Thursday, November 13, 2008

Riverhawk: Little Fest, Big Talent

I'm late getting to this post, but I'm happy to report that I heard plenty of great music and enjoyed picture-perfect camping weather at the seventh annual Riverhawk Music Festival.

The fest, last weekend at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, way out in the woods near Brooksville, again offered a pleasant and sometimes provocative mix of acoustic and electric music - bluegrass, country, folk, roots rock, altcountry and occasional bits of blues and jazz.

Regional and national acts played in the open-air Bluegrass Cafe, the larger, outdoor Blue Sky Stage and the intimate Jam Shack. The fest again attracted an attendance of about 2,500, said event director Mitch Lind.

One great aspect about Riverhawk is that most acts play more than once, giving concertgoers second chances to catch any artist they might have missed the first time around.

Or, as happened with the Steeldrivers (my unimpressive camera-phone pic, above), I got a chance to hear the stellar Nashville bluegrass/Americana group do a q&a/performance set on Saturday afternoon, followed by full sets Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.

"Murder ballads are our specialty," singer, guitarist and chief songwriter Chris Stapleton joked, sort of, at one point, referring to the often dark nature of the band's songs about hard living, hard drinking, bad loving, and revenge.

Stapleton's aggressive, deeply soulful singing -- worlds away from the high, lonesome sound associated with bluegrass -- was matched with tight harmony vocals and absolutely superb instrumental work by fierce fiddler Tammy Rogers, steady-driving bassist Mike Fleming and banjo man Richard Bailey (mandolin player Mike Henderson was away on a family emergency).

The Steeldrivers played lots of music from their self-titled debut CD, released in January, including "Blue Side of the Mountain," "Drinkin' Dark Whiskey," "If You Can't Be Good, Be Gone," "Midnight Train to Memphis," "Heaven Sent," and my favorite, "If It Hadn't Been For Love." That last tune, co-written by Stapleton and Henderson, comes off as a classic story-song. Check out the great lyrics here.

Did I mention that the Steeldrivers also sported crystalline harmonies and a terrific sense of band interplay and musical communication? The next time I catch this band won't be soon enough.

I missed out on hearing Florida mandolin prodigy Josh Pinkham, and his mom and dad, this time, as well as Cadillac Sky, one of my favorites from the '06 fest, and Louisiana zydeco act Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band.

But I did catch lots of other acts that made strong impressions:

The Dixie Bee-Liners, a consistently excellent bluegrass band from Virginia, ended one set with the gospel favorite "Working on a Building" and played an unusual arrangement of Steve Miller's "Jet Airliner" on another set.

Tallahassee dulcimer player Aaron O'Rourke's trio, with a mandolin player and a bassist, offered smartly arranged, jazz-inflected pieces, including the Gershwins' "Lady Be Good," marked by gorgeous acoustic textures and impressive solo work. I'm told that the trio's debut CD was produced by David Grisman. Clearly, he knows a good thing when he hears it; expect bigger and better things for O'Rourke.

Kentucky roots-rocker Chris Knight offered forceful singing, hard-charging guitars and a sound that was variously reminiscent of Steve Earle and John Mellencamp.

Also sparking my interest were Boston hoodoo-blues/folk stompers Tarbox Ramblers; Philadelphia indie/altcountry quartet Hoots & Hellmouth; fresh-faced but passionate 17-year-old Florida singer Mandy Brooke; Fort Myers singer-songwriter Roy Schneider, who ended his set with the Dead's "Friend of the Devil"; and Budarooski, a Lakeland act led by guitarist Bud Robinson, an old jamming friend of mine. Bud closed his set with a boozy, honkytonk-edged "Trouble in Mind."

And the big news announced at the festival: Riverhawk's sister fest, String Break, is staging a return, with tentative dates slated for next April 17-19.

For more information on Riverhawk and String Break, visit or email

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