RockyGrass 2009 – Part 1

Author: | Filed under: Great Performances

I just returned from my yearly trek to the RockyGrass bluegrass festival at the Planet Bluegrass Ranch in Lyons, Colorado.

I truly can’t imagine how this festival could be more perfect.  This is due to many factors, including the peaceful vibe, the amazing setting along the banks of the St. Vrain River, the commitment to sustainability, the friendly staff, and the very cool community of people who show up year after year (attendees are known as “festivarians” in Planet Bluegrass-speak).

What puts RockyGrass over the top, though, is the world-class lineup.  A good indication of the quality of a festival is the level of professionalism of the down-bill (non-headlining) acts, and those at RockyGrass never seem to fall short in that department.  Then you have the headliners, who are always the best of the best.

Hot Rize was the closing act this year.   This is always a treat, as they rarely perform these days, and any chance to see this band perform is not to be missed.   But I think THE place to be at this year’s RockyGrass was the late-night concert by the even more elusive Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, Hot Rize’s “alter-ego” western-style band.

These guys are all about entertainment, and a big part of that is the way they let loose during the set.  There’s no way to adequately describe the shenanigans that happen in a Red Knuckles show, but this clip from last year’s Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival gives you a pretty good idea.

I recommend this recent JamBase article for background on Hot Rize and Red Knuckles.  I find the following excerpts particularly helpful in understanding how both bands put on such effective shows, starting with a quote from Nick Forster and continuing with Tim O’Brien:

“It isn’t just about being fast, it isn’t just about speed, it isn’t just about energy. It’s about what’s behind the music and what’s behind the singing and what’s the emotional depth of a song and how can that be reflected in some way in the actual music.”

When O’Brien reflects on what he learned from Hot Rize and from the Trailblazers he says, “You learn to make fun of yourself because that’s the only option. I learned that you take the music seriously and you work your hardest to do what you want to do, but you can’t take yourself too seriously. You need to loosen up every now and then.

“We won Entertainer of the Year from IBMA for good reason, I think, which is we really put on a good show” reflects Forster. “We always thought about that – trying to make an entertaining program for everyone. That included a lot of great music. We had original songs. The music was the first priority, but we thought about how we looked on stage and we thought about pacing and timing and what the setlist should be and the whole evolution of the Trailblazers as an adjunct and a part of our show was a really wonderful kind of coincidence in that it enabled what we were allowed to present to an audience to grow and expand. It was really pretty unique. A good Hot Rize show was a pretty entertaining evening and we were proud of it.”