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Tall Stacks 2006

Tall Stacks 2006
A Music Festival Where The Steamboats Rule
Cincinnati, Ohio - October 4th through the 8th

By Derek Halsey

November 2006

In 1988 the city of Cincinnati decided to commemorate its 200th birthday by putting together a festival that celebrated its life as a river city in southern Ohio. The Ohio River was a key waterway centuries ago when westward-bound folks decided to land their hand-built wooden flatboats, dismantle them, and then use the wood to make the first houses of the Cincinnati settlement. As the years flowed by, the flatboats turned into bigger vessels, and that led to the golden age of the large steamboats in the 1800’s and early 1990’s. So, in 1988 the Tall Stacks Festival was born, and the large steamer, paddlewheel, and river boats that were still in existence in America were invited to the port of Cincinnati for a week of fun, cruises, and music. The event was an instant hit.

The Colonel is a riverboat that came to Tall Stacks all the way from Galveston, Texas

Because of the logistics of bringing together the majority of America’s larger riverboats to one place at one time, the Tall Stacks Festival has only taken place about every three or four years. Those include 1988, 1992, 1994, 1999, 2003, and October of 2006. Each previous festival has featured a diverse and large array of music, with world famous and nationally known groups sharing the stage with local and regional acts. Despite the amazing lineup this year, a ticket to see all five days of music costs only 25 dollars. The weather was predicted to be up and down, changing from day to day, which is usually the case in these parts in autumn. But with a festival of this magnitude in my own backyard, I was ready to slip downtown to have some fun.

Tall Stacks - Day One
I could hear the sounds of the riverboat whistles as soon as I left my parked car to walk down to the banks of the Ohio River. I’m not big on calliopes playing incessantly, but the sound of a steam whistle on a big riverboat almost always takes me back to a time gone by. I’ve always lived along the Ohio River. I was born in Huntington, West Virginia and my family moved down river to Cincinnati when I was seven. But, I’ve never worked on a riverboat, even though I had my chance. When I was in my early 20’s I went to see the beautiful Delta Queen riverboat after I heard it was going to be docked in Cincinnati for the afternoon. While standing on the landing a fellow came up to me and said that he worked on the boat, had to get home to take care of an emergency situation, but couldn’t leave until he got someone else to take over his dishwashing job on the Delta Queen. If I wanted to go for it, I had an hour and a half to go home and get a ride back to the boat with my clothes all packed. There it was, right in front of me. I thought about it, and I’m sure it would have changed my life, but I turned it down.

The sun is out on this Wednesday afternoon as I make my way to the Edyth and Carl Linder Stage, one of three stages at Tall Stacks. At 3:15 in the afternoon the CherryHolmes band is due to begin playing, and that is what I am shooting for. This family band has been steadily rising in popularity in the bluegrass and Americana music world, culminating with the coveted International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Entertainer Of The Year award given to them in 2005. The key to this band musically is the kids- there are four of them from ages 14 to 22. With Cia on banjo and vocals, Skip on flatpick guitar, B.J. on fiddle, and Molly on fiddle, these siblings have become exceptional artists and have a big future ahead of them in the music business. Their well-crafted act pleases the crowd, who seems to be in the mood for authentic roots music played well.

Next up- Louisiana comes to town. Buckwheat Zydeco gets the after work- early afternoon crowd hopping. This zydeco legend has always blended funky rhythm and blues with his Louisiana music, and the dance is on. After watching Buckwheat for a while I walk the quarter mile or so to the other stage, something I will be doing all week as hard music choices will have to be made, to see the usually great and always fun Asleep At The Wheel. AATW leader Ray Benson knows how to bring the western swing and fun time rock and roll to the stage. As the dance party continues the band does a very cool thing as Benson introduces a song by “my friend Toy Caldwell,” and launches into a wonderful version of the late Caldwell’s Marshall Tucker Band classic, “This Ol' Cowboy.” They get a good, galloping rhythm going with the song, and all the musicians take their time and perform some wonderful solos, from the fiddle to steel guitar to piano to electric guitar. I love their version of it. Toy would be proud. As if on cue, just as the song ends a steamboat whistle from a boat on the river adds its own punctuation to this sweet tune.

As the sun begins to set, Louisiana slide guitar great Sonny Landreth whoops some ass. Landreth says from the stage, "We had to sit on the runway in Lafayette this morning for three and a half hours because of fog. Do you mind if we take out our frustrations a little bit?” ‘Heck no, says the crowd, as the trio plays with attitude and power. With Sonny on fire on the guitar, David Ranson thumping on the bass, and Kenneth Blevins hitting the skins with authority, they put the slam on a shortened but in your face set. Great stuff.

