Michael Cleveland + Flamekeeper. Photo: East Public Relations.

The Louisville Orchestra Pops Series Presents: Michael Cleveland + Flamekeeper

Teddy Abrams, conductor
Guest Artists: Michael Cleveland – vocals + fiddle, Nathan Livers – vocals + mandolin, Tyler Griffith – vocals + bass, Joshua Richards – vocals + guitar, Josiah Shrode – banjo

Review by Annette Skaggs

Entire contents copyright © 2018 by Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.

It is hardly a secret that within the blue-hued shadows of the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky a genre of music was born: Bluegrass. A blend of many influences such as traditional music of the British Isles and African American jazz, this genre has a very large and dedicated international following.

While most bluegrass bands usually use a handful of instruments: stand-up bass, guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle, imagine the musical possibilities that could be had when you add an orchestra. Lucky for us Maestro Abrams embraced that idea and reached out to the International Bluegrass Music Association’s most winningest Fiddler of the Year Michael Cleveland and his group about collaborating, thus creating what was essentially a 60-piece bluegrass band. And let me tell y’all, it was a lot of fun.

The evening began with “Buckaroo Holiday” from Aaron Copeland’s Rodeo. While not the most widely played selection from Rodeo, it certainly set the stage and musical tone for the rest of the performance. An amuse bouche for the audience, if you will.

Within seconds of arriving on stage, Mr. Cleveland put fiddle to chin and began to demonstrate why he is considered one of the best fiddlers in the world with “Fiddler’s Dream”, which had some of the audience on its feet. The rest of the Flamekeepers made their way to the stage and performed a jaunty Bluegrass rendition of Julian Lennon’s “Too Late for Goodbyes”. Guitarist Joshua Richards shared some of his song-writing talent with “The Sunny Side of Town”. While “Blue Violet Waltz” would have been enjoyable with the five piece band, it reached new heights with the Brad Ritchie arranged orchestral ensemble. For the record, Mr. Ritchie arranged many of the orchestral/bluegrass pieces of the evening. Ending the first half of the evening with our guests we were treated to the love song “The Garden Wall” and the quick tempo piece “Train 45”. I know my hands and wrist were tired just watching the Flamekeepers’ strumming.

To round out the first act, Maestro Abrams returned to Rodeo with a portion that any of us that have watched TV or listened to the radio in the past four decades or so would recognize: “Hoe Down”, used in the Beef Council commercials…”Beef! It’s What’s For Dinner.” Now, this is a fun piece to listen to and play, but, make no mistake, there are some strange rhythm changes and time signatures that are essential to pay close mind to and our orchestra was on the nose with those challenges; and they nailed the “Yahoo”, too!

The second half began with Jeremy Kittle’s Pando, or Big Fiddle. While certainly a nod to Bluegrass or Country-Western music, it has a classical feel to it. Using the 1st violins as fiddles and the lower strings as “orchestral instruments” it is a unique piece.

If you are not sure what the differences are between a fiddle and a violin: a fiddle usually has a flatter bridge because of the number of strings that a fiddler typically plays. But guess what, a violin is a fiddle, but a fiddle is not a violin. The term “fiddle”, for a long while and still to this day, is often used as a generic term for a violin (or fiddle). A violinist could be a fiddler, but not necessarily playing a fiddle. Have I lost you yet? I hope not.

Back to the concert.

Mr. Cleveland and his band mates returned to the stage with “Northern White Clouds”, written by the father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe. As orchestral instruments began adding deeper layers onto this decades-old standby, I could imagine Mr. Monroe smiling from ear to ear.

To show another side of his abilities Mr. Cleveland put away his fiddle and brought out a mandolin and displayed some masterful fingering work on his composition “The Lonesome Desert”, which he says was inspired by listening to Westerns on tape. One could almost see the tumbleweed passing along the foot of the stage.

As the evening was quickly coming to a close with pieces like “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Uncle Penn”, Mr. Cleveland and his band had a great time ribbing each other on stage and throwing bon mots out to the audience, such as when needing to tune their instruments, Mr. Cleveland says “tuning is optional, but we tune because we care”.

To close out the end of the performance the Flamekeepers went into what they call “High Gear”. They weren’t kidding. Pete Wernick’s “Leavin’ Town” started as an enjoyable romp complete with orchestral layering, but watch out, Mr. Cleveland took over in an awe-inspiring, virtuosic display of musical prowess. How his fiddle didn’t catch on fire, I have no idea. His ability to get so much sound out of his instrument was phenomenal and his bandmates were respectful of his solo time. I enjoyed how the piece slowly morphed into “Orange Blossom Special”, a song which so deeply inspired the young Mr. Cleveland when he was a student at the Kentucky School for the Blind.

A rousing standing ovation convinced the Flamekeepers to perform an encore, giving us the ditty “Sunday Drive”.

I was fortunate to run into Mr. Cleveland over the weekend and shared with him how much I enjoyed his performance and how tickled I was to see the diversity of the audience that he was able to draw. I can tell you that it was delightful to see people in lovely dresses and suits saddled up next to persons sporting casual wear and cowboy hats, all equally whooping, hollering and clapping in appreciation of the performance.

To watch the glee of enjoyment on Maestro Abrams’ face, as well as within the orchestra, I am so glad that this fantastic group will be making a return for the Louisville Orchestra’s celebration of American Music in a couple of weeks.

Just goes to show, Music can be a great unifier!

Bravi Tutti!!!

Michael Cleveland + Flamekeeper

March 11, 2018

Louisville Orchestra
The Kentucky Center for the Arts
501 West Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202


Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.