10th Annual Big Sky Big Grass
Festival Experience Archive
for The Lot Scene by Parker
The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience - Sam Bush Band
Late night Friday was a sea of pickin’ parties, libations, and great conversations. Those wee hours of the morning really breakdown all the remaining barriers between musicians and festival goers to create something truly unique and special. And tiring after a couple of nights in a row…sleep is always at a premium at Big Sky Big Grass. But, hey, we’ve plenty of time to sleep in our graves, right? After catching a few important hours of sleep and pulling ourselves together for another evening of music, it was time for Saturday to get going in full swing. And, trust me, with the likes of David Grisman and Sam Bush in the mix, it promised to be quite an evening.
Sadly, I have to report that there were some severe sound issues for David Grisman’s set. In the fact that the audience couldn’t really hear much of anything. I am not sure if there were mic issues or soundboard issues, however, the point remains that if I cannot hear the music, I cannot report on it. What we did hear of favorites like “Walkin’ the Dog” sounded potentially wonderful. However, the technical gods were against us that night, it seemed. A real tragedy for such a bluegrass legend as Grisman.
Luckily the techs fixed the sound for the next act, the Sam Bush Band. And thank goodness for that! Sammy and crew came tearing out of the gate with a fiddle tune care of Mr. Bush. This one turned dirty good by tune’s end, nice and gritty with a driving bass line from Todd Parks. Really quite a baller way to get things all riled up in the Missouri Ballroom that night. “This Heart of Mine” followed with Sam back on mandolin and featuring some really tight vocal harmonies and some truly fine guitar work from Stephen Mougin. This, in turn, led to an excellent “One More Love Song” with Sam getting tender in the lyrics all the while absolutely jamming out on mandolin. “I wanna sing you one more love song…why leave it this way?” Why leave it that way, indeed, right Sammy? Really liked that one. The next one in line that night was the instrumental “By Stealth” which was a riveting run through some serious hard drivin’ fast pickin’ with each musician stepping up to show their skills. Simply sizzling solo from Scott Vestal on banjo — definitely of note. This kind of tune is precisely the perfect space to observe some intense musicianship in action. And the Sam Bush Band did not disappoint on this front whatsoever. This led to the foot-stomping good time that is “East Virginia Blues” with Sam, of course, on the vocals and mando. Incredible guitar stylings from Stephen Mougin in this one — they really kept the drive of the song going full force. Then Sam and company took us for a ride on “The Bluegrass Train”. Nothing like a good train song, right? And nothing like hopping on the train that is the Sam Bush Band for one helluva musical ride. And what a ride it was, too!! Nasty, nasty excellent mando solo from Sam here, just amazing. Thanks for that one, Sammy, fellas! Later on in the set came the touching and soulful “Circles Around Me” (“High in Telluride…”) and later still came a little Jerry Lee Lewis with some “Great Balls of Fire”. And what fire there was, let me tell you!! Grassing up a version of this one was definitely the right move — it was fast, fun, and full of up energy for everyone. Especially that incredibly hot banjo solo from Scott. Damn can that man play! So quick!! Another great cover came after in the form of Bob Marley’s “Is This Love” which instantly had the crowd tuned in and singing along. A lengthy and lovely “Same Ol’ River” clocking in at 16:01 followed — talk about something you can really sink your musical teeth into! What a journey! Later on in the show, they closed with another fiddle tune, care of Sam. Rollicking and rolling this one was a great way to end things for the evening. But wait, they weren’t done yet! There was a multi-song encore set on its was with lots of special guests! The cast of characters you ask? In addition to Sam and band we have Cody Kilby (The Travelin’ McCourys), David Grisman, Ronnie McCoury (The Travelin’ McCourys), Bela Fleck, amongst a few others gathered for some encore fun. The first song up was “Little Girl of Tennessee” with Sam up on the vocals. So much star power on one stage — how couldn’t it sound pretty damn amazing? Which it did, of course. Such great music. And just stunning, stunning playing from everyone. After two (yes two) more numbers it was time for the really big finish with “Bluegrass Breakdown”, a heart-palpitatingly quick race through some severely impressive fast pickin’. One and all these gents threw down in superbly fine fashion bringing the main stage of the Missouri to a whiz-bang of a close for the night. So very many thanks to Sam, his band, and their guests on stage that evening. What a ride, what a rush! Certainly only whetted the appetite for more bluegrass joy to follow on Sunday!!
