Friday, December 29, 2006

Snowstorms & Hillbillies

Kennedy Center: Millennium Stage Artist Details: Bob Perilla’s Big Hillbilly Bluegrass

Blizzards traditionally make for harrowing stories from grandparents, but a broadband connection can sure make Colorado snowstorms easier to bear.

Homebound for the second consecutive weekend, it's nice to stumble across this excellent performance by Bob Perilla's Big Hillbilly Bluegrass Band. About time these folks were invited back to Colorado - after the snow melts, of course.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Experimental Music Mapping Program

Discovery Channel :: News, Photo Zoom :: Music Software Creates Song Islands

This could be very cool, but maybe not so very efficient. The software "listens" to your music collection, groups like-sounding pieces, and generates a virtual landscape that can be navigated with a joystick.

Still too early for public consumption, but I'll definitely be watching for a beta or demo release.

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numly esn 33457-061222-251701-40

© 2006 All Rights Reserved.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Greensky Bluegrass, The Orange Peel, Asheville, NC 12/14/06

Greensky Bluegrass
Originally uploaded by Zen Curmudgeon.
This talented, Kalamazoo-based quartet took last summer's Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest (barely edging the resurgent Boulder Acoustic Society), and I'm looking forward to their festival-opening Thursday slot next June. Opening for the genre-defining Del McCoury Band must have been a little bit intimidating, but the boys projected a relaxed, playful stage aura.

Touring behind a CD produced by Railroad Earth fiddler Tim Carbone, Greensky opened with the original "Hoxieville", penned by mando/vocalist Paul Hoffman, who also contributed "These Old Hills" to the setlist. Despite Carbone's mentoring in the studio, Greensky is nimble enough to incorporate Yonder Mountain ("Jesus on the Mainline") and Tim O'Brien's version of the Ola Belle Reed classic, "I've Endured"

Warren haynes 18th Annual Christmas Jam, 12/16/06, New Orleans Social Club02

New Orleans Social Club02
Originally uploaded by Zen Curmudgeon.
Five expat New Orleans funkmeisters have teamed up to blast the December countryside with the genuine raise-the-roof item. In a set that covered essential New Orleans anthems ("Look a Py Py" and "Walking to New Orleans") the NOSC effortlessly absorbed and transcended the contributions of John Popper, Mickey Raphael, Taylor Hicks, and Branford Marsalis before igniting an incendiary "Fortunate Son" that featured slashing guitar by Warren Haynes, impassioned sax lines from Branford, sincere harp work from Taylor Hicks. Considered by many to be the hottest set of the night. Warren's curtain speech, "In all seriousness, this is why we have to rebuild New Orleans!"

Warren Haynes 18th Christmas Jam, 12/16/06, Taj Mahal Trio

Taj Mahal02
Originally uploaded by Zen Curmudgeon.
Taj came, he played, he slayed. (Sorry, irresistible impulse)

This trio followed the John Popper Project, ratcheting the energy level another up notch or three. Highlights included "Annie Mae" and "Mississippi Big Butt Blues".

Taj was the object of some hero worship during the set, and not just by the fans. Mule bassist Andy Hess was spotted taking pix from behind the trio during its set. TMT was also the only band of the night that had no guests sitting in.

Friday, December 15, 2006

How Joe Val became IBMA "festival of the year"

When the 22nd annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival kicks off the 2007 northeastern roots music festival calendar outside Boston in mid-February, it will be the event's first running since gaining recognition last fall as the "festival of the year" by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).

I had a chance to sit down with Joe Val's two producers, Gerry Katz and Stan Zdonik of the Boston Bluegrass Union, for a discussion of how a small event that began as a benefit fundraiser grew to become a world-class festival.

This year's festival runs Presidents' Day weekend, February 16-18, at the Sheraton Hotel in Framingham MA, a western suburb of Boston. The lineup presents a potent mix of traditional and contemporary bluegrass stars with a dash of jazzgrass sprinkled in. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands, Chris Thile & The How to Grow a Band, Dan Paisley & Southern Grass, and The Infamous Stringdusters head up the bill.

The festival hotel is already sold out but two nearby overflow hotels have rooms available. Walkup tickets are priced at $80 for a weekend pass, with various early-bird, member, and single-day options available.

Zdonik credits part of the success of the festival, which is structured as a non-profit educational charity, to the passion of the organizers and volunteers that make it happen. "Nobody makes a dime off of it, we're only in it for the love," he said. "We are in a position to create a safe haven for artists to present their craft at the highest possible level," Katz added. "When it works, we walk away feeling we have established a friendship between the artist and audience."

The festival got its start in 1985 as an impromtu benefit and tribute to Boston bluegrass legend Joe Val when he was terminally ill. After securing a venue at a local high school, Zdonik made a handful of calls to musicians to see who could perform. By the next night, he was getting calls from people asking to get involved--bluegrass artists like Tony Rice but also folk singer Tom Rush and rocker Peter Wolf of J. Geils Band.

In the end, 23 bands performed from more than 1000 attendees, and $12,000 was raised for Joe Val's family. Val passed away two days later.

For the next few years, organizers repeated the event as a free event on a small scale, but then Katz and the BBU came into the picture. The BBU ran a bluegrass concert series in Cambridge, Mass., and it seemed like a natural fit for the association to take on the fledgling festival.

Katz brought a new sense of professionalism to the production. For the next several years, it continued to be run as a summer outdoor one-day festival, but now it was a paid event. Even so, it wasn't thriving.

Then, after attending an IBMA conference and meeting one of the producers of the Wintergrass festival, Katz surprised Zdonik with a new idea. He suggested moving it indoors during the winter season and expanding it to a full weekend event. "I said, 'You have to be crazy,' but it turned out to be the perfect decision," Zdonik recalled.

It turned out that there were multiple advantages to moving indoors. On President's Day weekend, it would face little competition, provide a outlet for pent-up demand for entertainment, and would not be subject to uncertainties of weather. The three-day weekend would allow a full schedule of Sunday performances.

Also, the costs and logistical complications of running an indoor event are greatly reduced over outdoor festivals, Katz said. Since the host hotel makes its money from guest room sales, the ballroom and other festival facilities are free to the promoter. Setup and breakdown is easy; unlike an outdoor event where there are a host of special needs, an indoor event may need only staging and lighting.

On the other hand, an indoor festival limits the potential size of the event. The Sheraton ballroom holds 935 chairs and no more, Katz said.

The first several years, the indoor version of the Joe Val Festival was held at the Dedham Holiday Inn and later moved to the Framingham Sheraton. In short order, it became the premier winter bluegrass event in New England, attracting fans from all over the Northeast.

With the festival's educational charter, the program is packed with learning opportunities, including a kids' program, jam camp, and more than 40 workshops. Since the workshops are held in smallish rooms, there's a greater likelihood of meaningful learning than with festivals holding workshops on a large stage, Katz said.

According to Katz and Zdonik, a sizable percentage of the audience are musicians themselves, and the lobbies are filled with picking jams. Most attendees, even locals who want to enjoy a full festival experience, stay onsite or at a satellite hotel and stay for the whole weekend, though single day passes are available for Friday and Sunday (but not Saturday).

Like many long-running festivals, Joe Val faces a challenge in maintaining its musical personality while adapting to newer trends. Joe Val's program leans toward traditional bluegrass, though the presenters mix in some progressive styles to attract younger festival-goers.

For example, this year's booking of Chris Thile's jazzgrass How to Grow a Band is designed to to appeal to younger music fans, with the hope that they discover they also like the traditional sound.

Joe Val himself was a high-lonesome traditionalist, and the festival seeks to keep his spirit alive through reunions of his band, sales of his CDs, showing of a performance film, and disseminating information about Val on the festival website and at the event. They also encourage performers to play some of his songs, and share any memories they may have.

Katz said that receiving the award represents a recognition by the bluegrass community. "It demonstrates that we are not just the best winter festival in New England, but that we measure up to any bluegrass festival for the quality of presetnations, workshop activity, the vibe, and the overall cultural experience."

In a practical sense, the recognition will also help in attracting sponsors and high-end vendors to the event, and is also a great validation for volunteers and patrons.

It is also a recognition that indoor winter festivals are a growing trend. With Wintergrass (which won the IBMA best festival award in 2005) and Joe Val leading the way, other promoters are putting on indoor events, notably the California Bluegrass Association, which launched its high-profile Supergrass festival in Bakersfield, Calif., last year and will hold its 2007 event February 1-4.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Best 100 of the Year

The great WNCW - listener supported radio in North Carolina - has begun its top 100 records of the year list. Drop by their site and let 'em know what you think. Their list isn't the definitive one (I'm not sure there is a "definitive"), but if often includes acts that otherwise would be overlooked.


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Dancin' Dave posts 2007 schedule

Festival Preview readers will recall the great experience we had using Dancin' Dave's campsite setup service last year at MerleFest. If you are traveling long distance to attend one of the festivals Dave serves, it is a convenient and friendly way to enjoy the benefits of festival camping without having to haul your own gear.

Today Dancin' Dave announced his 2007 schedule, which is unchanged since last year. Supported festivals are Suwannee Springfest (Live Oak FL, March 22-25); MerleFest (Wilkesboro NC, April 26-29); Lake Eden Arts Festival (Black Mountain NC, May 11-13); Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (Ancramdale NY, July 19-22); Floydfest (Floyd VA, July 26-29); Lake Eden Arts Festival (Black Mountain NC, October 19-21); and MagnoliaFest (Live Oak FL, October 25-28).

Grey Fox names preliminary lineup

Another great season is shaping up on the hill with the announcement of the preliminary lineup for the 2007 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. The Friday and Saturday headliners will be Nickel Creek in one of its rare 2007 appearances and the Sam Bush Band, returning to Grey Fox after a year's absense.

Other big name attractions include Marty Stuart, Mountain Heart, Doyle Alexander, and Michael Cleveland. Several of Festival Preview's favorite young string bands--The Greencards, Crooked Still, and The Infamous Stringdusters--will get prominent roles. Other bookings include Red Stick Ramblers, Dismembered Tennesseans, John Kirk and Trish Miller.

Special holiday pricing ($125 for a full festival pass including camping) is now in effect through December 31 at the Grey Fox online ticket page. After New Year's, the early bird pricing window opens through the end of April.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Strawberry fest announces first bookings

The Spring and Fall Strawberry Music Festival lineups are beginning to take shape with the announcement today of the first nine bookings.

The May 25-28 Spring festival will include Tim O’Brien’s Cornbread Nation, Utah Phillips,, Eddie From Ohio, Iris Dement, and J.D. Crowe & the New South. The August 30-September 3 Fall festival will include Jimmy Lafave, Samantha Robichaud, Harry Manx, and Dry Branch Fire Squad.

