10th Annual Big Sky Big Grass
Festival Experience Archive
for The Lot Scene by Parker
The trek from Colorado up to Montana and Big Sky’s Big Sky Big Grass bluegrass festival was a bit precarious to say the least. Most of Interstate 25 in Wyoming was covered in a sheet of black ice with gusty winds blowing snow back onto the roads after the plows had gone by. The landscape was a surrealist’s dream as we crept slowly northward, ever towards our goal. Keeping it “low and slow” we eventually found better roads in Montana and scurried the last few hundred miles at night and then up into the dark and mysterious mountains and to the resort of Big Sky, finally arriving in a worn-out heap of gratitude. Happy to be in Montana and happy to be at Big Sky Big Grass for the first time, the immediate excitement set in once we were there given the fantastic line-up and the world-class resort venue location. We knew we were in for something special…but just how special was yet to be revealed to us. Big Sky is a festival unlike the grand majority out there in that it is hosted by a ski resort. This means tearing it up on the mountain skiing or riding during the day and partying your face off at night to some of the best bluegrass music on the planet — not a bad set-up, right? We certainly didn’t think so, especially once things going in earnest. The whole of the festival was centered in the resort with the main venue and all secondary stages occupying various conference/ballrooms or restaurants/bars around the resort complex. This makes for very little walking between buildings which is nice given the obvious cold weather for that time of year and elevation. Trust me, this makes a huge difference if you are staying at the resort. Which leads me to another aspect of this festival…just how many locals and Montanans there were peopling it. Will and I definitely felt like visitors from a foreign land, but, extremely welcome of course. In fact, we met so many delightful and lovely people and made so many new friends (Ethan and Margo and Scully among them), that we instantly felt an integral part of this little festival (boasting somewhere around 800 people/tickets). By the time the music started we were already beginning to understand the uniqueness of Big Sky and were certainly getting very into it. Speaking of music, I think it’s about time we addressed just such a thing, no? Oh, yeah!
Billy Strings - Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen - The Travelin’ McCourys
The one, the only Billy Strings kicked the whole shebang off Friday night on the Missouri Ballroom main stage with a ripping good set backed by the Kitchen Dwellers and Pat Fiddle. It was a dirty, nasty good showing of some bluegrass favorites, old standards, and all served with a healthy dose of grassed-up attitude. Billy and the boys started their set with some fast pickin’ and a really fine “Big Mon” (Bill Monroe), Billy himself picking up the melody line at the beginning at then handing it off to Pat Fiddle for an on-the-money solo. They took this directly into Billy on vocals with the classic “Long Gone” featuring Torrin Daniels on a mighty banjo solo. Some more excellent fiddle from Pat led us into “Red Rockin’ Chair”, Billy crooning away for us in his powerful baritone. Speaking of Billy, let’s talk about this gentleman for a second shall we? Obviously on the younger side of this business, Billy is already a treasure of the bluegrass world. That perfect combination of talent and skill and dogged determination, this man is clearly destined for great things in this musical realm of ours. With a voice and singing style to match his other-worldly playing, he is the complete and consummate musician and every inch a professional. We had a chance to sit down with Billy on Saturday for a fantastic interview (INTERVIEW HERE)…all of this and more came up during our time with our new comrade. Personable and freely giving of his time, I am happy to call him friend. And his performances at Big Sky encompassed all of this and more. Later down the set, Billy belted out the lyrics of “You Won’t Be Satisfied” for us all over his own quick pickin’ as Shawn Swain provided some tasty mando licks to accompany, Pat Fiddle sawing away in style. They followed this with the classic crowd-pleaser “Big Spike Hammer” which got us all singing along. The next song was an original by Billy inspired by his brother living in Florida: “Pine Trees”. Yet another song dominated by Pat’s fiddling — man, can that cat play!! It was like he was trying for the Sam Bush MVP Award or something. Then the Kitchen Dwellers and Pat took their leave for a couple of solo numbers from Billy. The first of these was “a nod to Doc Watson” according to Billy…a little flat-pickin’ in the form of “Beaumont Rag” which was a lightning-quick journey up and down the fret board with Billy in the lead. Especially when he turned it up double-time at the end. Flat pickin’? Fast pickin’!! Damn fine all around! Slowing things down to ballad speed, Billy gently sang a gorgeous “Black Mountain” for us, this one absolutely showing off this man’s versatility. Later on, “Meet Me at the Creek” was a powerful number that morphed into a nasty, nasty, amazing jam in the middle with everyone in the ensemble having a chance to step out and strut their stuff on their chosen instruments. Supremely good organic music going down on that stage. Definitely the reason we all do stuff like this. Billy and the boys finished the set off with a sizzling hot “Little Maggie” with Torrin and Shawn trading off in counterpoint alongside Billy’s guitar. One helluva closer for one helluva set! Suffice it to say, my recommendation is to go and see Billy Strings play as soon as humanly possible. You’ll only be doing yourself a favor. A really big favor.
