Diverse Festival of the Bluegrass line-up celebrates the genre

Joe Schlaak and Ishi Wooton of Restless Leg String Band perform at the 2016 Festival of the Bluegrass last weekend.

Matt Wickstrom

Fans of traditional, old-timey and progressive bluegrass all had something to be happy about Saturday at the 43rd Festival of the Bluegrass at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The festival’s closing day served up an eclectic blend of bluegrass that included Restless Leg String Band, The 23 String Band, Town Mountain and others.

For much of the early afternoon the blazing sun had patrons running to the pool for a refreshing dip and flocking to any shade they could find to beat the heat. Lexington’s Restless Leg String Band was on of the first acts to take the stage under the persistent sun, their psychedelic newgrass echoing through the rolling campground hills. The quartet, who released their debut album last month, performed several songs off the compilation including “Keep Your Head Up” and “Kentucky,” which refers to the group’s deep roots in the state.

After Restless Leg energized the crowd of devout fans out battling the sun, The 23 String Band followed, marking their first performance after an 18-month hiatus. From the first pluck of the string, it was apparent the band had not missed a beat in their time spent apart. Huddled around one mic, their synchronous harmonies captivated the crowd, coerced it out of the shade and closer to the stage. Also playing with the band was banjo player Curtis Wilson, who donned Anthony Davis’ UK basketball jersey. Ironically, the band withheld playing their hit “Long Hot Summers Day” during their afternoon set, instead opting to play it later in the evening during their headlining set.

Following 23SB was the hard driving Carolina bluegrass of Town Mountain, making their second trip to Lexington in 2016 after performing at Cosmic Charlie’s in April supporting the release of their new record “Southern Crescent.” Guitarist Robert Greer’s gritty voice and southern drawl showed themselves on “Tick on a Dog” and “Whiskey with Tears,” two fan favorites off the new record that also spotlight Jesse Langlais’ prowess on banjo and the evolution of Jack Deveraux on fiddle, who has been touring with Town Mountain for the last few months in place of Bobby Britt, who was finishing his degree at Berklee College of Music.

The transition of afternoon to evening offered a lull in headlining musical acts, instead offering a glimpse into the future of folk and bluegrass music with Lawrenceburg, Kentucky’s Mikaya Taylor. Taylor, 11, is a star in the making, displaying exceptional vocal range on a variety of old-time classics including Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and the ever-popular “You are my Sunshine.” The latter she conveniently performed just as the sun began to fall behind the trees draping the festival campgrounds.

Closing out the scheduled music at the Festival of the Bluegrass was Town Mountain. The group continued where they left off earlier in the afternoon, performing “Arkansas Gambler” and honoring the Grateful Dead with “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodeloo” after previously performing “Big River” earlier in the day. Last fall, Town Mountain released the two aforementioned Dead songs, titled the “Dead Sessions,” in their signature bluegrass style to honor the legendary band’s fifty year anniversary. For their encore Town Mountain was joined by Lexington band The Wooks, who performed at the festival Thursday night.

After music came to a close, an after-party sprouted up at a nearby gazebo, where a mass picking session ensued that included members of Restless Leg String Band, Jonathan Bramel of Louisville band Vessel, Derek Oldham of Driftwood Gypsy, Jesse Wells of The Wooks and others. Even more picking and improvised jamming took place at campsites throughout the night, adding to the character and intrigue of the near half-century old festival.

Despite the boiling temperatures, the 43rd Festival of the Bluegrass was a fun-filled weekend adventure for all ages. The diverse range of bluegrass on display offered up something to strike up everyone’s musical fancy. It’s no wonder the festival is nearing 50 years of history and success.