The State of American Acoustic Music

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My American compatriots: The state of acoustic music in our country is strong.

Earlier last week in our nation’s capital many were seated on principle. At the end of the week, crowds rose to repeatedly applaud American acoustic music, recognizing it as a national treasure that should be protected and nurtured.

An enthusiastic audience had the pleasure of a lifetime at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts June 22-25, 2016. Chris Thile, 2012 MacArthur Foundation Fellow and mandolin phenomenon, hosted a fabulous series with bluegrass envoys to compose the American Festival of Acoustic Music. Genius idea. Expertly executed. An absolute monumental affair.

The festival included a performance by Chris Thile and Michael Daves; a show by Thile, Gabriel Kahane, Julian Lage and Merrill Garbus; a family show with Chris Thile; and workshops titled “How to Play With Others” and “How to Sing with Others” in which, respectively, the Punch Brothers demonstrated instrumental collaboration and Thile and singer-songwriters Aoife O’Donovan and Sarah Jarosz presented vocal and string performances.

Of all the reports, each show had its own magic and was enjoyed by the masses. Two of the week’s performances stood out: the closing concert by the Punch Brothers, Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer, and I’m With Her and the Evening Jam Session. In a city of pomp and circumstance, the magnificence and grandeur of these shows for fans of bluegrass and acoustic music could not be surpassed.

Friday night, Punch rocked out of his corner into the sold-out concert hall and knocked us out with his opening set for the closing concert. Thile and the boys delivered an impeccable set of four hits that immediately made us see stars. Their choices were perfect to show off their abilities and breadth. They went from the breathtaking Julep to let off steam Magnet on the jump Guldenberg hops, then fan favorite Rye whiskey, which made the Kennedy Center crowd scream and scream. Oh man !! The supergroup I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan) came next with amazing vocal harmonies and extra musicality. Violin, mandolin, guitar, ukulele, banjo: they made it so easy by spinning the instruments and choosing the different strings for the matching songs. they posed See you soon, game to lose, and Bright new day, before a superb John Hiatt’s Cross muddy waters. We just melted away when they all sang together. Should we just call them Seraph Watkins and Seraph Jarosz now? As angelic as they are, it certainly seems appropriate. And, it was obvious that O’Donovan is keeping the legendary Warrior Princess, Aoife, alive and well, especially with the way she killed us with Thile on favorite Goat Rodeo. Here and the sky.

Senior banjo and bass statesmen Béla Fleck and Edgar Meyer took to the stage for an exquisite ensemble of Bach and originals. The heroes of Music for Two provided music to a captivated 2500, with a flawless rendering of their complicated Cannon even in that more complex part which is the stuff that movies are made from. Bubbles of their Rhythm melody and Cram allowed them to go wild, pop those ropes, and bow as low as they could. Our jaws had barely risen from the ground before the intermission was over.

The second half of the show was a time of collaboration and it was fantastic. Moments of history in a city steeped in it. The Punch Brothers have joined Béla and Edgar for an unreal, otherworldly version of Strength in Numbers’ Blue men of the Sahara. Punch joined Bela for See Rock City of Fleck’s revolutionary Drive album, which Thile admitted influenced all the youngest on stage. Noam Pikelny even jumped on the lead of the banjo during this. Edgar Meyer joined I’m With Her to deliver I think of you; feminine talents layered on Meyer’s sleek bass took us to another level. Punch then gave us the hypnotizer Familiarity.

With the Eternal Flame for the one who inspired the building we were shining in just across the river, another Eternal Flame, of that music, shone brightly inside that night. Bela and Gabe Witcher honored Dr Ralph Stanley with a poignant performance of Hard times. The high curves of Fleck’s banjo strings reminded us of the distinctive voice of our dear departed.

Those who have not yet performed in the second half have taken their places on stage to watch the others. What a cool feature to be able to see our musical heroes as audience members soak up everything as we were. Patches of feet, nods, the gaze of realizing the beauty of it all.

They were all in the game of John Hartford Long hot summer day, singing at the top of my lungs. Then a piece they called simply a mixture of violin tunes turned into another outstanding part of the show. Paul Kowert and Edgar Meyer started off with a buzzing bass duo. Sara Jarosz and Chris Thile joined the mandolins; then Chris Eldridge and Aoife on guitar. Noam and Béla then jumped with banjos. Finally, Sara Watkins and Gabe jumped on violins. The layer upon layer approach was not only exciting but also heartwarming as we got to see some of these best and brightest young musicians teaming up with their college counterparts. The resulting air and jam, spinning basses and all confirmed that all of them are major league material and this is a star show.

The Jam Session night held the day before was a looser version of the closing concert. It also included Michael Daves, Gabriel Kahane, Julian Lage and Merrill Garbus. It was too much fun in the standing room only, as the Jam gave way to more screenings, more extended solos, and opportunities to dance and sing, which we all did, especially for The weight, their group-hug a reminder.

President John F. Kennedy said:

I am sure that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we too will remember not our victories or defeats in combat or politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.

The contribution to the human spirit of these musical ambassadors gathered in our nation’s capital to celebrate a unique part of our American culture through this festival of American acoustic music was simply immense. It will be remembered, and America, without a doubt, will be remembered for it.


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