Of the announced artists, all except newgrass pioneer Crowe, Texas singer-songwriter Lafave, and Canadian Maritime fidder Robichaud have appeared at Strawberry in previous years. Eddie From Ohio was voted Best Performer in the Festival Preview Best of the Fest poll for Spring 2004.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Stellar lineup set for Telluride

Colorado roots music fans are sure to be pleased by the preliminary lineups announced last week by Planet Bluegrass for its two big summer festivals, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Rockygrass. Both are packed with some familiar and some surprise performers. Tickets for both festivals go on sale December 6 online at and by phone at 800-624-2422.

At the 34th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival, June 21-24, 2007, the lineup features superstars Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris; popular newgrass bands Yonder Mountain String Band and Bela Fleck & the Flecktones; and numerous unique combinations of artists: the genre-crossing of jazz pianist Chick Corea and banjo great Bela Fleck; the inter-generational duets of MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile; the cultural-blending of mandolinists Mike Marshall and young Brazilian Hamilton de Holanda.

Unique to the Telluride Bluegrass experience is the long-running cameraderie of musicians who spend the entire weekend together under the shadow of 14,000 foot mountain peaks in the picturesque mountain town of Telluride CO. Frequent performers Sam Bush, John Cowan, Peter Rowan, and Jerry Douglas all return in 2007. Meanwhile a younger generation of Telluride musicians push acoustic music into fresh directions: the indie-rock-meets-bluegrass leanings of Chris Thile’s How to Grow a Band; the technically innovative Crooked Still; the Chinese-American fusion of Sparrow Quartet; the punk-acoustic edge of the Avett Brothers.

Telluride’s more traditional bluegrass-focused cousin, RockyGrass, welcomes many of the most lauded bands in bluegrass to Lyons, Colorado. The 35th annual festival welcomes Grammy-winners Marty Stuart, Del McCoury Band, Tony Rice, Nickel Creek (giving a special farewell performance), and Sam Bush (marking the only 2007 appearance of his Sam Bush Bluegrass Band).

Eleven-time IBMA winners Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver contribute their gospel vocal blend, while 2005 IBMA Entertainers of the Year, Cherryholmes, make their first appearance at the festival. Several of the festival headliners – including Nickel Creek, Del McCoury Band, Kruger Brothers, Claire Lynch Band, Bearfoot Bluegrass – will spend the week leading up to the festival teaching at the RockyGrass Academy in Lyons.

Complete day-by-day schedules will be announced in the Spring. The full listings for the preliminary lineups are:

34th TELLURIDE BLUEGRASS FESTIVAL - June 21-24, 2007 - Telluride, CO
* Alison Krauss & Union Station * Sam Bush Band * Chick Corea & Bela Fleck * Emmylou Harris * Telluride House Band featuring Béla, Edgar, Jerry, Sam, Bryan * Yonder Mountain String Band * Béla Fleck & the Flecktones * Chris Thile & How to Grow a Band featuring Bryan Sutton * Jerry Douglas Band * Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile * John Cowan Band * Peter Rowan & Crucial Country * Dougie MacLean Band * Jackie Green * Mike Marshall & Hamilton de Holanda * Sparrow Quartet * Crooked Still * Infamous Stringdusters * Avett Brothers * Greensky Bluegrass * and many more still to be announced...

35th ROCKYGRASS FESTIVAL – July 27-29, 2007 - Lyons, CO
(Preliminary Lineup)
* Nickel Creek * Sam Bush Bluegrass Band * Del McCoury Band * Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives * Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet * Chris Thile & the How to Grow a Band * Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver * Claire Lynch Band * Kruger Brothers * Cherryholmes * Biscuit Burners * Bearfoot Bluegrass * Red Molly * Long Road Home * and many more...

Friday, October 27, 2006

All about Summerfest

In the future, we'll be recruiting festival-goers from leading festivals to serve as ambassadors to Festival Preview by providing content about the event. Here's an example: a great roundup about Summerfest, Milwaukee's annual musical blowout, submitted by Chris Ellis. Thanks, Chris.

Summerfest runs for 11 days, noon to midnight, around the Fourth of July in downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The permanent festival grounds cover an area of about 5 city blocks by 2 blocks on the shore of Lake Michigan. There are seven ground stages for musical acts and the Marcus Amphitheater for headliners. Many food and beverage vendors line the main walks through the festival grounds. In addition to the musical offerings, there’s a play area and a kids’ stage, a Sports Zone, street performers and magicians, exhibits of classic guitars, and the SkyGlider, a gondola ride to loft you over the crowd from one end of the festival grounds to the other. The festival has a fireworks display on opening night. The City of Milwaukee has its fireworks display on July 3, with ground zero in Veterans Park immediately north of the festival grounds.

Milwaukee has an excellent shuttle bus system arranged for transportation to and from the festival grounds. Park-and-rides are located around the city. Last year, it cost $6 to ride the bus to the main gate of Summerfest. The return trip is free, so at midnight, when the festival grounds close and all the money has been extracted from your wallet, you can hop on a shuttle bus for a ride back to your car. Parking for private vehicles downtown is tight, and will cost at least $10 if you can find a space.

Daily admission is $15, but some discounts are available – check the website or the Milwaukee Sentinel newspaper for promotions. The admission fee is your ticket to all the ground stages, which are general admission. For the headliner acts at the Marcus, expect to pay typical Ticketmaster charges. Admission to Summerfest is free if you have a ticket to the Marcus for that night. There are beer vendors everywhere -- $4 to $5 for a beer. There is a wide variety of food offerings, but you are in Wisconsin – expect lots of fried food, lots of meat and cheese.

The crowd will vary from 60,000 people on a light day to 110,000 on a Friday or Saturday. The Marcus seats 24,000, with a roof over about 2/3 of the seats. The ground stages have bleacher seats and picnic tables for 500-2,000 people. Only two of the ground stages have roofs, and rain is always a possibility. Daytime temperatures can range from hot and humid to cool and pleasant. After dark, the temperature can rapidly cool, so take a jacket or sweatshirt.

Even though most of the adults at Summerfest are professional beer drinkers, it’s a happy, casual, relaxed, tattoo-laden crowd. The biggest problems caused by over-consumption of alcohol are: (1) drunk drivers leaving the festival; (2) throwing up on the bus ride home; (3) loud talking and laughter during musical performances; and (4) friendly drunks get in the way when you are trying to walk through the festival grounds.

Each ground stage has four to six musical acts scheduled each day. Usually the best musical groups are scheduled for 8 or 10 PM shows. Frequently there will be collisions – more than one “must-see” act performing at the same time, at opposite ends of the festival grounds. For popular acts, the ground stages will be packed with people – get there early if you want a good seat. Often the crowd will be on its feet, or up on the bleachers and picnic tables, for the duration of the show.

Here are some of the musical acts I have heard during the past three Summerfests: The Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule, Derek Trucks Band, The Dead, Willie Nelson, Galactic, Los Lobos, Reverend Raven and His Chain-smoking Altar Boys, Lucinda Williams, Hank Williams, Jr., Rusted Root, Little Feat, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan, Ratdog, String Cheese Incident, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Elvis Costello and Alan Toussiant, Ray Davies, Marcia Ball, Dark Star Orchestra, The Bel-Airs, Joan Jett, Jonny Lang, Frankie Perez and the Highway Saints, John Hiatt, Sonny Landreth, Lynyrd Skynyrd, moe., Wilco, Daryl Stuerner, John Fogerty, John Mellencamp, Michelle Shocked, Robert Randolph, Umphree’s McGee, Eileen Ivers, and Those Darn Accordions. Most of the bands that play Summerfest can be classified as rock, blues, or country, with a few world music and hip-hop acts thrown into the mix.

Downtown Milwaukee has hotels, restaurants, and museums nearby. Of special note is the Art Museum, a few blocks north of the festival grounds. It’s a beautiful building, with a wonderful permanent collection and touring exhibits. Miller Park is not far away, and is a great baseball stadium.

Milwaukee has been hosting Summerfest for 35 years now, and it’s the best street party I’ve ever attended. Thick crowds in the evening on the weekend can be a hassle, so pick the acts you want to see and get to those stages early. Bring lots of money – especially if you are buying rounds of beer for friends. Use the shuttle bus system, but try to sit or stand near the front of the bus on the way home. The Amtrak station is within walking distance of the festival. There is no camping allowed on the festival grounds, although limited camping is allowed in Veterans Park prior to the July 3 fireworks display. Marcus headliners will be announced gradually, starting in the spring. Popular acts will sell out quickly. If a Marcus show does not sell out, sometimes they will hand out free tickets early on the afternoon of that show.

If you like to drink beer and listen to good rock, blues, and country, this is the party for you!

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Dancin' Dave at MagFest, part 2

For me whenever Sam Bush is on a festival lineup I'm pretty sure that that will be my favorite set; and he didn't disappoint once again! He really cracked me up this time....some customers of mine were talking about our musical tastes earlier in the day, and when they asked me if I was a Led Zepplin fan I had to admit that yes indeed, I had bought their two first albums. (after that I lost interest).

Anyhoo, at the end of the set Sam and the boys got into an extended jam that included all sorts of musical tidbits, including a tune from one of those two albums...I think it is called "Gotta whole Lotta Love". or something to that effect. I recognized the tune right away, of course, and we sure had fun laughing about that after the show. Byron House sure did a stunning vocal renditon. Sam is the Man...

I also was blown away by the Waybacks again. To me they are about the hottest band out there and I can't wait to hear and watch them as much as I can. Superb musicianship, superb stage presence and they all are nice fellows besides....a great combination.

The Greencards are also one of my favorite groups at the moment. I loved their sets and hope that they are at all of the festivals I go to next year. If anyone is not familiar with them I can highly recommend that you check them out. Very high energy progressive bluegrass, with amazing musicianship.

This was my first time seeing Old School Freight Train. I was aware that they were doin' gigs with David Grisman so I figured they had to be talented....and I was right. I was going to purchase a cd of theirs but got waylayed on the way to the cd table and forgot to get un-waylayed. I will be checking out their website.

First time also for the Steep Canyon Rangers. I know that they've been at some of the same festivals I've been to, but the timing apparently wasn't right for me to check them out. What a great bluegrass band! Now I know not to pass them up again.

The Duhks were hot, Tony Furtado is always a treat, and of course Peter Rowan and Tony Rice with Bryn Davies and Sharon Gilchrist are always sweet. The Bluegrass Jam headed up by Peter on Sunday was a highlight also. And Donna the Buffalo with lots of guests closed the Magfest in an uproarious fashion on Sunday.

