Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Strictly Unofficial Strawberry Poll

Voting is now open for Festival Preview's Strictly Unofficial Best of the Fest poll for Strawberry Spring 2006. Last fall, we ran an exhaustive survey with categories for best performance on every type of instrument and in every genre. This time, we're going with a much stripped down version with three categories only: Best Performer, Best Newcomer, and Most Entertaining.

The poll is not affiliated with Strawberry Music Festivals, and is meant for fun only. Anyone who attended Strawberry and was present in the Music Meadow for at least half of the performances is eligible to vote. Voting will remain open until midnight, Monday, June 5, and results will be announced on June 6.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Strawberry coverage (and poll) to come

I got back from another great--but very chilly--Strawberry Festival late yesterday afternoon. The sets from John HIatt, Patty Griffin, and many others were fantastic, but I suspect the overriding memory for many will be the cold nights on the meadow and the Saturday afternoon sleet-storms coinciding with Asleep At the Wheel main stage show and Adrienne Young's workshop performance. The musicians and audience bundled up and sat through it like troupers.

I'll have festival coverage beginning later today with a shorter Best of the Fest poll, some of my photography, and interviews with Patty Larkin (La Guitara) and Adrienne Young. I wonder if Telluride is going to be as cold, and whether I'm going to need a warmer sleeping bag.

Welcome Zen Curmudgeon

Thanks to ZC for his post about Bluegrass on the River. ZC is Zen Curmudgeon, an active festival-goer and blogger from Pueblo, Colo. He is the first to have joined me in what I hope will become a group blog covering roots music festivals around the country. Email Dan Ruby if you'd like to contribute some of your own festival musings.

Also check out ZC's political commentary blog at Zen Curmudgeon. Meanwhile, welcome to Festival Preview, ZC. We'll look forward to your Bluegrasss on the River report and to meeting you in person at Telluride in a couple of weeks.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Bluegrass on the River, Pueblo, CO

Colorado has a reputation, thanks to Planet Bluegrass's excellent work, for high profile festivals that draw first-tier acts and devoted fans.

But there are a number of smaller fests that provide opportunities for up-and-coming bands to hone their craft in front of smaller but no less enthusiastic crowds. Bluegrass on the River in Pueblo, Colorado is one such festival. Held on banks of the Arkansas River this  inexpensive festival gives great value for its modest $25 weekend pass.

In recent years this fest has featured Hit and Run Bluegrass as well as the late Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band. A consistent favorite is Pennsylvania-based Hickory Project.  We'll be covering this year's events for Festival Preview. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Bound for Strawberry

Even with all the festivals I've been going to, Strawberry is the one that is special to me. I've spent the day getting ready, and now have a few hours to spare before leaving overnight for the 6:30 line arrival. For non-Strawberry goers, the line procedure is too complicated to explain, except to say that securing a prime camp location means arriving between 6:30 and 8:00. It's about a 3-1/2 hour drive, maybe even less with no traffic.

I went ahead at splurged today at the Wilderness Exchange to copy Dancin' Dave's setup, which I found so comfortable during MerleFest. I bought the same Eureka Sunrise 9 tent he uses along with a Slumberjack cot, and also a nice Lafuma bag, all for about $275. For once, I am going in style.

My group includes my daughter Twyla and nephew Zach, college students who are working part-time for Festival Preview over the summer. Both have attended lots of Strawberrys as younger kids, but were less interested in their teen years. Actually, Twyla did the Spring festival last year, and she's looking forward to meeting up with friends there. The weekend should give them a jump start into the festival mindset, so they'll come back ready to shape the content for the relaunch of the site.

The first thing we'll do next week is run the Best of the Fest poll, stripped down this year to just a few categories for the best overall performance, best newcomer and best stage personality. Last fall we named winners in every instrumental and vocal category, which was too much. But people enjoyed it (we had about 150 voters), so it makes sense to still do it in a reduced way.

Some of the acts I am most excited to see are Adrienne Young, who I love, La Guitara, which sounds delightful, Assembly of Dust, which has blown me away in the preview listening I've been doing, and of course John Hiatt, who I have actually never seen before. Lots of others too. We'll soon see who surpasses our expectations, and who creates this festival's memorable moment.