Billy Strings - Drew Emmitt Band - Jeff Austin Band - Keller Williams with The Travelin’ McCourys
Sunday had found us once again but were still fresh and frosty and ready for a monster of a great time care of some premium bluegrass music. It had been a long and luxuriant weekend as we basked in bluegrass clear up to our grinning faces. And the best part about Sundays, my friends? More music!! That’s right. More of that specific brand of awesomeness that we all thrive upon, that we yearn for. The surprise TBD set ended up going to Mr. Billy Strings and we were all glad that it did. Due to the Superbowl, the place was empty. And I mean criminally empty — but, whatever. Roll with it, right? Private show? You bet! Billy started out solo crooning some songs and pickin’ tune for us. He began with Doc Watson’s “Nashville Blues”, a perfect selection to show off the great balance between Billy’s amazing guitar playing and his lovely baritone singing. Fantastic fast pickin’ and classic bluegrass singing. What more could you ask for? Continuing in that theme, we got a mighty fine “Brown’s Ferry Blues” care of Mr. Strings. Sure didn’t seem like Billy had the blues to me, but, hey, you’ve gotta go with something on your setlist, right? Plus he simply killed the first two songs. Which made us eager to hear the minor and slightly morose “Wild Bill Jones” which was next on the docket. A cautionary tale doled out in a gentle but powerful singing voice and counterpointed always by the ever-moving fingers of this young man’s magical hands as they fly over strings and fretboard. A light and lively guitar tune medley followed comprised of “Give the Fiddler a Dram” and “Whistling Rufus” and “Ragtime Annie”, highlighting for one and all that skill plus talent plus hard work that is the musical might that is Billy Strings. Billy credited Doc Watson for the inspiration for this medley. Continuing with some more Watson, he next played a superb version of “Hold the Woodpile Down” which featured some blistering, blistering guitar action. Not that we were surprised. Just in awe as always. Tyler Grant (The Grant Farm) came out and joined Billy for what he termed “guitarmageddon”. Love it. “Lost Indian”, a fiddle tune, was to be their first number. And my goodness…two guitar greats such as these pickin’ away at the same time, on the same stage?? Forget about it! Seriously. It was mind-meltingly excellent all the way around. So many incredible guest spots and collaborations at this fest! I love it! And then it was time for a vocal duet…sweet. Another Doc Watson selection (am I sensing a theme?) and this time “Way Downtown”. Super fine harmonies from the get-go — really great blend between the two gents on stage. And the seemingly effortless intertwining of their guitar lines was just beautiful to behold. Most certainly a great pairing here. Would love to see more of this very act in the future. Such good guitar work from both fellas. So good! A little later in the set the two of them gave us a a rousing “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar” especially given the guys singing this very song. The thought of either of them laying down their guitars is almost anathema. Listening back to my notes all I hear is just how much guitar is present at every point throughout these songs. So many notes played with such skills and acumen. It is so impressive — just makes me so very grateful that there are those of us out there who can and do play as such for all the rest of us to so thoroughly enjoy. “My Rose of Old Kentucky” that stalwart standard and favorite came after, all of us still being treated to the joy of those double guitars. This certainly was a Watson-heavy affair. And I couldn’t have been happier. Finally, as an encore, these two fine gentlemen played us an energetic and moving instrumental tune which had the growing crowd dancing and hopping to the rapid beat. A truly lovely way to end a lovely set. Bravo to Billy for all that he is and does!! Bravo to Tyler for providing the perfect duo companion to share the stage with Billy!! Bravi to them both for such exquisite music and a fabulous show!!
