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Monday, June 11, 2018

Why TheSteeldrivers Are Still My Favorite Band

The Steeldrivers (photo credit: steeldrivers.com)
To celebrate my 54th Birthday this past week, I took a group of friends to see my favorite band--The Steeldrivers--play a show at Bell's Brewery Eccentric Cafe Beer Garden.  As I've written numerous times before, The Steeldrivers were one of the main reason's I got into bluegrass music and their first eponymous album was the very first bluegrass album I ever bought.  That album of entirely original music by the band members; richly steeped in the traditions of bluegrass--acoustic instrumentation, haunting vocal harmonies and songs able to tell real stories...the good and the bad in us all...through thoughtful, though not-always-comfortable, lyrics set me on a musical path that has taken me to some amazing places and introduced me to some incredible people.  As I valiantly tried to wear out that black painted CD in my car's radio, the music of The Steeldrivers left a lasting mark on my musical soul and helped me define the "Semibluegrass" sound I have been searching out ever since.

The Steeldrivers On Stage at Bell's Eccentric Cafe Beer Garden
How do you describe The Steeldrivers sound--an experience I once heard bass man Mike Fleming refer to as "A Night of Uneasy Listening"?  It is first-and-foremost entirely original, both from the standpoint of every Steeldrivers song being written by a member of the band, and because each of these songs is instantly recognizable as a Steeldrivers song upon first listen.   While based on traditional bluegrass instrumentation, structure and chord progressions, a Steeldrivers melody plays loosely and freely within these rules, drawing on the not only the old-time mountain sounds, but also the folk, blues and soul traditions to create captivating, soul-drenched grooves capable of carrying the emotional drama of songs about love, loss, liquor and longing.  It is this down-to-earth connection with the everyman that makes these songs instantly relatable the broad cross section of humanity that make up The Steeldrivers fan base.

A View of the Stage Before The Show
The show this night took place in a truly unique setting.  The Beer Garden at Bell's Eccentric Cafe is something that must be seen in person to be appreciated.  A fenced in grassy area adjacent to Bell's Brewery, the Beer Garden has a small, roofed wooden stage, a world-class sound system, and an LED lighting system worthy of any 70s era arena rock band.  Tammy Rogers ended the night by saying "this is one hell of a back yard you've got here!".  Indeed, that back yard feaures plenty of flat, grassy areas to stand boasting great views of the stage, with lots of shady spots, and interesting corners to hang out in.  Access to the Brewery, bar and restrooms was convenient and nearby, with a second bar--featuring Bell's award-winning brews--near the stage.  There was also an excellent BBQ table set ups next to the bar--serving  right up until the end of the show.  One of our party got a pulled pork sandwich--an excellent value and huge portion for the price--and pronounced it just the thing to pad the stomach before another of Bell's excellent brews.   Access is direct through the parking lot.  There was little to no wait for ticket bearers with plenty of staff available at the gate.  A thorough, yet courteous, check of bags on the way in--coupled with numerous and visible security throughout the venue--went a long way to a creating a sense of safety and security and allowing the fans to relax without fear of something happening to ruin the evening.  It is rare to find such professional and courteous staff at live music events now days, and greatly appreciated by us music fans for sure.

Nothing Better than Live, Local Music!
Music is always at it's best when performed live, and there is nothing I like better than to see it performed by a band where every person on stage obviously enjoys playing with their bandmates.  When the passion and enjoyment of the music is evident on their faces, it instantly connects them with their audience and allows each to feed off the emotion of the other.  Nowhere is this more evident than in this most currently lineup of The Steeldrivers.  From Mandolinist Brent Truitt's spontaneous "Yeah!" after a particularly nasty (in the good way) fiddle fill from Tammy Rogers; to the look of amazement on Vocalist Kelvin Damrell's face when he is able to channel his inner Chris Stapleton on a first-album classic; through the crazy grin on Banjoist Richard Bailey's face as he unleashes another string-warping, blues tinged break; and ending up with Bassist Mike Henderson--dark glasses on, eyes closed, head back, smiling--grooving to his bandmates as he plays.  Somehow, the band's final output becomes more than the sum of it's individual parts, and transports the audience to a higher plane of melody, rhythm, drive and storytelling.