As afternoon turns to evening, the clouds begin to drift in. Rain is possible, but hasn’t started as of yet. As darkness falls, the stages are busy. Chatham County Line takes the stage to perform their new and fresh kind of bluegrass, and Louisiana native Chris Smither gathers a crowd around him for a well-received solo set. Up next are Louisiana legends Michael Doucet and BeauSoleil. As I walk around the stage to where the people are, the band has the crowd dancing and having fun and singing in French. Doucet represents the fiddle music scene of the part of Louisiana outside of New Orleans called Acadiana. There is a difference between Creole and Cajun, after all. The Wednesday night crowd is moving their feet. Good times are happening and it’s only the first night of the festival.

Next up is a reunion of the band Hot Rize, the 1970's Colorado bluegrass legends. Original guitarist Charles Sawtelle died many years ago, so the remaining original members of the group, Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Dr. Banjo Pete Wernick, and Nick Forester on bass, have brought in the great Bryan Sutton to play rhythm and lead guitar with them. The timing couldn’t have been better as just a week earlier Sutton won yet another IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year Award, and at that same awards show Tim O'Brien won the 2006 IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year for “Look Down That Lonesome Road.” The band, of course, plays that rollicking and award-winning song as well as tunes such as “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning,” “Colleen Malone,” and a new Wernick original called “Traveling Home.”

And then - the legend. Al Green’s set kicks absolute tail from the very beginning. He has still got it. He’s got the soul. He’s got the funk. He’s still got the voice. And, to help bring his great songs to life, he has brought along a 15-piece band that is ready to rock. Green hits the stage with a table nearby that holds about two dozen red roses that he will give out to the ladies in the crowd as the set progresses. As Green starts off the set, going from newer songs like “I Can’t Stop” to classic fare such as “Let’s Get Married,” it starts to lightly rain. But, the determined outdoor crowd doesn’t thin at all. How cool it is to watch and hear folks of all age groups, races, nationalities, and creeds sing the words to Al Green’s songs. The soulful singer has truly crossed all barriers. To me, his music is as much the soundtrack to my youth as the Allman Brothers Band, Graham Central Station, Earl Scruggs, or the rest of the great music that was produced in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. As the show flows on, certain songs surprise me by triggering emotional imprints in my mind from days long gone. One song that elicits an instant and almost automatic reaction in me is “I'm So Tired Of Being Alone.” I can’t even remember what the issue was all about back then, or who the song reminds me of, or anything else about it. Yet, there it is. Kind of funny, actually.

Steamboat era enactors in their Sunday best

During the show Al Green gives a big nod to the musical history of Cincinnati saying, “I listen to your music all the time. I grew up on your music.” What he is referring to, of course, is the legacy of King Records, a local record label run by the late Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame member and recent IBMA Hall Of Honor inductee Syd Nathan that produced some of the best R&B, soul, country, and blues music to come out in the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. As the set continues, Green goes way back to sing the soulful songs that inspired him along the way, such as “Amazing Grace,” “For The Good Times,” Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and a funky tribute to Marvin Gaye with “Let’s Get It On.” As the rain comes down harder, Green ends the show with a fun tour-de-force version of “Love and Happiness.” The song has the singer saying goodbye and bowing out after the verses are sung, letting his band take over to trade some funk solos for at least 20 minutes after he has left the stage. It is so good to see a legend back it up and throw it out there. If you get the chance to see Al Green and his 15-piece band, get on down the road and be blessed.

Tall Stacks- Day Two;
Yesterday’s Cajun and funky zydeco music gives way to bluegrass and newgrass on Thursday. First up are Peter Rowan and the great guitarist Tony Rice, along with the beautiful Bryn Davies on bass and Uncle Earl alumnus Sharon Gilchrist on mandolin. While you get the more in-depth side of Rice’s guitar playing with his own Tony Rice Unit and configurations with his newgrass other peers, he still does a great job of filling out Rowan’s well-known songs. Rowan, of course, was a member of Old And In The Way with Jerry Garcia and Vassar Clements, as well as Seatrain and other progressive groups from the 1960's and 70's. In the early 1960's Rowan played with the legendary Bill Monroe for three years before forming the group Earth Opera with David Grisman. He was a member of the band Muleskinner, which also featured the late and great flatpicker, the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers alumnus Clarence White. The quartet plays the theme song from the Tex-Mex band that Rowan shared with Flaco Jimenez called “The Free Mexican Airforce,” an unusual story song about growing sensimilla in the mountains. Another treat is a tribute to the late fiddler Vassar Clements, whom all in the band played with and knew very well before his death in 2005.

Next up are the legendary Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Dr. Ralph will be 80 years old in February, yet he is still energetic and capable and soulful. His arthritis prevents him from playing his trademark clawhammer banjo these days, especially on a cool, cloudy day like this one, but his singing is still mountain strong. “It's good to be here on the river," says Stanley. “But if it gets any cooler I might have to jump in the water just to warm up. We might lose our voices, but if we do will keep on picking anyway.” The band rolled through a good set of classic Stanley Brothers songs, Ralph’s solo work, as well as songs by his son Ralph II, whose last two albums have been nominated for a Grammy. New faces in Ralph's band include fine traditional fiddler Dewey Brown and Ralph's 14-year old grandson Nathan Stanley on mandolin. Jack Cooke is on bass, who has been with Ralph for 37 years, James Alan Shelton sings the harmony vocals and plays the lead guitar, and Steve Sparkman picks his always bright and powerful banjo.