It goes without saying there will be no live blogging during the festival. While some other festivals are beginning to provide Internet access on site, I can safely say that won't be happening at Strawberry for a very long time. Strawberry's management puts on a fantastic festival, but they have their own ideas about what is and isn't "the Strawberry way."

So I'll next be online late in the day on Monday. See you then.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Marley's Ghost takes "Spooked" on the road

I still have a lot of catching up to do with interviews I did with performers at some recent festivals. With Strawberry on the docket, this seems like a good time to write up my conversation with Mike Phelan of Marley's Ghost, since the band has such a long history with Strawberry and since Mike himself is a regular participant on the Strawberry Hogranch email list.

I caught up with Mike last month at the Old Settler's Music Festival, after Marley's Ghost played its Sunday afternoon set at the Campground Stage. I started out noting the band is well-loved by the Strawberry audience.

"Well, it's a mutual love affair. That festival has meant so much to us," he said.

This year, the band is touring heavily around the country in support of its new "Spooked" CD, which was produced by A-list producer Van Dyke Parks and is getting a big promotional push from the Sage Arts record label.

I asked how the new record differed from earlier Marley's Ghost projects. Phelan said that Parks "took us up a step, introducing a whole other level of detail and bringing volumes of new ideas, rhythms and concepts. He stretched us in every possible way."

Parks is the producer, composer and arranger who developed talents such as Ry Cooder and Randy Newman, and who has worked with many of the biggest names in popular music.

Phelan said that Parks focused the band on lesser known material from the American past mixed in with some band originals.

"In the past, we have been intoxicated by some reggae, some blues, and various other styles. The difference here is that the record is more narrowly focused on just this Americana stuff, and it all hangs together with a cohesiveness that comes from having a really topline producer," Phelan said.

"He really worked my butt off in the studio, asking me to try some different rhythms and techniques I wouldn't have thought of," Phelan said. "I came out of the experience with a new excitement about my music and knowing i had to go back in the woodshed and pretty much work on everything really hard."

The other unique thing about "Spooked" is the R. Crumb cover artwork, which came about since several band members had worked with Crumb in his Cheap Suit Serenaders band. Since Crumb had lost his record collection in a dispute with the IRS, the band paid for his work with "about 100 pounds of 78-rpm records," Phelan said.

Now that the CD is released (and has been featured at the Borders and iTunes stores), Phelan said the band is focused on promoting it to radio stations and the music industry. There is also talk about a follow-up CD with Parks that would extend the new directions.

If so, perhaps the Strawberry faithful will get a chance to see the band back at Mather in 2007.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Strawberry lineup trends

I've heard it said that two of anything is a coincidence and three makes it a trend, but in the limited scope of a festival lineup I figure it takes only two to form a trend. With that in mind, here are some of the trends for next weekend's Strawberry Music Festival.

The Two Pattys: For several years, I've had a habit of confusing the two Pattys, both talented, red-headed female singer-songwriters. This Strawberry, both will be on stage--Patty Larkin leading the intriguing La Guitara project, playing Friday evening, Patty Griffin closing out the festival on Sunday night.

Headline rockers: Strawberry's bookers generally want a few big-name rock acts on the bill to close out the night shows, but they strive to find performers with good roots pedigree. This Spring's Los Lobos and John Hiatt & The North Mississippi Allstars exactly fill the bill. NIcely done.

Jam Bands: Strawberry continues its recent pattern of including jam bands in the lineup, possibly in an effort to build a base among younger festival-goers. After all, even though the festival never has trouble selling out, the day will come when older attendees start dropping off. Jammers for this festival include Assembly of Dust, Toubab Krewe, and Brother.

Best of Western swing: For Western swing fans, any festival with Asleep At the Wheel or The Austin Lounge Lizards would be a success, albiet with differing styles. To have both veteran Austin bands in one lineup is a double delight.

Young buegrass: Thankfully, there seems to be a steady supply of talented young bluegrassers ready to break in. The candidates for this festival are Bearfoot Bluegrass and Homespun Rowdy.

Old-time religion: On a related noted, everything old-timey is new again. At least it seems that way, with bands like Adrienne Young & Little Sadie, The Stairwell Sisters and Martha Scanlan harkening back to string-band traditions.

Bring in the funk, bring in the blues: Laura Love and Ruthie Foster make a nice pairing for folk-oriented African-American styles.

