Q&A: Michael Daves on the 3rd Annual Brooklyn Bluegrass Bash

Next Sunday, October 26th, Michael Daves will again host the Brooklyn Bluegrass Bash at The Bell House in Gowanus.  In its third year, the Bash raises money for the Restoration Fund of Park Slope’s Old First Reformed Church, one of the oldest churches in all of New York and an iconic landmark in the Park Slope skyline.

Brooklynite Peter Sarsgaard is back this year emceeing the all-star lineup including David Bromberg with Mark Cosgrove; Bruce Molsky, Tony Trischka & Michael Daves; Darol Anger, Joe K. Walsh & Grant Gordy; and Haas/Kowert/Tice.

This is one of my favorite bluegrass events all year, so I caught up with Daves this week to preview this year’s Bash.

GCB: How did the idea for the Bluegrass Bash come about in the first place?

First Bash in 2012
First Bash in 2012

Michael Daves: I was out at the RockyGrass festival in Colorado several summers ago, performing and also teaching at the camp that leads up to the festival.  So many of the artists there were friends of mine who are based in New York: The Punch Brothers, Aoife O’Donovan, Kristin Andreassen, among others.  And I was wondering why we all had to come out to Colorado to hang out together and make music.  There wasn’t any sort of festival or bluegrass event in the City at that time, though there are tons of great musicians living here. So I thought it would be good to start something that would bring us together close to home.  Since organizing a for-profit festival would be financially and logistically insane, doing a benefit for the church sanctuary seemed like a more feasible way to make it happen.  So we asked everyone gather around to help save this amazing sanctuary in our neighborhood.  I attend Old First which is how I got involved in the restoration project but I knew it would be an easy enough sell to others; even for people who either don’t care about the church as a religious institution or are skeptical of religion or whatever (which is most people in Brooklyn) there’s a lot of community appeal.  The building itself is an architectural and artistic treasure and deeply connected in NYC history (the congregation was Brooklyn’s first, founded in 1654 by order of Peter Stuyvesant), plus the sanctuary was used for a lot of ecumenical outreach like hosting arts events and a homeless shelter, and hosting Congregation Beth Elohim when their own sanctuary was under repair.  So it’s pretty clear that this would be about saving a very special space that has a lot value to the community at large, not just the congregation.

GCB: How did Peter Sarsgaard get involved?

MD: Peter lives in Park Slope and is both a bluegrass music fan and a supporter of the building restoration campaign.  I met him in 2010 when he was cast to play Bill Monroe in a (now-defunct) biopic and I was brought in as his mandolin tutor.  He stayed on as a student even after the movie fell apart; his wife and kids are all very musical so he enjoys getting to play with them.

GCB: How did you arrive at this lineup? Is there a particular approach you took in curating?

Second Bash in 2013
Second Bash in 2013

MD: Well the past two years I’ve performed at the Bash with Chris Thile who doesn’t live in NYC anymore and busy with about twelve other projects, so he was unavailable. I had to go in a different direction.  So I wanted to take the opportunity to showcase my new trio with Tony Trischka and Bruce Molsky, who is an amazing and influential old-time fiddler.  Bruce mentored Brittany Haas, so I wanted to get her back to the Bash in her trio with Paul Kowert (Punch Brothers bassist) and Jordan Tice, who just put out an amazing new album.  Brittany’s other mentor is Darol Anger, who’s also done a bunch of playing with Bruce and with Tony, and Darol has this new group Mr. Sun with Grant Gordy and Joe Walsh (and Ethan Jodziewicz on bass, who wasn’t available for the Bash).  So the idea was to have the fiddle trifecta of Brittany, Bruce, and Darol on hand with their various projects and plan on a big jam at the end of the event where our minds will be blown by what they do all together. Then I had one other headlining slot to fill and thought of David Bromberg who I’ve opened some shows for.  David is a total legend who’s started performing again after a hiatus of maybe 20 years.  In the 70s he was based in NYC and collaborating with a who’s who including Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, etc etc.  So for the generation who was around for that he’s an Americana music god, but he hasn’t played in Brooklyn and a lot of younger folks aren’t aware of him.  I figure it’d be fun to present him here because he’ll be an amazing blast from the past for some and a great new discovery for others.  In general, in choosing acts for the Bash I try to get performers who either already know each other or have some sort of affinity, and make sure it’s a group of people who would totally get together for a house party outside of a gig, just for fun.  Since the Bash is a benefit concert, these performers are playing for a fraction of what they’d get paid at a major festival so I try to at least make sure it’s a great hang for all of them and compelling in terms of social and creative interaction.  We feed them well and we all have a great time back stage.  It’s sort of like old home week.

GCB: Anything new and noteworthy this year?

Old First
Old First

MD: We’re going to finish with an all-star jam in the last half-hour of the event.  In past years we’ve had all the performers up to sing “Working On A Building” but this time we’ll extend that.  Part of the reason is to give all of our amazing fiddlers a chance to interact, and also to feature some good old straight-ahead bluegrass since none of our main acts are doing exactly that like in years past.

GCB: How much money has been raised from the previous events?

MD: I don’t handle the money but I think the last two events each raised between $20k and $25k for the ceiling restoration at Old First, which is awesome.  Many times that figure need to be raised to fully repair and restore the sanctuary but every chunk helps.  Plus the Bash helps raise awareness about the space, and is also an opportunity for Old First to host a great community event even without the use of its main space.