Soon, it is time to walk down river to the other stage and prepare for the one and only Junior Brown. Junior, with his patented guit-steel plugged in and backed by his trio of bass and a drummer with a snare and one cymbal only, proceeds to kick some tail. Junior is always a good time, doing his cross between chicken pickin’, steel guitar honky tonkin', and screaming turned-up-to-eleven electric guitar stroking. And, of course, he always throws in his off-the-wall Texas swing that makes for a good party. Junior then brings up Peter Rowan who joins him on a couple of new Spanish language Tex-Mex tunes that will be on Junior's next album. Rowan adds some mandola to the songs. I think, however, that Junior forgets that he is on the stage behind him as he goes into “Highway Patrol” with Rowan still up there, a song that the mandola doesn't exactly fit with. It is a bit humorous, but in a good way, because Peter does manage to add some good licks to that good time tune. Then Junior says thanks to Rowan and closes the show with his usual cross pollination of Dick Dale-Ventures surf music, honky tonk, and full-blown in your face rock.

Then, with my feets a getting’ worn out, its off to the other stage to see Tim O'Brien and Cornbread Nation. The band includes O’Brien, who just won the aforementioned IBMA awards, Mike Bub, who is a five time winner of the IBMA Bass Player Of The Year award, Casey Dreissen, one of the hot new breed of fiddlers around these days, and the Seattle-based good guy, ex-riverboat worker, eclectic musician, and Bill Frisell collaborator Danny Barnes. (For a complete review of Danny's excellent album "Get Myself Together" go to the “Derek’s Top 20 of 2005” article in the archives here at Gritz. His song "Rat's Ass Baby" is an instant classic). The band is fun and top-notch, and successfully fleshes out the vision of O’Brien’ diverse music.

Then it is, say it with me, back across the grounds again to catch some of the Del McCoury Band set. When I get there and turn the corner and see the front of the stage, the crowd is rocking and into it. These guys are simply the best. All of the band members are superb musicians, Del is a true legend in his own right, and they just know how to put on a great show. The have such an in-depth catalog of recorded tunes now that they can whip out one wonderful song after another while going in any direction they want to go in. They are as top-notch an outfit as bluegrass has produced, and the crowd is right there with them. What a good time. As the McCoury set comes to a close it is time to move yet again. In what is an almost embarrassment of riches, Jerry Douglas and Best Kept Secret began their intricate and progressive set at the other stage as the full moon tries to break through the clouds.

Douglas is simply one of the best musicians in the world, and other than his long time fiddle player Gabe Witcher alongside him, he has put together a new band for this tour and they rock. They include new hot shot acoustic and electric guitar player Guthrie Trapp, bass player Todd Parks, who used to be with the band Daybreak, and long time go-to New Orleans drummer Doug Belote. It is not an easy task playing Douglas' fast moving and intricate jams in 50 degree weather, as you know what that can do to your picking fingers. But, they get it done and then some. If this band is getting standing ovations where you would least expect it these days, which they are as the opening act on the Paul Simon tour, then you can imagine the reaction by those that came specifically to hear a full set by this awesome outfit. The only thing to do for us mere mortals who might play a little bit is to just sit back and be amazed. If you can successfully pick the melody to the Douglas-penned tune “Who’s Your Uncle,” congratulations.

Ending the night is the excellent songwriter Rodney Crowell. Rodney just received a Lifetime Achievement award at the recent Americana Music Awards, and rightly so. The last six or seven years in particular has found him rejuvenated, putting out three albums in a row that are wonderful. You could take the best songs off of “The Houston Kid,” “Fate's Right Hand,” and “The Outsider” and put together a mix that would rival anything else put out by any other songwriter you could name in the same time period. And, as for his touring band, Rodney is no dummy. He has alongside him one of the true all-star musicians in the business in Will Kimbrough. Kimbrough, an Americana Music Awards Musician Of The Year winner, is one of those well-rounded musicians that anyone could build a band around and be on the right track. Buddy Miller is another example of that. Kimbrough gets more full and atmospheric sounds out of his guitar than most, and he fills upRodney's great songs with his live playing.

