On a gorgeous spring afternoon the 1st annual Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival reinforced Baltimore’s long, proud tradition of bluegrass in the city with its stellar line-up that not only featured some of the biggest names in bluegrass (Tony Trischka and Tim O’Brien), but dug deep into Baltimore’s still going strong folk and bluegrass scene and highlighted the best the city has to offer musically.
The festival was powered by a trio of killer B’s, Baltimore, Brews, and Bluegrass. Held on the grounds of the Union Craft Brewery located within the Baltimore City limits, Union Craft marked the day with the release of the appropriately named Claw Hammer Ale to help celebrate the occasion. The location was perfect as the tree-lined Union Craft Brewery grounds provided ample room to roam around, to check out the vendors and the brewery, and provided a good view of the stage from just about anywhere on the grounds which easily allowed one to forget they were downtown. The day featured twelve acts on one main stage. Set changes were always quick and prompt so there was very little downtime between band. During the little downtime there was DJ Bohfunk was on hand to keep the music going.
The early part of the day was dominated by the sweet harmonies of the Honey Dewdrops and the loose, fun, free-for-all attitude of Trace Friends Mucho. Trace Friends Mucho is made up of mandolinist Kenny Liner and bassist Dave Markowitz formerly of The Bridge, drummer Jeff Hunter, Tony Bonta on banjo, and one of the festival’s founders Jordan August on guitar and vocals. The band is a raging good time that toes the thin line between rock, funk and bluegrass with expert ease. Quite simply they are living musical party every time they hit the stage. Their high-energy Steve Miller themed bluegrass set was a highlight of the day.
Following Trace Friends Mucho was the aggressive picking of Chester River Runoff and the cover heavy set of local favorites Feinwood. Feinwood’s set included a spirited bluegrass romp through Ween’s “Roses are Free” and The Band’s “Ophelia.” Feinwood and Chester River Runoff both perfectly set the table for the latter portion of the day which was led off by folk-rocker Caleb Stine. Stine’s music falls somewhere between the renegade cowboy-poetry of Townes Van Zandt and the sweet rough and tumble sound of Neil Young’s Harvest. His set pulled equally from all parts of his large catalog. The addition of Baltimore great Dave Hadley’s delicate touch on pedal steel in Stine’s set only served to heighten the emotional intensity of his always powerful music. Hadley is a Baltimore institution who has played on what seems like every album made by an artist from Baltimore. In just the past couple of years his pedal steel has graced albums by artists as diverse as Cris Jacobs, Caleb Stine, Wye Oak, Arboretum, and The Bridge.
Following Stine was the debut of former Bridge singer/guitarist Cris Jacobs latest project. Since The Bridge called it quits in 2011 Jacobs has been a busy man, assembling and playing with a variety of various bands. His latest project Cris Jacobs & the Union Men is an all-star line-up of some of the best bluegrass musicians in Baltimore. Based around the rhythm section of bassist Jake Leckie and drummer Ed Hough (both of whom play with Jacobs in The Cris Jacobs Band), fiddle prodigy Patrick McAvinue (Audie Blaylock) and legendary banjo-picker Mike Munford, The Union Men were a true force of nature. They ripped through a set that featured some new Jacobs’ tunes “Crooked Eye John,” “Saddle Up & Ride,” a classic Bridge tune “14 Days,” a Hough led vocal turn on the Smooth Kentucky song “I Don’t Mind,” and a few choice covers including Bob Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street,” and the Traveling Wilbury’s “Handle with Care.” Jacobs set ended just as the sun finished setting and gave way to the highlight set of the day Tim O’Brien.
Tim Brien’s solo set was an utterly engaging, masterful display of the former Hot Rize front man’s unmatched songwriting prowess. Switching between guitar, mandolin, and fiddle with perfected ease, O’Brien laced his set with classic Hot Rize tunes including “Working on a Building,” and “Nellie Kane,” (after the latter he thanked the sold-out crowd for their exuberant help in singing along with him), a pair of Bob Dylan covers in “Wicked Messenger,” and “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and a boat load full of classic O’Brien solo songs. He took time during his set to explain the subtle difference between bluegrass and country, “country is three chords and the truth, and bluegrass is two chords and a bunch of lies!” To close out his set he brought Tony Trischka (banjo) and Frank Solivan (mandolin) onstage and the three masters proceeded to lay down an awe-inspiring display of picking.
After a quick change, the day’s headliners Tony Trischka and Territory hit the stage. Trischka is perhaps the most influential banjo player of the last thirty years and the man who taught a teenaged Bela Fleck how to play. His set was a lesson in what bluegrass picking should be. Just like O’Brien he was quick to share the stage bringing up O’Brien, Solivan, and Mike Munford to join him. Trischka and his band seemed to not want to relinquish the stage despite the impending curfew, and when the end of the day eventually forced them to leave the stage, the band that was not quite ready to quit and returned for an unplugged acoustic encore. Trishcka’s impromptu acoustic encore was the perfect way to close out a day that had featured such hot-picking and announced that the Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival was here to stay and wholly welcome addition to festival season.