Then we had the privilege of some Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen up on the main stage. I was pretty psyched since this festival weekend was my first time seeing them live. And I wasn’t to be disappointed in the slightest. Definitely a tight, polished group when it comes to bluegrass music, Frank and his band put on one exquisite show. Sadly, we entered the show a bit late, but I was instantly into the vibe as we walked in. Clearly, Frank and DK had been killing it from the looks on everyone’s faces. And I was jazzed to be in the mix…we arrived right as they were getting into “No Life in This Town” and they tore it up. Incredible vocal harmonies over skilled musicianship? You bet! Definitely my cup of tea. Frank? Amazing vocalist and very fine mandolin player. I was grateful to be getting to know his music to be sure! The sad and soulful “Caz” came after which mellowed the mood a bit, but in a really good way from a musical standpoint. I say this because it completely buoyed up the energetic and bright song that followed. This featured some fantastic guitar work from Chris Luquette as well as some mighty mandolin stylings from Frank himself. This is not to mention some supremely excellent banjo from Mike Munford with Jeremy Middleton’s stalwart bass line keeping everything up with a stout foundation. Truly the ensemble sound of this band is wonderful. “Wild Unknown” was to be Jeremy’s vocal debut on this number. And it was fantastic. Honestly. But, we’ve got some footage of it for you so you can make your own call. I bet you agree with us:
Pretty damn good music, right? Exactly. Next up they played the dark and mysterious “Cold Spell” which featured some really amazing and tight vocal harmonies and then threw down a riveting instrumental with Frank Solivan on fiddle for that one. This was the perfect showcase for each of these gents to show us what they’ve got on their respective instruments. And showcase did they ever! Next up was Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”, at least Frank and DK’s bluegrassed-up version of it. More tight harmonies awaited us here as well as a phenomenal overall treatment of this song. My wife is a huge Orbison fan and I am sure she would have loved it summarily. This one also featured a nice “Daytripper” tease — who doesn’t love a little Beatles in their Orbison? Then it was time for Ronnie McCoury and Sam Bush to join them on the stage for something akin to a “mandopolcalypse” — so much mando on just one stage. This was to be a theme throughout the weekend given the cast of characters in attendance. What can I say? Three incredible mandolin players playing “Dark Hollow” for us with Dirty Kitchen backing? Not a bad way to spend your time, my friend. Believe-you-me. They followed this with an instrumental “Bluegrass Breakdown” which was face-meltingly hot. Nothing but sizzle, my friends. Ronnie and Sam and Frank in a rollicking round-robin of mando-goodness. What a way to finish up a set! Holy goodness and great balls of fire!! Fire hot right up until the end. And a perfect way to get us ready for the next act, right? From one bluegrass great to another…I’ll take it!
