A bluegrass festival is a rarefied place, where cornball humor is par for the course and all the real rock stars are over 50 years old. The first-ever Edisto Island Bluegrass Festival fit the bill on Saturday, but with a twist: Hometown heroes Shovels & Rope played second-to-last, injecting a little youth and a whole lotta attitude into the proceedings.
The Edisto Island Preservation Alliance, which put on the festival as a fundraiser event, managed to sell out tickets to the 1,100-capacity venue, a tree-lined open field on the bank of the North Edisto River at Point of Pines Plantation. Festival chairwoman Marian Brailsford said the proceeds from the $30 tickets and some of the concessions sales were going to be used "to keep Edisto a rural and natural paradise," and the event itself served as a fine introduction to the Edenic sea island. Visitors entered via a long dirt road through the pines, and a few took advantage of rustic marshfront campsites at nearby Edisto Beach State Park on Friday and Saturday nights
Charleston's own Southern Flavor Bluegrass kicked off the proceedings at 1 p.m., warming up the crowd as it trickled in with some gospel standards, Old & In the Way covers, and a couple of loving bluegrass renditions of Eagles songs. The crowd swelled during the next three local acts — Bluestone Ramblers, Flatt City, and the Blue Plantation Band — until things reached a critical mass and the free spirits down in front started dancing. Strangers danced with strangers, fathers bounced with children on their shoulders, and one older gentleman in a straw hat and overalls could be seen reeling with no fewer than a dozen women in their 20s. "You dance like you're from Tennessee, sir," one of the musicians could be heard saying. "Myrtle Beach? Oh, well, welcome to the United States."
The Bluestone Ramblers ripped through a set that featured stellar performances by Gary Payne on the banjo and dobro, particularly on a cover of the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil." Flatt City played their set old-school, gathering around a single microphone and taking turns leaning in close for solos. "The only way this could be more beautiful is if we could play facing that way," said mandolinist Stephen Schabel, turning to look over his shoulder at the river and the clear blue sky. "We'll take you as a close second." By the time Lowcountry bluegrass veterans Blue Plantation Band took over at 4 p.m., boaters were stopping on the river to listen in.
During intermission, the beer station promptly sold out of Palmetto Brewery's offerings, which had been selling quickly at $4 for a generous-sized cup, and concertgoers made do with wine until new kegs arrived. Local food vendors included McConkey's Jungle Shack, Po' Pigs Bo-B-Q, Hubee D's Tenders & Wings, and Flowers Seafood Co. — whose gator bites earned rave reviews from the crowd and sold out early.
The big-name national acts came after intermission, starting with Frank Solivan & the Dirty Kitchen Band. Banjoist Mike Munford (no, not Mumford) recently took home a Banjo Player of the Year trophy from the International Bluegrass Music Association, and it was a treat to see a true master at work.
Toward the end of Solivan and company's set, younger audience members started working their way up to the stage in preparation for Shovels & Rope's set. The crowd got rowdy and started screaming during the soundcheck, and the band did not disappoint. "We feel like the homecoming king and queen," Hearst said. "We're just hoping nobody drops a bucket of hog's blood on us." Hearst and Trent were ragged and energetic and lovey-dovey as ever, stomping and wailing through a few songs from their solo albums and riling the crowd up with hits from their 2012 breakout record O' Be Joyful.
Some older onlookers seemed shell-shocked after Shovels & Rope's set. It certainly wasn't bluegrass by any stretch of the imagination. One senior bluegrass fan was complimentary nonetheless, saying he thought Hearst's vocals were somewhere between Dolly Parton and Janis Joplin. "It's not like anything I've heard before," he said, scratching his head in perplexity.
A chill had fallen by the time Lonesome River Band took the stage at 8:45 p.m., and the crowd was thinning out — unfortunate, because the ones who left missed a legendary bluegrass act at the top of its game.
Update: Video highlights of the festival have been posted on YouTube, along with a few recordings of Shovels and Rope's performance at the festival. (Thanks to Lass in the comments for the tip.)