For all of the challenges Baltimore might face as a city, a deficiency of live music is not one of them.
A thoroughfare for musicians making their way up and down the East Coast, and one rich with its own dynamic scene and culture, Baltimore has quietly maintained if not improved its reputation as one of the country’s leading music cities since being propped up by media in 2000s.
The Charm City Bluegrass Festival, held April 29 and 30 at Druid Hill Park, provided two days and nights of delightful live performances, sun-baked revelry and choice local food and beverage options for more than 1,000 attendees Friday and 3,000-plus on Saturday, only reaffirming Baltimore as an important and potentially underappreciated hub for influential and busy musicians.
Headlined Friday night by Yonder Mountain String Band and Saturday night by Hiss Golden Messenger, the festival celebrated not just bluegrass music, but rather a thicker slice of artists to highlight the congruence between this style and others like old-time and Americana.
The grounds just to the west of the wondrous Rawlings Conservatory were bustling both days as ticketholders made their way through the vendor village or met with friends and family on the green grass, where they laid out blankets and camp chairs and soaked in the rays as the lineup showcased talented groups from all corners of the country. As each day underway in earnest, fans watched and danced all the way up the hill, the park’s entrance.
Some of the most popular breweries, food trucks, and grub spots in Baltimore were on site — there was even a crab cake contest — along with a plethora of various local businesses: everything from fiddle and mandolin makers to popcorn, vintage clothing pop-ups and much more.
Bands rotated onto two adjacent stages beginning Friday afternoon and wrapping up Saturday night, with a total of 15 acts performing over the course of the two days. Meanwhile, a smaller stage covered by a tent featured up-and-coming and local acts all day Saturday, as well as an hour-long session of yoga mixed in during the afternoon.
Hosted by Charm City Bluegrass, the festival was the first springtime edition of the festival since 2019, as the pandemic had temporarily halted the significant progress that organizer Phil Chorney had made up to that point. An event that began in 2013 and quickly blossomed into one of the area’s most consistent and anticipated gatherings for the music community, it is one that every year has featured both nationally recognized and artists local to Maryland, Washington DC and Virginia.
Saturday night culminated with a riveting, wild-ride of a performance by Yonder Mountain String Band, a five-piece progressive bluegrass unit that formed in Nederland, Colorado, back in 1998. Comprised of founding members Dave Johnston (banjo), Ben Kaufmann (bass), Adam Aijala (guitar), longtime fiddler Allie Kral, and a newer face in mandolinist/multi-instrumentalist Nick Piccininni, Yonder electrified and lived up to its reputation as one of the most thrilling and eye-popping acts in all of bluegrass, one that has helped create a commonly referenced subgenre, “jamgrass.”
Stream Yonder Mountain String Band’s 2022 studio release, Get Yourself Outside, via Spotify:
With sit-ins by the event’s “Artist-at-Large,” Jeremy Garrett from The Infamous Stringdusters, and Larry Keel of the Larry Keel Experience, the set fueled what became no doubt one of Baltimore’s biggest outdoor parties since the onset of the pandemic. Closing the set with an epic, intense Raleigh & Spencer>Nowhere Next>Raleigh & Spencer, Yonder effectively stuck the Charm City Bluegrass flag back into the ground after what has been three years without the festival, save a smaller fall edition Chorney and his crew hosted last October at Key Brewing Company in Dundalk.
A theme of this year’s event, every single artist heaped praise on the acts performing prior to them. In many ways, the festival became a reunion of friends old and even new — musicians hung out with one another along Druid Hill Promenade, drinking iced coffee or sparkling water and enjoying food from a spread under a headquarters tent.
Chorney pointed out that, while bluegrass is at the forefront of the weekend and an influence on so many of the featured artists, his and his team’s hope has been to use the growingly popular festival to also shine light on artists that might not necessarily fit a traditional definition of “bluegrass.”
