TEXT & PHOTOS BY MICHAEL BERICK
The L.A. Bluegrass Situation has always been a rather unique festival situation. Since starting in 2010, it has both expanded and contracted. The festival began as a five-day affair at the intimate Los Angeles club Largo at the Coronet. Last year, the Bluegrass Situation relocated to the larger Theater at the Ace Hotel for two days of shows. This year, the festival was just one day, Oct. 3, but it moved to the even larger Greek Theater.
Actor/banjo enthusiastic Ed Helms’ initial reason to put this festival on was to stimulate interest in L.A. for bluegrass music. Early participants such bluegrass-y acts as the Infamous Stringdusters, Steep Canyon Rangers, Nickel Creek alums Sean & Sara Watkins and Chris Thile (with his band the Punch Brothers) along with Helms and his fellow banjo-picking actor Steve Martin. The Bluegrass Situation, which is also a popular website, has broaden its musical focus over the years to encompass all sorts of Americana styles. Last year’s headliners, for example, were the history-minded string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the folk-tinged indie rockers Lord Huron.
So it was no surprise that this year’s festival wasn’t just a day of bluegrass. In fact, there was very little music that could be described as traditional bluegrass. The concert was less like a West Coast attempt at Merlefest and more like a little cousin to San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, which coincidentally took place the same weekend.
One advantage of the Greek setting was that it allowed the Festival to begin early. In the afternoon, fans could stroll around outside the amphitheater where there were food trucks, games to play and a small stage featuring up-and-coming acts.
The outdoor stage proved to be a nice showcase for Southern California’s rich Americana scene Two talented local bands – the jubilant old-timey-inspired ensemble Dustbowl Revival and the lovely, harmony-rich folk-rocker The Wild Reeds – got the day off to a rousing start. The Spirit Family Reunion, imported from New York City, were indeed spirited in their all-too short set of energized acoustic music. Closing out the afternoon was another rising local star Sam Outlaw (below), whose trad-based country felt more suited for a dimly lit honky tonk than the blazing October sun; however, he confidently served up timeless-sounding tunes from his impressive debut, Angeleno. He also got off one of the day’s best lines saying it has always been his dream “to play outside the Greek Theater.”
The Americana eclecticism continued once concert moved inside the amphitheatre. Nashville-based troubadour Jonny Fritz kicked off the festivities with a short set of decidedly off-kilter tunes as one might expect from someone who used to go by the moniker Jonny Corndawg.
Della Mae, another Nashville act, very much epitomized what the Bluegrass Situation is all about. This all-female ensemble’s acoustic music has bluegrass roots but they stretched out to pull in strands of soul, folk, country and rock. Case in point – their set closer was an impassioned rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “No Expectation.”
There was a contemplative mood when singer/songwriter Gregory Alan Isokov took to the stage. His intense, cinematic music held some Leonard Cohen-like qualities, although the Colorado-based performer has a far more expressive voice. At times his intimate music felt a bit lost in the Greek Amphitheatre but Isokov and his small band (particularly guitarist Ramaya Soskin and violinist Jeb Bows) wonderfully guided his songs to dip and soar into crescendos.
A sense of drama was a key part of the Lone Bellows’ strong set (above), which really galvanized the audience. The group’s core trio – singer/guitarist Zach Williams, multi-instrumentalist/singer Kanene Donehey Pipkin and guitarist/singer Brian Elmquist – are all powerhouse singers and they weren’t shy about showing it. Williams, the main vocalist, was a particularly theatrical performer. He milked the crowd, cajoled them to sing along and putting so much of himself into a song, you thought that he might collapse from exhaustion.
The Brooklyn-based group suggested a folk trio sonically supersized into a rock band – imagine Peter, Paul & Mary melded with Fleetwood Mac – and then injected with some revival tent soul. Songs like “The One You Shouldn’t Let Go,” “You Need Nobody,” the Elmquist showcase “Green Eyes And A Heart of Gold” and their best-known tune “Then Came The Morning” were all anthem-like numbers that brought the crowd to their feet. This band should very quickly work their way up concert bills.
The Punch Brothers (above), the sole veterans of prior Bluegrass Situations, might have looked like a bluegrass band. The guys played the mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar and standup bass; however, what they played was something like a bluegrass with mutated DNA.
Fiddler Gabe Witcher, guitarist Chris Eldridge, bassist Paul Kowert, banjoist Noam Pikelny and mandolinist, and ringleader, Chris Thile are all virtuosos and, during their set, they whipped through songs and traded off solos with the precision of diamond cutters. Thile served as ringleader, keeping a light touch while the music flew into the heavens before returning to earth. A prime example of their musical expertise was how they smoothly blended Jimmie Rodgers’ “Brakeman’s Blues” with “Passepied” by Claude Debussy (“the father of bluegrass,” as Thile quipped).
The concert’s closer was the band Dawes who, like The Lone Bellow, would be in major rotation on rock radio stations if there were still rock radio stations of old. While they were the act furthest away from “bluegrass,” the Los Angeles-bred & based band does carry on the legacy of SoCal’s laidback Laurel Canyon folk-rock. What makes Dawes really stand out is frontman Taylor Goldsmith’s distinctive songwriting. He is someone who can write keenly observed lyrics and match them to friendly hooks. Their set mixed old and new tunes, with “Little Bit Of Everything,” “Things Happen,” “If I Wanted Someone” and “All Your Favorite Bands” (a co-write with Jonny Fritz) especially impressing as thinking man’s sing-a-longs.
The recent addition of Duane Betts (son of Dickie, named after Allman) on lead guitar added some welcome grittiness to the Dawes’ sound; Betts accented the “southern” in their Southern California sound. Goldsmith, who early in the set said it was a dream come true to play the Greek, brought the remaining musicians onto the stage to do Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” the 21st Century “Kumbaya.” While it would have been nice if there had been more interactions like this between the bands throughout the show, this “all-star jam” nicely showed how the concert brought together many strands of Americana music. The Bluegrass Situation had an auspicious debut at the Greek Theater, and hopefully they will make it an annual tradition.