Tall Stacks - Day Three
Before I head into the festival grounds on Friday afternoon, I decide to walk up onto the Purple People Bridge to see what is happening on the river. The walkway was a railroad bridge that was closed, renovated, and turned into a pathway in-between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. There are many people on the bridge, milling about, taking pictures, listening to a busker or two, and waiting for a paddle wheeler to pass under them on the Ohio River. On the Kentucky side of the river is a Civil War encampment, an exhibit called Steamboat City, and a chance to tour a WWII tank lander, the LST 325. The LST 325, (Landing Ship Tank) was built during WWII in Pittsburgh and actually passed through Cincinnati on its way to the fight overseas in 1942. And see the fight it did, as the LST 325 ferried troops to various battles after D-Day, including near Salerno and other theaters. The ship was in a graveyard in Greece when a bunch of veterans found it and renovated it about six years ago. They sailed the boat across the Atlantic and up the Mississippi River to its new home in Evansville, Indiana. The fully functional war ship made its way up the Ohio River to be a part of Tall Stacks, and is moored on the Covington, Kentucky side of the river so folks can tour it.


John Hartford and author Derek Halsey at Tall Stacks 1999

Every afternoon during Tall Stacks groups of school children perform various river-themed plays for the patrons on the main stage and on what is called the Sawyertown Stage, which reminds me of a story. For the first four Tall Stacks the heart and soul of the festival was embodied by musician John Hartford. Hartford was a world famous musician who was also a certified riverboat captain. His discography is replete with songs about the river systems of America, and the characters found on them. I was lucky enough to get to know Hartford a little bit, and the Tall Stacks festivals were the perfect place to spend time with him. He was in his element. When he would perform onshore he would often stop onstage and turn towards the river as a steamboat would pass by behind him and the boat captains would recognize his ever-present black derby and answer his wave with a blow of the steam whistle.Unfortunately, Hartford was also in the middle of a long battle with lymphoma. The last time I saw him alive was at the 1999 Tall Stacks, and he had that look. I knew I that would never see him again. John Hartford died in June of 2001. At the next Tall Stacks in 2003, after some prodding, the event organizers honored John Hartford by dedicating the festival to him, and putting up round historical markers on the grounds that told his life story. One morning during the 2003 Tall Stacks festival I read in the local newspaper where a group of 52 fifth-graders from Clermont Northeastern Middle School in Adams County, Ohio were going to perform a play based on a kids book that Hartfordwrote called “Steamboat In A Cornfield.”

The book is based on a true story about the USS Virginia that tried to make it to a safe port during a flood in the 1800's. The captain made a wrong turn and ended up bottoming out in a cornfield. The boat was stuck there for 6 months after the water had receded, so it became the infamous steamboat in a cornfield.

I stood there and watched the play, and the kids were great. Yes, there were a ton of proud parents there video-taping their precious Skippy acting in his captains get-up, but still, it was fun. (One of the kid actors was supposed to be a newspaper writer so he had a pencil in his ear and an old hat with a 'press' sign sticking up on the side of it. You get the picture.) The whole group ended the play by singing “Old Man River,” and they were hitting the chorus pretty strong. I looked around and their unified voices made a bunch of folks stop and listen to the big finish, and they got a big round of applause. But get this; I talked to the teacher in charge afterwards and asked her why there were no Hartford songs in the play. To my surprise, she said that even though they had performed the play for years, they did not know until a month earlier that he was a musician. “We went and got a tape!” Huh? Yep, it is true. These wonderful folks from a rural county out in the Ohio countryside came to John Hartford strictly because someone found his kids book about Steamboats, and did not know he played music. I hope the play shows up again at future TallStacks. It would be a great way to continue to give John Hartford a nod of the derby hat.

After walking around and watching the big boats do their thing, I get to the music stages as Friday afternoon grows long in the tooth. The first act I encounter is Teresa James and the Rhythm Tramps, a blues band out of LA. I have never heard them before, and Teresa admits from the stage that she has never been to Cincinnati before. She says that she didn't realize how beautiful the city was as it sits on the river, and is really glad that they chose to come to Tall Stacks. James can belt out some throaty blues for sure. She is a singer that tends to give it all she’s got, which is alwaysappreciated.

Then it is off to see a little bit of Tea Leaf Green. They bring in the jamband crowd, who are loyal and do support their bands, I have to admit, and they do build up a head of steam as their set closes. As the sun starts to lower in the western sky I head back to the down river stage to see Loudon Wainwright III do his eclectic and humorous one man show. I talk to him for a few minutes before he goes onstage and with the sounds of the riverboats in the background he asks me, “Is that the Mississippi River?” “Holy cow Loudon, do you know where you are, brother?” I say laughing. “That is the Ohio River. Don't be going out there and commenting on how beautiful the Mississippi River is looking tonight.” “Thanks, man,” Wainwright says, laughing. Onstage he alternates between guitar and ukulele. Loudon has been around forever, or so it seems as I first heard him back when his “Dead Skunk” song was a hit in the early 1970's. Although his career has had many ups and downs, he is still out there reminding folks of the fun hippy folk music of years past. Loudon is 60 years old now, and you wonder ‘How did that happen?’ But, he is still full of energy and quirky songs and laughter.

