Fear and Loathing at Tall Stacks: Day 2

Falling sporadically at the end of an unseasonably warm day, Wednesday night’s rain failed to put a damper on anyone’s evening. On Thursday, however, the temps are a full 20 degrees lower, but Tall Stacks attendees simply bundle up and gather closer together for warmth.

My Thursday begins with Bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, whose 5:45 p.m. set on the main stage draws a sizable crowd for this early on a weeknight. Old Ralph is almost 80, but his whiskey tenor still cuts right to the bone. His recital of “Oh Death” from the O, Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack completely hushes the crowd. All those people — families, frat boys, bimbos, old men with their old ladies, even children — every last one, silent as a corpse, riveted by the sound of one man’s voice crying out over the din. It gives me chills.

Barely have time for a pull on my “cell phone” as I make my way through the crowd, not wanting to be late for the beginning of Junior Brown’s set.

Reckon I oughta mention this before I get much further: My good pal and faithful photog Keith Klenowski has a prior commitment this evening. And so I find myself in the dubious position of both writer and photographer tonight. As an amateur photographer myself, I gleefully accept the double duty if for no other reason than to fondle Keith’s high-end digital camera.

Within minutes of my arrival I realize two very important things. Keith’s camera is so good I can do no wrong. Point and shoot, as they say, and the thing works magic. Secondly, I no longer envy Keith’s role as photographer. Generally limited to the first three songs of any given performer’s set at a big event like Tall Stacks, he’s gotta run like Jesse Owens from one stage to the next in order to not miss that small window of opportunity.

No wonder then that at Bonnaroo he was often a teeth-grinding bundle of knotted frustration when I was footloose, red-eyed, schwilly, stunk and droned, randomly scribbling in my note-pad and red-eyed for different reasons altogether.

At various intervals in the evening I find myself hobnobbing and shaking hands with a veritable infestation of local music lovers and musicians like Hippy Jeff, Jimmy D, Mike Reeder from The Mudpies, Andrew Newbold of Jerry’s Little Band and others too numerous to mention.

Junior Brown’s late start affords me the opportunity to stake out a spot right in front of the stage, about three rows back. Within two minutes of the first song, Brown proves why he’s often referred to as the Jimi Hendrix of Country music. Believe me, when I first heard that comparison I was like, “Yeah, right.” But any guitar players reading this who haven’t seen Junior Brown in concert don’t know what they’re missing.

I just can’t say enough good things about Brown. His songs are clever, bordering on hilarious, he sings like a punch-drunk Johnny Cash and he effortlessly tears up a guitar neck like Godzilla raging through Times Square on New Years’ Eve. Like few others among the living, the man is a walking guitar lesson that few can even comprehend. Amazing. I’m more of a guitar player than a photographer, so I can barely tear myself away from the stage while Junior’s playing. Much like the way I felt while watching and listening to last night’s inspiring parade of pickers, I just want to go home and practice.

While depleting my whiskey-filled cell phone of several “minutes” during a brief respite by the river banks, I watch the magnificent steamboats drifting up and down the Ohio. Both Tim O’Brien and Jerry Douglas’ laid-back acoustic sets on the main stage are the perfect counterpart to the whiskey haze settling in my bones. Good thing the whiskey was warm, cuz after the sun set it got downright chilly.

While taking a moment to sit a spell and write a few things in my notebook, I look up and who do I spy milling around the Montgomery Inn booth looking for a late night snack but Junior Brown himself. I giddily leap to my feet, assume the role of Geeky Fan Boy and approach the living guitar god for an autograph. The good-natured Brown gladly obliges and happily stands talking to a small gathering of fans for several minutes before returning to his search for the source of that tantalizing barbecue smell.

By the time Rosanne Cash takes the stage at 10 p.m., the breeze off the river is c-c-cold. But Rosanne’s sparkling eyes, self-effacing demeanor and humbly commanding stage presence chase the chilly temperature out of everyone’s mind. After an evening of male-dominated Bluegrass, Rosanne reclaims the throne for the ladies by simply strolling onstage and waving to the adoring crowd. Her brutally honest songs grasp for some sense in the wake of failed relationships and deep personal loss — and she’s a stone fox. An unbeatable combination, I say. Damn.

Does anybody else find it ironic that a few songs into Rosanne’s performance you can meander back over to the main stage and catch a set by her ex-husband, Rodney Crowell? Is that a bizarre booking fluke or what? OK, it’s ancient history by now (they’ve been apart for over a decade, I think) but Rodney’s expression seems less than enthusiastic when he and his band The Outsiders begin their 10:45 set for a sparse crowd of hardcores lingering still at this late hour. He livens up soon enough, as the crowd seems to recognize and loudly applaud his first few tunes.

By this time I’m draggin’, my legs aching, my flask long dry. I wonder how I’ll make the long trek back to my car, parked way the fuck up at Eighth and Sycamore streets. At least on a chilly fall night like this, my $5 beer is in no danger of getting warm.

— Ric Hickey

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