“But when the lights are turning ’round
And wheels are rolling on the ground
That day I’ll burn this whole place down
When the circus comes to town”
-Los Lobos, When the Circus Comes to Town
The Huck Finn Jubilee took place for the 38th time this past weekend in Ontario, CA. Something tells me that after this past weekend, that quaint little bluegrass festival will never be the same. String Cheese Incident headlined two nights and brought the “circus” with them. The locals didn’t seem all that thrilled…the city of Ontario, was elated.
There’s a reason why some places don’t like jamband festivals. To say the least, the crowds are a bit overwhelming. Especially in the case of a bunch of folks who came out to hear some good old fashioned, down home bluegrass. My first clue that this was going to be something different was watching the morning news on Friday. They were broadcasting from the Huck Finn Jubilee and interviewing Rhonda Vincent, a great bluegrass artist. The reporter said to her, “Have you ever experienced the String Cheese Incident’s fans?” Rhonda said, “No” followed by the reporter saying something to the tune of, “they’re kinda like Phish fans.” I’m not sure she meant that as a compliment.
Next clue it was going to be unlike any festival I’d been to before. When I arrived mid afternoon on Friday, there was row after row of high back camp chairs lined up in near perfect lines on the lawn in front of the main stage…half empty, half occupied by what can only be described as the rec room at a retirement community. “Oh, they have no idea,” I thought to myself.
The line-up was peppered with pieces of the old school bluegrass community. Rhonda Vincent, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, Sam Bush, Del McCoury Band and the 87 year young, Dr. Ralph Stanley. All there to fill the hearts and souls of the traditional bluegrass faithful. Add to that impressive list the “new breed” of bluegrass inspired acts like Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys along with the two night headliner, String Cheese Incident and you’ve got a formula for a great weekend of music. What could possibly go wrong?
Nothing went “wrong” in my opinion. Everything went right as rain as bluegrass music from the last 100+ years filled the air in a beautiful park on two lakes in Ontario, CA. Perched adjacent to the Ontario Airport, I was thrilled that there was no noise interference from planes. In fact, not once did I even see a plane, let alone hear one. The only noise was coming from mandolins, banjos, guitars and bass. It seems that not everyone was walking around soaking in the atmosphere like I was. After 38 years of tradition, some folks didn’t seem all that thrilled that the youthful crowd of String Cheese fans had infiltrated their oasis of bluegrass. I polled many of the crowd who appeared to be part of the “regulars” as to their thoughts of having String Cheese Incident added to their event. I got everything from, “I don’t know why they brought in those guys” to “I’m leaving before that madness begins.” Clearly, most of them were running on fuel fed to them by opinions of others and speculation versus real fact or experience. While SCI does draw a strong youthful audience mixed of jamband fans and EDM fans, there were a handful of seasoned veterans who were more than thrilled that their backyard was being filled with an “incident.” Quite a few old school Deadheads found their way to their first SCI show and from their reaction, it won’t be the last. “That was amazing. I had no idea.” was one such vintage Dead fan’s response.
So, what were the highlights, low lights and bright lights of the weekend? Rhonda Vincent is a good start. Five Grammy Awards don’t lie. Chris Jones and the Night Drivers played 3 brilliant sets of bluegrass over the weekend. I was a fan of Chris before this festival. Have been for 7 years and he and his band gave me no reason to alter that opinion. The Boxcars, an East Coast bluegrass outfit brought it strong and I’ll be anxiously awaiting their return to So. Cal in the near future. Sam Bush took it up to another level, much to the delight of everyone in attendance. Del McCoury Band was excellent. First time seeing them, not the last. And that was just FRIDAY!
Saturday, Junior Sisk and the Ramblers stood out along with the SteelDrivers as those to see again. Keller Williams with the Travelin’ McCourys blew away the gathering crowd with bluegrass versions of Tom Petty as well as some signature Keller tunes including “Freaker By the Speaker”. I also got a chance to wander over to the guitar workshop and hear Chris Jones give a lesson on bluegrass guitar to a pleased crowd, after his set on main stage. He threw down an impromptu “Dark Hollow” which made that Deadhead piece of my soul smile.
