At first blush, you’d think that a ‘clusterpluck’ might just be a bad thing.
In somebody else’s hands, you’d be right, but when Paul Levine, Purple Hat Productions, and the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park throw a clusterpluck, you’d best be packing your bags and heading that direction. The inaugural Suwannee Summer Clusterpluck takes place this Friday and Saturday, June 23 and 24, with all music in the beautiful (and air-conditioned!) Music Hall.
The weekend’s music includes some of the very best bluegrass, newgrass, Americana, pickin’, post-grass, psychedelic hick-hop, and outlaw bluegrass on the planet. Possibly the solar system. And all of the bands and musicians (with one exception) will play both nights, ensuring that you’ll get to hear the great range of each one’s catalog and the likelihood of lots of sit-ins and guest appearances in such an intimate setting. All of these musicians are well respected and dearly loved by all those who have attended Suwannee Roots Revival, Suwannee Spring Reunion, Wanee Music Festival, Purple Hatter’s Ball, and other great SoSMP fests.
Drew Emmitt and Vince Herman need no real introduction (but we’ll attempt anyway). Their groundbreaking work with Leftover Salmon, including an amazing set at Wanee in tribute to Neil Young, is known to fans across numerous genres. Beyond their superb musical skills, they are admired for their great smiles and positive spirit when they perform. At Wanee 2017, we wrote:
There had been a lot of buzz about Leftover Salmon performing the music of Neil Young. “Heart of Gold” featured a melodica solo by keyboard player Erik Deustch and Drew Emmitt on mandolin. Their version of “Cowgirl in the Sand” was delightful, bouncy double-time bluegrass. Mandolin and banjo were great, and Greg Garrison’s bass was front and center.
LoS worked us through a punchy “Are You Ready for the Country?” and a subdued “Old Man.” “Alabama” had a slow bluegrass intro before kicking into overdrive. Emmitt’s guitar was truly electric, and drums courtesy of Alwyn Robinson were great. As always, the vocals throughout were on point, thanks to Vince Hermann, Emmitt and the band.
Larry and Jenny Keel (Lexington VA), like Emmitt and Herman, have wowed fans at the park countless times with their wonderful flat picking and bass playing. they have appeared as The Keels, played with Keller (Williams) and the Keels, and as a duo. We saw them at SpringFest 2016:
I dragged myself away to catch The Larry Keel Experience: Keel on guitar, Jenny Keel on upright bass, and Will Lee on banjo. They had just finished a tune and stepped right into a wonderful version of “That Smell,” absolutely perfect. They played next a song about viewing Denali, often an impossible task. Keel occasionally used a ‘60s-sounding fuzz tone on his acoustic guitar.
And then it was time for ‘clusterpluck.’ That’s the game where you invite 11 of your closest friends to join your trio on stage. Members of Railroad Earth, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, and Horseshoes & Hand Grenades (more?) joined in the fun. Perhaps at some festivals the sudden appearance of a dozen extra musicians would put the sound crew in a tizzy. Not the SoSMP guys. This was top-notch, and the musicians loved played a John Hartford song, “Take Me Back to My Mississippi River Home.” They followed with “Whatever Gets You Through the Night” and a beautiful Tony Rice song.
The Jon Stickley Trio defies description. Any attempt to pigeonhole their style fails instantly. Objectively, you might form opinions about what a guitarist, violin player, and drummer can do, but those opinions shatter the instant you hear them, live or on record. They call it ‘electro-harmonic jazz grass and post-gras.’ Stickley is a great guitarist, Patrick Armitrage a drummer whose range continues to amaze, and then there’s Lyndsay Pruett, a wizard and true star on fiddle. After the Asheville group bowled us over at SpringFest 2016, we raved:
The Jon Stickley Trio. See, right there, we’ve got a problem. It says trio, but there had to be, like, five or six people on stage, right? Except I kept counting. Kept getting three. Holy WOW! Stickley is a beast on guitar, the perfect follow-up to Brett Bass’s shreddin’/pickin’ with Grandpa’s Cough Medicine. And Lyndsay Pruett? Believe the hype. More than anything, this was an astounding weekend for fiddlers.
But drummer Patrick Armitage. Oh, Patrick Armitage! He was beyond brilliant. He could turn awesome songs into outrageous funk or rocking prog. It was truly amazing to hear how the three meshed and funked and rocked and… Just WOW. And a second dose would be on tap Friday!
Outlaw bluegrass begins and pretty much ends with Grandpa’s Cough Medicine (also Asheville). Two gentlemen who have won numerous pickin’ championships — Brett Bass on guitar and Mikey ‘Banjo Boy’ Coker on… banjo — are now joined by new band member Caleb Hanks, a fine mandolin picker himself. They would be stars if all they did was pick. However… they sing. From SpringFest 2016:
Grandpa’s Cough Medicine was ready to hold forth on the Amphitheater Stage. If there was any question which direction the set would go, it was erased the moment Brett Bass (guitar) started singing “Blood and Justice (The Pedophile Song).” It was all ‘downhill’ from there.
Bass proceeded to tell us that the next song was about bandmate Mikey Banjo Boy Coker. So of course it was called “Fast As Fuck, High As Hell” (with apologies). After “Respect the Shine” came the first real asskicker, a lightning-fast workout with Bass and Coker pickin’ like crazy and (former member) Jon Murphy coloring everything with his hypnotic bass lines.
After “Here’s our Irish song,” they played a wild new tune called “Drunken Freight Train” that was really powerful. Then we got the great lyrics of “Brand New .22.” The set was filled with favorites (“The Murder Chord” and “Crooked Cop”) and a new tune: “Train of Thought.” Bass and Coker won blue ribbons for pickin’ last year, but they sound even better now!
Albert Simpson is a singer-songwriter from Alabama who sings fine original tunes and puts his own mark on a number of interesting covers as well. We confess we didn’t wake up in time to hear him play during breakfast at Wanee, but we loved him at A Feast of Funk and Soul Food in November, when we said:
Saturday began early with Albert Simpson playing during the Louisiana shrimp boil and then music inside. At the beginning of Simpson’s set, I confess I was not drawn in. Then, something happened. A string broke, and it took several minutes to repair. When he returned, there was a very different vibe, and he nailed song after song, starting with “Bertha” and another Dead song, then “Fat Man in the Bathtub,” several very good originals and more. He played songs from his albums and covers with equal relish.
Pickled Holler will also play on Saturday. J Williams and Matthew Williams are home ‘bass’ for this Athens group. She plays double bass, flute, and ukulele, and he plays guitar. They’ll have a gaggle of folks with them on stage, probably including this guy:
Last — but definitely no least — The Rev. Jeff Mosier, he of Blueground Undergrass fame, will be artist at large both days. Mosier’s banjo has graced the stage with bands of all stripes and sizes; count on seeing him a bunch. He alleges to define ‘psychedelic hick-hop!’
There you have it: true bluegrass royalty. And you don’t even have to genuflect — as long as you dance and clap and cheer!