September 30, 2018 may go down in history as the largest-ever gathering of big-time bluegrass and jam bands in downtown Philadelphia. Originally scheduled to be held at the Mann Center’s outdoor Skyline Stage, the one-day festival was moved by the organizers to downtown club “North Seventh” (f.k.a. The Electric Factory) a little more than a week before showtime. While most would have preferred to be outside (the weather was perfect) the bands and fans made the best of the situation and played and danced away the day and night.
Philly’s own Midnight Flyer kicked off the day with a tight set of acoustic bluegrass music played through microphones—something of a rarity for the day. David Grisman would land a good joke later in the day on that topic. A lot of younger people who play bluegrass “use those amps and foot pedals,” Grisman said. “We’re just too cheap to buy that stuff,” he went on, speaking of his one-mic set with Del McCoury.
Cris Jacobs, Larry Keel and Natural Bridge, and Jeff Austin played sets through the late September afternoon, and Leftover Salmon took the stage as the last of the daylight peeked through the venue’s window coverings. “It’s like being outside,” said Leftover’s Vince Herman. “With the lights and stuff, just pretend that we’re outside and it’s night!” In festival style, Jeff Austin joined Leftover for a spacey vocal improv, and the crowd danced and sang to an extended jam on Leftover’s cover of George Michael’s 1990 hit “Freedom 90.”
For the fans of traditional bluegrass in attendance, Del & Dawg (Del McCoury and David Grisman) might have been the highlight of the festival. North Seventh, known primarily as a cavernous rock club, transformed into a quiet listening room, with 500+ people listening with rapt attention, only interrupting the giants of bluegrass that stood on stage to holler after a great Dawg solo and to sing along raucously to “Dark Hollow.”
The Infamous Stringdusters closed out the night with their unique breed of tightly-choreographed jamgrass. The Dusters’ set felt perhaps the best suited of the entire day to the venue—complete with light show and smoke machines—and got nearly the entire crowd moving.
While the festival’s move from the Mann Center certainly alienated some fans—particularly (and understandably) those with young children—the event went off smoothly, thanks in no small part to the excellent job by the sound crew at North Seventh. At the end of the day, the fans came, the bands played, and Philly’s bluegrass community gathered together for the love of the music.
Ed. note: despite the similar name, this event was not produced by Philly Bluegrass.