By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Thursday night at Tall Stacks, Stuart Duncan was about to kick off a song for the Nashville Bluegrass Band when the Majestic, out of Pittsburgh, let off a mighty blast.
He grinned and answered back, imitating the steamboat whistle on his fiddle, much to the delight of the crowd packed around the Yeatman's Cove stage.
As the biggest music and steamboat festival ever held in Cincinnati passes its midpoint - three days down, two to go - Tall Stacks is earning high marks from musicians and music fans alike.
"This is so much fun," Lucinda Williams exclaimed to her opening-night crowd of about 10,000.
"I wish we could play here tomorrow night," Ricky Skaggs said as he ended Thursday's show. "You've really got something cool going on here."
Suddenly, Cincinnati has a world-class roots-music festival.
Wednesday night featured country rock and Louisiana sounds; Thursday was bluegrass, with three top bands - Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder, the Del McCoury Band and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. The last is far better known as the Soggy Bottom Boys, the group that provided the music and (in lead singer Pat Enright) one of the voices on "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Nashville Bluegrass Band paid tribute to the river and John Hartford, to whom the Tall Stacks music is dedicated, with "River Man Blues," a song the late river-loving musician wrote with Bill Monroe.
There also was homegrown river 'grass from local heroes the Comet Bluegrass All Stars, whose show earlier at the P&G Pavilion featured "Catfish John," about a boy's friendship with an ole-time river man.
The music both weekdays was a far better draw than the last Tall Stacks (1999), which didn't have the same caliber of performers. Staging and sound also have been vastly upgraded.
"This is the best one I have ever seen here, in terms of the talent, the organization. Everything is running so smoothly," said musician/radio producer Ron Esposito, of Cincinnati.
"I think it's great," agreed Brian Brichler, a 20-something Phish fan from Cincinnati. He was at the P&G stage to see Del McCoury, whom he'd discovered through Phish.
"They've had Tall Stacks for years, but this is the first time they've made a big deal out of the music. I'm going to be down here for the whole thing."
He has a lot of company. For as little as $10 (for those who bought the five-day Admission Pins in advance with a Kroger Plus card) or as much as $15 (at the gate), Tall Stacks is the concert bargain of the year.
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