It was a great festival, with great weather and great old and new friends and it was a wonderful capper to a great festival season! Can't wait to start all over in 2007....>g<

And the definite highlight of the Magfest was the phone call I got on Friday morning from my lovely daughter Erica, telling me that I'm going to be a Grandpa again!
Peace, David

Dancin' Dave on MagFest, part 1

Hello fellow music lovers...Just got home last night from Magnoliafest, in Live Oak, Florida, and it's always good to be home!
Superb festival as usual, with some of the usual musical suspect highlights; along with some mind-blowing new musical experiences! Two of these new experiences (for me, anyway) were the Futureman String Quintet and the Joe Craven set.

I didn't know what to expect from the Futureman it turned out it was amazing and I suppose I wasn't even surprised! Futureman conducted his orchestra of five from a podium on which he kept rythmn going on a box with his various drumsticks, and the entire show was theme driven, although I can't remember much about that part of it. I do remember the virtuosity of the three violinists and two cellists! Plus, he had a banjo player join the group at was simply awesome.

And then there was Joe.... I have seen Joe make music on all sorts of objects, including his shoestring, a pick-axe, and a pumpkin; and when I saw a six foot aluminum step ladder on the stage I just thought: "lordy...".

Sure enough, at one point the bass player layed down his instrument and climbed the ladder, sat on the very top and became a human statue....the dude just wouldn't blink an eye! So, of course Joe started drummin' on the ladder, making his way up and down the rungs and all over. He was joined by another percussionist, and all the while the bass player never moved... Finally, Joe went over to the bass laying on the stages and proceeded to drum all over that. Again, he was joined by the other fellow so both of them were hammerin' on that dog house!

At the end of this they handed the bass up to the fellow on the ladder who broke into a big smile, laid the bass on his lap and proceeded to pick away! It was something you just had to be there to fully appreciate, I realize; but suffice it to say that Joe Craven is a musical genius and always a pleasure to watch and listen to!

More conventional music to follow....>g<
Peace, David

Sunday, October 08, 2006

My Saturday at HSB

Damn, running late again. Rather than post my artist observations from Saturday, here's a quick rundown on my Saturday route and Sunday plan, with comments to come after the festival.

With a late start and heavy traffic getting to the festival, I blew it and missed Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison. Well, we all know you can't see everything at HSB. That's the point of it. Here's what I did see.

Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands--about three songs.
Almost all of the Todd Snider set.
A bit of the Pine Leaf Boys, a new-to-me zydeco outifit.
Austin Lounge Lizards--some of there well-known numbers plus a couple I hadn't heard.
Chatham County Line--very impressive contemporary bluegrass
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver--4-5 songs
Billy Bragg--first half of the set
Jerry Douglas--a couple of songs
Steve Earle & The Bluegrass Dukes--most of the set.

Here's today's rough plan:
Ramblin' Jack Elliott
T-Bone Burnett (bluegrass set)
Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez
Flyiing Other Bros.
Tim O'Brien
Coward Brothers (Elvis Costello & T-bone Burnett)
Richard Thompson (solo acoustic)
Waybacks with Bob Weir
Emmylou Harris

Dogs welcome at HSB

Each year, I'm surprised by the large number of dogs in attendance at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Very few festivals allow animals, but HSB is governed by the rules of the San Francisco Park District, which allows leashed dogs in Golden Gate Park. The interesting thing is how few problems seem to created by the presence of dogs. It makes me wonder if more festivals should consider lifting the ban on canines.

Blue Angel stunt flights buzz HSB

For several hours Saturday afternoon, the U.S. Navy elite aerobatic team, the Blue Angels, took multiple flybys over the site of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in Golden Gate Park, drowning out the music on the five festival stages. The air show was a part of the Navy's Fleet Week celebration, a long-held event in San Francisco.

For many artists and attendees at the event, it appeared that the flights were intentionally routed over the festival site, though the planes were no doubt visible all over the city. "I've never done a gig before where at a key point in the set, six fighter planes in formation fly right over the stage," said British folk-rocker Billy Bragg during his set.

Considering the likely prevailing political bent of the festival audience, the fly-bys seemed to me to be either very ill-considered pro-military PR or an intentional provocation. It will be interesting to see if there is a repeat performance today.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

HSB opens with Elvis and friends

Here's a very quick report on yesterday's special Elvis Costello set. I wasn't there but put this together from notes from my sister Joanne. The friends were Emmylou Harris, who has toured with Costello, and her close buddies Gillain Welch and David Rawlings.

Joanne missed the beginning, but when she arrived Costello was on stage with his band, The Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods. She heard Walk the Line, War of the Roses, and Angels Want to Wear My Red Shoes. Then she was much taken by the piano players vocal on Satisfied Mind.

Dressed in cowboy shirt and sunglasses as the late-afternoon sun broke through, Elvis said since it was a bluegrass festival he would play his "cowboy song," Jerry Garcia's Loser. Then the band rocked out on Mystery Dance before the special guests were invited up.

Elvis and Emmylou dueted on her I'll Still Miss Someone and Gram Parson's classic Love Hurts, which Joanne found especially moving. She felt that Gillian looked cold and anorexic in her old-fashioned dress, but she was much impressed with David Rawling's guitar work and stage presence.

Elvis said some more nice things about playing in San Francisco, which he said was the first city he ever played in the U.S. According to Joanne, the Banjo stage meadow was surprisingly full for a workday concert, and the audience cheered loudly for Costello's Scarlet Tide, including a new antiwar verse sung acapella.

He closed with When I Paint My Masterpiece before bringing his guest back out for a couple of encores.

Strictly speaking, hardly possible

Okay the big weekend is here, before I'm entirely prepared. I hoped to get organized and out the door by 9 to be able to set up a tarp and some chairs at the Rooster Stage. For me Rooster is the most strategic for chair placement. Because it sits between two hills, it's the hardest crowd to work your way forward in.

My plan for tomorrow is as follows, which will undoubtedly not turn out exactly as planned. My most anticipated set is up at noon on the Rooster stage, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, Austin's Claratin couple. I've never seen either of them except on the allergy medicine commercials. Robison is the promising singer-songwriter who wrote Travelin' Soldier for the Dixie Chick. A few years ago, Kelly Willis was the hot newcomer on the Austin scene.

After that, I'll make a quick stop at Arrow for the beginning of Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands. I got a chance to chat with Laurie in Nashville last week and caught one of her showcases, so I want to see her again. Then it's back to the Rooster setup for Todd Snider, who I have come to love since seeing him here last year and again in Austin in March.

Somebody in my extended party will be happy to take my Rooster seats next for the songwriter circle with Guy Clark following. I'll take this chance to check out some of the newer bluegrass bands back on Arrow--the Pine Leaf Boys and Chatham County Line, who I 've seen before. Then I'll make my first visit to ths Star Stage for the end of old-favorite Austin Lounge Lizards and the beginning of T Bone Burnett's electric set. T Bone is one of the stories of the festival, with an electric and a bluegrass set, plus a duo appearance with Elvis Costello.

There are so many good choices next but I've decided it should be Billy Bragg, which will be a first for me, instead of Gillian or Jerry Douglas. Actually, if I can squeeze in one more, I'd sure like to catch some of Doyle Lawson's bluegrass gospel. Then I'll finish with Steve Earle's Bluegrass Dukes, who I've seen quite a bit and never get tired of.

I'll post what I can tomorrow night, before an even more jam-packed Sunday. Good night.

NEMO deconstructed

Here is a report from the NEMO Music Festival and Conference by guest blogger Peg McDonald from Cambridge MA. Thanks, Peg.

It was a surprise to find myself at NEMO last weekend, NEMO being a sprawling, chaotic, genre-crossing musical smorgasbord and me being a creature of habit sort when it comes to music and clubbing. And it was even more of a surprise to have had a good time once I rolled with the flow.

Going in, few of the 300 odd bands were familiar to me, so I hoped to narrow down my options with some up-front research. Critical material on the bands was largely lacking I found though the “Boston Globe” did make a few recommendations which I ended up disregarding because of the logistical challenges they presented.

While festival organizers apparently made an effort this year (the 10th) to concentrate the 30-some venues in Boston and Cambridge, there was no practical way to casually sample multiple venues on a given night without the ability to levitate. So my strategy became to hit a couple of proximate venues and see what transpired.

On Friday, September 29, I found myself at the Middle East downstairs, a respected club and decent Lebanese restaurant in Cambridge. Performances at each venue were loosely grouped stylistically, and this one was predominately hip hop. I went early (around 9) with Boston’s early bar curfew and my own limited stamina in mind. I had targeted the Middle East because it featured a couple of touted performers, notably the eccentric Dr. Ocatagon a/k/a Keith Kool from New York.

It soon dawned on me that the order of performers was governed by their theoretical status in the pecking order of mostly obscure performers. I caught two sets that I liked at the Middle East: Murph & Stars out of Providence, RI, and local favorites Project Move. The former duo featured mostly straight ahead, squeaky clean hip-hop tinged with R&B. These guys were likable and sincere both on-stage and off, and I found them engaging and talented if somewhat unpolished.

Project Move played next, and their growing cult following is understandable. They played an eclectic mix of hip hop and R& B infused tunes to which they put an original lyrical spin. Their message was both personal and political delivered in high energy style. I will definitely re-visit this band when they appear in local clubs. (Note that both of these bands are unsigned, although Project Move has had decent airplay of singles on college stations).

Moving up the hype food chain, the next set at the Middle East was by Kabir, a self-styled independent rapper, singer and promoter who claims to have played with the likes of the Roots and Wyclef-Jean (and maybe he has). All I know is that the set I caught was both lame and interminanable, culminating (for me, anyway) in a call and response bit of “Wha’s up Boston? Wha’s up Cambridge?” At which point I de-camped to the restaurant for falafel and free Jameson’s (a major sponsor of NEMO), hoping to return to the likes of the vaunted Dr. Octagon or the like. No such luck however as Kabir nattered on well beyond his allotted 45 minutes, while the name bands milled about half-heartedly contemplating setting up.

This led me bail for home, and to develop my theory of NEMO attendance: be open-minded, be willing to listen, but be ready to bail or move on at the drop of a hat.

Despite the downer that this last set was for me, Saturday dawned fresh, and so on Saturday the 30th I ventured out to Johnny D’s, a comfortable local spot that leans toward folk rock. I caught a set by a band who really rocked: Lomita, from Austin, TX, and The Snowleopards, a Boston band. Lomita’s set was a high point for me, and brought the value of NEMO for the casual but open-minded listener home. They played a swinging mix of SW country rock, with diverse influences such as Sonic Youth and Billy Idol, from their album “Sress Echo” (Indierect).

