that took the crowd on a musical journey. Everyone was exhausted (in a good way) by sets end and happily headed back to the campsites for the late night picking.
On Friday I was feeling a little lazy as I headed to Hartford Stage for the opening set of Colin O’Brien & Travis Burch. Colin has performed multiple times at JHMF with his interpretive performance as John Hartford. The addition of Travis added a new dimension to the songs as they performed an All-Hartford set to start the day. Once again the Hartford stage held most of my attention but I did make it over to he Boogie Stage for Chicago’s Miles Over Mountains and to the Hippy Hill Stage for repeat performances by the Dead Winter Carpenters & Old Salt Union. I experienced 4 bands that I had never seen before:The Last Revel, Joseph Huber, Molly Tuttle & Jesse McReynolds. They all offered inspiring performances that made me wanting more. Bawn In The Mash took everyone down a musical road of many diverging styles with lots of twists & turns. Pert Near Sandstone out of Minneapolis was also a musical highlight for me. It had been a few years since I had seen them and it was nice to be reminded about how much good they were& to watch them perform. The Steep Canyon Rangers were the last band of the evening and delivered a high energy set of bluegrass music enhanced with a spectacular light show that fired up the crowd into a frenzy for 90 minutes. As much energy as the band presented, fiddler Nicky Sanders bounced around covered every part of the stage like a madman on speed. I thought he would run out of steam before the end of the set, but he never did. Everyone else was worn out from the frenzied performance & once again headed back for more picking.
When I awoke on Saturday morning, I thought to myself about how great the festival had been. I felt like I already had a weekend’s worth of great music, but Saturday seemed like a bonus day. Off The Wagon kicked off the Hartford Stage by performing John Hartford’s “Gumtree Canoe” in its entirety. This was an awesome way to set the stage for a great day of music on that stage. The Wooks from Lexington, Ky proved their bluegrass skills on stage including a kick ass version of Peter Rowan’s “Midnight Moonlight”. Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon brought a few of his friends on stage for a rousing set of americana music and Michael Cleveland delivered a set of music that highlighted his fiddle playing skills and showed why he is a 10 time IBMA Fiddler Of The Year. I did sneak over to Hippy Hill Stage to see another few songs by Pert Near Sandstone and returned later to catch some of New Old Cavalry’s only set of the festival. The rest of the evening was spent at the main stage. Both the Traveling McCourys and the Jeff Austin Band delivered great high energy sets separately before combining forces to present the Grateful Ball, a bluegrass musical journey of the music of the Grateful Dead. Lastly, the JHMF All Star Band closed the festival out in the proper way. Although there was more picking going on late, I headed back to camp.
Once again JHMF proved that it is one of the best musical festivals in the country. The laid back atmosphere fostered a sense of community that I felt like I was among family. I was exhausted from all the great music I had experienced all weekend but in a good way. I’m already planning on returning next year.