New Orleans rising: Nine months after Katrina's devastation, Strawberry provides a good-sized helping of New Orleans music with the subdudes and Terrance Simien.

Final Strawberry iMix available

Get set for the festival by listening to 19 of the 21 Strawberry artists at the iTunes store with Festival Preview's Strawberry Spring '06 Preview iMix. The list includes two tracks from the most recent CD available by each performer, except for Martha Scanlan (one track only) and The Stairwell Sisters and Brother (which do not have any music posted on iTunes).

You can listen to 30 second samples of each track or purchase individual tracks for 99 cents or the whole iMIx for about $34. That may sound like a lot, but I find that's it worthwhile to gain some familiarity with every artist before the festival begins. After all, most of us have a multi-hour drive to get to Camp Mather. Enjoy.

Strawberry artist capsules

Homespun Rowdy: Young Bay Area bluegrassers grew up on other genres but each found his or her way to the hardcore stuff. Their Thursday festival-opening set is a SMF debut for the Rowdies, but band members have attended previous Strawberrys.

Toubab Krewe: North Carolina world-rock quintet mixes West African rhythms and instrumentation with jam rock improvisation. Band is breaking out at major rock and roots festivals all summer long.

Misty River: All-female Seattle-area folk quartet in its second SMF appearance specializes in intricate four-part vocal harmonies on mix of originals, traditional tunes and covers.

Ryan Shupe & The Rubber Band: After eight years honing its original pleasant-pop sound, Utah-based band signed with a major Nashville label and is getting a push in the roots festival market with summer 2006 appearances at Strawberry and Telluride.

The Stairwell Sisters: The Bay Area entry in the all-girl stringband sweepstakes brings instrumental and vocal verve, clog- and square-dance calling, and snazzy old-time outfits to their SMF debut.

Adrienne Young & Little Sadie: Breakout folk traditionalist gained national notice with her sophomore album, The Art of Virtue, pushing self-sufficiency values with strong song-writing and lively presentation. This is her first SMF, but she brings solid roots festival credentials.

Terrence Simien & The Zydeco Experience: The accordian-playing ambassador of Creole culture brings powerful vocals and a lively six-piece band that invariably gets audiences dancing. The three-time Strawberry performer hasn't missed a New Orleans Jazz Fest for 18 years.

Laura Love Duo: Back for her fifth Strawberry appearance, bass-playing folk-funk diva Laura Love will perform in a duo configuration with Jen Todd on guitar and harmony vocals. The duo will likely feature some of the autobiographical material from Love's recent "You Ain't Got No Easter Clothes."

La Guitara: The touring version of the fascinating La Guitara Project, which featured 15 female guitar heroes, brings folk-rocker Patty Larkin, jazz stylist Mimi Fox and classical artist Muriel Anderson to the Strawberry stage. Expect the set to open and close with ensemble numbers, with each musician taking also taking a solo turn.

Los Lobos: Friday night closes with the third SMF appearance by the influential Los Angeles rock band, which fuses eclectic roots styles with traditional Spanish and Mexican influences. Lobos fans can expect to hear the band reprise its many hits from a 30-year career.

Martha Scanlan: Formerly of the highly regarded Reeltime Travelers, which played Strawberry in Fall 2003, Scanlan is now fronting her own band as an emerging singer-songwriter. She has not yet released a solo project, so we'll be hearing her new material for the first time.

Brother: The brothers Hamish and Angus Richardson are Aussies, but they are settled in LA with bandmate Dalbo purveying their brand of jam rock on the world-music circuit, featuring bagpipes, didgeridoo, guitars and lots of percussion.

Asleep At the Wheel: The best modern-day proponents of Western swing music, Ray Benson and company are back at Strawberry for their fourth appearance, with new member Elizabeth McQueen adding a female vocal dimension to Wheel's classic sound.

Assembly of Dust: The Saturday night show opens with one of the most-followed jam bands, who impart a country-rock Deadish flavor to its original material. AOD front man Reid Genauer, formerly of Strangefolk, rates first-name hero status among many jam band afficionados.

Ruthie Foster: The Texas-based folk-gospel-blues belter gets a return Strawberry engagement after her Spring 03 knockout performance. Her powerful vocal deliveries are sure to elicit more than a few amens both in the music meadow and in the Sunday Revival show.