Next up is Tift Merritt. Not only is she beautiful, but she is also the real deal as far as talent is concerned. In a lot of ways she is the perfect description of what folks are now calling 'Americana' music. Tift plays guitar and organ, and sings in her bluesy yet country-tinged way. Girls just want tohave fun, and Tift and her band can rock.

After watching Tift play for a while I head back over to see The Man - John Hammond Jr. Armed with his big, booming hollow-body guitar, a few metal finger picks, and his harmonica braced around his neck, John shows why he is an important cog in the blues music timeline. Few people can dig that deep into blues music and pull it off with any kind of authenticity. He gets it done and then some, going back into the bag for songs like "I Wish You Would," and other old gems. After his show I get to spend some time with John and his wife Marla and I ask him if he runs into guitarist Warren Haynes much. Warren, guitarist for Gov’t Mule and the Allman Brothers Band, lives in New York City and the Hammonds are living just across the river in Jersey City. For the most part, even though they live near each other, John and Warren mostly see each other on the road. But that leads to John talking about sitting in with the Allman Brothers Band at the Beacon Theater in NYC earlier in theyear in March, and the discussion goes off from there.

“Man, Derek Trucks is amazing. He is out of this world,” say Hammond, shaking his head with a smile. As we talk about Mr. Trucks I bring up something that Derek told me in the cover interview I did with him here at Gritz Magazine. I tell John that I asked a bunch of other famous musicians that Derek has played with over the years to come up with a question or two for him. Col. Bruce Hampton and others obliged, and Jerry Douglas came up with this question for Trucks, “When you are at your highest level of playing, when you can’t do anything wrong and you’re almost standing off to the side and watching yourself play, what do you think about? Do you think about being airborne or gliding? What happens?” I tell Hammond that Derek knew immediately what Jerry was talking about, and answered saying that he had experienced that out-of-the-body feeling as he played at times, that at first he was scared of it when it happened, but eventually he learned to just flow with it and enjoy the ride.

So, I ask Hammond if he has ever had an experience like that onstage. “Oh yes,” he says. “In 1963 at the Newport Folk festival. I was onstage with John Lee Hooker, Rev. Gary Davis, and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. I was only 20 at the time, and we started playing and I looked around at who I was onstage with and I felt like I was floating, like I was out of my body. I couldn't feel my legs.” I then mention that Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee were friends and fans of Doc Watson from way back. John's eyes light up again. “I've known Doc for years. I first heard him in the early 1960's when I went to the Old Time Fiddler's Festival in Union Grove, North Carolina one time. He was amazing. Then, later on we were booked by the same company, Folklore Productions. We did a lot of gigs together, and he influenced me a lot.” In walks Delbert McClinton and as the two of them reminisce I headtowards the other stage, yet again, to see Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

As I walk up to the stage area I am greeted by the biggest crowd yet. By far, Ricky Skaggs has drawn the largest audience by any performer on any day so far at Tall Stacks. My guess is that there are at least 10 thousand people here, and that is on the modest side. All of the large field in front of the stage is filled up, as are the sidewalks that run all along the backside of the field. Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder are coming off of winning the IBMA Instrumental Group Of The Year award for the 8th time a week or so earlier, with band member Jim Mills also winning the 2006 IBMA Banjo Player Of The Year award for his work with Skaggs and his own amazing solo album called “Hide HeadBlues.”

As the set progresses, Skaggs points out that this year- 2006 - is the 60th anniversary of the first ever bluegrass recording when Bill Monroe finally had the band he was looking for with the equally legendary Earl Scruggs beside him. There is no bluegrass without Earl's three-finger stylings. The rest of that legendary band included Lester Flatt on vocals and guitar, Cedric Rainwater on bass, and Chubby Wise on fiddle. Ricky then introduces his rhythm guitarist and tenor singer Paul Brewster who sings the appropriate Monroe number, “Kentucky Waltz,” with the Kentucky shore visible behind the stage. The crowd roars, especially those that have come across the river from Kentucky as they sing each chorus with their bluegrass pride on their sleeve. Kentucky Thunder keeps their tunes varied, as they also go into eclectic choices such as Django Reinhardt's “Minor Swing.” They also get the crowd kicking up their heals with rocking bluegrass standards such as “Black-eyed Suzie” and “Uncle Pen.”

From left to right, Delbert McClinton, Derek Halsey, John Hammond Jr., Marla Hammond.

