Traveling to Cancun, Mexico for our fourth Strings & Sol felt like going home. After my husband, Bill, and I attended for the first three years, we took last year off to be able to attend other music festivals. We go to about half a dozen bluegrass festivals a year and have had some great experiences, but we missed our beach time in December, and more importantly, our Strings & Sol family.
The 5th annual Strings & Sol featured Yonder Mountain String Band, Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, the Infamous Stringdusters, the Larry Keel Experience, and special guests Danny Barnes and Nicki Bluhm. An incredible lineup indeed. Tickets were sold out within 48 hours of release to the die-hard Kinfolk, Campers, Jamily and Hobos (respective fan bases of the headlining bands).
Milling around the boarding gate in Denver while waiting for our flight to Cancun, we began to recognize other folks going to String & Sol. Some were friends, some were artists and some were new friends, not yet met. Once on board the plane, walking down the aisle, it became even more obvious just how many of us were going to the same place. A party atmosphere was definitely taking hold and when the Southwest flight attendant told us that the band “Bluesky Greengrass” was on board, the plane erupted in laughter.
When you deplane in Mexico you first go through the immigration line, followed by waiting to pick up your luggage, and then you wait in line to go through customs. At this point, you run the gauntlet of taxi and shuttle service barkers and look for the man holding the Strings & Sol sign. We went through all of that in record time compared to our other trips and were on the shuttle bus within an hour of landing.
The half hour ride to the resort also flew by as we all got acquainted through mutual friends. It really started to feel like we were on this bus headed for summer camp.
Check in was a breeze, as it has always been for us at Strings & Sol, and then we were off to our room, where we would be spending as little time as possible over the next week of music and fun.
I found a friend in the Palapa that we had met at our first Strings & Sol. He was looking around reflectively and said almost wistfully, “This really doesn’t make sense to normal people… but we’re not normal.” When I asked him what he meant, he commented that the folks there were abnormally generous and caring. It was very noticeable how we all greeted each other as if we were already friends, which, connected through the music, we kind of are.
After a day spent relaxing and enjoying the sand and sun, the Welcome Toast was given by Annabel Stelling of Cloud 9. She spoke about an incredible energy felt and the need to come together as a group to share a lot of love, that the whole week needed to be about love and music.
Shortly after the toast, the music began. Yonder Mountain String Band kicked it off with a blazing set that included guests Danny Barnes, Drew Emmitt and Larry Keel. A real highlight was Jake Jolliff singing “Dancing In The Moonlight” while all of us, well, danced on the beach in the moonlight! Yonder would go on to play an intimate set in the Palapa with a lot of fan interaction, including letting us pick the encore, a fiddle-fueled “Crazy Train.” They also played the closing set of the event, including some new material from David Johnston, and with guest sit-ins from Keller Williams, Danny Barnes and players from Greensky Bluegrass, Leftover Salmon and Railroad Earth.
When you hear “FESTI-VAAAAALLLLL” you know Vince Herman and the rest of Leftover Salmon have taken the stage. They whipped the beachgoers into a first-night frenzy and then sent everyone over to the Larry Keel and Friends set that went on well into the evening. The “friends” included Keller Williams, Danny Barnes, Jeremy Garrett of the Infamous Stringdusters, Tim Carbone of Railroad Earth, Drew Emmitt and Andy Thorn of Leftover Salmon. Leftover Salmon would later play a very special sunset show a couple days later, which is always one of my favorite parts of this event. These guys were made to play next to the ocean, under pink and orange clouds!
Before the Infamous Stringdusters played their set on the second day, I happened upon their soundcheck on the beach stage. A very organic and freeform collection of notes unexpectedly became an instrumental version of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven,” with a handful of people to witness. What an unexpected treat! The Stringdusters played a high-energy set, including the debut of their new song, “Gravity,” as well as a stunning vocal performance from Nicki Bluhm on “Big Road Blues” and “Run To Heaven.” Jolliff brought the sharp sounds of the mandolin on a smoking “Wheel Hoss” and “One More Bridge.” They also played an Unplugged en la Palapa set, serving up old-school style bluegrass at its finest. The band played mostly traditional sounding bluegrass songs, all crowded around a single mic setup. The last sunset show was the Infamous Stringdusters’ and it, too, was magical, with Jamily dancing in the Gulf waves, watching all the smiling faces. A cheer went up when they started playing the Pink Floyd cover “Fearless,” and the “Tragic Life” jam was seven minutes of epic-ness.