One critical piece of The Steeldrivers experience has to be the contributions of Tammy Rogers.  A prolific and talented songwriter in her own right, her unique, agressive and throaty fiddle playing is a cornerstone of the band's sound, as is her incredibly powerful and richly colored harmony vocals.  Both her and Flemming have very unique approaches to their harmony singing and they tend to break the Root-Third-Fifth arrangement more often than they stick to it, giving their voices an often dark, always soulful edge leaving the listener feeling at the same time satiated, and awkwardly disturbed.  She shares the emcee duties with her bandmates and her quick wit and sense of humor are easy to see.  Always classy, yet relatable, you get the feeling that she would be just at home at a fancy dinner at a five star restaurant, or swilling down a cold PBR in a dark, loud Nashville bar listening to honky tonk music. 

Another key part of The Steeldrivers sound is the crazy, string-bending antics of boyhood chums Richard Bailey on the five-string and Brent Truitt on the mandolin.  Throwing down lick after lick more customarily heard on a Nashville telecaster than in a bluegrass show, these two continue to break ground when it comes to bluegrass breaks and fills, pulling from the worlds of electric blues, rock and country to punctuate the lyrics and melodies of the songs.  You can see them on stage trading grins and licks trying to one-up each other with another feat of bent-string gymnastics.  Sure, string-bending and the "blue note" are a big part of the banjo library, but Bailey continues to innovate and really has established a unique sound.   His smile and goofy grin bring a little levity to the set (especially when he crouches down to say something through his instrument mic). 

When talking about innovation and string bending, the same can surely be said of Brent Truitt.  Lately, he has been playing a custom Gibson F5 mandolin that has been given the "Gold Top" treatment.  A fine-looking instrument worthy of any rock star, Brent claims (and I agree) that he plays that mandolin for the way it sounds, not the way it looks!  That mandolin is LOUD, both on it's throaty, woody chop, and on it's crystal-clear, single note leads.  Brent has his own unique style of playing mandolin--the way he varies his chop, adds double stops and rakes to his fills and even the way he uses the spaces between the notes.  However, the most notable thing about his playing is obviously the way he bends the strings into bluesy phrases--often a full step (or more).  This feat is hard enough with the doubled string courses of the mandolin, but Truitt manages this using very heavy strings to boot (I think he said they start at 11.5 gauge!).  When asked how he does this, he modestly admits "well, I've played a lot of telecaster over the years".  Truitt invited me to the this show.    He still remembers the first show I saw and reviewed way back in 2013 and saw me from across the yard after the show calling me over to say hey and catch up a little. As we talked, I watched him talk to all the fans that came up, genuinely interested in what they were saying and giving them all the time and attention they deserved.   And the same can be said for all The Steeldrivers; they genuinely like and appreciate their fans.

New Frontman Kelvin Damrell
I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention "new guy" Kelvin Damrell on guitar and lead vocals.  With the departure of former frontmen Chris Stapleton and Gary Nichols, the band went looking for someone to take their place.  Ex-contestant on The Voice Adam Wakefield filled in admirably while they looked.  Apparently, Tammy Rogers' daughter found Kelvin on YouTube doing a Chris Stapleton cover and the band asked him to audition.  He is able to cover Stapleton's signature sound to a "tee", and just as easily can sound like Nichols.  However, he ALSO sounds like Kelvin Damrell--and that's a good thing, as his voice is incredibly nuanced and flexible, able to dig down in the dark, bluesy mud as well as soar to the heights of crystal clear melodies.  He is also a fantastic rhythm guitarist with a somewhat unique-yet-driving approach. Unlike his predecessors, he is more apt to take a solo break during a song, and this is where he really stands out.   Blending Rice-style flatpicking with some great, melodic double- and triple-stop licks, blues riffs and even some Spanish? guitar licks, he has a unique sound that somehow pairs perfectly with The Steeldrivers songs.  I look forward to seeing what he does with the band and how their sound and stage show evolves with him at the reigns.

Just Some Dorky Dude.  And Truitt.
So why are The Steeldrivers my favorite band?  Because they have such a unique sound?  Because they sing songs about real life and real struggles?  Because they're all insanely talented songwriters, producers and musicians?  Or because they're just good "people"?  You be the judge.  Go see them on their upcoming tour and tell them "John the SemiBluegrass Guy" says "Hi!".

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show at Delfest 2018 -- DelYEAH!