We can’t forget the incomparable, Dr. Ralph Stanley. At 87 years young, Dr. Ralph is, likely, an inspiration to nearly everyone who was performing at Huck Finn. He did not disappoint anyone, digging deep into bluegrass tradition and bringing old songs to a new crowd. Thank you, Dr. Stanley, for laying some of the bricks upon which the house of bluegrass has grown.
But let’s not beat around the proverbial bush. The reason we all flocked to Ontario, CA in June was to see String Cheese Incident melt some faces. And melt faces they did. Both nights, they eased the crowd into it with an acoustic set before turning the amps to 11 and blowing minds out the back of skulls. As if they were trying to win over the locals, SCI opened up their Friday night with Don’t You Wanna Dance>Dudley’s Kitchen. If that wasn’t enough, the bust out of the New Riders of the Purple Sage song, “Panama Red” put a smile on everyone’s face…no matter what the age. They closed out the set with special guest Sam Bush, once again delighting the Huck Finn regulars. Then, it was time to get a little weird. The sun had dropped, the lights we getting more animated and the music went there too. Second set opened with “Song In My Head” off the new SCI album and closed with a personal favorite, “Desert Dawn”, right after 11pm. I turned to the stranger beside me and said, “If that the last song, I’m O.K. with that. That was just what the doctor ordered.” It wasn’t. Encore of Paul Simon’s “Under African Skies” and a BollyMunster sent us all on our way just before 11:30pm. A great first night. Something told me night two would be a little different.
SCI Setlist: 06/13/14 – Ontario, CA
Set 1: Don’t You Wanna Dance > Dudley’s Kitchen, Panama Red > Yo Se, Shine, Barstool, Missin’ Me > Birdland#, Wheel Hoss#, One Love# > Mannish Boy
Set 2: Song In My Head, Sweet Spot, Rosie, Way Back Home >Desert Dawn
Encore: Under African Skies (Paul Simon cover), BollyMunster
NOTES: First set acoustic, # with Sam Bush
Night two of String Cheese was a little different. Old friend of the Cheese, Keller Williams, was in the house and there was no doubt he would be joining in on the SCI set. Delightfully, not only Keller but the whole Travelin’ McCourys crew stepped on stage with SCI during their acoustic set which included a “Smile” opener followed by Beatles cover, “I’ve Just Seen A Face”. Truly tasty. Loved hearing “Little Hands”. Keller and the Travelin’ McCourys joined for a “Catfish John” and the ever popular “Porta Potty” Keller Williams classic…and that was set 1.
Set two opened strong with Colorado Bluebird Sky which got the juices flowing…and the Old Smokey Moonshine drinks, as I recall. More nods to the fans and the location came with “Far From Home> Look At Where We Are”. Set closed with return of the Travelin’ MCourys for “Best Feeling” and Keller stuck around for “Restless Wind”. The exclamation point of a “Can’t Wait Another Day” left everyone wanting more.
SCI Setlist:06/14/14 – Ontario, CA:
Set 1: Smile, I’ve Just Seen A Face, Sand Dollar, Stay Thru, Little Hands > Boo Boo’s Pik-a-Nik, Catfish John#, Porta Potty#
Set 2: Colorado Bluebird Sky > Let’s Go Outside, Black And White > Far From Home > Look At Where We Are, Beautiful, Best Feeling#, Restless Wind*
Encore: Can’t Wait Another Day
NOTES: First set acoustic, # with The Travelin’ McCourys and Keller Williams, * with Keller Williams
Exhaustion prevented my return on Sunday but, honestly, two days was certainly enough to get my fill. When the old guard meets the new breed, sometimes it’s tough to see eye to eye. It’s understandable how a certain amount of conflict of opinion reared it’s head between those who were perfectly happy with their island of bluegrass and those who feel the need to dive into the deep end and take in all that the world of music can offer. Youthful exuberance meets the old and in their way. Why can’t we all get along? Well, it was clear this weekend that with a little effort from both sides of the coin, everyone can get along…they just may not be able to dance to the same music. Some like the Kentucky Waltz while others like something a little different. It’s why we live where we live…freedom to disagree.
Looking forward to next years Huck Finn Jubilee!
For more photos of the bands and the festival check out the following links: