Crash. Bam. Alakazam! Flo-rence’s 16th Winter Music Festival jumped from zero to 99 in no time flat when blistering banjo, flying fiddle, rippling mandolin, galloping guitar and throbbing bass took the stage at the Florence Events Center on Jan. 12.
Twenty-six strings inundated the FEC with a tsunami of sound, the likes of which Florence had never seen.
The festival coordinators called it the “Friday Night Throwdown,” and the 50 fingers picking those strings threw down the gauntlet for a terrific weekend of music.
Bluegrass is an acquired taste, but it didn’t take long for the enthusiastic crowd to catch the flavor, responding on the edge of their seats with bountiful applause and visceral excitement. Bluegrass was in charge, and the night was right for pickin’.
Those festival coordinators couldn’t have picked a better pair of bluegrass bands to turn Florence’s grass blue. “Pick,” by the way, is part of the bluegrass vocabulary and doesn’t refer to your proboscis!
The stellar bands to throw down the gauntlet were Jeff Scroggins and Colorado from Colorado and Laurie Lewis and The Right Hands from the San Francisco Bay area. Both bands are known throughout the country and beyond, in faraway places with strange-sounding names and a drive to pick bluegrass.
Colorado burst into the night with the raw energy of the music’s progenitors almost a century ago. Drawing on the sounds of old time string bands, blues, ragtime and swing, bluegrass appropriated songs by Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Irving Berlin and repackaged them in intricate arrangements with innovative improvisation.
Five acoustic string instruments played their parts individually and together. Bluegrass pickers are also songwriters and singers. Vocal harmony and solos are integral to the high and lonesome sound.
Bluegrass got its name from the State of Kentucky, where Bill Monroe, the music’s patriarch, resided.
Colorado delivered without a hitch. Band patriarch and banjo player Jeff Scroggins was reticent to speak, and his countenance was obscured by his hirsute flowing mane. But his fingers ruled the strings, climbing the neck with speed and the inventive adventure of alpine climbers in the bluegrass chestnut, “Matterhorn.”
Scroggins’ son Tristan, sporting a bright blue jacket, picked the fire out of the mandolin and kept the flame flaming. Tristan received the 2017 Momentum Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association, and momentum defines him.
As with everything else, it has taken time for women to break the bluegrass glass ceiling, but Colorado fiddler Ellie Hakanson had all the confidence in the world. Adorned in a summer frock and heels, she not only bowed and plucked with expertise, she sang with definition and grace, and she kept tabs on Tristan who had a penchant for telling awful groaning jokes.
Flatpicking guitarist Greg Blake was flat out fabulous, and his rich and powerful baritone lingered in our hearts. Like Hakanson and both Scroggins, Blake is a multiple bluegrass award winner.
A gentleman from Tacoma, Wash., manned the big bass fiddle, keeping the bluegrass train on time.
During intermission, the theater buzzed with jubilation until the seats refilled with great expectations for the second bluegrass band.
Everyone needs a good right hand, and Laurie Lewis has eight, all ambidextrous. Lewis, who has broken the bluegrass glass ceiling, sported gorgeous red boots and was clearly in charge, speaking for the band, playing guitar and doing most of the lead singing, but her Right Hands were always on the mark to lend support and wit.
Whether the songs were rousing, comic or poignant, it was clear they were all having a wonderful time, and their joy was contagious.
If Colorado was a rough and rocky stagecoach ride, Lewis and Her Hands cruised on stage in a Cadillac with seamless vocal and instrumental harmony and personal poise.
Tom Rozum’s dry wit, soaring vocals and tasty, never hurried mandolin picking was always on the money, swinging on a bluegrass star.
Brandon Godman, a strapping young man from Kentucky, made the fiddle sing at every speed with tenderness and zest. In the previous set, he and Hakanson played double fiddles on a barnburner, “Roanoke,” and during this set, Lewis, also a fiddle champion, joined him for a fiddle duet.
After the show, Godman with a shy grin revealed his Krypton: a tattoo of a fiddle bow on his bowing arm!
Restrained and reserved Patrick Sauber played elegant banjo — clear, pure and flawless — and he sang sweet harmony with Lewis and Rozum. This was not Sauber’s first appearance at the FEC; he played winter festivals years ago with the iconic Limeliters.
Walking the dog was acoustic doghouse bass player Sam Grisman, son of world famous mandolin master David Grisman, known for his Dawg music. It was Sam’s birthday, and the band sang him the ubiquitous song. But the highlight was the ensemble’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “My Walking Stick” with Grisman’s sterling break, walking the dog center stage.
Even after the encore, everyone wanted more, and we gathered outside the theater entrance for the promised jam session, a bluegrass tradition for picking, singing and sharing the music we love.
There’s no denying Florence’s Grass is Blue. Let’s do it again next winter.