Over the weekend, Rhythms on the Rio returned to its home in South Fork, Colorado. Marking its 14th-annual edition, the intimate, family-friendly festival brought together some of the brightest up-and-comers alongside well-established and beloved veteran performers. While primarily bluegrass-oriented during the daytime hours, the headliners each night tended to stick to a theme, with Friday offering a harder rock edge, Saturday tapping fan-favorite bluegrass stars, and Sunday wrapping with the high-energy New Orleans stylings of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
The opening day of the festival, Friday, August 2nd, was highlighted by local favorites Elder Grown, who hail from nearby Durango, Colorado. The trio of the Hoffman brothers (Josh “Brew” Hoffman, John “Cheeks” Hoffman, and Paul “Pabs” Hoffman) plus saxophonist Sam Kelly and keyboardist Brandon Clark offered up a lush, genre-bending blend, deftly integrating traditions as far-ranging as soul, funk, hip-hop, jazz, rock, and metal.
The Main Squeeze, who appeared ahead of Friday’s headliners The Kyle Hollingsworth Band, similarly offered up a diverse mix of sounds. Hailing originally from Indiana, the progressive funk-rock oufit has long been earning a name as one of the best touring acts on the scene. Led by their stunning, soulful vocalist Corey Frye, the band worked through a series of originals, such as their 2011 classic “Dr. Funk”, often building the crowd’s energy through dramatic keytar solos from keyboardist Ben “Smiley” Silverstein or blistering peaks from guitarist Max Newman.
To close out Friday night’s festivities, The String Cheese Incident‘s keyboard commander Kyle Hollingsworth closed down Rhythms On The Rio’s main stage with an ecstatic performance. While he offered up much of his solo catalog throughout the night, he also turned to his main project’s songbook, working up the frenzied crowd with takes on favorites such as “You’ve Got The World”. With his virtuosic keys underpinning the set, Hollingsworth curated a blissful dance party, also turning to covers by Supertramp (among others) to maintain the audience’s energy.
Once the stage shut down, fans returned to their campsites, with many continuing on to the late-night sets among the 100 or so vintage VW buses gathered for “Buses on the Rio.” The main gathering point, The Sparkle Bus, continued the music late into the night, while other more low-key gatherings of acoustic trios and other configurations congregated around firepits. Such nightly festivities were one of the major highlights of the festival, with Rhythms on the Rio’s sense of inherent community consistently at the forefront, regardless of whether the events were officially sanctioned or not.
On Saturday, Colorado’s Wood Belly offered up an easygoing set to match the overcast skies. The winners of the 2018 Telluride Bluegrass Band Contest put forth gorgeous harmonies, with each vocal melody underpinned by precise musicianship and next-level songwriting. Highlights included the intricate instrumental tune, “The Sweetest Thing”, and sit-in from The Infamous Stringdusters’ Jeremy Garrett.
After a jubilant set from Pixie and the Partygrass Boys, who subverted traditional Americana with a surprisingly excellent translation of the Avicii hit “Wake Me Up”, Saturday’s headlining bluegrass began in full. As the sun began to sink behind the hills, lauded flatpicker Larry Keel brought his “Experience” to the festival with his wife, the remarkable bassist Jenny Keel, plus special guests Garrett, Jeff Austin Band’s Kyle Tuttle, and artist-at-large Bill Nershi (The String Cheese Incident). Mixing originals like “Little Green Men” off their new album and covers of Tom Petty, Merle Haggard, and more, the group also dedicated the Yonder Mountain String Band track, “Steep Grade, Sharp Curves”, to the late and great Jeff Austin, who was originally scheduled to perform with his own Jeff Austin Band before his tragic passing in June.
The Larry Keel Experience – “Groundhog” – Rhythms on the Rio 2019
[Video: Festy GoNuts]
The Travelin’ McCourys were the real stars of the show on Saturday night, as they performed one set as their original band and later helped with the organization of the “Grateful Ball” tribute. With back-to-back sets, the band’s initial set was highlighted by their performance of “Freedom Blues”, a stellar, rollicking take of the tune of their 2018 self-titled studio debut. As for the Grateful Ball, the band returned with many friends from the across the day, starting with “Cumberland Blues” and working through takes on “Brown-Eyed Women”, “Friend Of The Devil”, “Mama Tried”, “Going Down The Road Feeling Bad”, and “Franklin’s Tower”.
The Travelin’ McCourys – Rhythms on the Rio 2019
[Video: Festy GoNuts]
Finally, Saturday ended with a bang with Fruition‘s first-ever headlining festival performance. The group has long earned a reputation as the quickly ascending stars of progressive bluegrass, offering up a heady mix of bluegrass edged with good ol’ fashioned rock and roll. Hot off an appearance at Arise Music Festival the night before, the band put their best foot forward with newly recorded originals like “There She Was” and “I Should Be (On Top Of The World)” off 2018’s Watching It All Fall Apart, long-standing fan-favorites such as “Mountain Annie”, and a high-energy cover of Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ “Running Down A Dream”.
On the final day of the festival, Sunday, August 4th, fans flocked to the river beside the venue, taking the opportunity to cool off along the banks of the Rio Grande. Dozens of children blasted waterguns at tubers floated by as Durango’s Woodland Remedy cultivated a healthy-sized daytime audience and delighted with their rich brand of Americana and folk.
Later in the day, Gasoline Lollipops took to the stage, serving as the support ahead of Sunday’s early headliner, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The Lollipops offered a surprising mix of sounds, with one standout tune being “Santa Maria”, an initially mournful Mexican ballad that grew into its powerful and dynamic chorus. Another highlight came in the form of the band’s final encore rendition of Howlin’ Wolf‘s “Smokestack Lightning”, which served as a perfect way to wrap the set.
As for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, they offered perhaps the most dance-oriented set of the festival’s three days. Hard-hitting and joyful, the group brought Rhythm on the Rio’s community of fans together in dance. The group also emphasized crowd participation, first bringing a little boy named Finley and his mother out on stage to lead chanting during “I’m Walkin'”. Later, after a spectacular, jammed-out take on “When The Saints Go Marching In”, the band pulled a number of dancers on stage during their finale.
Proceeds from Rhythms on the Rio benefit its host non-profit, the South Fork Music Association, a volunteer-run organization that uses its proceeds to help local school districts purchase and repair students’ instruments. For more information, head to the event’s website here.