Bluegrass greats enthrall Squaw Valley masses
With a hot sun beaming out of a cloudless blue sky and rollicking bluegrass notes echoing off of jagged peaks above, the first-ever Mountain of Strings music festival went down in memorable style on Sunday.
Tony Furtado, Del McCoury Band and Yonder Mountain String Band kicked off the inaugural event, providing concertgoers with a wide array of traditional and progressive bluegrass music.
Furtado opened the day as a solo act, banjo and slide guitar notes trickling off of his fingers as excited fans trickled into the venue at the base of Broken Arrow rock. The picking prowess of the two time National Banjo Competition winner was on clear display as Furtado awed the crowd with spirited renditions of “Bet on the White Horse” and “Magpie on the Gallows,” among others.
Next up was the Del McCoury band: bluegrass legend Del McCoury (guitar), sons Ronnie (vocals) and Robbie McCoury (vocals), Jason Carter (fiddle) and Alan Bartram (bass).
Specialists in the traditional bluegrass style, the band brought all of its chops on Sunday, playing hallmark tunes like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “High on a Mountain Top” and “Orange Blossom Special.” The three McCourys and Carter combined on vocal four-part harmonies as fine as any that ever graced the Grand Ole Opry.
After a particularly excellent version of Richard Thompson’s “Vincent Black Lightning 1952”, Del McCoury gave Lake Tahoe’s clean air a little credit.
“You know folks, I never could sing that high note until I came to Squaw Valley,” he fibbed.
Carter approved of both the crowd turnout and the locale.
“It’s good to see lots of families out here today. This is a pretty good spot for a bluegrass show,” the fiddler said before launching into Bill Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues.”
Jamgrass powerhouse Yonder Mountain String Band took the stage as twilight settled over the valley. Jeff Austin (mandolin), Dave Johnston (banjo), Adam Aijala (guitar), and Ben Kauffman (bass) were definitely playing to a crowd full of long-time fans, with countless YMSB shirts dotting the audience.
“Thank you, welcome to our portion of your lovely evening here,” Austin said amidst cheers. “Well, I’ll tell you, getting to step onstage after Del McCoury is a good day.”
The upbeat, high-octane bluegrass jams for which Yonder Mountain String Band is famous kept the crowd dancing and stomping well into the night.
Yonder mixed original tunes like “If You’re Ever in Oklahoma” and “Some Day’s Reunion” with reworked covers like The Beatles’ “Hey Bulldog,” with the audience whirling to extended jams and instrumentals right and left.
The audience got a special treat when Ronnie McCoury, Robbie McCoury and Jason Carter stepped onstage with Yonder Mountain for a few songs. Austin and Ronnie McCoury got into a furious mandolin duel, fingers and melodies flying. Afterward, Austin paused to catch his breath along with the crowd.
“We’re going to go lay down now,” the mandolin picker said.
All in all, Mountain of Strings was an afternoon and evening of phenomenal music in exquisite natural surroundings. I’m sure I speak for many thrilled attendees in hoping that it was merely the first of many Mountains to come.
Sierra Sun columnist Bobby Sweigert contributed to this review.
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