Michigan's Own Greensky Bluegrass WSG Del McCoury!
This past Memorial Day weekend I was given the opportunity to accompany Jerry Eicher and the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show to cover the 11th annual DelFest.  We were there as the guests of the festival's PR team to experience this unique gathering and to do a live broadcast of Jerry's radio show.   Quite honestly, I'm still reeling from the experience!  It's hard to describe all the cool "People, Places and Music" we had the pleasure of interacting with over the holiday weekend.  With a legendary, powerhouse lineup of bluegrass bands led by the one-and-only Del McCoury, there was plenty to love for fans of traditional bluegrass.  More importantly, this festival's embracing of a wide variety of innovative, progressive and derivative music was pure nirvana for us "semibluegrass" and Americana fans as well!  How this enormous (and enormously important) event has stayed off my radar for so long is inexcusable--a mistake I will not repeat.  Will I be back in the future?  "Del Yeah!"

DelFest Main Stage - Photo Credit Brady Cooling
Since 2007, Del McCoury and his family have been throwing a little picking party for their family, friends and twenty thousand or so of their fans.  DelFest is held each year over the Memorial Day weekend on the banks of the Potomac River at the beautiful  and scenic Allegheny County fairgrounds in Cumberland, Maryland.  With a broad, flat meadow hosting the main stage, and a pair of smaller stages (one outdoor, one indoor) there is plenty of room to spread out and see a variety of music.  Mountains and a shear granite cliff form a backdrop (and a place for a large, projected silhouette of Del's head in the evening!). There is a large grandstand overlooking the main festival ground/stage with seating and SHADE for those in need.  The stages were large and well appointed with professional lighting and excellent sound.  The light show for each night's closing act was unbelievable for an outdoor venue--reminiscent of a stadium touring rock show--and somehow really contributing to the celebratory atmosphere.

Jerry recording some live sound from Serene Green
On Thursday evening, I had the honor of co-hosting the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show with Jerry Eicher from the press tent in the backstage area.  The show originates from Northern Ohio and can be heard live on WQTE, 95.3FM in Adrian Michigan every Saturday from 10pm to midnight.  The show is syndicated on a variety of bluegrass networks thoughout the country and  also streams live on World Wide Bluegrass Thursday from 7pm to 9pm.  Jerry's show features an eclectic collection of national  and local bluegrass acts ranging from purely traditional to decidedly progressive (he calls it "americanagrass").   With a cell phone internet connection, Jerry is able to broadcast "live" from the field and has begun doing his show live from various festivals.  His "Live from the RV" segments are a big hit with the fans.

Jerry with Lisa and Rob McCoury
With some eleventh hour heroics from Trent "the IT guy" at DelFest, the Ol' Hippie Bluegrass Show went live backstage during the performances of former Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens and the Funky, Bluesy band the California Honeydrops.  The show kicked off with an interview of Rob and Lisa McCoury about the DelFest Academy.  This unique event takes place the Sunday though Wednesday leading up to the festival and allows participants an opportunity to hone their pickin' skills with some of the best in the business.  The academy is hosted by the Travelin' McCourys (Rob and Ron McCoury, Cody Kilby, Jason Carter and Alan Bartram) with additional guest instructors--this year they included Frank Sollivan, Mike Munford, Ronnie Bowman, Chris Luquette and Jay Starling).  Not only do students receive group and individual instruction from some of the best in the business, but they also get a chance to participate in the Academy's version of karaoke, where the student gets to perform a song with the instructors acting as the back-up band!  Students also are randomly grouped in a"band scramble" and compete for the coveted prize of a performance on the main stage to open the festival on Thursday!

Heaven McCoury "Hot Wired"
During the show, we were also able to interview a variety of performers on site.  Del's grandson, Heaven, talked about his 10-piece funk/R&B band the Broomestix, and his  historic performance (the first time an electric guitar has ever appeared on a Del record) on the Shawn Camp cover "Hotwired" from "Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass".  Festival EmCee and former Grateful Dead mandolinist Joe Craven popped in and talked about the history of DelFest.  Matt Rieger and Andy Dunnigan from Montana's Lil' Smokies band stopped by to talk about their sound, with guitarist Rieger repping the mitten with a very cool Otus Supply tee!   After a scorching set of hard-driving, funkified, blues-laced and horn driven R&B soul, frontman Lech Wierzynski of the California Honeydrops closed out the show with a discussion of the festival and what makes it so special.  After packing the show up, Jerry and I caught the killer performance of jamgrass masters the Infamous Stringdusters on the main stage before calling it an "early" evening (at midnight!)

Anders Beck at Friday Press Conference
Over the next three days, Jerry and I were honored to be invited to the daily press conferences hosted by the PR team from the Press House.  These daily events featured a variety of the artists and allowed a brief glimpse of the Festival from the performers' point of view.  Friday's conference featured the bands Mandolin Orange, Greensky Bluegrass and Birds of Chicago.  The question of the day revolved around what made DelFest unique and special.  The answer was pretty unanimously "Del...Duh!".  Perhaps summing it up best was resophonic guitarist Anders Beck from Greensky Bluegrass who--talking about his journey from traditional bluegrass to where the band is now--said "Del comes to our shows.  He LIKES our music.  It's not what HE would play, but he likes it."

