Aiken Bluegrass Festival 5.11 & 5.12.18

Carolina State Fairgrounds
Aiken, SC

Words by Julie Hutchins (Tipping Point Designs)
Photos by Scott Shrader (J. Scott Shrader Photography)

Aiken is the mythical bluegrass festival you dreamed about in the womb. It is the place to be. First off, I send gratitude to an amazing production team and volunteer staff. You make the music happen. High quality artist hospitality is vital to making everyone feel at home. Thank you providing the vibes. Aiken has proven year after year that simplicity is key and it is the little things that make the biggest difference.

Aiken provides a legendary line up, super group jams, reliable sound on both indoor and outdoor stages, proper bathroom facilities, wide open skies, playful pups, blissful children, the delightful Scramble Campbell and all proceeds benefit SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. In addition to the wholesome merits, there are plenty of root-tootin’, hoot n’ hollerin’ foot stompers dancing new skin on the bottom of their soles.

Furthermore, the indoor stage aka Steve’s Beer Hall was a refreshing reprieve from the relentless summer sun. It’s the kind of heat that makes your eyelids and your shins sweat. The contrast of stepping from the cool, dark hall into the white light of day inadvertently offered sensations of rebirth.

Local pickers Doug and the Henry’s kicked off Aiken with a delightful round of traditional tunes. Next Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys reined us in with their cheerful songs. Lindsay Lou’s voice is sweet nectar and her smile lights a twinkle in the stars. The Flatbellys are a very talented Americana folk ensemble and together they rocked the main stage with a charming authenticity.

Overall, Friday was homage to the traditional songs of bluegrass and psychedelic rock. Love Canon played a friendly set of familiar 80's covers. Next, Grass is Dead opened the improvisational portal of the Grateful Dead deconstructed.

After a few hours of reacquainting with timeless tunes it was great to see original music. The Lil Smokies boast a strong catalog of unique songs. Their lyrics tell the bold truth and their harmonies are soul-nourishing. These noble Montana men are sweeping the scene with their impeccable picking.

Billy Strings is an energy powerhouse. Their sunset set was outstanding. The wicked rapid pickin’ and soulful songs give the listener a taste of freedom. To experience freedom for even a moment is a true gift. Billy Strings are an example that the impossible is possible.

It is only fitting that Jon Stickley Trio follow Billy Strings. Stickley can pick just as fast if not faster – and has his own distinctive, classical jazz nuance. Violinist Lindsay Pruett can follow Stickley into the wild and they both run faster than the devil himself. Hunter Deacon is a rare grass drummer, catapulting the group into the furthest depths of the new-grass jam scene.

Feel good vibes continued with headliner, Leftover Salmon. There are few bands that can flow as fluidly between genres. They stocked us well with a variety of jams. The set was bolstered by a majority of tunes from their 2018 album “Something Higher.” I am always pleased to see bands writing songs relevant to their present moment. The Vince Herman Leftovers Jam peaked out the night with incredible collaborations between a myriad of musicians.

Scott's Friday Photo Gallery

On Saturday, our camp started off the day with a gentle yoga session. We caught the tail end of Delta Cane and basked under the sun for Rumpke Mountain Boys. Next, hailing all the way from Denver, CO Tenth Mountain Division brought their mountain spirit and bubbly grooves. The boys equipped their fans with fans to make sure we stayed breezy throughout the weekend. The quintet holds down incredible 4 part harmonies and serves up a melting pot of rock, bluegrass, funk, and folk influence. Also from Denver, Part & Parcel serenaded us their swift bluegrass licks. Keep an eye out for these cross country ramblers!

Thankfully, the bluegrass gods decided to grace us with a much needed afternoon shower. Gregg Burns and Friends jammed through the down pour with virtuosity and glee. The super group jam session featured members of Greensky Bluegrass, Billy Strings, and Lindsay Lou.

Brad Parsons held down back to back beer hall sets. The 90's set reincarnated totally super fly grungy punk covers. The original set swung the pendulum back to a tasteful twang of visionary tunes. Psychedelic exploration continued with The Larry Keel Experience. The Keels sunset set enchanted us with a fun mix of familiar covers and original tunes.

For the most part, the main stage field is spacious, but once Greensky Bluegrass began, everyone and their cousin and uncle came running out of the woods. The area was full to the brim with happy listeners. Greensky went in on deep cuts for their set. With only 8 songs over ninety minutes, the crowd was left "Aiken" for more.

Last, but certainly not least, Billy’s Psychedelic Circus closed the festival with a mind-altering, cataclysmic, fireball set. The energy Billy brings is so palpable and contagious. Every body in the room was amped and charged with good vibes. The set featured about 15 musicians and quite a few Dead tunes. “Born to be Wild” was definitely the capstone of the jam pyramid. The only regret is that Lindsay Lou did not make up for a wailer. Regardless, everyone converged with harmony and dance until the “Rocky Top” close. Of course, campfire pickin’ continued into the wee hours of the morn, but nothing will top Billy’s Legendary Psychedelic Circus.

Again, so much love and thanks to everyone involved. Until next time, Aiken!

Live Sets From Aiken!

Scott's Saturday Photo Gallery


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