OWENESBORO, KY (WAVE) – Despite the red and green on the radar for much of two days, puddles of mud brown growing beneath a billowed and sunken sky of grey, the bluegrass prevailed at ROMP, a four-day festival of roots-and-branches Americana music that serves as the chief fundraiser for the International Bluegrass Museum.
By Saturday, ROMP's final day, the sun broke free like a Derby winner down the stretch, illuminating the 152-acre park, drying up its muddy mess and giving the dampened campers more to just look at. And just listen to. The tone of the final night shifted after sunset from a rustic twang of string ensembles crooning to more of a rainbow of bent strings collectively rocking.
Keller Williams' Grateful Grass brought to town a one-man-band improvisationalist known for psychedelic-pop diddies that generally are more Aw-yeah than Yee-haw team up with session banjoist Danny Barnes, Andy Falco of the Infamous Stringdusters, and Ben Kaufmann and Allie Kral of Yonder Mountain String Band to whip through a set of Grateful Dead covers there were more Whoa Nelly than Wow Dude. The set led off with party favorite Shakedown Street, complete with call-and-response (Woo!) from ROMP rowdies in the drying field, transforming something recorded by its creators as funk-electric and keyboard driven into a something much more woodsy and harmonic, perfect for a hillbilly disco.
Such is what Williams wants from the side project, and he delivers his heroes' songs like a fan on stage whose lost in the sound, momentarily losing track of his own success simply because it's fun to play music, especially your favorite songs of old. Shakedown bled into the dark mystery of Feel like a Stranger, juxtaposing magnetic poles that would support a playful selection of other Deadhead favorites including a double-time rendition of Friend of the Devil, and a bouncy singalong encore of Scarlet Begonias.
Prior to Keller & Co., ROMPers went Fishin' in the Dark with Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the legacy act for this year's installment of ROMP; a band credited with creating the concept of Americana music, blending bluegrass with traditional country and a faint-yet-brash scent of rock. Selections from the landmark early '70s landmark Will the Circle be Unbroken came with complete with dishes of oral history, stories of bluegrass titans who had worked on the cover-laden staple, including Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. Nitty, gritty and dirty, the band created intergenerational moments with the performance, complete with a cover of Hank Williams' Honky Tonkin.
Earlier on Saturday, a fierce, jangly set from The Steeldrivers proved they're more than merely the band that Chris Stapleton left, while Pokey LaFarge took ROMP back in time with a late-afternoon run of songs more fit to be listened to by lantern light, just ahead of his headlining performance at WFPK Waterfront Wednesday in Louisville.
Friday night headliner Yonder Mountain String Band made their first official appearance at ROMP, two years after a rain-shortened surprise set in 2015. The band, reconfigured a couple of years ago, is celebrating the release of a second album, Love. Ain't Love, under the new lineup with Kral and mandolin player Jake Jolliff. With set times again pushed back by rain, things were a little late and a little tight but Yonder were able to stretch their legs out a little more than in 2015, adding a smoky flavor to what's been an approach of a more traditional sound of late for the two-decade-old band, finally getting official recognition as a top draw by the Bluegrass State's largest bluegrass festival.
Punch Brothers, whose entire 2015 set was canceled by storms, took the stage before Yonder. Alex Hargreaves filled in on fiddle for Gabe Witcher, on hiatus for the birth of his second child, perhaps limiting the depth of the night's song selection, driven primarily by latter material more airy and experimental than the punchy virtuoso of the work that gained them fame. The show in Kentucky marked a middle leg in a Triple Crown of a bluegrass band's bucket list, sandwiched between stops at Telluride, Colo., and Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz also performed with the Punch Brothers, bringing along several selections from her material that won her a pair of Grammys earlier this year.
Thursday marked perhaps the most puzzling selection ever for a ROMP lineup. Los Lobos, themselves a trailblazing and somewhat pioneering collective with sprinkles of Tex-Mex country in an otherwise straight rock format, came off in reality at ROMP as someone walking into an El Paso juke joint, popping in a quarter and playing some Devo before ordering a Zima. Zydeco and mando might be able to share a stage at New Orleans' JazzFest, but at ROMP it was a sore-thumb brand-name to a tacked onto a lineup that looked better than it sounded.
It made it ever harder for Lobos that they took to the stage after ROMP favorite Rhiannon Gibbens. The former Carolina Chocolate Drop brought songs of new and very, very old in full force with a backing band offering soul and hip hop, along with history, in a perfect mix of bluegrass, roots and boogie. As the night wore on and the crowd professed adoration, she responded in kind, "I love you guys. I love this place," brimming with still-rising heart and energy in each subsequent song.
ROMP, an acronym for River of Music Party, again got rebranded with Gibbens shouting, "Right On My People," a head nod to the Chocolate Drops' complete takeover of Yellow Creek Park in a 2012 performance. This visit rang no less beautiful.
Each night after the main stage went to sleep, the party raved on in the back of the park's Pioneer Village. The Wooks brought the hippy-jammy vibe to Thursday night, while guitar master Billy Strings showed again why he is one of the industry's brightest rising stars. Both got afternoon slots on Friday.
The lone slot for Washington, D.C., act Scythian was in the wee-hours finale on Saturday, an all-out dance party with fiddle-versus-flute battles of Irish flare, a true pop moderinization of old-timey music. Scythian mixed in a medley that bounced from Lean on Me to Michael Jackson, revving up dancers in a method more often seen from club DJs than in midnight hoedowns, but it worked. And it showed that, Los Lobos aside, almost anything goes at ROMP, where nobody complains about the rain.