Written by Carly Shields
Photos by Germination Photography
It was a beautiful, sunny weekend for celebrating bluegrass at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival in Baltimore this past Friday and Saturday. For the first year of it’s past six, Charm City expanded to two days and two stages, boasting nearly 20 bands including six national headliners and leaders in the bluegrass community. The festival also hosted a number of workshops with notable musicians and 20-minute yoga sessions at the top of each hour. The weekend saw thousands of feet stomping, hundreds of gnarly fiddle licks, several tens of amazingly talented musicians, all over two glorious days at one perfect festival.
On Friday evening, several hundred bluegrass fans gathered in the sloping Druid Hill Park to celebrate their heritage. The line up that night was filled with local Baltimore bands who drew out family and friends in droves. Colebrook Road opened the night with their award-winning traditional tunes, setting an unforgettable tone for the rest of the weekend. The adorable duo known as The Honey Dewdrops took the stage next with their incredible ensemble, blowing the crowd away with their energy and harmonies. Mile Twelve played impressive and progressive bluegrass before Caleb Stein, possibly Baltimore’s biggest name, brought his gritty, spirited folk rock to new heights. Before the nights’ headliner, the fans were treated to a very special presentation by some of Baltimore’s most prodigious players of the folk and bluegrass community. They mixed stories of old with expertly rendered traditional tunes to enlighten fans on the connection the Charm City has with Appalachian mountain music.
The Jack’s Hard Cider Stage that night featured open jams lead by prominent players that encouraged the community feel of Charm City Bluegrass. Founded and produced by two Baltimore-bred men, Phil Chorney and Jordan August, the event proudly celebrates the blending of mountain and city culture and all things that make up Baltimore’s connection to the folk community.
Closing out the night on Friday, The Travelin McCoury’s blew the crowd away with their joyous mix of tunes fans know and love, and some fresh originals no doubt inspired by their patriarch. The crowd was all smiles at the end of their danceable set and fans chatted about the next day’s events as they gathered their chairs and headed home for the night.
Saturday started nice and early, kicking off at 10am with the 19th Street Band, a husband/wife duo joined by their friends bringing the perfect amount of energy to start the day. Special Consensus was up next, before the US Navy Band Country Current took the stage in their formal uniforms and had everything but a formal set. The Lonely Heartstring Band played traditional bluegrass behind soaring vocal harmonies and powerful lyrics the gave listeners food for thought heading into a packed afternoon. Trout Steak Revival brought soul to front page, blending blues and mountain spirit with exquisite string picking tone and style. Front Country was lead by a powerful whip with a blazing pink head who heated up the crowd with with their heartfelt Bay area folk rock.
Saturday, the Jack’s Hard Cider Stage featured an alternating schedule of bands, allowing fans to catch a little of everyone if they wanted to. The two side-by-side main stages encouraged a seamless transition from band to band, and having this side stage schedule opened the festival up to more of the overtly talented regional bands who wanted to represent their spin on bluegrass. High and Wides, Circa Blue, Bluestone, Haint Blue, and Mountain Ride all had support from festival goers eager to sample the best of the local talent.
The lunchtime offerings were a plenty, from standard festival options to healthy wraps and snacks to faire from Baltimore’s beloved Mother’s Grill. Fans could be found munching on any number of treats from all corners of the culinary spectrum, including baked on site cookies, homemade jerky, and samples from other vendors for days. Among the edible options, craft sellers and ware-providers from Baltimore and beyond showed off their goods to ever-increasingly willing buyers. Not to be understated, this event was also somewhat of a beer fest, with partnership from Baltimore’s Union Craft Brewing, supplying an array of their well-loved beers, from their wheats to IPAs and even a few small batch options. Ciders, cocktails, and wines were also available, pleasing all the adult festival goers and encouraging the moonshine-fueled dancing bluegrass can be known for.
From 3pm on, not a beat could be missed. Jeff Austin Band got the whole crowd to their feet, playing plenty of new music mixed in with some classics from his past. His band was a force to be reckoned with, getting as much solo time as the leader himself and wowing the crowd just the same. As Austin has been known to do, he and his crew explored new realms of capabilities with string music and pushed the boundaries of what fans have already known. Larry Keel Experience, as predicted, took no prisoners. Keel’s cracking, raspy vocals are the perfect accoutrement to his raw, flat-picking style; his band stands strong on their own- wife Jenny on a slender upright bass holding down the low end and driving the train behind three lead instruments. Will Lee, longtime banjoist, joined them for this set, and though it’s been awhile since he played with LKE regularly, he blended right in and stood right out in the perfect way. The youngest player in the group, Jared Pool on mandolin, held his own with impressive picking and tender vocals that complimented Keel’s tenacious lead. The quickly rising Billy Strings painted the park with his energy, flying around the stage not missing a beat and balancing the sweetness in his smile with the punch from his devious wink. Fans across the spectrum were impressed with his performance, and were overheard talking into the night about his charisma and stage presence. The highly anticipated Steeldrivers played to a loving crowd as the sun set on Druid Hill Park. Even without their well-known former frontman, the band makes a statement all their own, shredding their songs the way they wrote them and exploding into jams that stray far from any bluegrass heard before.
Finally, the big headliner of the weekend reunited on stage to a roaring crowd. Devil Makes Three have lately been found in arenas and theaters, but on the modest stage of Charm City Bluegrass, at the bottom of the gentle, natural amphitheater, in the middle of a humble, port-side city, every one of those couple thousand people felt connected directly to the players on stage. They played to individuals, they breathed their songs into the air and sent their tunes flying around every body in earshot. Hips were swingin’, feet were stompin’, dust would have been risin’ up around ‘em, if it weren’t for the light spits of rain throughout the day which calmed the sun and muddied the grass for happy toes all night.
The spirit in the air was more than vibrating, it was more than bumping; it was recalling a tradition from times past of group dance and song, of gathering for the sake of it, of rejoicing with a stranger over an ale or spirit. As the weekend came to a head, Devil Makes Three provided the perfect soundtrack to recollect the songs of the old timers, the music of yesteryear’s ways, melded with the spirit of new-grass, the freshly laid foundations of what the sounds of Americana can be. From the Baltimore based baby bands to the chart topping, award-winning headliners, the soul of Charm City’s mountain music roots shined bright, the strings of its heart picked loud, and the joy of its community rang out.