John Hiatt & The North Mississippi Allstars: Critics' darling Hiatt brings his seasoned songwriting and performing talents to the Strawberry stage for the fourth time, this time accompanied by the youthful energy of the southern rock trio featured on the roots rocker's latest release.

Bearfoot Bluegrass: The next generation of bluegrass is well represented in this Strawberry debut by a fresh-faced bluegrass fivesome out of Anchorage, Alas., who combine fast picking and sweet harmony vocals on original and traditional material.

Austin Lounge Lizards: The masters of camp are back for the fifth time with their always entertaining mix of acoustic musicianship, multipart vocal arrangements and iconoclastic lyrics, bringing a new batch of satirical songs from their recent release Strange Noises in the Dark.

Willy Porter: The Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter is best known for his guitar chops and lyrical intimacy, both of which engage listeners during live performances. He has toured as an opening act for artists such as Tori Amos and Paul Simon, but is primed to break through as a headliner in his SMF debut.

the subdudes: After a seven-year break, three of the four original 'dudes reunited in 2003 to serve up a second helping of gumbo. Their newest CD, Behind the Levee, was recorded before but released after Katrina, which caused the band to cancel its scheduled Fall 05 showing, which would have been its second Strawberry appearance.

Patty Griffin: The Boston-area folk-pop chanteuse closes out her second Strawberry with her trademark sensitive lyrics and evocative vocals. Since her first release in the mid-'90s, Griffin has emerged as one of the leading lights among contemporary singer-songwriters.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

La Guitara lineup named for Strawberry

Though the final Strawberry schedule was posted a few weeks ago, we now have more detail about the composition of one of the more intriguing acts, La Guitara, which is on the bill for the Friday night show. La Guitara is a loose assembly of about 15 female guitarists that perform in different configurations depending on the schedule and venue. The goal of the project, according to organizer Patty Larkin, is better define the contribution of women to the history of modern guitar.

For Strawberry, La Guitara comprises folk-rock singer-songwriter Larkin, jazz guitar standout Mimi Fox, and cross-genre fingerpicking stylist Muriel Anderson. Expect to see the three musicians perform individually and as an ensemble.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Busman's holiday for Uncle Earl's Gellert

Even though the breakout old-time band Uncle Earl was not in the MerleFest lineup, fiddler Rayna Gellert, who lives in nearby Asheville, came to hang out and jam with her many friends who were performing. (MerleFest was one of the few major roots festivals Uncle Earl is not playing this season. I've already seen them at Wintergrass and Old Settler's, and will catch them later this summer at Grey Fox and Rocky Grass.) I had a chance to sit down with Rayna for a short chat.

"Hey, I'm on vacation," she said. "It is really fun just to attend and hang out and see so many friends."

The band did one set here last year as a last-minute fill in, but has not yet been slotted as a featured band, which seems to me to be an oversight on the part of the MerleFest bookers, considering that the "gearls" are getting headline billing at so many other festivals. I wondered whether having a local connection can actually be a disadvantage.

Gellert said she didn't think so, and anyway that Uncle Earl is usually thought of as a Colorado band, despite several members living in North Carolina and Tennessee. "We're from all over, but we think of Lyons (Colo.) as our spiritual home," she said.

I had seen the band a week earlier at the Old Settler's Music Festival in Austin, where they played three sets as an ensemble, while member Abigail Washburn also performed twice in a duo and they reconnected with former member Sharon Gilchrist, who sat in with Uncle Earl as well as playing in Peter Rowan's several configurations.

"Festivals have been really huge for us. At this point, it seems like that is mainly what we do. We like to work hard when we do a festival," Gellert said.

Chatting with Happy Traum

I didn't get a chance to talk with Seeger, but after his kid's performance, I found myself chatting with Happy Traum, the acoustic bluesman and owner of the Homespun Tapes series of music instruction videos. Traum has been a regular at MerleFest, as a performer and sponsor, since the second festival in 1989.

"It was thrilling o see how much love Pete gets here, in rural North Carolina," he said. "He was the reason I got started, after seeing him play for the first time in 1954. He has always been an inspiration to me, and it was great to see him still going, still jumping up and down on stage."