In a post-set chat with their manager, I asked their manager how NEMO compares with SXSW, from a performer’s POV. He said that NEMO was “much more mellow and better organized…with nicer venues.” I’ll have to attend SXSW to assess this assessment, but bringing along my unfettered spirit, openness to the new and random, and a lot of taxi fare.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Fallout from IBMA military salute

It turns out that the jingoistic display during the IBMA awards show disturbed some other people as much as it did me, and has generated a controversy about it on the association's board. According to an official email to IBMA members, the Navy bluegrass band Country Current deviated from the approved program by inserting its salute to the armed services.

As fallout from the brouhaha, IBMA board chairman David Crow submitted his resignation "as a statement of accountability," although the board evidently hopes that he will reconsider.

The email said that the military-themed song had been rejected by the board "in respect of the fact that the IBMA is an 'international' organization." Apparently the band did not honor its agreement to substitute a different song that would be appropriate for the full membership of the organization. The board is now conducting an investigation to learn how and why the program change occurred.

In the meantime, Crow has stepped down and vice chairman Greg Cahill is functioning as acting chairman. The email says that the board has asked Crow to reconsider his resignation.

The other portion of the military salute, with Rhonda Vincent performing a song while American servicemen and woman joined her on stage, went off as originally planned.

In my earlier comment on the program, I discussed the cross-cultural appeal of bluegrass but focused entirely on segments of the American bluegrass community. I wasn't even thinking of the very active membership of IBMA that comes from various European and Asian countries, which of course makes the pro-military display even more inappropriate.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Opinion: Political content unwelcome at IBMA

I'm labeling this "opinion" so it is clear that I am expressing my personal views. The IBMA's salute to the troops during last week's award ceremony represented an unwelcome foray into the political arena by a musical trade association that should seek to avoid partisan displays.

During the ceremony, musical star Rhonda Vincent led a 15-minute-long musical tribute to past and present U.S. troops that included presenting several dozen uniformed servicepeople on stage, renditions of all the service theme songs by the U.S. Navy bluegrass band, and a call for veterans in the audience to rise and be honored.

Like most Americans, I have great respect for those who wear the uniform and serve in the armed forces. However, in this case, the salute was clearly meant as a statement of support for our government's policy of war in Iraq, which is a matter of significant controversy and divergent viewpoints both in the overall U.S. poplulation and within the bluegrass community.

Yes, I know that many individual performers have used their platforms to make political statements both pro and con about the war and about our political leaders. A few months ago at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, I saw many in the audience respond negatively when headline performer Steve Earle used the stage to denounce the war. At that time in this blog, I stood up for his right to express his opinions.

So what is the difference here? Earle is an individual performer. Whether or not I agree with him, I believe he should be free to speak his mind as he chooses. Of course, the venue presenting him may have a different view, I wouldn't object if the festival chose not to invite him back. In this same regard, I had no objection last week when award-winner Doyle Alexander used his two times at the microphone to praise the U.S.A. in a little-disguised expression of support for the current administration.

But the association itself, in my view, should refrain from taking positions on controversial issues when its membership is certain to contain individuals with divergent views. If a poll were taken, I suspect that a solid majority of members would be supporters of the Iraq war and of President Bush. However, I am equally sure that a significant minority would be on the other side.

Despite coming from a Southern rural tradition, bluegrass as a genre has always been remarkable in welcoming musicians and fans from other cultures. In particular, there has long been an accommodation and mutual respect between pickers from Southern states and those from New England and California, for example. Differences in appearances, cultural styles or religious beliefs, for example, have been insignificant compared with everyone's love of the music.

The IBMA should cherish and reinforce cross-cultural diversity in the music, which adds to the musical vitality and market expansion that are key parts of the association's mission. In my opinion, the over-the-top partisan display at the awards ceremony worked counter to that goal.

A few surprises at IBMA awards

The gala IBMA awards show produced a few surprises, moments of spontaneity and (in my opinion) an over-the-top display of patriotism. It was the first time the show has been held at the Grand Ole Opry House, a fitting location for a resurgent musical genre making an impacdt in the mainstream world of country music.

That was evident in the high-profile presence of some of country's royalty--those with strong bluegrass roots--in the program. Marty Stuart, whose career began as a child playing with Lester Flatt, served as emcee. Vince Gill, who started as a bluegrass picker in Oklahoma, appeared with the Del McCoury band. Ricky Skaggs, who has long-since embraced bluegrass over mainstream country, was recognized with multiple awards.

In past years, the IBMA awards have been very easy to predict, with a few top performers walking off with the same trophies year after year. That trend held true this year in several categories: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder won its eighth overall and fourth consecutive instrumental group of the year award, Rhonda Vincent bagged her seventh consecutive female vocalist of the year honor, while Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver took its sixth straight vocal group of the year win.

Tim O'Brien was the surprise winner as male vocalist of the year, after also nabbing the award for song of the year with his "Look Down the Lonesome Road." Accepting the song of the year trophy, O'Brien acknowledged "it's an upset, but I'm not." Later, picking up the vocalist award, the all-around performer celebrated more for his songwriting and instrumental work than his vocals seemed almost embarrassed to have been picked over vocal specialists like Larry Sparks, Marty Raybon, and Ronnie Bowman. (Actually, O'Brien had once before earned the vocalist honor in 1993.)

The awards for the best recordings of the year went mainly to special projects over standard releases. "Celebration of Life," a benefit for children's cancer research featuring more than 100 musicians was album of the year while "The Daughters of Bluegrass," which brought together many of the top female performers in the genre, won for recorded event of the year. Michael Cleveland won for best instrumental album while Doyle Alexander & Quicksilver picked up best gospel recording.

In my opinion, the awards for best individual instrumental performers got short shrift. Only the winners, not the nominees, were even announced, and all of them were packaged in one program segment. In this case, the winners were all fairly predictable. Jim Mills of Kentucky Thunder won his sixth banjo award. Rob Ickes of Blue Highway notched his eighth win for dobro. Michael Cleveland took home his fourth fiddle honor. Missy Raines won the bass award for the sixth time. Bryan Sutton got his sixth and fourth consecutive guitar trophy. Adam Steffey of Mountain Heart won the mandolin award for the fifth straight year.

It is worth noting that, by and large, these players tend to the more traditional end of the bluegrass spectrum. In the distant past, progressive bluegrassers such as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice were frequent winners, but more recently the IBMA membership has favored the traditional pickers.

The night's top award for entertainer of the year went to The Grascals, who were not my personal favorites, but are a perfectly solid choice for the band making the biggest impact in the genre. In contrast, last year's pick, The Cherryholmes, overstated that band's importance, in my personal view. Like The Grascals, the IBMA's choice for emerging artist of the year, The Steep Canyon Rangers, have had success in crossing over into the mainstream country market.

The night produced a number of notable musical performances. Marty Stuart's duet with Bobby Osborne on the Bill Monroe classic "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul" harkened back to the authentic roots of the genre. I agreed with Stuart's comment that Osborne should have won the emerging artist award, now that the veteran bluegrasser is back on the circuit with a new band.

Along similar lines, the audience also loved Vince Gill's appearance with the Del McCoury Band. There seems to be nothing the IBMA audience likes more than when a big country star plays bluegrass.

The biggest production number of the night was an elaborate musical tribute to the American armed services. I'll give my thoughts on this in the next post.

IBMA festival winners

The IBMA special awards recognized two landmark bluegrass festivals with special awards. Pioneer promoter Bill Grant, who launched the first festival west of the Mississippi with his Grants Bluegrass Festival in Hugo, Okla., in 1972, was named as one of five new recipients of the organization's Distinguished Achievement Award. Also, the IBMA Event of the Year award was given to The Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, an indoor event in Framingham, Mass. produced by the Boston Bluegrass Union.

I conducted interviews with Grant and the Joe Val co-producers, which I'll be posting here in the next few days.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Bluegrass in the blogosphere

This blog covers the world of bluegrass through the lens of music festivals, but for the last year the bluegrass community has enjoyed direct daily news and perspectives in The Bluegrass Blog, which has begun to make an impact in the genre's media market.

In a field where two monthly magazines have previously been the main media, The Bluegrass Blog's promise to "deliver news at the speed of bluegrass" is a significant development. (Festival Preview subscribes to the blog's RSS feed, so our readers are already familiar with The Bluegrass Blog's festival coverage.)

Yesterday I sat down with one of The Bluegrass Blog's two proprietors, Brance Gillihan, for a lively discussion about the growing interest in Internet communications in the bluegrass community and about trends in the music itself. I won't get around to writing up the interview until next week, but in the meantime be sure to check the blog's coverage of this week's events, especially tonight's awards show, which Brance and his partner John Lawless will be covering live.

Gibson crafts Skaggs-model F5

In an impromptu ceremony on the IBMA exhibit hall floor, Gibson USA announced what is likely to become an object of desire for mandolin pickers everywhere--a Ricky Skaggs-autograph distressed-finish Lloyd Loar F5 mandolin. The company will make 30 copies of the instrument, designed with a "speed neck" to Skagg's specifications and carefully worn to appear as old as a Lohr original.

Each instrument will be inspected by Skaggs and come complete with his signature, certificate of authenticity, embroidered case cover, tone guard and a CD of Skaggs instrumentals. Final pricing has not been set, but a Gibson spokesman said it would list at around $23,000.

Skaggs himself opined that the resale value of the instruments could easily reach twice that after the production run was complete. "You can always buy a new F5 from Gibson, but this looks and plays like it is 60 years old," he said.

Gibson also offers signature models endorsed by Sam Bush, Doyle Lawson and several others, but the Skaggs model will be the only distressed-finish mandolin in its artist series. I want one.

Rhonda's Bluegrass Express

A few weeks ago, I posted an item about Rhonda Vincent's appearance at the Strawberry Music Festival, noting that the one missing component of her commercial pitch for Martha White flour was that her tour bus was not on site for the show.

Here's the bus parked in front of the Nashville Convention Center, where Vincent made appearances during the IBMA World of Bluegrass Week. Most observers expect her to win another female vocalist of the year and compete strongly in the entertainer of the year category in tonight's IBMA awards show.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Chris Thile's triumphant return

The second day of IMBA showcases was anchored by mandolin wunderkind Chris Thile, who introduced the next act of his bluegrass life with his How to Grow a Band. About a month after announcing that his long-time grouping Nickel Creek would go on an indefinite hiatus at the end of its current tour, Thile's new vehicle has already released its first record on Sugar HIll, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground. And he used the IBMA conference to indtorcudce his new direction to the bluegrass faithful.

How to Grow a Band is an all-star conglomeration of hot young pickers. Besides Thile, widely recognized as the most inventive young mandolinist on the acoustic music scene, the band includes Noam Pikelny (formerly of Leftover Salmon and The John Cowan Band) on banjo; Chris Eldridge (also a member of The Infamous Stringdusters) on guitar; Gabe Witcher (Jerry Douglas Band, The Witcher Brothers) on fiddle, and Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon, Drew Emmitt Band) on bass.