And then it was time some Drew Emmitt Band all up in our lives. Hells yeah. Joining in on the fun were Sam Bush on fiddle, Tyler Grant on guitar, and Robbie McCoury on banjo. Not a bad lineup. Not a bad lineup whatsoever, my friends. It appeared that we were in for a real treat. And that treat got started off with a personal favorite John Hartford song: “Steam Powered Aereoplane”. I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard it better, to be quite honest. Tyler Grant had a really excellent solo early on in this one…man do I just love his playing. And what an incredible version of this song. So happy to have gotten this one. And as an opener, too. The ensemble rocked out to a Leftover Salmon fave next with “Breakin’ Thru”, Drew leading the whole energetic gathering threw with his strong, distinctive voice. And such a great ensemble sound coming from the stage already. Just a testament to the utter professionalism and intensive skills of these musicians. Not to mention the beast of an ending breakdown, Sam Bush tearing his fiddle bow apart as we all howled our appreciation and enjoyment from below the stage. Such an electric finish! However, it would seem I experienced some technical difficulties with my voice recorder (and best concert friend) for a few songs of Drew’s set. Corrupted data, garbled playback, etc. So, my apologies to you in that I cannot report on much of this show. However, we trudge on, right? Sorry Drew! Sorry Drew band! “Crossroads” by Cream provided the encore selection for the evening which saw Drew on electric guitar. Sam Bush had an important fiddle solo smack in the middle of this one. And it all sounded of pure excellence. Rob McCoury flexed his banjo chops something fierce in this one as well. A really awesome and fun set from the Drew Emmitt Band and Friends. A perfect Sunday Funday band if I’ve ever seen one. Thanks, gentlemen!!
Jeff. Austin. Band. Hells yeah. Time for some gritty bluegrass attitude, shaken, not stirred. A long and building instrumental opening led us to “Reuben’s Train” proper and, in no time, we were all steaming along on this mad locomotive with Jeff Austin at the wheel headed towards some seriously bonkers good music. Hurling along with JAB down the electrified track that is one of their sets is always a rocking good time. Seriously rocking. And they kept right on rocking with a fast picker’s delight, “Time Ain’t Time”. Such quick and rapid intertwining of instrument lines! Gorgeous. Amazing mando solo from Jeff in this one — that man plays with so much conviction. Damn! This was followed by an incredible solo from Ryan Cavanaugh on banjo. A riveting ride from start to finish! We were off to such a great start! A mellow lead in from Jeff on mandolin to the next song provided a nice groove for us all to fall into. “15 Steps” slowly crept up and hit us all full in the face with just that kind of song and feeling we’ve all come to expect from Jeff over the years. Ross Martin (guitar) and Eric Thorin (bass) chose to get down and funky in the middle of this one, too. Most certainly a groovy, groovy song. Hard drivin’? Fast pickin’? You want those things huh? Well, the “Red Haired Boy” that they gave us next was all of that and so much more. They dedicated it to Billy Strings, too. Isn’t that lovely of them? Damn was this a fast one. Blisteringly quick. And played so well by all on stage. Tight. Nothing like getting an old classic like this from the Jeff Austin Band. Cavanaugh got down and dirty in this one on banjo, really smoking that melody line. This was answered by Ross Martin on guitar who funked things up a bit himself. All in all, another thrilling ride on the JAB Express. Next up on the setlist was “My Sisters and Brothers” a Charles Johnson song made famous by the Jerry Garcia Band. Fant-freakin-tastic! And then it was a lengthy and trippy “Ragdoll” which dominated the set. Some serious exploratory moments wrapped in there. It’s just good to see they’re still doing this song. Love this one…but who doesn’t, right? After that big entree of bluegrass dinner, dessert came in the form of a rollicking “Sideshow Blues”. Cruising at top speed right up until end of their set, JAB pulled out all the stops that evening, including on “Sideshow”. They came, they saw, they destroyed it. JAB. Incredible set, fellas…so many thanks for the music! Very much looking forward to my next dance with the Jeff Austin Band.