Following Skaggs tour-de-force is singer-songwriter John Hiatt. I did not envy him. Here he is, having to follow Kentucky Thunder with a solo acoustic act. But John has a strong collection of original songs to work with and pleases the crowd. His songwriting days go back to the 1970’s when he hung out with Guy Clark, Steve Earle, and Townes Van Zandt back in Texas.
Finally, I head back to the down river stage for a blues party fix with Delbert McClinton. As I walk around towards the back of the crowd I stand there and look to my left and there is a friend of mine named Ayla standing there. I haven't seen her since a Derek Trucks show earlier in the year, and we have big fun watching Delbert roll on. Delbert has a great version of his band touring with him right now. Guitarists, keyboards, horns, they all are playing sweet. The crowd is with him and dancing on the grass as he plays until midnight. Winning the Grammy a year or two ago for his “Cost Of Living” album has given him a boost, and these guys have a good thing going. As the set progresses Delbert calls out for Teresa James who joins him to sing about three or four songs, including his signature number, “Giving It Up For Your Love.”

Tall Stacks- Day Four
It is Saturday, and I am tired after three previous days of great music. Still, I head down to the festival for a while to see what is going on. On the main stage are Tony Ellis and the Musicians Of Braeburn. Ellis is a long time banjo great who came up playing in the Tommy Jarrell tradition back in North Carolina. His career runs the gamut from playing with Bill Monroe in the 1960’s to appearing with actor Steve Martin, Earl Scruggs, Pete Wernick, and others as a part of the banjo extravaganza that Martin put together for the Late Show With David Letterman a year or two ago. Ellis’ Musicians of Braeburn include his wife Louise Adkins Ellis on pump organ, his son William Lee Ellis, a renown roots music artists of his own, on guitar, and author/filmmaker Larry Nager on bass and mandolin. Unfortunately, William Lee Ellis couldn’t make it to Tall Stacks, so long time Cincinnati musician with a voice of gold Ma Crow steps in to take his place. The band plays manytunes both old and new, with many pulled from the latest album by Ellis and the Musicians Of Braeburn called “The Quest.”

Saturday night has more of a jamband feel to it, which can be hit and miss. Up first is a 'local-folks-gone-national' band called Over The Rhine. They are great songwriters whose music can be on the mellow side at times. But the cool thing about their set is that they utilize the best of other local Cincinnati-area musicians to round out their sound. They bring out three horn players from the great Blue Wisp Big Band, and also feature the Cincinnati Symphony violinist Paul Patterson, who is also a heck of a bluegrass and swing fiddler and banjo player. They draw a big crowd, as they always do in their hometown.

Cincinnati is an area blessed with a good and vibrant music scene. The Tall Stacks festival has made sure that the best of the local musicians are invited, including Cincinnati favorites such as The Cincinnati Dancing Pigs, the Rumpke Mountain Boys, Robin Lacy and DeZydeco, the Comet Bluegrass Allstars, Jake Speed and the Freddies, Ricky Nye, the Katie Reider Band, former Pure Prairie League members The Goshorn Brothers, jazz pianist Steve Schmidt, and the Rabbit HashString Band.

Next up are Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen. These guys, of course, were in some legendary bands over the years. While both grew up playing bluegrass music in California as kids, Hillman branched out to be in a little band called the Byrds. He also was in the Flying Burrito Brothers and the Desert Rose Band. Herb Pedersen was also in the Desert Rose Band and has played for many artists such as Linda Ronstadt, David Grisman, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and his own Laurel Canyon Rangers. The duo play a good set with Hillman on mandolin, Pedersen on guitar, and harmony vocals between them. They perform the obligatory Byrds tunes, and rightly so, and a few Buck Owens and Desert Rose songs to boot. They also throw out some obscure gems such as the song “True, He's Gone” by a virtually unknown songwriter named Jim Sullivan. Sullivan was a musician who recorded one album and then mysteriously disappeared in the California desert sometime in the 1970's. (After Tall Stacks ends, Herb Pedersen gets back to me with more of the story of Jim Sullivan. Says Pedersen, “Sullivan was on the scene here in the 60s, writing and recording for, I think, Playboy Records. The original title of "True, He's Gone" is "Biblical Boogie." Jim went out to the high desert (Joshua Tree perhaps?) and really just disappeared. His car was found with his suitcase and his guitar in the back seat by the California Highway Patrol. But, no Jim. Weird,huh?")

Next up is the Old Crow Medicine Show, an eclectic and fun string band that are based out of Nashville. The leader of the group is Ketch Secor, who is the fiddler, singer, and front man. It turns out that Ketch trained under some Surrey County, North Carolina fiddlers I know such as Joe Thrift and others in the Tommy Jarrell tradition. Old Crow’s music is not so much bluegrass as it is old-time string music that veers off into various fun things along the way (Old-time is the music that predates bluegrass music by about 200 years with fiddle tunes that go back to Scotland and Ireland,whereas bluegrass is more improvisational and is only 60 years old this year.).