Besides repeated laments about the fortunes of Thile's beloved Chicago Cubs, the band produce a wide range of styles--acapella, jazz grass, classical gas, fiddle tunes, contemporary bluegrass, and more--during its official showcase and a longer after-hours set. It included original compositions and well-selected covers, including Gillian Welch's "Wayside (Back in Time)" and the album's title song by Tom Brusseau. Overall, Thile appeared loose and liberated to be leading his own band.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Lovell Sisters wow audience at IBMA

The IBMA showcase schedule kicked off with some fine but understated performances from Sweet Sunny South, Above the Town, and the Alan Munde Gazette. The night's major infusion of energy came from The Lovell Sisters, a band we first saw here last year in an unofficial showcase and then again at this summer's Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival.

The Lovells are three teenaged sisters--Rebecca (15), Jessica (20), and Megan (17) left to right in the photo)--and two supporting pickers from Georgia who have only grown more assured as they've become more accustomed to performing. ASCAP executive Dan Keen, who introduced the band as "three Georgia peaches," said to expect some big news about the Lovells in the next few weeks.

I'd not be surprised to see the Lovell Sisters Band take the bluegrass market by storm and possibly cross over to mainstream country. They are certainly photogenic, but there's no doubt they also have the chops.

Jerry Douglas on "the soul of bluegrass"

Dobro great Jerry Douglas, who has appeared on more than 1500 recordings during a 33-year career, declared in his IBMA keynote address that bluegrass music is "in its best condition ever, with world-class talent showcased on the most prestigious stages."

While paying homage to the genre's historical greats, he said that the music continues to evolve with the current crop of artists. On the commercial side, he noted that recent years have brought great progress in terms of airplay and recognition in the wider world of country and popular music.

"We now have a market share of record sales in this country, not a big share, but we are now recognized," he said, pointing to Billboard's bluegrass charts as one milestone. Another example is that Grammy awards are given for legitimate bluegrass artists instead of country musicians who may have dabbled with traditional styles.

However, he noted that the genre still faces challenges in an economic climate where a few music conglomerates drive the music industry. "Bluegrass does not conform to the cookie cutter. We don't fit the demographic," he said.
Douglas spoke movingly of his own roots and continuing love for the music. He recalled how his father worked 33 years in the mill in southern Ohio but lived to play music at nights and on weekends.

"I woke up every morning listening to Flatt & Scruggs," he recalled.

The elder Douglas took his son to some of the early bluegrass festivals, where he was exposed not only to traditional artists but performers such as The Newgrass Revival who were extending the genre in exciting new directions.
"Dad didn't want me going to [the late-night shows]. He thought something might happen to you amongst all them hippies. But I went anyway," he said.

Douglas went on to perform with bands such as The Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe, Strength in Numbers, Alison Krause and Union Station, and many others, and today he fronts his own Jerry Douglas Band, which mixes bluegrass traditions with jazzy improvisation.

"The Jerry Douglas Band doesn't always play bluegrass, but it is always with me. It is there on every record I have ever played on," he said.

He considers himself to be an ambassador for the music. "I have a dream of a great syringe inoculating people like [country music power brokers] Tony Brown and Tim McGraw, or of pouring bluegrass tonic in the water," he said.

Later this week, he is embarking on the second half of his tour with Paul Simon, taking an opportunity to expose many people to a music they might not otherwise hear. He said that audiences at rock venues such as the Bonnaroo festival are receptive and often enthusiastic.

Summing up, Douglas tried to define "the soul of bluegrass." Listing some of the music's unique qualities--"the vocal quality, the subject matter, the Scots-Irish ancestry"--he concluded that none of those is the essence of the music. "You don't have to have a drawl in your voice or dirt under you fingernails, but you have to know your bluegrass history.

"Bluegrass is physical and improvisational. It could qualify as a contact sport. You have to be competitive to be heard, but you also have to be compassionate to hear your fellow combatants," he said.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Coming attractions

Regular readers may have noted that each of Festival Preview's genre pages is driven by news coming from regular sources, which we receive via the magic of RSS, a web standard for content syndication. On the roots page, one of our mainstay feeds is The Bluegrass Blog, which provides timely coverage of pretty much all things bluegrass.

Today, I had the pleasure of meeting TBB's two principles, John Lawless and Brance Gillihan. They are trying something new for the World of Bluegrass week, with guest bloggers contributing items to a new section of their site. Later this week, I hope to sit down with Brance for a deeper discussion of the state of the genre. I've also lined up a chat with Dan Hays, executive director of IBMA.

The music gets underway tonight after a dinner keynote by master dobroist Jerry Douglas. Tonight's official showcases are Sweet Sunny South, Above The Town, The Lovell Sisters, Alan Munde Gazette, Carolina Sunshine and Bradley Walker. Following that the after-hours showcases start with lots of big names--Jim Lauderdale, Laurie Lewis, Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch, Casey Driessen, The Grasclas, and many more.

I expect to be enjoying the music too much to get any further posting done today. I'll be back in the morning for a first night overview.

For festival promoters, a word from our sponsor

The IBMA conference kicked off today with its first set of seminars for bluegrass industry insiders. Generally this blog covers topics aimed at festival goers, but some of the inside baseball as relates to festival production and business matters will also be interesting to Festival Preview readers. Today's event-track session covered "funding events before the first ticket is sold."

For the most part, that means sponsorships, although grants, concessions, program advertising and other revenue streams were also discussed. Richard Tucker, who runs an event in Texas called the Argyle Bluegrass Festival, moderated. Unfortunately, all of the panelists represented relatively small festivals. The largest of the five festivals covered was the Huck Finn Jubilee, which has been running for 18 years each June in Victorville CA. One that I had not heard of but that sounds like a great event is the Americana Folk Festival, which is coming up next month in Dickson TN outside of Nashville.

Most of the audience comprised promoters of smaller bluegrass festivals, all hungry for ways to boost their income. What they heard was that they need to become much more sophisticated in how to go about attracting sponsors. While that could include going after national sponsors of the type that MerleFest has been so successful with, most of the attention here was about getting local businesses--banks, title companies, and the like--to pony up to support programs that build community.

Several of the panelists claimed that they are able to cover up to 70 percent of their costs from sponsorship income. Tucker, who is also the mayor of Argyle, said that in his first year he gained sponsorship support from 20 of the 21 businesses that he targeted. Those are fairly surprising numbers, and a number of people in the audience said that they have not had similar success.

Most of the session covered tactics promoters might use to boost their success. Most of these had to do with techniques for giving sponsors maximum exposure, including on-site visibility with video screens and kiosks, web links and program mentions, special pre-festival events, exclusive sponsor opportunities, access to artists, and many more. The advice seemed not to vary whether the festival was for-profit or not-for-profit. Besides paid sponsorships, the panelists also encouraged promoters to seek in-kind trades for items like hotel room nights and RV rentals.

Nobody was very concerned about any possible downside to over-commericialization of events and the possibility of turning off ticket-buyers, other than one caution from Huck Finn promter Dan Tucker (no relation to moderator Richard Tucker) that "you have to be really careful about tobacco and alcohol."

Festival Preview in Nashville

We'll be blogging this week from the International Bluegrass Music Association conference in Nashville. Depending on WIFI coverage at the Nashville Convention Center, there may or may not be live posts from conference sessions, showcase performances, the awards ceremony and other events during the weeklong World of Bluegrass.

This was the event where FP got its launch last year with this article about how festivals book talent. We expect to see event producers from some of the top roots-music festivals here again this year, as well as hear some breakout performers who will be featured on the festival circuit next season. Stand by.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Wakarusa - Testing Ground for Surveillance Tech

This article in Government Security News highlights the evolution of police surveillance, particularly as it was used this summer at the Wakarusa Festival in Lawrence, Kansas.

A new high-tech wireless system utilizing a half dozen covert cameras scanned the crowds at the fest looking for evidence of crime. Instead of the old school undercover cop cruising the site, hidden cameras operated from a state of the art control center caught drug dealers in the act. The Festival was attended by members of the local police and sherrif's departments, state police, the FBI and the DEA.

Was it worth it? 50,000 fans were monitored four days and nights by advanced electronics and representatives of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies yielded 140 drug arrests. No word on the outcomes of trials, however

". . . there is no doubt about the fate of funds confiscated from
drug dealers at Wakarusa. Under prevailing law and custom, 75
percent of all such monies are turned over to the police agencies
responsible for the drug arrests that generated them."

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Marty Stuart shines

For me, the surprise of the festival was Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. Of course I know that Stuart is a fine musician, but my experience is that mainstream Nashville acts frequently fall flat at Strawberry. Stuart, of course, is part of the Nashville royalty, a favorite of radio, video and award-show programmers. (I draw a distinction between a Stuart and someone like Rodney Crowell or Rosanne Cash, who edge closer to the Americana end of the country music universe. Performers from that end of the spectrum--Steve Earle, say, or Guy Clark--are always well at home in a Strawberry lineup.)

And Stuart came on with all the trappings of traditional Nashville--big hair, leather pants, guitarist in a Porter Wagoner nudie suit. But unlike some other Nashville artists who have played Strawberry, Stuart went out of his way to customize his set for the Strawberry audience. Yes, he played many of his radio hits, such a "The Whiskey Ain't Working Anymore." But he leavened that with plenty of hard-core bluegrass and gospel--"In the Pines" and "Working on a Building," for example.

I shouldn't have been surprised. This is the guy who started out at age 14 with Lester Flatt and who was a disciple (and son-in-law) of the great Johnny Cash. His audience rapport was terrific and his band's musicianship was outstanding. Then he topped all that with his great original song, "Badlands," about the Lakota Indian tribe and some really unexpected covers--the Byrds' "Mr. Spaceman" and the Bee Gee's "Staying Alive."

All in all, a near perfect Saturday night closer.

Rhonda Vincent breaks ban on commerce

One of the wonderful things about Strawberry, which distinguishes it from every other music festival I know of, is that it takes no money for commercial sponsorships. There are no corporate logos of any kind on display, even for subject-appropriate products such as musical instuments. By comparison, one of the standout festivals in the category, Merlefest, slaps a sponsorship on every stage and part of its program. Most others are somewhere in between, raising a significant portion of their revenue from sponsorship sales.

In general, if the products that are promoted are relevant to the musical style and spirit of the event, few patrons take exception to festival promoters raising some additional dollars by selling sponsorships. But that has never been "the Strawberry way." In fact, I was once told by head honcho Charlie Cran that he once had to threaten Robert Earl Keen with being pulled from the lineup when he showed up at the festival with signage and materials for his personal sponsor, Copenhagen chewing tobacco. In that case, according to Cran, Keen had to hide his tour bus out of view and agree not to promote Copenhagen before he went on.