Saturday Press Conference at DelFest
Saturday's large panel included representatives of old-time band Rising Appalachia, folkgrassy band Twisted Pine, super-picker Jay Stickley, Heaven McCoury of The Broomesix and mandolinist Casey Campbell of the Bryan Sutton Band.  Perhaps the most meaningful morsel from their spirited discussion came from the women in Rising Appalachia who spoke passionately about the need for music preservationists as well as musical innovators and rule breakers and how a healthy music scene not only tolerates both, but needs both--in balance and harmony.  Due to heavy rains in the forecast, Jerry and I had to pull out early, but did tune in the Sunday evening presser from the RV to hear Del and Ron McCoury, Billy Strings and Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show.  Both Strings and Secor talked about learning new things every day and the McCoury's willingness to help struggling bands...both musically, and even catering to their basic needs.  Secor talked about finding "potted meat and crackers" in their car after a show while on tour with the Del McCoury Band--a gift from Jean McCoury.  He joked that he saw her in the wings during Strings' set and could tell "she was thinking that he needed to eat some more".

Joe Craven and the Sometimers Kick Off Thursday
With four jam packed days of music, it's hard to know where to begin talking about the music.  I can pretty safely say that nearly every performance I saw--had it been at any other festival--would have been the HIGHLIGHT of that festival.  Each and every band certainly brings their "A Game" to DelFest.  Between the once-in-a-lifetime events, guest appearances and special events, DelFest was a non-stop treat for fans of bluegrass and Americana music of nearly all genres and persuasions.  Joe Craven and the Sometimers kicked off Thursday's "Cock a Doodle Do" set with some killer covers of Grateful Dead standards from their new album "Garcia Songbook".  Featuring a killer guitarist, funky bassman and groovy drummer, the Sometimers also added a special guest for this show.   Appearing on stage with the band for the first time ever on harmony vocals was Joe's daughter Hattie who confessed she had to tell her dad she had been "experimenting with the Grateful Dead".  Craven's arrangements of these classic tunes pulled heavily from world rhythms and melodies and were eminently enjoyable and danceable under the hot Maryland sun.

Del and the Greensky Boys Having a Great Time!
While there were many such guest appearances at DelFest, there were a couple that really stood out.  After the first hour or so from Greensky Bluegrass on Friday night--a set drawn heavily from their electrified, effects driven, jamgrass sound, the band took a moment to reflect on their roots as a traditional bluegrass band from Kalamazoo Michigan and some of the songs they used to sing.  A single mic setup was brought out as the band stepped up with none other than Del McCoury himself for a rousing rendition of "Country Boy Rock and Roll".  Not only did they nail the harmonies but handled the switch to pure acoustic jamming with easy, combining rock-solid rhythms and lightning-fingered breaks.  Del even threw in his signature raised guitar G-run that had the boys in the band grinning and laughing while they sang. Earlier that evening, Heaven McCoury joined his Dad, Uncle and Grandpa on stage as the band played "Hot Wired".   My favorite part of the song is near the end, when Heaven participates in a call-and-response set of breaks with each member of the band in turn, holding his own and keeping up while adding his own signature sound to the Del McCoury band sound.  A musical coming-of-age and band rite-of-passageat the same time--and he KILLED it!

"1952 Vincent Black Lightning"
British singer/songwriter Richard Thompson put on a tremendous show Friday, interspersing his witty stage comments with some incredible guitar picking to really bring his original songs to life.  He even did one of his "band" numbers, with the crowd divided up to provide various harmony and horn parts.  He seemed genuinely surprised when the crowd sang the words to one of his songs back to him, almost drowning the sound from the PA!  When Del McCoury took the stage later that night after a brief rain delay, he invited Richard on stage to do his song "1952 Vincent Black Lightning"..a Thompson song made famous in the US by none other than the Del McCoury Band!  As the song kicked off the rains came pouring back down.  I didn't care.  This was the first time that these two had ever done the song together on stage.  Even with the key changed from Bb to C for Del, Thompson managed to add a killer guitar break, and sang a couple of verses with Del.  A truly historic and memorable event.