Old Crow does get the job done, and Ketch is a heck of a multi-instrumentalist. He mostly plays fiddle and harmonica, bringing out three fiddles that are all tuned differently. And he has obviously done his homework as a front man as far as catering to the city he is playing in. He mentions that he is full of Skyline Chili, a unique local Cincinnati recipe, and then introduces his band as a “bunch of local fellers” as in “Pete Rose on bass, Johnny Bench on banjo, Sparky Anderson on rhythm guitar,” etc. They are a good time and have a heck of a following with young folks who know all the words to their songs and everything. The rip through favorites such as “Cocaine Habit” and “Wagon Wheel.” I am impressed. It is not all the time that you see young folks dance to an old fiddle tune such as “BigSandy River.”

Modeski, Martin and Wood can be both a frustrating band at times, and an exhilarating band at times. They are obviously top-notch musicians who get a definite groove going, but when they play as a trio it tends to wear on me. Half the time they sound like a backing band waiting for another musician to come out onstage that never does. When they play with folks like guitarist John Scofield, however, as they do on their excellent new album “Out Louder,” I love it. They do get a groove going tonight, with the jamband crowd twirling and dancing everywhere on the grass. But after about five songs or so I head to the other stage to see Wilco.Ending the night’s entertainment is Wilco. I am hot and cold on these guys as well, as sometimes they get too indulgent and border on the dreaded emo, which doesn't do a damn thing for me. But on other tunes they can build up some truly interesting sonic landscapes at times, with dual lead guitars and keyboards creating some atmospheric concoctions. With a six-member band, they are capable of creating the full electronic sounds that they are shooting for. As the set unfolds, Max Johnston cranks up the electric lap steel and plays some awesome slide, and that bodes well for the band. The crowd for Wilco is huge, and most of them know the songs and are into it. They take awhile to get going, but it turns out to be fun.

The group Mountain Heart sets the stage on fire

Tall Stacks - Day Five

From 3pm to 5pm on Sunday afternoon the festival presents the Parade Of Tall Stacks, where all 16 of the river boats that are in port line up and cruise the Cincinnati riverfront in what is a very cool spectacle. My favorite boats at the event include the Delta Queen, an authentic overnighter steamboat that was built in 1926 and is designated as a National Historic Landmark, and the Belle Of Louisville, a boat that is also a National Historic Landmark that was built in 1914 making it the oldest steamboat on the rivers of America. No other American steamboat has lasted as many years as the Belle Of Louisville. Not only is it powered by a real steam engine, but the steel hull was builtin a way that enables it to float in five feet of water if need be. Both are beautiful vessels.

First up on the music stages is the IBMA award-winning bluegrass band Mountain Heart. These guys are the real deal, and are a vocal as well as instrumental powerhouse. Their energetic solos and riffs are bouncing off the trees and walls of the stage area and seem grab the attention of the passerbys who may not know who they are. Adam Steffey, for instance, is coming off of winning the 2006 IBMA Mandolin Player Of The Year award for the fifth time a week earlier, and the rest of the band has won numerous awards over the years. The band is both progressive and traditional, andaren't pigeon-holed with their sound in any way. When a rockingand talented bluegrass band has an open mind like this, and can back it up with exceptional talent, good things happen.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas stirring up a dance party


After Mountain Heart rocks the yard, I head across the grounds to the other stage to get my Louisiana fix. Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas are in full gear, and when I arrive the crowd is already in dancing mode. It dawns on me that I haven't heard any good Louisiana music since Buckwheat Zydeco and BeauSoleil four days earlier on Wednesday night. Wednesday seems like a long time ago at this point. I find about five of my good friends in front of the stage and we dance and relax and get our groove on. Based out of Lafayette, Louisiana, Nathan and the guys know how to rock and keep the zydeco going. It is just the music I need to hear on a sunny afternoon on the Ohio River. I am not in a hurry to go anywhere else, or to see any other band. I close my eyes and dance and find that I am totally relaxed even though my legs and feet are moving underneath me. Good times.

After that workout I had back over to see a good and different-sounding band called Ollabelle. This quintet from upstate New York, which features Levon Helm's daughter Amy, gets their name from the late singer and songwriter Ola Belle Reed, a great mountain music songwriter who died in 2002 at the age of 87 years old. Ollabelle is a relatively new band, putting out their first album in 2004. They play a wonderful mix of blues, gospel, bluegrass, and traditional music as well as modern songs. The crowd loves them, and they are called back for a well-deserved encore.
There are blues bands, and then there are true blues musicians. Charles Musselwhite is a true blues musician. His harp playing roots can be traced back to his home state of Mississippi. Said Big Joe Williams about Charles many years ago; “Charlie Musselwhite is one of the greatest living harp players of country blues. He is right up there with Sonny Boy Williamson, and he's been my harp player ever since Sonny Boy got killed.” Fronting a four piece band and singing classic blues lyrics such as “legs long as a summer day, let your Daddy have his way,” he also lets rip with a post-Katrina song about his home state and Louisiana with a cut off of his latest “Delta Hardware” album called “Black Water.” “Old black water lappin' at your back door, Hello America, better get ready for more, Trouble, trouble all around here, just too tired to shed one tear, Black Water, It's a sign of our times.” Musselwhite's soulful, deep blues rings true, and the blues lovers in the crowd get what they are looking for, including me. His able band features guitarist Chris “Kid” Andersen, bassist Randy Bermudes, and drummer June Core. Musselwhite’s wonderful set ends with his signature instrumental, “Cristo Redentor,” a song from his first album recorded in 1966.