And then it was time for some Travelin’ McCourys action in the Missouri Ballroom. And it was apparent from the very beginning notes that they came to bring it that night. Of course, I don’t think such a thing as a “bad” McCourys show exists in this Universe. And I am so grateful for that very fact. Friday night at Big Sky was no exception to this. And how crazy was it that we were seeing these bands in a crowd of far fewer than 1000 people? I mean, it was like a private concert. But, hey, I’m not complaining. At all. The McCourys popped the cork for their set with a walk through the Grateful Dead with “Cumberland Blues”. Rock’n’grass through-and-through, this one never ceases to satisfy the musical palate. “I gotta get down…I gotta get down…” Yeah, let’s get down, shall we? With Jason Carter tearing things apart on fiddle there was nothing blue about this “Blues”. And those oh-so-characteristic McCoury harmonies — refined and polished. Shivers. Every time. And never mind that speedy, speedy ending breakdown! Wowsers. They followed up “Cumberland” with a Ronnie McCoury song, “Somebody’s Gonna Pay” which featured a supremely fine mando solo from that same gent. “Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean” (as made famous by Waylon Jennings) was next in line that evening, a Jason Carter lead on vocals, and a personal favorite of mine. I just love the driving guitar and banjo lines throughout from Cody Kilby and Rob McCoury, respectively. This song just has such movement and focus to its forward motion. And Rob was killing it on the banjo in this…right up until his brother stepped up and did the same on mandolin. Ah, those musical families, right? Makes for such a great aural experience! And Cody…wow. Just wow. That man is a magical music-making machine! And he makes it look so easy and effortless, too! (Although it obviously has taken years of hard work for such mastery to occur.) Another favorite of mine, “The Shaker”, came along next in the setlist and we managed to capture a really great video of it for you. Which we will share with you now…enjoy!! VIDEO
And that’s why they get paid the big bucks, folks! Damn fine music from some damn fine musicians! Later down the set they gave us their version of Nick Lowe’s “I Live on a Battlefield” yet one more favorite around The Lot Scene offices. A sad and mournful song sung by Ronnie, this one is lovely on many levels. Great melody line and poignant lyrics peppered by top-notch and gorgeous harmonies. All sitting atop the foundation of some superb instrumental musicianship. Next up, Cody meted out a beautiful guitar line which opened up into a fast pickin’ instrumental giving way to John Denver’s “Old Train” sung my Alan Bartram. I sure have grown to love Alan’s voice over the years and with good reason. The man can sing and sing well. And who doesn’t love a little John Denver, right? Especially high in the Rocky Mountains? Precisely! Later on down the set they invited pal David Grismanup to join in the fun on mando (of course). They played Grisman’s own “Lil’ Samba” and played it with just the attitude and sass that we’ve come to expect of that tune over the years. Grisman was clearly having fun guesting in and treated us all to some excellent solo work. Not to mention Jason Carter and Cody Kilby’s solo work as well. Holy goodness!! This is always a fun tune to be sure. A walk with John Hartford came over the next two songs: “Natural to Be Gone” and “Back in the Goodle Days” both of which featured Sam Bush as a guest on mandolin. “Natural” saw the addition of Sam as a boon-and-a-half. Great solo from him…really stellar. Does that man know his way around a mandolin or what? Kudos to Jason for his soulful singing on “Goodle Days”, too. What a fantastic band, right? I mean, just holy crap are they good! So much attitude in this one. John, I feel, would be proud. Especially of Sammy. Marvelous. Mandolin. More, please. A bit on down the line was a walk with the Grateful Dead for a couple of songs: “Cold Rain and Snow” and “Loser” both of which sounded magnificent. Drew Emmitt crooned out the vocals for “Rain and Snow” and he and Sam stayed out there until the end of the set. Grisman rejoined the clan on stage for “Wheelhoss” which turned into “mando mayhem” once again. So much mando!! Crazy fast playing, too! I have no idea how human hands can move so quickly. After an “On the Lonesome Wind” encore they finished the night with a big, bold, boundless “Travelin’”. So quick, such infinitely fast pickin’. Crazy good on so many fronts and always such a great way to close out a show. “Bye, bye, so long, farewell…” Yeah, that’s a closing song, alright. And the McCourys and friends brought it all to the very end…amazing harmonies, supernatural playing, and that tight, professional polish that is the very Travelin’ McCourys. And a huge ending jam that saw every musician on stage show off their insane talents through sizzling solos. Incredible. What a supremely wonderful night of music. Thanks to all the musicians and all those who helped put on these shows!! Big Sky Big Grass: so far, so great. If this was the way the remainder of the weekend was to go, then we were to be very happy fellas indeed. And we still had two days to go. Giddyup.