So I had been wondering what Cran would do about Rhonda Vincent, who is well known for her constant promotion of her sponsor, the Martha White flour company. Vincent's bus, the Martha White Express, is emblazoned with commercial messages and her standard set includes two songs celebrating the wholesome goodness of Martha White.

The answer is that Vincent went on without any restraint on commercial messages. I was keeping track of Martha White mentions during her set. In addition to the two songs, she made were no fewer than five mentions of the product and even tossed promotional t-shirts into the crowd. (However, the bus was not on display since she and her band had flown in especially for this appearance.)

I must say that I was not personally bothered by the blatant display of commerce, and I don't think many in the audience were. Martha White was been sponsoring bluegrass music for decades. Before Vincent, Flatt & Scruggs were the standard bearers for the company. Also a biscuit company is fairly innocuous compared with chewing tobacco. And Vincent is so earnest and well-meaning that it is hard to hold it against her. Nevertheless, it did break tradition for Strawberry, and I wonder if Cran knew in advance what was coming. If not, I would not be surprised if we don't see Vincent at Strawberry again.

If so, that would be a shame. She gave a wonderful performance.

Rodney and Rosanne

It was great to see former spouses Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash playing consecutive sets and guesting for each other. In Rodney's set, which was flopped with Rosanne's since her equipment arrived late, he invited her out midway through the set for a duet on her very first hit song, "No Memories Hangin' Round." Then she had Rodney join her for her finale "Seven Year Ache" and encore "Big River," the Johnny Cash hit.

They appeared to be very friendly with each other, though not overly affectionate. She introduced him as "my friend" and called him a gentleman for going on first. Looking on from stage right was Rosanne's current husband, John Leventhal, also her producer and lead guitartist and formerly Rodney's co-producer on his "Life Is Messy" album, which chronicled his breakup with Rosanne.

All a bit incestuous, but fun. I'm uncertain how Strawberry booker Charlie Cran pulled off the little reunion. I'd love to know whether the two performers agreed to do it in advance, or whether Charlie set it up on his own. As far as I have been able to determine from googling, this may have been the first time the two have performed together since they split in 1992. They both appeared at a tribute to Johnny Cash at the Ryman Auditorium in November 2003, but they did not sing together. (If I am wrong, I would love to have someone send me a citation to any previous joint appearance.)

My camera was acting up Friday night and I missed getting good shots of them together. The one here is courtesy of Bill Frater of Freight Train Boogie. In the photo, they are looking over at Leventhal while taking a bow to the audience.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Delayed Strawberry Fall coverage

I had a busy schedule last week after returning from Strawberry on Labor Day, so apologies are in order for my delayed coverage. I have a lot of material that I hope to post a bit at a time all this week.

For now, some overall impressions (and a couple of photos). Going in, I thought this might not be the strongest lineup, despite the obvious intent to program many festival favorites for the 25th anniversary event. I was wrong. With headliners Sam Bush, Marty Stuart, and Rodney Crowell/Rosanne Cash supported by acts such as Rhonda Vincent and the combo Cowan, Flynn & Scott , there was plenty of star power. Laurie Lewis, Peter Ostroushko, Tom Ball & Kenny Sutton, Incendio, and Big Sandy added very solid sets. Wolfstone and Grupo Fantasmo put out high-energy sets for the dance crowd. Nostalgic throwbacks Way Out West and Fiddlestix entertained, while newcomers Blame Sally, Harry Manx, Blue Shoes and That 1 Guy all impressed.

I'll have more to say about many of these in the posts ahead. For now, I'll just congratulate Charlie Cran and company for 25 wonderful years and 45 wonderful festivals. By my calculation, if all the festivals ran back to back, it would total about 180 days of music, or roughly six months. People like to talk about how the Strawberry community resembles a city that sets up shop for two weekends a year with its own culture and customs. Imagine if it were a full-time metropolis. We'd just be beginning our second six months, but it would already be a well established utopia.

Hardly Strictly schedule posted

The full stage schedule for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass is now posted. All I can say is get ready to be on the move among the five stages in Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadows (in San Francisco), or else be prepared to miss a lot of great music.

The other notable thing is that this sixth edition of the free annual event, taking place October 6-8, is a three-day event, with one stage operating Friday afternoon in addition to the full-tilt boogie Saturday and Sunday. The Friday show features Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock followed by Elvis Costello.

Other performers are too numerous to mention, but some that I will be most interested in are: Steve Earle, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, Gillian Welch, Todd Snider, Ricky Skaggs, Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez, Del McCoury, Richard Thompson, Robert Earl Keen, The Waybacks with Bob Weir, Tim O'Brien, Emmylou Harris and many, many more.

In years past, I have come away frustrated that there was so much great music running concurrently that I could never be fully satisfied to sit still and listen. This year, it could be even worse for me if I try to do daily blogging. I plan to study the lineup and make some hard choices in advance. See you there. Talentwise, this is the event of the year.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Dancin' Dave does Wisconsin

Here's a contribution from Dancin' Dave about recent festivals in Wisconsin. Dave runs a camp setup service for people traveling long distance to festivals he supports. The next one is the MagnoliaFest Oct. 19-22 in Live Oak, Fla.

Hello fellow music lovers...I have been fortunate to have been able to take in two festivals in the fine state of Wisconsin in the last two weekends, and it's sooo sweet that the festival season rolls on....! (I'm also diggin' all the fine reports on the festivals goin' on across the land. We're spoiled in this country, musically...>g<)

Two weekends ago I traveled to Milwaukee for Irishfest with the sole purpose of seeing Richard Thompson! I've been waiting a couple of years now since I "discovered" the man and his music to see and hear a solo show. Of course, there were other attractions at a huge festival such as Irishfest....Milwaukee certainly knows how to throw big musical parties! There were lots of pretty girls in green, lots of good lookin' men in quilts (according to Lynn), and an almost non-ending amount of Irish and related music and dancin' goin' on on about 6 or 7 stages; it was amazing. This party had been goin' on for four days already....I really wanted a t-shirt I came across that read: "Milwaukee Irishfest 2006. Four days of dancing, drinking, laughing and telling stories. I wonder who died?" But alas, all they had left were "mediums".

And Richard blew me away...for most of the show I was either teary eyed or goosebumped or both. I never have witnessed so much music coming out of one guitar and all of it in such sweet order! His songwriting and his vocals are on an equal with his guitar playing in my eye and ear and I can't think of one show I've ever seen that I would call better. Of course, there was lots of beer drinkin' goin' on all day at an Irishfest; but the crowd must have been as spellbound as I was for it had the feeling of an indoor concert. Superb....

And last weekend I was able to take in Art Stevenson & Highwater's 7th annual Northland Bluegrass Festival, near Rosholt, Wisconsin. Art and his wife Stephanie are part of the Highwater bluegrass band that is a great example of hard-drivin' traditional bluegrass that features tight harmonies, fine songwriting, and hot pickin'. They would fit in nicely at any festival I've been to and they are fine folk to boot!

Other bands that I caught were Gerald Evans & Paradise; Tommy Brown & County Line Grass; Spare Time Bluegrass; and Sloppy Joe. These groups kept the crowd hoppin'...I gotta love a festival stage setting that keeps almost half of the front stage area for dancing....and this space was well used all night! Lots of fun... Another cool deal was the Band Scramble, where the musicians names were thrown in a hat and drawn out to form a band. The new bands had a little while to get an arrangement or two together and then hit the was a hoot.

There are a couple of small festivals in Wisconsin that serve as festival family reunions and I love it. Most of this family started out at the ol' Mole Lake Bluegrass Festival...some of us have been festival friends for 30 years now!
Peace, David

Folks Fest wrapup

Here's the wrapup from Planet Bluegrass from its most recent event. I would have loved to have been there.

It's tough to leave the Folks Festival without a few new songs in your head and at least a few stories in your heart...

This year's Songwriter Showcase winner, Mitch Barrett, first learned that he had entered the contest when he received a congratulatory phone call from us a month ago. Unbeknownst to him, his wife had entered one of his songs in the contest last spring. After borrowing some camping gear from some festivarians after arriving in Lyons, the Kentucky-native's Friday morning performance earned him a spot on the 2007 Folks lineup.

We were all uniquely moved by the warmth, generosity, and hard-earned wisdom of Kris Kristofferson. When he sang of Truth and Freedom - with a capital T and F, respectively - he sang not of some abstract concept, but the grounded understanding of a lifetime of living and human artistry.

Canadian Kathleen Edwards asked to give the introduction to Blue Rodeo, the band that inspired her to take up music. Midway through their set, the band called her on stage to share lead vocals with her heroes. Likewise, fellow Australians The Waifs and the legendary songsmith Paul Kelly shared each other's stage for duets during their sets Saturday and Sunday.

The closing pair of Martin Sexton and Ani DiFranco complemented each other perfectly. As Martin had the Planet's earth shaking and sky singing, Ani turned in one of the weekend's most musical sets, tastefully joined by percussionist Mike Dillon and bassist Todd Sickafoose.

We each left with a favorite new performer: the impressive debuts from Amos Lee and Sonya Kitchell; the colorfully edgy fiddling looper Andrew Bird; the dynamic vocal energy of Moira Smiley and VOCO; Jeff Tweedy's appropriation of Woody Guthrie for the No Depression set; the sophisticated big band interplay of Assembly of Dust; the stirring opening pose of Issa's Saturday afternoon serenade.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Strawberry workshop schedule

Strawberry attendees usually don't learn of the festival workshop and Amy's Cafe (late night) schedule until they get their programs on arrival, but Santa Cruz singer-songwriter Sherry Austin got hold of the information early and posted it for the rest of us. Thanks, Sherry.

Amy's Orchid Cafe:
Friday - Dance with Wolfstone
Saturday - Jam with host Joe Craven with John Cowan, Pat Flynn, Dan Wheetman, Michael Witcher, Marty Stuart and more

Thursday - 1PM band scramble

Friday -
9:30 That 1 Guy: Magic Music
10:30 Blame Sally: Arc of the Song
3:30 Harry Man and Slide Guitar: East meets West
4:30 Incendio: Latin Guitar and World Rhythms

Saturday -
9:30 Tour of Hog Ranch Radio
9:30 Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan: Blues Guitar and Harmonica
10:30 Peter Ostrousko: Everything you wanted to know about Minnesota but were afraid to ask
3:30 Laurie Lewis: Know what your left hands are doing
4:30 Dan Wheetman & Pat Flynn: A Mighty Wind

Saturday, August 26, 2006

No Strawberry preview this festival

My apologies to Festival Preview readers who may have been waiting for a lineup preview, like we have provided the last three Strawberries. There will be no preview for this festival, but look out for post-festival blog entries. We expect to be back with expanded coverage for the 2007 festivals.