Sam Bush
Saturday featured a crazy-good lineup of bands.  One of my personal favorites had to be the Sam Bush Band.  Part traditional bluegrass band, part rock-and-roll icon, this 90 minute set ran the gamut.  One can not help but be entertained by Bush's puppy-dog enthusiasm and visible joy on stage.  His songs are poignant and memorable, and his voice lends itself to the multiple styles of music he plays.  I love that he switches to different instruments to get the sound he needs.  In addition to his F5 mandolin, his set featured a bluesy and dark sounding National Resonator mandolin and a fender electric mandolin.  Bush also whipped out a fiddle and showed he's no slouch on that instrument either.  He closed his set with a hard-rocking duet featuring the timely titled "Stop The Violence" with Stephen Mougin on Electric Guitar and Scot Vestal doing a great job emulating a B3 Organ on a solid body electric guitar synthesizer mashup thingamabob.

A Who's Who of Bluegrass Greats
There were so many incredible bands on the bill for DelFest.  Obviously the Del McCoury Band and the Travelin' McCourys are headliners in their own right.  Throw in the David Grisman Trio, the Bryan Sutton Band, Sierra Hull, The Jerry Douglas Band, The Sam Bush Band, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder and you have the true royalty of modern bluegrass all in one place.  Add headline bands The Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass and Old Crow Medicine Show to the mix and you're starting to have something really special.  Late night shows featured some up-and coming superstars including Billy Strings, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, and Fruition.  And wait, there's more.  I saw some killer sets from a bunch of bands including the Grateful Dead covers of The Grass is Dead--clad in some authentic Dead-era tie dyes from The Tie Dye Yogi (a super cool cat we met and hung out with for a bit.  Even picked a couple tunes with him).  Heard some cool "semibluegrass" stuff from The Brothers Comatose, Twisted Pine and Rising Appalachia.

A Once-In-A-Lifetime Gathering of the Greats
The signature event of the weekend might just have been the Saturday incarnation of the Del McCoury Band's set featuring a lineup they called the Bluegrass Congress.  After Richard Thompson got the crowd fired up with his appearance, the "Congress" was convened with the addition of David Grissman, Ricky Skaggs and David "Dawg" Grissman joining Ron McCoury on Mandolin.  Also joining in on the fun were Stuart Duncan on Fiddle, Bryan Sutton on Guitar and Jerry Douglas on the dobro.  They took turns trying to one up each other on a series of bluegrass standards--each memorable in it's own way.  However, it was Dawg's campy version of "I'm My Own Grandpa" that set the band to grinning and laughing while mixing in some killer breaks with one member of this super-band trying to one-up the next.  Great fun was had by band and audience alike.

It's About the People, First
There are a few things that really stick in my mind that made this event memorable.  The food vendors were amazing.  Had a watermelon and feta salad from "The Grilled Cheese Incident" that blew me away and a cup of fair-trade, organic coffee that was, quite honestly, the best cup of coffee I ever had.  The staff and army of volunteers that make DelFest happen are friendly, helpful and hard working--the perfect reflection of the community around them.  Picked a few tunes with the Academy guys under the "tin roof"...great guys, great pickers, great fun.  Same true for all the others I jammed with.  All in all, can't think of a better place to go to find not only the best in live, local music, but "the people, the places and the music (in that order)" that defines us a "semibluegrass" fans.  Do you need to go to DelFest next year?  "Del Yeah" you do!

A few pics follow.  Feel free to use/share with credit to Semibluegrass.com.  Like what you see?  Follow us on Facebook!

Jerry Interviewing Lead Singer of  Serene green

Batik Artists (and African Drum Jammer!)

Our Backstage Radio Setup

Alexia the"Ambiance Coordinator"

Jerry and Ron McCoury

Bruce MacMillan (Joe Craven and the Sometimers)


Andy Hall

Jerry and Heaven McCoury

Jerry and Joe Craven

Lil Smokies

Joe Craven

Hattie Craven

Sam Grisman and Casey Campbell

Allison Russell

Birds of Chicago

Anders Beck sits in with the Bryan Sutton Band


Ricky Skaggs and Del

Del McCoury

Steve Pruett - The Grass is Dead

Jared Womack - The Grass is Dead

Anders Beck

Hattie sitting in with the Brothers Comatose

Greensky One-Mic Jam

Greensky Lights

Paul Hoffman - Greensky

Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson

Sierra Hull

Bryan Sutton and Billy Strings

Scott Vestal

Stephen Mougin - Sam Bush Band

Sam Bush Band

Sutton and Douglas

Del Yeah Sam Bush!

Del McCoury