“We want to preserve and promote folk, bluegrass and Americana music in Baltimore and keep that tradition alive while driving forward the growth of the music scene overall and the genre,” Chorney said. “We want to be a big tent, we want to be all-inclusive.”
Hiss Golden Messenger, widely adored as a leading folk-rock and Americana vehicle led by celebrated singer-songwriter Mike “MC” Taylor, exemplified Phil’s hopes with its performance Saturday night — an inviting set of refined, deep-seated originals and a few choice covers served as a thoughtful and appropriate cap to the weekend.
Stream Hiss Golden Messenger’s 2021 Merge Records studio release Quietly Blowing It via Spotify:
An artist informed by a world of influences and now himself a generational figure, Mike achieved success through a dedication to the songwriting craft and to folklore, which he’s studied for years. And a distinct traditional roots sounds permeate from some of Taylor’s earliest recordings, such as Poor Moon and Haw, and even in recent albums too, like 2021’s serene and verdant Quietly Blowing It.
Having collaborated with a long list of the most respected individuals in songwriting, Hiss Golden Messenger’s lineup has evolved in recent years, now comprised of a pack of sought-after musicians who’ve thrived in working with Taylor. Guitarist Chris Boerner, bass player Alex Bingham, drummer Nicholas Falk and keyboardist Sam Fribush mustered a visibly powerful synergy and used it to give the Saturday night crowd one of the most dynamic and inviting sets of the weekend, highlighted by stylishly textured editions of tracks like “My Wing” and “Biloxi,” and later for an encore, “Lucia.”
More than just a celebration of current musicians, the event also pays homage to one of Baltimore’s most respected figures, the late Dave Giegerich. Giegerich was a beloved local musician and instructor with a long career who passed away in late 2010 from complications following a bone marrow transplant intended to treat cancer. Each year, Phil hands out the Dave Giegerich Memorial Award in his memory.
“Dave was a legendary dobro player really positive influence on the music scene, especially helping young up-and-coming musicians. He was awesome,” Chorney said to the audience. “We give this to someone who best embodies the love and support of live music, friendship, and education.”
Caleb Stine accepts the Dave Giegerich Memorial Award at this year’s Charm City Bluegrass Festival presented by event organizer Phil Chorney. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Presented Saturday afternoon, this year’s award went to local standout Caleb Stine, whom Phil praised for his contributions to the Baltimore scene since moving here in the early 2000s to launch what became a successful career.
“He could have moved anywhere — he chose Baltimore,” Chorney said.
Accepting the handmade award, Stine credited the Giegerich for a “life well lived” having had such an impact on so many artists and for being a force behind the momentum that spawned the festival. Stine echoed Chorney’s words earlier in the day to the crowd that a weekend together in the sun, enjoying music, can’t be taken for granted.
“Everything is so elusive and thin” said Stine, who along with Chorney is helping organize The Ramble Fest set for early October in Darlington, Maryland.
“It takes everyone here, all of us, all the time, creating together, so thank you all for being here and let’s keep it cranking.”
Hiss Golden Messenger Setlist 4/30/22
Blue Country Mystic
As The Crow Flies
I am the Song
Jenny of the Roses
Bird Song (Grateful Dead cover)
Lonesome, On’ry and Mean (Waylon Jennings cover)
Like a Mirror Loves a Hammer
Yonder Mountain String Band Setlist 4/29/22
I Just Can’t
Up This Hill
Southern Flavor (encore)
*featuring Larry Keel and Jeremy Garrett of The Infamous Stringdusters
Here are images of Hiss Golden Messenger, The Lil Smokies, and Armchair Boogie performing on April 30, as well as Yonder Mountain String Band, The Larry Keel Experience, and The Po Ramblin’ Boys performing on April 29, at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival in Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.
Hiss Golden Messenger
Yonder Mountain String Band w/ appearances by Jeremy Garrett and Larry Keel
The Lil Smokies
The Larry Keel Experience w/ a cameo by Jeremy Garrett
2022 Dave Giegerich Memorial Award Winner Caleb Stine