Dr. Banjo » Banjo Newsletter » Dr. Banjo Goes to Jam-Grass Fest

Dr. Banjo Goes to Jam-Grass Fest

This article by Pete Wernick originally appeared in the November 2000 issue of Banjo Newsletter.

The weekend of Sept. 9 and 10 was an interesting and exciting one out at the Planet Bluegrass headquarters in Lyons, Colorado. Local “polyethnic cajun slamgrass” heroes Leftover Salmon hosted a diverse and high-energy music festival which included acts from local bluegrassers Yonder Mt. String Band to the Rebirth Brass Band, soul-groove specialists Maceo Parker, members of Widespread Panic, the Allman Brothers Band and Hot Tuna… and Pete Wernick and Flexigrass (formerly The Live Five)! Kind of hard to characterize what “type of music” could describe it all, but it was high quality and definitely high energy.

The core of Leftover Salmon are three guys well-steeped in bluegrass (Drew on mandolin, Mark on banjo, Vince on guitar) but they do like to boogie, and with strong bass and drums, and an “anything goes” jam-for-30 minutes at a time” attitude, they have built a huge national following, mostly among younger people not especially familiar with bluegrass. They do a lot of bluegrassy material, and the Newgrass Revival influence is pretty strong– especially when John Cowan guested with them at the festival.

This different kind of band has spearheaded a new movement of bluegrass/rock fusion groups that have really taken off. Colorado is proud to have several others that are doing quite well, especially String Cheese Incident (including mando, fiddle, and flat-picked dreadnought guitar) and Runaway Truck Ramp (with those same instruments). From North Carolina is Acoustic Syndicate, featuring the excellent vocals of Steve McMurry and great, adventurous banjo playing by his cousin Brian McMurray. From Atlanta is Blueground Undergrass, with “Reverend” Jeff Mosier on Scruggs-style banjo and intriguing attitude! These bands all have rock-style drumming and do extended improvisational jams, but they also pay a lot of homage to their bluegrass roots. I’m proud that these groups all seem to consider Hot Rize one of their influences, and even do some of our material.

By interesting coincidence, last week I sat in with Runaway Truck Ramp at their album release gig in Boulder and played “Colleen Malone” with them — having just spent the day at Colorado Sound Recording Studio, mixing that very same some, and some others, for the Hot Rize ’96 live album we’re putting together. More details on that later.

I’m glad that Flexigrass has a following in this context. We are not a fusion of bluegrass and rock, but more of a mix between bluegrass and traditional jazz. Kris, our drummer, uses just brushes for much more a bluegrass than a rock feel, but we do put out a lot of energy that these music fans like. I’ve called our music everything from “flexigrass” to “corn fusion”, but my favorite term for the overall genre is “hick-hop”, which I think Jeff Mosier came up with.

Whatever it’s called, it is a significant musical trend. A lot of these young bands are keeping quite busy playing it, and the more successful such as String Cheese Incident and Leftover Salmon, are drawing crowds in the thousands to their shows. There’s a neat spin-off effect for bluegrass, since once people get into the hick-hop stuff, they might go another step and delve into some of the roots by checking out bands like Del McCoury, Hot Rize, Newgrass Revival, and the true founders like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.

The scene at the recent Salmon Planet festival is not very bluegrassy– most of the audience is on its feet, with a lot of dancing. Hula hoops and various weird costumes abound, and you don’t see artists at record tables near the stage. The parking lot jamming features more bongos than banjos. I can’t say this scene speaks to my heart the way real bluegrass does, but I am willing to take it in and see it as a branch of the well-rooted bluegrass tree which just keeps growing in all directions. I do hope that some of the hick-hoppers find their way to what for me is “the real thing”, but time will tell. I enjoy a relationships with these young bands, and am often really impressed by the talent I hear. Where it’s all going is hard to guess, but it’s definitely here and growing fast. You may want to check it out, just to see what bluegrass has wrought!

On a technical note, I’ve been using my Prucha Elban banjo for the growing numbers of times I sit in with rock bands. It’s got two pickups, and what I like best about it is that it seems to actually reproduce the acoustic sound of the banjo itself. It is a real banjo, not a solid body, with a regular-sized head. I get a lot of comments that the banjo sounds “realistic”, which is important to me. Not sure just what Jaroslav Prucha (from the Czech Republic) does differently than other electric banjo makers, since the design makes the innards quite difficult to have a look at, but the result pleases my ear– which is the _self line of course.

With Flexigrass, since we are not so loud on stage, I am happy to use my main banjo, my ’88 Granada. I mic it with an AKG-414, the same condenser mic I use in the studio, and that’s the best way I know to get my best banjo sound out to the crowd.

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