Fiddlestix tunes up for Strawberry host duties

Here's a pre-Strawberry report from Sarah Elizabeth Campbell on rehearsals by Fiddlestix, which will be reprising its role as festival host band for Strawberry's anniversary festival, opening on Thursday. Fiddlestix was the Strawberry Festival host band for several years early in the festival's history.

Last night fiddlestix actually did the "R" word. After a few Manhattans we started remembering lyrics, chords, bad jokes. All that good stuff.

Cheryl Cavanagh picked me up in Sac. and we went to Dave's dome to do the "R" word. That was the scene of the crime for many years. High atop Big Hill in Columbia. That was OUR town. The streets were OURS for picking. All the bars liked us and hired us. The bar owner was and still is my best friend. You saw the same faces everyday at the post office the corner mercantile, the Hotel bar and at the St. Charles's saloon. Those were some crazyass days. Great memories to have for years and years.

They recently tore my little house down. First they cut my willow tree down. It made my little house look so sad. Now
its gone completely. I think of all the things that happened there. All the friends that passed through. All the birthdays band meetings -tri tips bbq's and parties. I remember after Strawberry, Fiddlestix would leave Strawberry and stop and see Annie at Ferndale. Then we would go to my house and have a party in the front yard and spilling out into the street. I remember Walter Hyatt standing in the middle of the street looking at this HUGEASS yellow moon hovering at the top of Church Lane. Looked like you could touch it. Just hanging there, like a Christmas ornament.

Walter is gone now. My house is gone now. But Fiddlestix is rearing its crazy head again to once more be your host
band and hopefully make you smile and make some more good memories to save for a rainy day.

Much love from La Grange California-a place that time forgot.

Love , Fiddlestix

Newport report (Part 2)

Peter Keepnews reports from the Newport Jazz Festival:

There weren’t a lot of big names at the jazz festival either. But then again — sad to say — there aren’t that many big names left in jazz, period. Anyway, for Irene and me the jazz festival has always been more of an opportunity to discover new music, or music we didn’t know about, than to see the stars. And so it was this year. And oddly, two of our most impressive discoveries were musicians who are based in New York, as are we, but whom we had somehow managed never to catch locally. Sometimes you have to travel a long way to appreciate what’s normally in your own backyard, I guess.

Those discoveries were Robert Glasper, a pianist with great chops, very original ideas, and — a rarity in modern jazz — a sense of humor; and Jenny Scheinman, a violinist with a really delightful sense of melody and play. (As a special bonus, her rhythm section included another amazing pianist, Jason Moran.) I’m sure that seeing either one of them in a nightclub would be a very different experience from seeing them outdoors in the daytime, when the beautiful sunshine may have made us more receptive and less discriminating than we would have been in other circumstances. But we are eager to find out for ourselves.

Most of the big names this year didn’t do much for us. Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the first Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein and company decided to reverse the trend of having non-jazz types like Isaac Hayes on the bill and experiment with a festival of what some call “pure” jazz. (I hate the term myself, but I’m not sure what else to call it.) That 2004 festival was extraordinary, and successful too. They did the same thing last year, with similar artistic results but less impressive financial ones. This year, presumably to boost ticket sales, things got a little less “pure.”

With the notable exception of Dr. John (whom I love, but whose Newport set was pretty lackluster), just about everyone on the bill qualified as “jazz,” but only in the loosest definition of the term — you know, the one the industry uses. We didn’t stick around for Chris Botti, who as far as I’m concerned is to the jazz trumpet what Kenny G is to the jazz saxophone. (In case you’re wondering, that is not intended as a compliment.) And we caught only a little of Al Jarreau and George Benson, which is less a comment on their talent (undeniable) than on the type of music they’ve both been making for the past couple of decades (uninspiring).

But if it’s the Bottis and the Bensons who sell the tickets, God bless them. (I haven’t seen any figures, but the jazz festival
definitely seemed to be doing better business than the folk festival.) And when a festival offers us the chance to see the likes of Dave Brubeck (looking frail and worn at 85, but still sounding good), McCoy Tyner (at the helm of a very powerful all-star septet) and the brilliant and bizarre saxophonist James Carter (with an old-fashioned saxophone-organ-drums trio), believe me, I am not complaining.

We’ll be back at both festivals next summer.

Newport report (Part 1)

Here's a two-part report on the recent Newport Folk and Jazz fests from contributing blogger Peter Keepnews. Thanks, Peter.

A music festival, especially the outdoor kind — regardless of genre — is not supposed to be the occasion for a lot of deep thinking about What It All Means. But in spite of the beautiful weather, the beautiful surroundings, and the (intermittently) beautiful sounds, it was hard to keep such thoughts out of my mind at Newport this year.

But maybe that’s just me.

This was, by my unofficial count, the sixth year in a row that my wife and I have spent early August in Newport, where the folk and jazz festivals are always held on consecutive weekends. I don’t know how many other people attend both festivals — I suspect the number is small — but Irene and I happen to have very broad musical tastes, and we always find plenty to love at both events.

One other thing about Irene and me: We both dislike musical categories. One of the highlights of last year’s Newport Folk
Festival for both of us was Elvis Costello. What was he doing at a folk festival? Who knows? Selling tickets, I guess. (Also on the bill last year were the Pixies, playing an all-acoustic set. I guess for some people “folk” equals “unplugged.”) And a few years ago, the headliner at the Newport Jazz Festival was Isaac Hayes. Is he jazz? Uh, no. But he put on a hell of a show, and we dug it.

All of which is simply to say: We are not purists.

But still, what were the Meters doing at a folk festival? What was Dr. John doing at a jazz festival — and why were two acts so
stylistically similar not at the same festival? How is it that Angelique Kidjo performed at the folk festival a few years ago and at the jazz festival this year — and did virtually the same set, with exactly the same band, on both occasions?

Or doesn’t it matter?

George Wein, the still-active founder of both festivals, acknowledged to me not long ago that today’s Newport Folk Festival
(or, to give it its official corporate name, the Dunkin’ Donuts Newport Folk Festival) is not the same animal as the original one. “It’s really more of a singer-songwriter festival,” he said. Which is fitting, I guess, because what tends to get called “folk” these days is a far cry from the kind of very, very traditional music that used to be performed in coffee houses, around campfires and, yes, at Newport.

Of course, you could say that things started to change at Newport way back in 1965, when Dylan plugged in. And I am not, as a rule, the kind of guy who thinks turning back the clock is a good idea. I wasn’t overly upset that I didn’t hear anyone at this year’s folk festival sing “We Shall Overcome” or “This Land Is Your Land” or, for that matter, “Maggie’s Farm.”

And it’s not like there was no one there who fit even a relatively strict definition of “folk.” The Indigo Girls? Sure, why not. They play acoustic guitars, sing nice harmonies, and write songs about things that matter to them and their listeners. Rosanne Cash? Well, okay. Anyway, her set was great. And her dad played Newport more than once — which might well have irked the folk purists of his day, but who deserves to be considered a folk artist more than Johnny Cash?

Other artists scattered over the weekend had very solid folk pedigrees and gave inspiring performances — Odetta, Chris Smither, Tim Eriksen, Riley Baugus, Patty Larkin. I consider David Rawlings and Gillian Welch to be more alt-country than folk, but who knows what the hell alt-country is anyway? They were, to use a phrase I invoked more than once that weekend, close enough for folk music. In fact, they were one of the best things I heard at the festival.

But what about Bettye LaVette? She’s a hell of a singer, only now garnering some of the attention she deserves after many decades in the business. But her genre is rhythm and blues, sixties vintage. Is that now considered folk music? Why? Because enough time has elapsed since its heyday? I enjoyed her set, but I wasn’t sure why she was there.

I guess none of this would have bothered me so much if not for all the artists who were not there. You would never know it from this year’s Newport lineup, but there is a whole new folk movement out there, unfortunately saddled with the name “freak-folk” but a lot more inventive, thoughtful and diverse than that name might suggest. Where were Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsome?

For that matter, where were the big (or bigger) names? Maybe it was just bad luck or bad timing that the Newport people couldn’t do better than, for example, David Gray, who closed the Saturday show on the main stage. I have a feeling that they tried to get Bruce Springsteen, who has of course been doing his own version of folk these days and who would have been a good fit as well as a big draw. Certainly, Newport usually has more big-deal headliners (with at least semi-legitimate folk pedigrees) than it did this year. I’m hoping that this year’s lineup was an anomaly, and that next year will be a little more exciting and adventurous.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Strawberry bear alert

With the Fall Strawberry Music festival coming up in 10 days, management just issued this important alert:

You might think this is alarmist, but my friend and I had a bear experience at Strawberry at the Fall 2004 festival. It was unexpected since I have attended 15 or more Strawberries and never given a thought to protecting food from bears. Everything there always seems so safe. But on Friday morning after an overnight rain, I awoke to find our cooler and food carton ravaged. Scary considering that our tent was only 10 feet away.

Strawberry doesn't put out many all-caps alerts. I'd advise paying attention to it.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass lineup announced

Do you remember Tom Lehrer singing the names of the chemical elements to the tune of Gilbert & Sullivan's "Modern Major General?" I like to hear him try it with this incredible just-announced list of musicians scheduled to appear at the sixth Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, October 6-8 in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Check it out: Earl Scruggs, Hot Tuna Acoustic, Flying Other Brothers, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Robert Earl Keen, The Del McCoury Band, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Iris DeMent, Four Year Bender, Hazel Dickens, The Steel Drivers, Billy Bragg, Dale Ann Bradley & Coon Creek, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle & the Bluegrass Dukes, Drive-By Truckers, Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands, Tim O'Brien's Cornbread Nation with special guest Mollie O'Brien, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, Kevin Welch, Kieran Kane & Fats Kaplin, The Devil Makes Three, Chatham County Line, Alejandro Escovedo, Jerry Douglas & Best Kept Secret, Gillian Welch, Scott Miller & The Commonwealth, Guy Clark & Verlon Thompson, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Allison Moorer, The Austin Lounge Lizards, Alison Brown Quartet, Nashville Bluegrass Band, The Pine Leaf Boys, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Richard Thompson, The Lee Boys, Todd Snider, North Mississippi Hill Country Revue, Banjo Extravaganza with Bill Evans, Tony Trischka and Alan Munde, Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin, T Bone Burnett, Bob Weir & The Waybacks, Heidi Clare & AtaGallop, Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez, Willy Mason, Linda Ronstadt & Ann Savoy, The Avett Brothers, Richie Furay, Danny Barnes Collective, Annie & The Vets, SF Opera Bluegrass Dukes, The Stairwell Sisters, Poor Man's Whiskey, Etienne de Rocher, Freakwater, A.J. Roach, Elvis Costello, Barbary Coast Cloggers.

