As live performances mount a comeback, venues in the Charm City and Baltimore County are quickly helping music lovers jump back into the swing of things as more and more dates fill the calendar.
This past Friday night gave acoustic roots fans a special opportunity to celebrate the craft at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival, hosted at Stages Music Arts, a cozy outdoor venue and recording hub tucked away up on Stenerson Lane in Cockeysville, Maryland.
Headlined by the Hackensaw Boys out of Virginia and Baltimore’s Charm City Junction, the one-night festival marked the first on-stage appearance for either band in many months — 17 to be exact for the Hackensaw Boys.
Led by founding member, lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter David Sickmen, Hackensaw Boys are a string band established in 1999 that has evolved over the years, twisting and turning as different members have come and gone. Sickmen himself actually left the band after six years, spending the next six away to deal with health issues. He returned about nine years ago when he saw a chance to keep it going.
“I was at a funeral, and I was talking to one of the former members, and he said, ‘the band’s going to break up,’ and I was like ‘what?’ and I decided I didn’t want it to die,” David told Parklife after the Charm City Bluegrass Festival.
David toiled with the notion that he might be claiming something he didn’t necessarily own anymore, but he said he realized that the band and its music was a part of his identity and he felt compelled to keep it going.
“I went through a lot of emotion about it,” he said. “Everybody that’s ever been in the band — they’re Hackensaw Boys. I’m Hackensaw Boys too. I helped develop this and it’s a part of my spirit, so I said I’m going to run with it. I got to a point where I thought a lot of people in the world cared about this band and would be sad if it wasn’t around anymore. And it still feels like we’re representing the music really well.”
The band has since recorded an album with Grammy-winning producer Larry Campbell (Charismo, 2016) and has another in the works, some of those songs shared for the first time Friday night.
Featuring fiddle player Caleb Powers and bass player Chris Stevens, the band was also premiering yet another new member as David’s son Jonah Sickmen took the stage for the first time handling responsibilities on the “charismo” — a home-made percussion contraption that has helped define the look, feel, and sound of the Hackensaw Boys as a mainstay during live performances since the group began touring in earnest in the early 2000s.
Despite all the changes, and thanks to Sickmen’s perseverance, leadership, and love for the music, Hackensaw Boys has stayed true to its roots — once a posse of friends influenced by punk and folk busking around Charlottesville, now a well-established band that has culled a sound that rings unique even within the bluegrass genre.
“You Want Me to Change,” the night’s opener, celebrated the band’s attitude and spirit — a driving, contentious anthem about staying true to oneself.
“It’s good to be true, better to be bold,” Sickmen repeated in this song, telling the story of a woman with a “rooftop chicken coop” demanding change of a man who seems far too grounded in his practices and his beliefs to budge.
Watch the Hackensaw Boys perform “You Want Me to Change” live for KDHX on YouTube:
Sickmen’s rustic voice helps create an identity that is unmistakably workingman — his somber tone tuned just right to groan and howl over the bands’ grooves and thumps. His lyrics seem to capture both the prosperity of life’s greatest joys — love, family, peace — but also the poignancy of change, losing friends, losing loved ones and, ultimately, moving on.
In the song “Late Night Kitchen,” David says “How sad to waste this time? It’s gone and never coming back. I still savor your smell. Being here suits me well. I never was the same.”
Caleb, playful, and seemingly in character at various points, is a skilled violinist and as the band’s second vocalist he adds humor and an augmented drawl to the sound, giving it an extra layer of complexity. His eyes light up as he stitches, his personality comes out in his expressions. And he can weave sound into incredibly tight spaces, even within the most breakneck songs.
Quiet and humble alongside his instrument, at times you might not even know Chris is on the stage if it weren’t for the fact that he drives the whole engine with his delicate hands and slick timing. But of course, Hackensaw Boys’ tunes require that he let it all hang out and he can do just that, like a coal miner who’s finally let loose after a long day, letting a grin crack through his thick dark beard when several women finally got up to dance a few songs into the set.
“They’re Ohio boys,” Sickmen said of Caleb and Chris, who were close friends before joining the band. They made their first contributions to the recorded catalogue on the 2019 EP “A Fireproof House of Sunshine.”
“It feels really natural,” Sickmen said. “This is the third year, but really only the second year because the COVID didn’t really count. But we’ve been playing music together for two years. They bring a high level of musicality. I feel like the music is as good as it’s even been in terms of the musicianship and what they bring. We all want to do it, so it’s natural.”
Watch the Hackensaw Boys perform on the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center in 2019 via YouTube:
Jonah, too, seemed natural Friday night in his rookie outing—his eyes deep and bright like his fathers, his focus intense as he bounced, flicked and scraped the tin cans, license plates, hubcap and jumble of other metal objects on the charismo.
Sickmen was admittedly a proud father when talking about his son: “My boy did well, didn’t he?”
The group showed Friday night that they’re likely primed to excel in their new form, delivering a stomping, rowdy opening series of songs before mixing into their catalogue of songs pulled from recordings going back to the year 2000’s “Get Some.”
Charm City Junction, the night’s opening act, is an acoustic roots quartet comprised of four men who are contributing a great deal to Baltimore music as outstanding teachers and to the live music landscape as active members of the festival community.
The winner of the IBMA Instrumentalist of the Year award in 2015 and the Fiddle Player of the Year award in 2017, Patrick McAvinue plays the violin. The IMBA Broadcaster of the Year in 2019 and 2020, the founder of the annual Baltimore Old Time Music Festival and the winner of the 2016 IBMA Momentum Award for Industry Involvement, Brad Kolodner plays the clawhammer fiddle. Alex Lacquement, who additionally works as a music educator, handles bass. Sean McComiskey operates the button accordion and is considered one of the leading Irish accordionists as well as a respected teacher of Irish music.
Teaming up in 2014, the band members pull influences from their different paths in life, and they’ve found a common place in creating energetic traditional sounds and in doing so have quickly established themselves not just in Baltimore but beyond. Charm City Junction has played at bluegrass festivals all over the country and the group’s second record, “Duckpin,” debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Bluegrass charts in 2018.
Watch Charm City Junction perform at the Millennium Stage of the Kennedy Center in 2015 via YouTube:
To close out the night, Charm City joined Hackensaw Boys for a group jam and afterward both the musicians and venue leaders thanked Charm City Bluegrass and Phil Chorney for organizing what served as a prelude to a summer that’s suddenly stacking up to be quite promising for live music.
Hackensaw Boys Setlist
Want Me to Change
By and By
Don’t Bet Against Me
Content Not Seeking Thrills (Ain’t You?)
Worlds Upside Down
Buildings Are The Cages
Happy For Us In The Down
Late Night Kitchen
Pass Unloving Eyes
Act Like My Friend
Alabama Shamrock (encore)
We Are Many (encore)
Charm City Junction Setlist
Late Last Night
Torn Jacket Set
I’ve Got a Woman
Train On The Island
Jig For Annie/Fort Smith
Please Don’t Bury Me
New River Train (encore)
Here is the Hackensaw Boys and Charm City Junction performing at Stages Music Arts on May 21, 2021. Photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.