There are constants in life. Anchors, if you will. Things that endure. Things you can count on. Things that somehow never let you down.
Frank Pepe’s pizza. A Cuban cigar. A birdie putt. Seldom Scene at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival.
Seldom Scene, live from Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, May 18, 2019
This is the 78th Gettysburg festival. Saturday night, The Seldom Scene made their 77th Gettysburg festival appearance. It’s probably no surprise they will make number 78 in August.
That is not a record. Ironically, the band that played two slots ahead of them, Dry Branch Fire Squad, has played all 78. And you can be sure they will be back in August, too. Someday they will probably have a statue of Ron Thomason, and once each festival they will set it on the stage for an hour.
There was a certain symbolism in having Seldom Scene headlining Saturday night at Gettysburg, even if they did save “Wait a Minute” (seriously one of our favorite songs ever) for their Sunday afternoon set.
They’ll play a lot of requests Sunday, but don’t plan on calling out your favorite and getting it played. There is a waiting list from Saturday night’s set that Dudley Connell promised the crowd they will get to.
Most of the songs put off til Sunday are numbers from deep in the repertoire the band has built through 47 years, 10 lineups, 14 members, and 22 albums. The band will run through them tomorrow before the set to refamiliarize themselves with ones that have not been played for a while.
Those are the kinds of requests you get when the audience knows you the way the Gettysburg audience knows these guys. It was a huge Saturday night crowd, yet it felt intimate. It was almost like being at a family picnic when your uncle and his buddies start to pick. Or how it would feel in that situation if your uncle and his buddies actually could pick. And we mean really pick.
The current lineup — Lou Reid on mandolin, Ronnie Simpkins on bass, Ron Stewart on banjo and fiddle, Fred Travers on dobro, and Connell on guitar — has been together since 2017. Reid, Simpkins, Travers, and Connell have been with the band since the mid 1990s. Reid is actually in his second stint with the band. He played guitar from 1986 to 1993. (NOTE: This was added for clarification after the piece was originally published)
It is rare that a band can undergo so many fundamental personnel changes and still maintain its genuineness (if that is a word?). People bought tickets to see Journey with a Filipino frontman, or Queen with that dude from American Idol. But nobody pretends they are seeing the real thing. Seldom Scene was in existence more than 20 years before any current members joined the band, yet they still feel the same.
They still have the same strong vocals and amazing harmonies. They still are all stellar pickers. And they still play the same music. Their set Saturday night included two numbers from their very first album, released in 1972 — a cover of James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” and another, the name of which we didn’t catch, that Travers said was the first song the band ever played at a live gig.
That familiarity added a comfortable vibe to a Saturday evening filled with fine bluegrass, much of which was new to us.
We make no secret that our tastes, and usual haunts, tend towards more progressive bluegrass. We are not offended by jamgrass, or extended jams mid song. We enjoy listening to people who can really pick have a chance to stretch out.
Gettysburg is a little different than most festivals we cover. It is more traditional, though they do a nice job of mixing in some more progressive acts. Promoter Rich Winkelman winced when we, more than half-jokingly, suggested he book Gangstagrass. He’s seen them. He was intrigued. But he knows it would never go over at Gettysburg.
But he does stretch things out, like he did this week with Steep Canyon Rangers. It’s worth noting even the Rangers showed respect for the more traditional nature of this festival by opting to have Mike Ashcroft use the wooden cajon “box set” for percussion in lieu of the full drum set he uses for most gigs these days.
Danny Paisley and Southern Grass, live from Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, May 18, 2019
Still, at its heart, this is a more traditional event, and Saturday evening’s slate sort of represented that. With Danny Paisley and Southern Grass kicking off a five-act bill that also included Balsam Ridge, Blue Highway, and, of course, Seldom Scene and Dry Branch Fire Squad.
It says something about the depth of that lineup that the first band up included the 2016 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year, Danny Paisley.
Paisley has been leading the band his father started since Bob Paisley died in 2004. In February, the younger Paisley had a scare himself. He joked during the set about the embarrassment of being exposed to the world while being prepped for a cardiac catheterisation. He says he is feeling fine now.
“I’m out there rockin’ and rollin’ and playing a little bluegrass music,” says Paisley, who they say has played in 22 countries during his 45-years as a traditional bluegrass musician.
Paisley plays sitting down these days, but the music is still the same classic, traditional bluegrass you expect to hear at Gettysburg. Paisley’s voice may not be quite what it was a few years ago, but it is still strong and clear. The band is a tight quintet that includes Paisley’s son, Ryan, on mandolin.
WHICH IS IT?
Is it “Little Sadie,” or “Little Maggie?” We’ve heard both this weekend, most recently Saturday night by Paisley. Paisley called it “Little Maggie.” Can’t remember who played it the other day, but we’re pretty certain they did it as “Little Sadie.”
Add Tim Surrett’s name to the list of professionals impressed this week with the young pickers of LC Blue, the Lewis County (WV) High School bluegrass band.
“They have been hanging around backstage picking,” the Balsam Range bassist told the crowd. “We can’t keep up with them. Things it took us a lifetime to learn, they seem to learn on the way home from school.”
Blue Highway, live from Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, May 18, 2019
LC Blue multi-instrumentalist Silas Powell also had a chance to impress Saturday night. The 15-year-old high school sophomore, who also fronts his own band, sat in on mandolin with Blue Highway on “Cherokee Shuffle.” Powell will be at Smoked Country Jam in June.
Have you noticed what seems to be the latest “must have” for bluegrass bands? It used to be they all had to have at least one Grateful Dead cover. Lately it seems to be The Allman Brothers Band that everybody is paying homage to.
Balsam Ridge, live from Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, May 18, 2019
That is not a complaint. Not as long as the trend keeps bringing us treats like Balsam Ridge’s smoking cover of “One Way Out.” It was the encore of what might have been the most enthusiastically received set of the evening.
It was our first time seeing these guys and we came away wishing for more. Not just more of their music, but a chance to hear them do even more with their songs.
We’re telling you, inside that traditional facade, there’s a jam vibe dying to break free. In the middle of “Burning Georgia Down,” Surrett and guitar player Caleb Smith hooked up for a bass-guitar jam that could have been stretched much longer. The same for Darren Nicholson’s hopping mandolin break coming out of that bass-guitar segment.
The inner jam grasser in these boys also was dying to break free during a romping “El Dorado Blues” and their uptempo version of Jim Croce’s “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.” They toy with it a lot. They come right up to the edge and lean on it. Oh to just see them let it go and jam a little more.
Fans of more progressive bluegrass, if there is one, more traditional, band you should check out, it should be Balsam Ridge.