Steep Canyon Rangers give an electric performance at Foothills Hayride

by Ryan Snyder

Steep Canyon Rangers, minus Steve Martin, get back to basics at the Foothills Hayride Festival. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

One doesn’t often expect a dazzling light show when attending a bluegrass performance, but that’s exactly what the 200 or so attendees of the Foothills Hayride at Jomeoke Campground in Pinnacle received as the sun dropped down over the treeline opposite Pilot Mountain. Rainclouds hung in the air most of the day on Saturday, threatening a similar saturation that occurred Friday evening. While the fiercest precipitation stayed away from the performance area for most of Saturday night, the introduction of Asheville’s Steep Canyon Rangers signaled the arrivals of furious clapping, both from hands and thunder off in the distance.

On a brief respite from working as the backing band for comedian Steve Martin’s banjo tour, the youngish quintet that embraces the classic bluegrass formation of guitar (Woody Platt), fiddle (Nicky Sanders), upright bass (Charles R. Humphrey III), banjo (Graham Sharp), mandolin (Mike Guggino) and obligatory vocals for all were the festival’s main draw, along with former Newgrass Revivalist John Cown and his band. It was obvious by the loud applause even before the Rangers were announced that the audience knew what they were going to get: high energy, tight instrumentation, perfect harmony and stellar vocals.

The troupe probably never would have known it unless they were told, but Mother Nature also had something special in store for their set. Just Nicky Sanders’s manic, string-snapping workout on “Orange Blossom Special” earned him a standing ovation from the crowd, brilliant bolts of bluish-white lightning jetted across the sky in forking patterns. It didn’t seem to come from above, however. Rather, intense ground flashes in spiderweb patterns seemed to originate from behind the stage itself. The awesome visual display peaked with the honeyed gospel of “I Can’t Sit Down,” though the most breathtaking aspect of the piece was easily hearing their five voices join to harmonize on the a cappella tune.

Lead vocalist Platt (clearly a stage name to improve upon his birth title, Alphonso Gorgonzola, as Martin pointed out during their MerleFest performance) looked to the audience for guidance to close out their set, simply asking whether they wanted to hear a slow song or a fast song. The loudest voice didn’t get its way in this case, despite the obnoxious bleating of one particularly jerky spectator, as Platt’s rich voice led the group into the melancholy “Mercy Me” from Deep In the Shade to an audible groan from the only person in the crowd who seemed disappointed to hear it. He did get his way in the end, however, as the band ended up encoring with crowd favorite “Kuykendall.”

Steep Canyon was so good that it was almost anticlimatic when weekend headliner the John Cowan Band took the stage.

Those upset at his last-minute MerleFest cancellation to join the Doobie Brothers on bass were no doubt happy to see him, however. Cowan sprinkled his set with an inordinate number of covers and traditional

tunes, including Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” and the Irish fiddle tune “Red Haired Boy.” Cowan was his usual magnetic self and his bass work was flawless as usual, though the progressive nature of his set seemed out of confluence with the traditional inclinations of the Rangers and predecessor Grasstowne. Or maybe it was because he just didn’t have his own light show.