Railroad Earth played two sets over these few days, the first being a sunset show, featuring a classic setlist of favorites and surprises, highlighted by “When the Sun Gets In Your Blood” and closing with a cover of “The Wheel” by the Grateful Dead. Their Sunday night crowd was full of Hobos and they got what they wanted with a killer “Bird In The House,” and a rowdy “Elko,” complete with well-timed decks of playing cards flying through the air.
Greensky Bluegrass had their first set threatened by rain, and it managed to hold off for the first few songs. What started as a gentle tropical rain quickly turned into heavy downpour, but the Campers kept on dancing! Set break came just in the nick of time and everyone moved to the Palapa to dry off. Warmed towels were provided, more drinks were procured and the promise of another set of Greensky was all the motivation folks needed to get back out to the beach.
Greensky Bluegrass later played a set poolside in the gazebo. Hundreds of listeners crowded into the huge pool to listen as more hung out in beach chairs along the decks. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be floating aimlessly around the pool in a giant pink flamingo float listening to Greensky, no doubt. Their closing set came on Monday night, complete with a parade of guests, including members of the Stringdusters and Nicki Bluhm, Leftover Salmon, Railroad Earth, Danny Barnes and Larry Keel. The Spanish version of “For Sure Uh-Huh” was the icing on the cake.
The late-night music was provided by a few off-the-wall groups consisting of various artists in improvisational roles. Sockeye, an all-star band featuring Nicki Bluhm and members of Leftover Salmon, kept the crowd guessing, bringing out guests including Andy Goessling of Railroad Earth, Jake Jolliff and Jeremy Garrett. Also featured late night was Barntronica, a Danny Barnes and friends foray into experimental electronic roots music. Guests included Jeremy Garrett and Larry Keel and kicked off with a 15 minute “Death Trip.” The very last set of music was provided late in the night by Keller Williams’ Grateful Grass, featuring the Infamous Stringdusters. The Grateful Dead done Keller/bluegrass style set was full of energy and the overwhelming feeling that no one wanted the evening to end.
If you could find time between all of the music and relaxing, there were many activities on and off site to enjoy. Jungle tours, cenote adventures, a Mexican cooking class, a pool float parade, and the Positive Legacy day of service in a local village, to name a few. Lending some serious bluegrass authenticity to this event, The Playing in the Sand picking session at the Swing Bar brought out players of all abilities and included a few guitars, banjos, a fiddle, a dobro and even multiple washboards. I even got to belt out a “Deep Elem Blues” with the group! They had so much fun that a second meet-up was arranged, where they played for a couple hours just off the beach, complete with a visit from Drew Emmitt.
One of the many things I love about this bluegrass scene is that the artists are all really like us, they just play music better. It makes them approachable because you already know that you have many things in common, first and foremost being the music. Several times I witnessed conversations between fans and artists about the shows the night before. That, combined with all of the on-stage collaborations that were obviously very enjoyable on and off the stage, shows that there is a true appreciation for this music all around.
The last day of summer camp is always a sad affair and this was no different. Everyone knew we were returning to snowy lands and the business of the holiday season. But for those few days together, away from it all at a destination concert in the tropics, it was like heaven, an experience not found at just any festival. As Adam Ajaila from Yonder Mountain String Band put it, “You can take any of your favorite festivals out there, but then you have the ocean and beaches right where the stage is. It’s also December down here, it’s cold everywhere else, that’s what separates this.” Add in the graciousness and accessibility of the artists, Cloud 9’s expertise of putting on the event and the friendliest resort staff you could ask for and Strings & Sol truly is an event not to be missed.
Article by Kasie Kubilius