"It's been way too long, way too long," said Ronnie McCoury, beaming at the audience and marvelling at playing live music again. We've all been longing to hear these words, really any words in the past tense, to feel like the last year may finally be getting behind us. While things remain far from normal, a feeling of hope is emerging with the cicadas. Call it stumbling towards normalcy. At least there was plenty of dancing room.
VanHoy Farms & Campground is an amazing North Carolina venue ripe for rediscovery. The storied Smilefest was held there from 2001-2004, but its roots stretch back to 1970 as the new home of the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers' Convention, which was started by H.P. VanHoy himself back in 1924. Of course it's never seen masks, pods and social distancing before. Many concert lovers are hesitant to attend distanced shows, for many reasons including needing to tiptoe into wading pools when they'd rather dance off the deep end. Now not just the music is being improvised but the format of the entire event itself. But the fans at VanHoy Farms would tell you that magic remains in the live music experience, and perhaps the gifts and lessons to be found there ring even louder when juxtaposed against the dystopian disaster of the last year.
The two-night run kicked off with two duos whose accomplishments belie their young age. Soulful singer/songwriter and blazing bluegrass guitarist Mason Via has had quite a year so far, appearing on multiple episodes of American Idol and then becoming the newest member of Old Crow Medicine Show. Alongside mandolinist James Bernabe, he tore through an energetic set and even returned for a latenight appearance in the campgrounds. They were followed by Sierra Hull, a child prodigy multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter who signed her first record deal at age 13. She was joined by her husband Justin Moses who was named the 2020 Dobro Player of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association and just released his latest album in January. Their fleet-fingered fretwork and tightly sparkling harmonies heated up the proceedings to a simmering boil.
The Infamous Stringdusters hit the stage to a wave of energy rolling through the venue, with their kaleidoscopic light show taking hold and the band reflecting the spirit back into the spread out but loud crowd. Hull & Moses came back to join the fun for a thrilling 10-minute "Angeline the Baker" with two dueling dobros and a joke that 5% of all dobro players were on stage for that song. The celebratory first night also included "Planets" and an elegantly melodic "Reuben and Cherise Jam" (a harbinger of things to come) before wrapping up with a scorching 12-minute "Black Rock" and a "Shady Grove" encore.
Saturday's show had a theme, though it wasn't readily apparent at first. Mason Via and James Bernabe returned to kick things off with another stirring set, including two Grateful Dead covers, "Greatest Story Ever Told" into "The Wheel." Next up were The Travelin' McCourys, winners of the 2019 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album, whose ferocious picking and impossibly blended vocals warmed up the brisk spring evening. They shone through their bouncy bluegrass version of Passenger's hit "Let Her Go", with luscious harmonies blossoming the sound into a brilliant bouquet. "We almost forgot how much fun this is," said Ronnie McCoury before gliding into three consecutive Grateful Dead covers. "Bird Song" was a long, dark, dissonant exploration flying across the boundless possibilities of acoustic psychedelia, while "Brown-Eyed Women" and "Cumberland Blues" showcased their tuneful and virtuosic sides.
The Infamous Stringdusters returned for the final set of the weekend, treating fans to the endlessly catchy "Summercamp," a darkly funky take on J.J. Cale's "After Midnight," and an explosive "High Country Funk." Ronnie McCoury and Jason Carter from The Travelin' McCourys jumped on stage for "Down the Road" and "One More Bridge," creating a seamless sound light years beyond most sit-ins. "We get to see our friends again," they said. "We've really missed that." An unmistakable riff signaled the turnoff for "Shakedown Street", as a blizzard of notes and celebration poured over the venue, cementing the unofficial theme with each band playing Grateful Dead covers. The crowd danced and sang along with second set highlights including the Allman Brothers Band's "Jessica," Phish's "Possum", the heavenly harmonies of their philosophical "Let it Go", and John Hartford's whimsical classic "Steam Powered Aereo Plane."
The weekend was an important turning point for many fans - a beginning of the journey back to their happy place, dancing with friends and swaying to the sounds of live art being created from a shared energy. As Stringduster Jeremy Garrett said, "This feels like the old days," to which his bandmate Travis Book replied "Correction - it feels like the future."
- Paul Kerr
- Photos by Toby Dawson