The 4th Annual Chicago Blues & Bluegrass Festival was well under way by the time the production staff at The Auditorium Theatre received the list of media passes. We made it inside in time to catch the tail end of Majors Junction, a Chicago-based Americana band, and knew that what little music we had missed was nothing compared to the 10-hour celebration that CBBF had planned for us that day. It was going to be one bluegrass-filled Saturday. The inside of The Auditorium Theatre was everything I had expected, and more. It was dignified, exquisite, and elegant. I had heard all about this theatre… about its unrivaled majesty and its unadulterated acoustics. It was a joy to finally experience it.
The Henhouse Prowlers came out looking as sharp as ever in their traditional black suits only this time, there were a couple of new additions to the line-up. Guitarist Starr Moss and fiddler Dan Andree have been in collaboration for nearly 10 years and now serve as a welcomed addition to the 2012 Henhouse Prowlers. Dan adds a rich texture to the Prowlers who have yet to see the inclusion of a fiddle player in their lineup until now. Dan does very well behind the bow, and has a powerful voice to boot. In fact, each one of the Prowlers have these great, bluegrass voices that they’re able to weave together in the formation of beautiful harmonies and various vocal arrangements. This is definitely one of the most standout characteristics of their music. One voice in particular caught my attention was mandolin player Grant Ziolkowski’s. This baby-faced Prowler looked to be the youngest of the five, but probably had one of the deepest voices of them all. I enjoyed every second of the hard-hitting, traditional-influenced bluegrass set that the Henhouse Prowlers delivered and I will definitely be seeing these boys again soon.
As evening rolled around, it was time for the rock-driven, Americana-style sounds of The Giving Tree Band. This group had seven members spanning the enormous distance of the Auditorium Theatre stage. I had been previously unaware of the sheer size of this thing after watching the Henhouse Prowlers perform in their traditional, single-mic style format. But with the GTB spread out across the stage’s entire length, you were able to get a feel for just how vast it really was. These Chicago natives have played at CBBF for all four years of its existence and you could tell they really felt at home here. With multi-instrumental prowess, GTB ran through a variety of original tunes that featured everything from their staple fiddle and dobro to the Hammond B3 organ and acoustic piano accompaniments. There might not be anything musically groundbreaking happening with this band, but what they do deliver are tastefully crafted original songs with a real knack for performance entertainment. These guys love what they do, have a load of chemistry, and a huge amount of positive energy.
When songwriter Joe Purdy came out on stage, I knew that CBBF was about to touch on the folk/roots elements of this festival. Right from the beginning of Joe’s set I was captured by his music. His voice was organic and familiar and his music soothing. Joe had a simplistic finger-style approach to the guitar, strumming broken-down traveling tunes like “Pinoeer” and “Canyon Joe” about the land and the times. He took a turn behind the piano during a song called “Outlaws” with a style that reminded me of a young Bruce Springsteen. Not long after, Joe invited the entire Giving Tree Band up on stage to finish out the set. The eight of them meshed well as GTB provided the backdrop for Joe’s heartfelt tunes. As much as I was enjoying this music, this marathon day had started to wear me down, and I was getting antsy for some high-energy bluegrass music.
What followed was the infamous David Grisman Quintent. David “Dawg” Grisman is one of the great living bluegrass legends and, with only a handful of 2012 tour dates, it was an honor to be able to see his quintet play live. I’ve listened to Grisman in a huge variety of incarnations… everything from his work with the quintet to his children’s album with Jerry Garcia. I knew he had the capacity to stretch across a huge variety of genres but right off the bat, the quintet positioned itself as more of a jazz outfit than anything else. Flutist Matt Eakle blew me out of the water with these smooth, wandering wind solos. All the while drummer George Marsh and longtime bassist Jim Kerwin poured a rich and tasteful foundation upon which the others could thrive. Both David Grisman and guitarist Grant Gordy attacked their instruments with soft, quick hands and a wild, jazzy approach. Despite an enormous amount of respect for the quintet’s music, I became a bit disinterested by their elevator -like sound. It wasn’t until Dawg went into the classic “Opus 38” and transitioned directly into “Shady Grove” at the end of their set that I started to feel alive. It was just the spark I needed.
Next up on the podium was another great bluegrass legend, Del McCoury and his kinfolk’s band, The Travelin’ McCourys. The Travelin’ boys would have to get pretty comfortable up there, as they were set to be on the Auditorium Theatre stage for the rest of the evening. This band was definitely in high demand that night at CBBF, and rightfully so. Both Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Rob McCoury on banjo had chops that would (and clearly did) make their father proud. Del stood in that shiny grey suit of his looking like a million dollars. He had this flawless, silver hair that would have made Conan blush and an incredible, effortless style of flatpickin’ guitar. But for the second time that evening, this was a headlining act that couldn’t strike the right chord with me. If you’ve never heard Del’s brand of bluegrass before, I can tell you that it is VERY traditional. This bluegrass was not for the faint of heart, and contained a slew of high-pitched vocal harmonies that would scare the living daylights out of anybody north of the Smokey Mountains. It was a true honor to see Del and the boys, but by the time they’d finished, I was ready for the next act.
That act happened to be billed as “The Big Mon Jam” (a tribute to Bill Monroe) and featured both David Grisman and Del McCoury, two legends together on one stage. The two of them initiated their set with the classic “Long Journey Home”. At the onset of the chorus, all four of The Travelin’ McCourys came storming out from behind the curtain to join them, picking their instruments flawlessly every step of the way. Almost immediately, I could feel the upbeat energy of this set. From here on out it was nothing but pure pickin’ fun. Del was smiling from ear to ear as Grisman and Ronnie traded shots on the dueling mandolins. The Big Mon Jam brought exactly the type of high energy bluegrass music that I had been itching for. I was finally up out of my seat and finding a groove, along with everyone else in the theatre who simultaneously abandoned the seating chart and started grabbing every open seat in the house.
The energy refused to stop there as both Jeff Austin of the Yonder Mountain String Band and Bill Nershi of the String Cheese Incident came up to join The McCourys for one last go at it in the festival’s final set. This one turned out to be my favorite of the entire evening as both Jeff and Billy brought a progressive influence that I felt had been lacking before. Austin is one of my favorite musicians to watch and he was certainly in his element on this night. The mandolin maestro led the group through one of the most steam-powered versions of “Raleigh and Spencer” that I’ve ever seen. This YMSB original had everyone in the room in a foot-stomping frenzy as Jeff threw his head back in a fit of stringed fury. Guitar guru Billy Nershi was right there with him, having the time of his life as he closed the evening out with the hilarious, emcee-style original “Jellyfish”. It was great to hear a couple of familiar songs from these boys as well as the mix of traditional selections too.
As the evening wrapped up, I reflected on what had been an extremely long day of music. The energy had started off a bit lackadaisical, and remained that way for a great deal of time. There were certain segments of certain sets that did enough to spark my energy, but it wasn’t until the final two sets of the evening that the bluegrass festival managed to capture and maintain my full attention. The music picked up speed in an incredible way towards the end of the night and I left the Auditorium Theatre with a head full of strings feeling high on life. The concept of an indoor music festival in the dead of winter in a place like Chicago was still a bit of a mystery to me, but I liked it. It had a certain allure to it. I guess we’ll have to wait and see how Part II goes this upcoming weekend at the Congress Theatre. Chicago blues anyone?