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Bluegrass in the Bottoms festival showcases the genre’s many flavors

Railroad Earth
Railroad Earth Special to The Star

Communal goodwill permeates the inaugural edition of the Bluegrass in the Bottoms festival.

The open secret of the Bluegrass in the Bottoms festival was that very little actual bluegrass was performed on the main stage. While banjos, fiddles and mandolins abounded at the inaugural edition of the two-day event, musicians most often applied them to alternative country and improvisation-based rock. The appealing fusion of styles attracted more than 3,000 people to the festival on Saturday.

Situated on the soggy grounds of a park adjacent to the expansive Knuckleheads complex in the East Bottoms, the main stage was headlined by Railroad Earth. The New Jersey sextet is a bluegrass ensemble in the same way that the Rolling Stones are a blues band. Simple categorization doesn’t reflect the group’s range.

A straightforward version of the abstract country song “Bird In a House” demonstrated Railroad Earth’s compositional acumen. The robust psychedelic jam that resolved “Potter’s Field” magnified the regret of the murder ballad’s narrator.

The Yonder Mountain String Band also indulged in a few dizzying jams. The influential Colorado quintet’s interpretation of the Beatles’ “Only a Northern Song” lasted more than ten minutes. Such extravagances were balanced by a handful of traditional bluegrass selections.

The members of the Colorado quintet traded lead vocals and impressive solos. Mandolin player Jacob Joliff excelled on an acoustic reading of “Love Before You Can’t” and added distortion effects to a cover of King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight.”

Fruition also has a predilection for 1970s soft rock. “Labor of Love” and “Santa Fe” were among the Portland group songs reminiscent of the hits of the likes of Firefall and Pablo Cruise. The quintet’s winsome indie-rock material and rugged barroom blues were no less enticing, a promising indication that Fruition could be on the verge of widespread popularity.

Fruition and the Shook Twins didn’t bother to masquerade as bluegrass acts. The opening selection of the latter group led by twin sisters Katelyn and Laurie Shook was introduced as “our folk-disco song.” The light funk accentuated Shook Twins’ winsome harmonies in the vein the indie-pop group Haim.

On the idealistic “Windows,” the siblings sighed “if I only had a window, a window to the sixties.” The sisters merely needed to glance at the remarkable scene in front of them to see a miniature version of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The tie-dye clothing, funny-smelling clouds of smoke and the sense of communal goodwill at Bluegrass in the Bottoms were a welcome throwback to an earlier era.

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