Flamekeeper is an apt name for the band of award-winning bluegrass fiddler Michael Cleveland. It’s a band on fire and a man on fire, for sure. In the first concert of the Sounds of the Mountains series’ eighth season, the musicians all played as if they were on fire or about to burst into flames.

The Sounds of the Mountains series is an inspired collaboration between the Willingham Theatre at the Yadkin Arts Council in Yadkinville and the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Virginia. The Music Center holds concerts in its amphitheater May through September. By partnering with the Willingham Theater, they can keep giving fans the great bluegrass and Americana music that they’re missing when it’s too cold for music out of doors.

Cleveland and Flamekeeper warmed the 30-degree night right up, as they kicked off the three-concert series with two sets of tunes that managed to be both nostalgic and avant-garde simultaneously. I promise you that Cleveland’s mind-blowing rendition of “Orange Blossom Special” opened up new pathways in my brain. I’ve never heard anything like it.

Each musician in the band is a star in his own right: Chris Douglas on bass, Josh Richards on guitar and lead vocals, Nathan Livers on mandolin, and Cody Looper on banjo. Looper was sitting in for the band’s usual banjo player Jasiah Shrode who was out temporarily for a death in his family.

Going forward, even if I fail to mention it, just know that every song and tune included a flawless and innovative fiddle shredding by Cleveland. His sight and hearing impairments simply enhance rather than deter his playing.

With little fanfare, Cleveland and Flamekeeper launched the first set with “Old Mountaineer.” Fiddle and banjo started alone and were quickly joined by bass, guitar, and mandolin. They segued smoothly into “Katy Hill,” followed by “Son of a Ramblin’ Man” that contains the memorable line, “I’m just a hillbilly gypsy.” The latter song was slow and almost sultry with a loping, bluesy gait.

They played a few songs from their latest album, The Loving of the Game, starting with the title song, which featured exquisite vocal harmonies; followed by “Sunny Days” about coming out of the COVID lockdown; and a lament, “Now She’s Gone,” with stand-out vocals by Richards, and mandolin and guitar solos.

Cleveland played a long, incendiary lead-in to the set’s last song, a blistering “Tall Fiddler.” Percussive and syncopated already, the song kicked into high gear on Cleveland’s blazing solo. “Tall Fiddler” took us to intermission gasping for breath and eager for the next set, which did not disappoint.

Cleveland and Flamekeeper started the second set with the traditional tune, “Sally Goodin,” which featured Cleveland on some surprising licks in the lower register of the fiddle and Douglas soloing on bass.

They rocked out on the slyly humorous “Tennessee Plates,” and followed with Julian Lennon’s ska-ish “Too Late for Goodbyes,” which lent itself well to bluegrass style, especially the high note sung at the end of each stanza by Richards.

“The 8th of January” was kind of a fun musical puzzle with Cleveland and Looper on fiddle and banjo respectively. A traditional fiddle tune, it would go on in the 1950s to form the melody of a song by Johnny Horton called “The Battle of New Orleans.” Cleveland and Looper found the fireworks at the core of the tune.

“Mescaline” is an original song by Richards, featuring him on vocals, of which he said, and I paraphrase, “this is where the program gets weird.” Even so, there’s a melancholy in the heart of much bluegrass and Americana music, balanced by the unquenchable exuberance of the playing.

“One Horse Town” from the new album was a favorite of mine with lines like,
This little bitty town it ain’t nothing new
We all stick around ’cause they all tell us to
Swallow your pride just to make your family proud.

It’s by a country band from Atlanta called Blackberry Smoke.

Cleveland and Flamekeeper went ahead and set the stage on fire with the encores. The Willingham Theatre might never be the same. I’d wager the timbers are still smoldering and echoing with the sounds of Cleveland’s sizzling fiddle. Long may they play.

Cleveland is the most awarded International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Fiddle Player of the Year, with 12 wins. He is a six-time winner of the IBMA Instrumental Performance of the Year. Flamekeeper has won Instrumental Group of the Year seven times. Cleveland was inducted into the National Fiddler Hall of Fame in 2018 and received the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship in 2022. Their album, Tall Fiddler, won a Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album in 2020. Their latest, The Loving of the Game, has been nominated for the same honor this year. The Grammys will be televised on Feb. 4.

Other concerts in the Sounds of the Mountains series include Maia Kamil with special guest The Queen Bees on Saturday, Jan. 20, at 7:30 p.m., and His & Hers with special guests Molly McGinn & The Woodshed Experience on Saturday, Jan. 27, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 for each concert at 336-679-2941 or www.yadkinarts.org.