Next up on the same stage are the Blind Boys Of Alabama. Holy smokes, what a revelation. I have seen them perform many times on TV, so I kind of know what I am in for. But when you see these guys perform live, it goes to whole other level. How can you not get into these inspired, soulful, and rocking musicians who have got the ‘stank,’ as Ricky Skaggs would say. What a blast, as they render up one great song after another. The Blind Boys are down to three after original member George Scott died last year, and the rest of them are in their 70's. Yet the power, joy, and vocal fireworks are still there. In the middle of the set I talk to some friends in the crowd and I comment on how sweet the sounds of the harmony vocals chiming out of the speakers are. I look up and notice that none of the three Blind Boys are singing. In fact, it is their backing band of Rickey McKinnie, Joey Williams, Caleb Butler and Tracey Pierce that are showing off some vocal prowess of their own, and it sounds fantastic. Soon the Blind Boys kick in and the full gospel jam is on again.

The stage presence of the Blind Boys is wonderful, and lead singer Jimmy Carter says something that strikes me as poignant along the way. Carter acknowledges the fact he and his cohorts are as old as they are, and says to the crowd, “If you never see Jimmy Carter again, if you never see the Blind Boys again, remember that we told you that someone is watching over me.” Towards the end of the set Carter, now 76, is led off the stage and walks into the crowd singing with the stage crew chasing him around with what must be a 40-foot long microphone cord. With the Lord on his side and a crowd that is thrilled that he would come out there to see them like this, he gives it all he has and then some. He is in the crowd for at least ten minutes or so, singing while the rest of the band is still onstage rocking, and he stops the band on occasion to ask the crowd to sing with him, to dance with him, to shout “Amen,” and have a good time. Even the metal statues on the festival grounds have their hands up in the air. It is awesome.
After that sweet musical release it is back to the other stage to see the Boogie Piano Queen, Marcia Ball. Ball, who grew up on the East Texas-Louisiana border town of Vinton, Louisiana, can thump on the keys in a big way, and plays an energetic mix of blues, zydeco, and rock that has the crowd going. Her soulful sounds are the perfect warm up for the music that will come later in the night, one of her idols- Dr. John.

But first, it is back to the other stage for the blues of the legendary Buddy Guy. When Buddy is in the mood to talk, he doesn't get to too much guitar playing. But, when he is in the mood to play, there are few better. “I want to play it so funky you can smell it,” says Guy from the stage. He came to play, at least in the part of the set that I am seeing. He understands the blues, obviously, but he also understands the funk and rock that have grown out of it. Says Guy from the stage; “The reason I play the blues is because you don't hear it on your radio no more. As long as I'm alive, I'll bring it if you call me, man. Call me!” He then kicks in his wah-wah pedal and lays out some funky “Going Down To Louisiana,” and goes on from there. After playing a slow blues burn for about seven minutes, the always unpredictable Guy stops the band cold, out of the blue, and says, “Hold it there. I don't rehearse with my band, I like to imitate other guitar players. Now don't go away tonight and say I forgot the f***ing song, I'm just cutting it short. This is how John Lee Hooker sounds.” He then goes right into Hooker's classic “Boom Boom.” And, like the Blind Boys From Alabama before him, Buddy ventures out into the very large crowd to pick his guitar with his feet on the grass.

Finally, it is late Sunday night and the cat that I've wanted to see all week is about to go onstage - Dr. John. Sporting a quartet this time around, Dr. John digs right into the unmistakable sounds of New Orleans voodoo swamp music. He is always a good time, and he starts the set off with the classic party song, “Iko Iko.” He then plays a string of favorites such as “Food For Thought,” “Mos' Scocious,” “Sweet Home New Orleans,” and the eccentric and funky “Monkey Speaks.” During his classic “Walking On Gilded Splinters,” Dr. John’s guitar player produces a smoky 2-minute long slide guitar excursion before the good doctor sings, “They call me Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper. Got my satchel of gris-gris in my hand, tripping up, back down in the bayou country. I’m the last of the best. I’m known as a gris-gris man. Got many clients come from miles around, running down my prescriptions. Got medicine cure all y’all’s ills. Got remedies of every description.” Then he kicks right into his hit, “Right Place, Wrong Time,” and runs his funky show out with other gems such as “Qualified,” “Going Back To New Orleans,” and “Big Chief.” Although it is almost the witching hour on a Sunday night, the smaller yet still enthusiastic crowd goes with the flow. And, as the Night Tripper takes his cane and leaves the stage for the last time, Tall Stacks is over.

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