A lot of changes were implemented this year at the Huck Finn Jubilee in Ontario CA, held over the weekend of June 12-14. First of all, security was beefed up, there were actual fences and security checkpoints to walk through, there was an actual photo pit (My favorite), and a lot more organization all the way around. It was a nice change after last year’s event which attracted more people than I think they were prepared for because of the crowds that String Cheese Incident drew. For the caliber of musicians that played all weekend, the crowd size was completely inappropriate. I would have expected more people, although the smaller crowd made for a more pleasurable concert experience. Lines weren’t as long for food, and there was room for everyone that wanted to dance.
The main draws for the crowds this year were of course Dr Ralph Stanley and Del McCoury on Friday (Superb, as usual), Saturday had Railroad Earth, Steve Martin (Yes. THAT Steve Martin) playing with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, and Sunday’s bill was topped with Leftover Salmon featuring Little Feat’s Bill Payne and Greensky Bluegrass.
The crowd was pretty much the same demographic as last year. There was a nice mix of people with their folding chairs taking up most of the space in front of the stage each day. The octogenarians dominated the crowd until the hippies started to descend upon the stage as the day progressed. Some of the older crowd actually stayed for the loud electric music and gave it a chance, which surprised me, because last year I think the crowds scared them away.
Midway through Saturday’s show, five-time Grammy award winner (best bluegrass album) Ricky Skaggs treated us to some great mandolin playing on “PeeWee”, which is his mandolin’s name. In between songs, Skaggs entertained the crowd with stories about Bill Monroe (who he shared a stage with when he was SIX (!!), his father (“Son, if you’re a little out of tune it doesn’t matter; it just sounds like more of us are playing”) and Tennessee picker Doc Watson. Highlights included “Blue Night” from his new album, and “New Jerusalem”, an instrumental that was just as impressive and allowed Kentucky Thunder to just take off.
Most of the afternoon crowd had come to see Steve Martin play with the Steep Canyon Rangers. It’s a little-known fact that Steve definitely knows his way around a banjo. He also has a Grammy for his playing. The Steep Canyon Rangers are a traditional bluegrass band, and although much of it was obviously rehearsed, the injection of Martin’s comedy mixed perfectly. Jokes and humor, aside, Steve Martin is an amazing banjo player. It’s obvious that he has a great time onstage playing the music he loves.
Jeff Austin, formerly of the Yonder Mountain String Band, came next. Jeff is a huge name in the jam-grass community and he definitely showed us why. He’s definitely a wizard on the mandolin and pushed it into jazz and country territory, as well. The crowd loved it and showed their appreciation by dancing harder to his set than most of the others this weekend.
Now, Railroad Earth does not sound like a band that hails from New Jersey. They’ve been around since 2001 and have carved themselves a spot in the jamband scene for the past few years. They even have their own version of Deadheads: The Hobos, of which there were plenty that night. This band’s jams start out heavy and frantic, then slowly work their way into the trancey, psychedelic side. Frontmen Todd Shaeffer and Tim Carbone (violin) definitely know how to take this band in some nice directions while onstage.
Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass played in the middle of the day. His backing band consisted of the entire Infamous Stringdusters who had played an entire set of their own right before this.This was a set for the Deadheads: bluegrass versions of Grateful Dead songs. It was, to put it simply, great. and the songs are anything but traditional when it comes to bluegrass. He started his set off with a blazing “Shakedown Street”, and worked the way toward the fun Harry Belafonte song “Man Smart, Women Smarter”. Other highlights included “New Speedway Boogie” and a “Scarlet Begonias” which segued perfectly into “Bertha”.
Greensky Bluegrass is one of the most promising up-and-coming bands today. Their dobro player, Anders Beck, I was told is one of the most recognizable dobro players in the business today. He definitely helped the band seamlessly mix psychedelic jams and modern bluegrass. I would definitely keep an eye out for this band when they come around again.
The entire weekend then capped off with Leftover Salmon, who now has Bill Payne from Little Feat playing the Hammond B3 and keyboards. He makes a very nice addition to the band, and was officially inaugurated as a member of the band in the Fall last year. His style from Little Feat’s music definitely complements the Salmon sound.
Vince Herman is a great frontman, and in more ways than one, reminds me of Bill Nershi from the String Cheese Incident. I think the official title of their type of music is slam-grass. The band took a break for a while after banjoist Mark Vann lost his battle with cancer in 2002, but came back with a vengeance by 2007. Some of the great new songs include a tune written by Payne and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, “Bluegrass Pines” and “Two Highways”, which will definitely become a staple in the new repertoire. Just so everyone could get their “Feat” on, they performed a smoking “Oh Atlanta”, and an amazing “Dixie Chicken”, and the Band’s “Rag Mama Rag into, an amazing, soulful “Franklin’s Tower” to satisfy the Deadheads.
All in all a very satisfying time. I slept for 12 straight hours when I got home that night.