And they are not done yet. The festival says more artists and the stage schedules will be announced soon.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

MerleFest finds sponsor in its back yard

I've been quiet on the blog the last several weeks. Let's post a little MerleFest news to get back in the swing. The festival announced today that the home-improvement retailer Lowe's, based in MerleFest's home town of Wilkesboro NC, will be the "presenting sponsor" for next year's event, scheduled for April 26-29, 2007.

“Wilkesboro is not only where Lowe’s got its start, but is also a place where bluegrass music has deep roots,” said Bob Geller, Lowe’s senior vice president of marketing. “Many of our customers are music lovers, and we’re proud to support the passions of those customers, as well as support the culture and heritage of this world-class music event in our back yard.”

Monday, July 31, 2006

RockyGrass 2006 Sunday

RockyGrass draws crowd when it comes to contests. The instrument and band competitions are a little like a big hillbilly high school's talent show powered by the secondary plasma conduits from the starship Enterprise. So many of the entrants are savants, incredibly young to boast such mature talents.

I'm usually amazed when the contest finalists take their last, 3 song shot at impressing the judges. So many of these folks deserve careers in music. I always wish them well.

Contest Winners
(spelling not guaranteed)

  • Banjo - Brian Anderson
  • Guitar - Rob Piercy
  • Mandolin - Colby Maddox
  • Fiddle - Lisa Sapin
  • Dobro - Greg Booth
  • Band - Long Road Home

Vendor of the Day - The Colorado Case Company

Steve Simmons of the Colorado Case Company makes some of the toughest gig bags and accessories you can ask for. Over three-quarters of his business is making custom cases for individual instruments. Owners trace the instrument's silhouette on paper, mail it off, and get the case back in 3 to 4 weeks.

Good products. He doesn't get a lot of repeat business - mine's almost 10 years old and hasn't ripped yet.

T Shirt of the Day - "Sex & Drugs and Flatt & Scrugs"

I see, to my chagrin, that I have terribly overlooked The Stone Cup. They not only tolerated my multiple-outlet needs, they make the best medium roast coffee in northern Colorado. Latte lovers seem equally enthusisatic. Despite my egregious oversight, they gave me free access to wireless Internet access. Class act.

And the Day Begins . . .

Sundays at RockyGrass share a traditional feature with many other fests - a rollicking gospel set, usually timed to inspire true God-fearing hangovers. Thi morning's devotional was brought to life by one of the finest bluegrass gospel musicians. Doyle Lawson listens to these guys for inspiration, Blue Highway.

Blue Highway Does a Capella Gospel

RockyGrass's spiritual side took a turn to the East with Abigail Washburn's beautifully understated set. Backed by fiddle and cello, Abigail's essential, pure voice soars gracefully among and between the notes of every melody. The best example may be "Keys to the Kingdom", heard here last night as a lush five-part a capella harmony encore by Washburn's other band, Uncle Earl. But this early afternoon edition was adorned only by her ethereal voice and Casey Diesssen's tasteful, introspective fiddle. Blending old time tunes salvaged from 78 rpm records and her own compositions in Mandarin Chinese, Abby's set closed the spiritual cycle between earth and the cerulean Colorado sky.

Abigail Washburn

After too long an absence performing at RockyGrass under his own name, Darrell Scott and his Bluegrass Band took control of the midafternoon tempo and redefined "eclectic". The setlist included tunes sampled from the back pages of Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell , and Kris Kristofferson mixed with Scott's own powerful originals, many from his new CD, "Invisible Man". Backed by Casey Driessen (fiddle), Nick Forster (mandolin) and Matt Mangano (bass), Scott's set certainly wouldn't have pleased Bill Monroe's sense of bluegrass, but it sure matched the sensibilities of this 21st century audience.

The Darrell Scott Bluegrass Band

An old Firesign Theatre record asks, "How can you be in two places at once when you're not anywhere at all?" By Sunday afternoon I was heat-befuddled and losing my sense of personal substance (there are Buddhists who spend years in a cave to learn this - I have a bluegrass alternative) but torn between the excellent Darrell Scott and the thoroughly entertaining Bearfoot Bluegrass, the Alaska band that has seemingly grown up at RockyGrass. Their set in the newly-remodeled Wildflower tent, home to the MoonGrass shows, began before Darrell's ended, so what to do?

Lacking the fluids and electrolytes needed for rational thought, I did what anyone would do in my place: I asked my grandaughter, on duty in the Kid's Tent. "Easy", she replied, "Bearfoot's guitar player is hot. Go take pictures of him." But when I got there, he wasn't even perspiring.

Angela Oudean, Annalisa Tornfelt and Mike Michelson of Bearfoot Bluegrass

The afternoon schedule rapidly gained momentum with the introduction of The Wilders, a retro-country unit hailing from Kansas City. If your tastes run to old-style honky-tonk torch-and-twang, it doesn't get a whole lot better than this. Think of Junior Brown unplugged. Then accelerate.

Ike Sheldon of The Wilders

Phil Wade of the Wilders

Late afternoons at RockyGrass, the sun begins to sink behind the highest branches of the Planet's trees, offering an inverted promise of relief from the heat: the oncoming cool of the evening contrasts the increasing heat of the performances. As the Fest's final evening loomed, the crowd began to gather itself for a trio of acts that span virtually the entire history of bluegrass.

First up was the typically superb Tim O'Brien Band. This time featuring Bad Livers graduate Danny Barnes on banjo and electric guitar, Tim's set leaned heavily toward his Cornbread Nation and Grammy-winning Fiddler's Green releases. The opener, "A Mountaineer Is Always Free" brought water-chilled festivarians out of the St. Vrain river and swelled the population of the dance area. Tim's cover of Randy Newman's "Sail Away" was followed by a Danny Barnes composition, "Rat's Ass," and a stunning fiddle duet between Tim and the omnipresent Casey Driessen, "First Snow." To anyone around from Saturday night's closer, Tim exhibited some Steve Earle influence with "The Republican Blues."

Even in his Hot Rize days, you could always count on Tim for the true comedic touch. Today's joke, "They wanted to start a TV show, "CSI: West Virginia." But they couldn't develop a plot. All the DNA was the same and there were no dental records."

Tim O'Brien

And then it was time for the real Uncle Earl.

Earl Scruggs took the stage surrounded by the best. Longtime sidemen Hoot Hester (fiddle, vocals)and John Gardner (drums) joined Brad Davis AND Bryan Sutton on guitars, Rob Ickes working the Dobro, Sam Bush, (called to the stage for "John Hardy Was a Desparate Little Man" and never left) and the rock-steady Gary Scruggs all supported the man who, with Lester Flatt, invented the bluegrass sound Bill Monroe would turn into a genre. The set began with introductions by frontman Gary and the crowd rose to a standing ovation at the mention of Earl's name.

Musically, the set spanned the range of Scruggs' 50+ years as a musician, covering tunes by Dylan ("You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"), the Carter Family ("You Are My Flower"), and The Mississippi Shieks ("Sittin' on Top of the World"), salted with plenty of traditional tunes ("Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms", "Sally Goodin"). Of course, the set had the mandatory Scruggs signature pieces, "Ballad of Jed Clampett" (sung by Bryan Sutton) and "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", a tune that wears better today than the the original 1967 film, "Bonnie & Clyde."

In 18 songs the Earl Scruggs setlist covered the living history of bluegrass music, then and now.

Since the last time I saw Earl, he's a little more faded, a bit more dependent on son Gary to help him with cues and directions. He is, after all, 82 years old, nearly the last living master of his generation, a widower now, and facing the coda of a remarkable career.

When the last notes of the encore rang out, the audience, sensing the possibility that this may have been a last chance to say so, warmly gathered Earl into their embrace, and rose to their feet to say "I love you" with both hands.

Bryan Sutton and Earl Scruggs

Earl and Gary Scruggs

Sam Bush has made a lot of traditions of his own, and now can add a string of Sam Bush Bluegrass Band performances at RockyGrass to that list.

In what seems to be an eternal booking, Sam appears at RockyGrass each July to perform a set of "real" bluegrass tunes, using as little electrification as possible. As at his Telluride sets, the Bluegrass Band's shows tend to grow into mammoth cluster-plucks that often require each of the 11 dimensions of string theory to contain.

Sam's new record, "Laps in Seven", contributed several tracks to this evening's set. "Where There's a Road" and "Ridin' the Bluegrass Train" are infectious, radio-friendly, and a good energizing launch to what turned out to be a two hour set.

I have to confess to a terrible lack of detail: I don't know the name of Sam's latest guitarist/vocalist. First name Steven, but damned if I know the last name. No matter his ID card, this guy brings the real thing to the band, adding a swift, fluid acoustic lead and a fine sense of vocal harmony.

I've been a fan since first seeing Newgrass Revival at Telluride about 25 years ago. Bush was the first acoustic musician I had seen who successfully blended the achingly-precise rules of bluegrass with pure rock sensibilities. He can cover the bases with "Bringing In the Georgia Mail", nod to his own past with "Whisper My Name", and revive a name of an old friend, autoharpist Byron Bowers, when co-writing "When You Learn a Song, You've Got a Friend for Life." There's even a political comment with his contributed verse to "The White House Blues"

Bush is in the White House
Doin' his best,
Clinton's retired,
He's takin' his rest,
And now we're screwed,
We're screwed.

But my favorite part of every Sam Bush performance is the jam. Bush, who deservingly shares a Grammy with Emmylou Harris for her "Live at the Ryman" record, is at heart a seriously respected musician who can organize a crowd of musicians. This is no mean feat, friends.

In addition to guitarist Steve, this year's incarnation of the Bluegrass Band included Chris Brown (drum!), Scott Vestal (banjo) Sam on mando and fiddle, and the formidable Byron House on bass and harmony vocals.

By the time the 1st encore started (a reggae-inflected "Wabash Cannonball"), the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band had adopted Tim O'Brien (fiddle)), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Jeff Austin (mando), Hoot Hester (fiddle), and Rob Ickes (Dobro).

The second, Fest-ending encore broke out "Nine Pound Hammer". One last traditional tune to complete the 2006 edition of the Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival. All the players in Sam's band and everyone from the "Wabash Cannonball" reappeared as Sam said "We got time for one more." Before it was over, Casey Driessen (fiddle) and Chris Eldridge (guitar) entered the fray. By the end, even the most sated afficionado was overwhelmed, exhausted. In three days the 2006 RockyGrass plumbed the depths of tradition and scaled the cliffs of potential. This is, to my mind, is the right and proper function of bluegrass festivals: nurture the past, seed the future. By any definition, this festival succeeded on both fronts.

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