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Bluegrass fest showcased masters of tradition

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

For making a tight connection between artist and audience, there is nothing like acoustic string music. The subtlety of the sound, the lack of overwhelming gear and the overt ties to the past create a humble sense that begins on the stage and extends into the crowd.

That’s the way it seemed at the Wheeler Opera House last week, when the Wheeler presented its Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music. The five concerts over five nights featured various takes on acoustic sounds, from Vince Gill’s stripped-down country to Ralph Stanley’s old-time mountain music to Tim and Mollie O’Brien’s broad range of styles. But evident throughout the festival was the abundant respect for tradition the musicians brought to the stage and how that sense of the past swept into the audience.

Perhaps that explains how Ralph Stanley II – the son of legendary singer Dr. Ralph Stanley but hardly a heavyweight in his own right – received a huge ovation upon taking the stage for his opening set. The younger Stanley represented the continuation of a proud artistic tradition, and the closing-night audience on Sunday seemed to appreciate that Ralph II was following in his father’s footsteps. The younger Stanley proved just a modest talent – a decent but hardly original singer and strictly a rhythm guitarist – but his genuine awe of his father and his affection for the music won over the crowd.

It was easy to see where Stanley the Second gets his respect for the music. In his frequent stage chatter, Dr. Stanley conveyed a warmth bordering on fanaticism for all things bluegrass: his friend, the late bluegrass innovator Bill Monroe; the ancient songs; the remarkable success that has followed in the wake of the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.

But where the son was just another good Southern singer, the father was one of a kind. Even at 76 and admittedly slowed by the altitude, Dr. Stanley’s voice was still a remarkably strong instrument. Stanley is physically small, but his stage presence, combined with a big voice that hits every note, makes him an authoritative figure. Just to see a man of his age deliver an a cappella version of “O Death” is impressive enough; to see him unblinkingly nail it with chilling emotion earned the crowd’s applause.

If there was a down point to the show, it was that Stanley only strapped on his banjo for one tune. That one demonstration of Stanley’s claw-hammer style -far different than the three-finger playing standard in bluegrass – showed he could still pick. Overall, however, the show did not lack for instrumental prowess; Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys can pick it with anybody.

As a country superstar accustomed to big venues, Vince Gill probably doesn’t get much of a chance to make intimate connections with an audience. His appearance on opening night showed that, instead of being rusty as a small-venue performer, Gill relished the chance to connect. For nearly three hours, Gill told stories, strummed his guitar and sang his own material as though this is the kind of show he does nightly. Gill hit every emotional note dead on, whether impersonating his father, singing the somber “Young Man’s Town” or allowing a woman to come spontaneously onstage and deliver, in sign language, the words to the reflective “In These Last Few Days.” Gill was joined by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jimmy Ibbotson and Amy Grant, Gill’s wife, for a few songs apiece, but for most of the three hours it was just him, his guitar, his songs and his stories. It was all that was needed.

It’s hard to knock the singing or picking of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, which manages the slightest modern twist while staying well within bluegrass traditions. But in terms of emotional content, the quintet showed little depth. Introducing a murder ballad with a joke, and resuming the joking afterward, takes away from what the song is meant to deliver. The set felt like a one-tone demonstration of musical exactitude. Even an a cappella gospel tune done in perfect four-part harmonies failed to stir the soul. Dan Sheridan, with just three songs squeezed into an opening set, conveyed the depth of the music more convincingly.

The sibling duo of Tim and Mollie O’Brien had an easy time delivering a wide range of feels. From a comical song about traveling to fiddle tunes linked to the ancient Celtic style, to a version of Gillian Welch’s mournful “Orphan Girl,” the O’Briens had a natural feel for the material. While the instrumentation was limited to two voices and Tim’s alternating between guitar and his “big-ass mandolin” – technically, a bouzouki – the two never seemed limited in what they could do with those resources.

The Flying Dog Bluegrass Band did well enough in their opening slot to earn an invitation to join the O’Briens in a set-closing jam.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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