The 15th Annual Aiken Bluegrass Festival was another milestone for the Carolina music scene. On the heels of a successful 14th year, ‘Aiken’ brought together progressive & traditional bluegrass as well as electric outfit Circles Around the Sun for their biggest year yet.
Early Bird campers arriving on Thursday had the opportunity to catch a rare solo performance from Mimi Naja of Fruition, who had played the year before. Following Mimi was a duo billing of Benny Galloway and Alabama’s own Donna Hopkins. Both acts had a fresh breath of individuality that lifted this year’s Aiken into commencement.
Early-morning Friday saw many campers fill the extended camping space from years prior. Kitchen Dwellers kicked off at Steve’s Hall, essentially a long warehouse-turned-beer hall that sood as an air-conditioned sanctuary throughout the duration of the festival. The Schaumans felt it proper to name the indoor stage after their late father and founder of Aiken Bluegrass Festival, Steve Groat.
Action on the Main Stage, aptly named the Aiken Stage, kicked off at 4:45 p.m. with Horseshoes & Handgrenades followed by progressive bluegrass zealot Billy Strings. Strings worked through his catalog including a quick-paced performance of “Dust in a Baggy” that highlighted the set. Following Strings, Keller and The Keels hit the Main Stage before Larry and Keller went straight to Steve’s Hall for a Superjam featuring various members of the festival lineup.
On Saturday, late risers could snag an Old & In The Way Tribute by Terrapin Mountain. Current Aiken Bluegrass President & Co-Director Christian Schauman sat in the corner, stage left behind the band. His wife and son looked out and could likely feel what father-in-law Steve Groat and his wife, Jeannie Groat, had started 15 years prior. With a subtle moment of appreciation, Del McCoury’s bus rolled up, and it was time for the Schaumans to host their headlining act.
Throughout the afternoon, the sun hid behind clouds and the talk of thunderstorms became a reality. The Larry Keel Experience handed the crowd an intensifying set as the trio played to the weather on the Aiken Stage. The set proved turbulent as Keel broke a few strings throughout his set, but the talented performer managed to not let that compromise his performance’s quality and ferocity. With that, both Del McCoury Band and Circles Around the Sun had to be moved indoors.
Del McCoury Band kicked off on the much smaller Steve’s Hall stage for one of the most intimate shows in the band’s recent history. Throughout the set, Del gave nods to all his band and family members, with a special shoutout to his grandson, Heaven. Del mentioned Heaven’s band, Broomstix, a 9 piece Nashville soul outfit that you should check out! The group moved around stage working their acoustics before ending their set gathered around the mic with multiple generations of McCourys on stage smiling. The crowd gathered tighter to show them off the stage with more enthusiasm than the whole rest of the weekend combined.
Circles Around The Sun and Billy Strings Psychedelic Circus were the final acts to take the stage at Aiken Bluegrass Festival. As the rain came in and out, Neal Casal and company gave a spike the festival needed to keep Steve’s Hall packed. The band that was conceived to compose the 2015 Fare Thee Well intermission music worked through their thrilling repertoire before handing it over to Billy Strings for the much anticipated “Billy Strings Psychedelic Circus” to close Aiken out. Teamed with Cris Jacobs Band and multiple sit-ins, the group worked through creative interpretations of rock classics until after 3:00 a.m. You can check videos out a full rundown of the set here.
Aiken Bluegrass is unparalleled in its integration with the surrounding local community. Both arrival and departure banners on street signs guided the crowd from highway to the Western Carolina Fairgrounds. Additionally, Aiken Bluegrass Festival gives a large amount of its proceeds to equine therapy all around the horse-oriented culture in Aiken. With such strong music, community, and heritage, there is no doubt that Christian Schauman, Aiken Bluegrass Festival, and its extended family have nowhere to go but up for their 16th annual event in 2020. Check out their website and sign up for their mailer to get updates to saddle up for next year.
Below, you can check out a beautiful gallery of photos from Aiken Bluegrass Festival 2019 courtesy of photographer Eric Rayburn.