I cannot tell you just how excited I was to finally be seeing Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys together on the same stage. I’d been waiting quite awhile for that magic to strike me and strike me it did in full force that night. All the boys assembled on stage surely meant some serious business from the very get go. “I Am Elvis” is how they chose to ramp things up. Talk about an album-quality show!! Each song was so tight and so polished, if you closed your eyes it was hard to tell live from Memorex, so to speak (think I just dated myself there a bit haha). “It’s all in my mind…I live inside my imagination.” Well, it was certainly not all in my mind Saturday night at Big Sky Big Grass. It was on the stage and it was bold, brazen, beautiful, and badass. They took “Elvis” directly into a little Donna Summer with “Hot Stuff” and why not? It’s not as if this group of stringslingers didn’t have the chops for this one. Bouncing, lovely energy just cascading off the stage, Jason Carter’s fiddle lighting up the night like a beacon of pure sound, this one pulled the crowd into a merry den of musical mayhem and set us up right for the remainder of the set. Up next was “Broken Convertible” with its tongue-in-cheek lyrics sung by none other than Keller himself. Talk about another album-perfect one! It really is a shame that Keller and the McCourys don’t tour more often together — this is one incredible act to see, my friends! And with Keller changing the lyrics to reference a Sam Bush presidential bid/win, who could be disappointed? Modest Mouse’s “Float On” came next in line for us — quite the surprise, but an excellent cover. And Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin solo was something special to be sure. Certainly another crowd pleaser for this tiny but voracious audience especially with the Dexys Midnight Runners “Come On Eileen” teaser thrown in for good measure. After that, Ronnie was up to the mic to croon the vocals on “The Graveyard Shift” and he just nailed it to the wall. Of course. As if there could be any doubts as to that. Simply splendid vocal harmonies in “Graveyard” to boot…always so nice to listen to. And let us not forget Rob McCoury’s monster solo on banjo or Cody Kilby’s unequalled guitar skills throughout the song. A stroll with the Grateful Dead followed in the form of a mellow and masterful “Candyman”. Some Grateful Grass with the McCourys, eh Keller? Maybe that’s the next lineup? Maybe? Would that it could be so. How marvelous would that be? An entire show of Dead songs thrown down by Keller and the McCourys?? Magnificence! “Something Else” came on the heels of “Candyman” and was followed by Mike Doughty’s “American Car” — both of which sounded stupendous. As you might expect. Keller was in great voice all night, too…made for a near perfect-sounding concert. It was Alan Bartram’s turn up at the microphone next for “Messed Up Just Right” one of my very favorite songs from the Pick album. And Alan has such an awesome voice, too! He really knows how to burn this song down. Not your typical love song, but nonetheless incredible. Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky” was our next offering that evening…yes, you read that correctly. Keller busted out some quality lyrics as the band really embraced this one, Jason Carter’s fiddle line capturing the melodic movement of the original. And Rob’s driving banjo line was ever-present providing a forward motion to the whole song, grassing it up all the more. They took this directly into a bluegrass version of Keller’s “Tweeker” which was something else to be sure. One helluva great treatment of this song. A whistled Andy Griffith theme song tease helped to keep us all on our toes through this string band whirlwind combined with Keller’s unique dance music. Ronnie McCoury sure took the opportunity to slay on mando in the middle of “Tweeker” — righteous to a ’T’. Different that’s for sure. And fun as all hell. A little later in the set we got the poignant and feelings-provoking “Price Tag”. Really love this song and love the way they just own it even though it’s a cover. Hard to believe that when faced with the gorgeous wall of musical sound that hits you like a velvet hammer. “…we don’t need your money. Just wanna make the world dance, forget about your price tag.” There’s quite a lot of wisdom in those words, my friends. Blake Shelton’s “Sangria” followed and then a rousing “Mullet Cut” came after. What a setlist! So much good music! And they weren’t done yet! And how about a little Foster the People? Just when you thought this set couldn’t get any broader for bluegrass, a little “Pumped Up Kicks” comes along and smacks you around in all the right ways. And Rob’s banjo solo? Forget about it! Just nasty!! Not to mention his brother’s own brand of nasty on the mandolin to follow. Talented family…no doubts there. Sam Bush, Drew Emmitt, and Billy Strings joined the stage for the encore madness and madness it was. The best kind. Billy stepped up to the mic to belt out the lyrics to “Freeborn Man” for us as well all danced the night away, never stopping, never wanting to miss a beat, a note, a word…anything! And how about that phenomenal Billy Strings guitar solo, too? Hotness of the best kind. Back to the Dead for a hot minute, the next encore selection was “Men Smart, Women Smarter” which featured a sizzling Sam Bush solo on mandolin. Always a fun song, no? Then came the final song of the evening: a riveting and quick run through some bluegrass goodness. This one was sung by Sam Bush and, sadly, I didn’t manage to catch the title for you. Just know this: it was teeming with incredible musicianship from every gent on stage, just oozing musical awesomeness at every turn. And one amazing way to close things down on the main stage in the Missouri for the 2016 Big Sky Big Grass. So very many thanks to Keller and the McCourys for such a superb night of music!!
And then, sadly, it was all over. The 10th Annual Big Sky Big Grass had concluded and done so in great style. We had been welcomed over and over all weekend until we felt a part of the Big Sky family and we so grateful for the experience. If you’re looking for a unique festival that boasts amazing music and some really cool other aspects then look no further. Consider a jaunt up to Big Sky…make the trek. Talk about bragging rights, huh? Thanks for reading, everyone!! Hope you enjoyed it!!