With his flowing white locks and skin-tight black jeans, 63-year-old Ricky Skaggs looked like a rock star when he took the stage at the Cistern on Thursday night, but the barn-burning bluegrass that made up the majority of his set stuck close to tradition. Even as his peers like Sam Bush opened the door for newgrass bands to add drummers and experiment more with acoustic instrumentation, Skaggs’ reverence for Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson keeps him firmly planted in ol’ Kentucky.
After an afternoon of downpours and flooding around downtown Charleston, the full-moon sky cleared in time for Skaggs to keep his gig at the Cistern. “Thank god,” he said upon taking the stage, before “Alright boys, here we go,” and ripping into “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” The seven-piece band showed off their three- and four-part vocal harmonies throughout the night, paying homage to Monroe over and over. “Uncle Pen” was introduced with, “Mr. Monroe would call this the bluegrass national anthem,” while guitarist Paul Brewster led a pretty take on “Kentucky Waltz.”
“Yeah Paul. Dang, son,” said Ricky after Brewster finished the high-vocal-range song. “That’s way up there.”
The night was lighthearted and laidback throughout. After a rapid-fire opening six songs that wrapped with a lightning-fast “Pig in a Pen” (“That should be an Olympic sport,” said Skaggs, wiping sweat from his brow), Skaggs settled in and told a long story about Monroe calling him on stage when he was six-years-old in Martha, Kentucky. The experience inspired Skaggs to “raise up young musicians” and “teach the next generation” later in his career. He then played Monroe’s “Mother’s Not Dead,” before “Blue Night,” which he referred to as the “stanky sounds of bluegrass” from east Kentucky.
Skaggs used a rag to wipe condensation from his Gibson F5 mandolin throughout the night, and joked how he knew from the humidity that it would be a night of frequent tuning (“My daddy used to say, ‘If you’re a little out of tune, it’s okay,’” Skaggs quipped. “It just makes it sound like there’s more of us playing.”) After “Ancient Tones,” he uttered, “My hands are so sticky. Lord, have mercy.” But the humidity didn’t slow the band down for a second, especially when fiddle player Mike Barnett led his dual-fiddle original, “Old Barnes,” garnering a roar of applause.
The slowest song of the set was also one of the most well-received, as guitarist Dennis Parker sang lead on a cover of “Carolina In My Mind” that nailed James Taylor’s vocal intonation, complemented by harmonies from Skaggs and Brewster.
Skaggs also thanked Charleston Music Hall owner Mike Bennett and acknowledged his 2003 album, “Live at the Charleston Music Hall,” before playing “A Simple Life,” a minor hit from that album, and closed the set with a red-hot “Black Eyed Suzie.”
The band retook the stage for an encore at 10:20, acknowledging that their show was shorter than usual (“At 75 minutes, we’re just getting started”) but joked that he didn’t want to overplay until he had the check in hand from Spoleto — “Then we’ll play all night.” He thanked the festival and the audience again before a four-part a cappella “Down in the Valley to Pray.” That perfect moment led to one more hay-burner of an instrumental that left the audience feeling wide awake as they headed off into the steamy night.