The world's most prominent music festivals—Bonnaroo, Coachella, and the like—can be mind-blowingly eclectic on paper, but they're too often reduced to stomping grounds for close-minded flannel pompousness. So it was especially refreshing to bask in the 100-degree heat at Somerset, Kentucky's Master Musicians Festival, a truly unique two-day musical melting pot that brought together hippies, hipsters, and hillbillies in equal measure.
Clearly, the Master Musicians Festival is no ordinary music festival. Somerset isn't exactly the Southeast's cultural hub, but for nearly two decades, they've managed to rope in an impressive array of talent. The 2012 edition was clearly its most star-studded and progressive-minded—but even outside of the music, this is a pretty special event. The festival is held on the campus of Somerset Community College and organized by a non-profit Board of Directors. It's the kind of festival where, between bands, sheepish ladies hand out scholarship plaques. The kind of festival where high school kids volunteer to help bands set up and tear down their stages. Before my wife and I strolled through the arts and crafts booths, music workshops, and rows of families (from infants to senior citizens), we were escorted to the festival grounds by a bubbly college student on a golf cart. You just don't get that kind of communal atmosphere at a big-name festival. The overall effect was somewhere between Bonnaroo, a school talent show, and a Southern Baptist church fair.
Let's not romanticize too much. Early on Saturday, the mostly bluegrass-minded crowd—bless their hearts—was a tad lethargic, not particularly receptive to Abigail Washburn's genre-bending excursions. Nonetheless, she was remarkable: singing and talking in Chinese, layering loops of reversed noise, playing banjo, and singing radiant country sunshine. Between wonderful original tunes, she transformed a traditional gospel hymn ("Keys to the Kingdom") into a brooding, mesmerizing epic, and spun a traditional Chinese song into something resembling new-age art-rock.
With his trusted drummer (the rock-solid Jordon Ellis), cello virtuoso / Kentucky native Ben Sollee actually managed to perk up the crowd—or at least the younger portion, who danced with mile-wide smiles at the front of the stage—with his soulful, tasteful jams. Between a gorgeous, classical-inspired cello interlude and a spot-on Paul Simon cover, Sollee nearly stole the entire festival (despite obvious battles with the ridiculous heat), sawing and grooving his way through the funky, always-reliable show-stopper, "Electrified."
As the sun set in Somerset (and the sun-stroked headed to the exits), Alabama's Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit took the stage to an increasingly intoxicated crowd. Some of the rootsy band's slower-paced, atmospheric material flew over most of the audience's heads, including the epic ballad "Dress Blues." But when they cranked up the guitars, the results were unanimously on-target, especially when Isbell drew from the discography of his former band, Drive-By Truckers: "Never Gonna Change" segued seamlessly into the Jimi Hendrix classic "Stone Free," and "Decoration Day" was an exhilarating highlight, with Isbell setting the stage ablaze with a white-hot slide guitar solo reminiscent of Derek Trucks at his most melodic.
But as for the evening's biggest stars, there was no competition. The Chris Thile-led Punch Brothers took the stage around 10:30, gazing in awe at a crowd that seemingly tripled in size over the past half-hour. Opening with the slow-climbing "Movement and Location," a progressive-bluegrass masterpiece in instrumental subtlety and melodic restraint, the quintet never looked back throughout their highlight-crammed set. Thile and company are notoriously goofy on-stage: At one point, they all broke out into a waltzy dance, and Thile frequently elicited giggles with his showboating smiles and awkward "in the zone" lurches. To my left, a group of clearly wasted college kids dry-humped each other, conga-style; somewhere behind me, a group of young country boys discussed the band's "gee-tars" with gleeful enthusiasm. Girls swooned; guys played air-banjo (even to the band's stellar rendition of the Radiohead staple "Kid A"). A fittingly (and charmingly) peculiar close to a festival built on both virtuoso talent and backwoods hospitality.