Four musicians on stage playing their respective instruments
The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. Left to right: Julian Pinelli, Chris Henry, Eric Thorin, Peter Rowan and Max Wareham. Credit: Gabriel Nelson

The sun seems to be shining a little brighter on the Berkeley bluegrass scene these days.

Molly Tuttle grew up down the peninsula in Palo Alto, but the virtuosic guitarist and powerhouse singer has been talking up her Berkeley mentors since she was nominated for a best new artist Grammy Award last year (a trophy ultimately taken home by another longshot nominee, jazz vocalist Samara Joy). 

Tuttle did win the best bluegrass album Grammy for her album Crooked Tree, and in subsequent interviews she’s been giving major shoutouts to Laurie Lewis and Kathy Kallick, the East Bay bluegrass matriarchs who “led the scene in a way,” Tuttle said. “It was so cool to grow up and watch these women who wrote their own songs and led their own bands.”  

The curator and guiding spirit of the Berkeley Bluegrass Festival, which returns to Freight & Salvage for a three-night run April 21-23, Lewis helps kick off the event Friday with her band the Right Hands. It’s a packed weekend featuring rising stars, like banjo phenomenon Tray Wellington, and some of the most influential and illustrious artists, like the all-star combo Mr. Sun. And that’s just Friday’s triple bill. Bassist and Berkeley native Allegra Thompson emcees all three nights. 

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The aptly named Mr. Sun features fiddler and former Oakland resident Darol Anger, a player who’s been at the center of bluegrass innovation since the 1970s, since he gained renown as a member of David Grisman’s dawg music quintet. Now a professor emeritus at Berklee College of Music, he’s joined by Gibson Brothers mandolin great Joe K. Walsh, guitar maestro Grant Gordy (best known in the Bay Area for his recent stint with Grisman), and Scottish bassist Aidan O’Donnell, a commanding jazz musician who’s worked widely with harpist Maeve Gilchrist. 

In many ways Anger represents the Bay Area’s deep history of string music invention. After his pioneering work with Grisman, whose dawg music combined Gypsy jazz and Latin American influences with bluegrass bravado, he went on to co-found Turtle Island String Quartet, Pyschograss and other supergroups. Much like Lewis, he’s mentored and championed generations of stellar string players in the Bay Area and Boston.

Saturday’s program features guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Peter Rowan, who’s both an innovator and a direct link to bluegrass’s foundational figure. He gained prominence with mandolin legend Bill Monroe in the mid-1960s, and first played in Berkeley at the height of the folk music boom as part of a West Coast swing that staggered out from Nashville. By the time Monroe’s band made it here their tour bus had broken down three times. 

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“That was all part of bluegrass back then,” Rowan said on a recent phone call from Hawaii, where he was playing several concerts with Leftover Salmon. “You’d go to an all-night truck mechanic and he’d tell you need a new engine.”

The bus wasn’t the only casualty on the tour. Monroe came down with food poisoning in Berkeley, and Rowan, who also served as road manager and music director, had to step up in Palo Alto “to lead the show,” he recalled. “I had no idea what to do. I knew all the arrangements. Here I am imitating Bill Monroe in Bill Monroe’s band.”

He survived the night and with Monroe’s steady encouragement developed his own vocal style. “He’d yell at me, ‘Sing it like Pete Rowan!’ My hero was Charlie Waller, but Bill didn’t want someone to sound like him. He wanted a contrasting voice, but still in that tenor range.”

One of the best combos on the scene, the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band includes Chris Henry on mandolin and vocals, Max Wareham on banjo and vocals, fiddler Julian Pinelli and bassist Eric Thorin. Saturday’s double bill also features roots singer/songwriter Laura Love, who returned to action after years off the scene with 2018’s politically charged album She Loved Red

The festival closes Sunday with a wide-ranging triple bill. Larry & Joe features Venezuelan harp master Larry Bellorín and the great North Carolina banjo player Joe Troop, founder of the Latingrass string band Che Apalache. After a decade based in Buenos Aires he was back home in North Carolina when the pandemic hit. Before long he connected with Bellorín, who’d fled his homeland and sought asylum in Durham. They’ve been performing widely as a duo ever since.  

The program also features Virginia-based Dry Branch Fire Squad, a highly entertaining bluegrass quartet, and the all-women combo Sister Sadie, a blazing band led by founding members Deanie Richardson on fiddle and Gena Britt on banjo and harmony vocals. They’re joined by recent recruits  Jaelee Roberts on guitar and lead vocals, Mary Meyer on mandolin and harmony vocals, and Hasee Ciaccio on bass.

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The pace of bluegrass’s evolution may have slowed over the years, but the music’s strength still flows from the connection to its roots. Rowan vividly recalls learning the standard “Mule Skinner Blues” from Monroe, who “probably learned it from Arnold Shultz, his uncle’s Black hired hand,” he said.  

That was at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles a few days after the Bay Area shows. “We probably drove to LA all night long,” he said. “That was Bill’s way. We had two-week stand at the Ash Grove. We parked next to B.B. King’s bus on Melrose and we lived on the bus.”

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....