Traum said the festival's focus on the Seegers and on Woody Guthrie was a new theme for MerleFest. "You don't have to be left-wing or intellectual to get Woody. He came out of the southern tradition and I think his music speaks to everybody."

Traum, a New Yorker, made note of the mixing of cultures during his own solo performance, in which he featured folk blues styles of Brownie McGhee and Mississippi John Hurt (with some Bob Dylan thrown in as well). Wearing a NY Yankees cap onstage, he commented that he wore it so people would know where he was from, since his music comes out of the South.

I also asked Traum about Homespun Tapes and its relationship with the festival. Homespun is a leading supplier of music instruction videos featuring top players in bluegrass, folk and other styles.

"Both Doc and Merle did stuff for us, and so many of our instructors play here, that it was natural for us to get involved as a sponsor. We've cut back on our marketing some, so at this point the main events we are involved with are MerleFest, Grey Fox and the IBMA convention," he said.

Pete Seeger's MerleFest sessions

I've been neglecting the blog for most of the past week while redesigning the main Festival Preview site around the Personal Bee technology. Lots more to do on that front, but I'd better try to catch up with my own postings--especially with Strawberry coming up in a couple of weeks.

Back to MerleFest and for me the biggest highlight, the appearances by Pete Seeger, who is getting lots of ink these days on the strength of Bruce Springsteen's new Seeger Sessions project. Seeger turned 87 a couple of days after MerleFest, but he seemed just as spry as he was back in the day. It may be a function of one's own age relative to a performer's: He was an elder statesman when I was a youngster, and now that I've been around the block more than a few times he doesn't seem a lot older.

I suspect that's true for other fans, since most of the adults at his MerleFest kid's stage performance (who outnumbered kids by a large margin) looked on with childlike expressions as he performed many of his classic songs. Seeger was accompanied for this set, one of his several MerleFest appearances, by his grandson, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, a member of The Mammals, which also played the festival.

Altogether it was a family affair, with half brother Mike Seeger also on the program. The two elder Seegers were interviewed on stage in one of the small indoor venues, but I was unable to get inside for that session. Pete was also featured in the Endless Skyway Woody Guthrie tribute.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

David Bromberg's bathroom band

Jim McKelvey on the Festivarian list posted this. If you know the answer, contact Jim at

Did anyone attend the hour and a half David Bromberg set in the
men's bathroom backstage at the Merlefest "Midnight Jam"? I know,
sounds like a joke, but heard it from a witness it really happened.

Understand that David Bromberg and the three female vocalists from
the Angel Band arrived backstage and it was really, really crowded.
Bromberg had the last set at the Watson Stage so he arrived a tad
late to the midnight jam.

David Bromberg and the Angel Band members all ducked into the men's
bathroom to rehearse. Hearing how good it sounded Gillian Welch &
David Rawlings joined them. Bromberg, Welch & Rawlings played out
at Telluride last year and I think they've got sort of a mutual
admiration society going now when they play at festivals together.

It is a large enough backstage bathroom at the Walker Center to
remain fully functional, too. People came in and went, so to speak.

Was told by someone who attended the "bathroom" jam session that it
went on for nearly an hour and a half. Members of Nickel Creek
floated in and out as did others. Some played but others just came
in to use the facilities and left because it also got too crowded.

So, when it came time for their time slot the MC introduced them as
David Bromberg and the Bathroom Band. Sure would be a great idea
for David Bromberg to be the host of the Midnight Jam next
year...Nickel Creek got the honor this year.

Does anyone have a set list for the bathroom sessions? Sure would
be cool if MVYRadio recorded the long set in the bathroom.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Duet track set for Telluride

Planet Bluegrass announced that the Telluride program will include a morning slot each day for a series of duets. The idea grew out of a comment by mandolin master Mike Marshall, who will play as a duo with bassist Edgar Meyer, that playing in a duo is like "having an intimate conversation."

Marshall and Meyer hold down the duo slot on Sunday, The other pairings are Tim and Mollie O'Brien on Thursday, David Grier and Mike Compton on Friday, and Tony Rice and Bryan Sutton on Saturday. Grier and Compton are recent additions to the program.

A new Planet Bluegrass podcast is available featuring Tim O'Brien.

Pandora features Festival Preview

The online streaming music service Pandora featured Festival Preview in the first mailing of its "Inside the Genome" newsletter today. Our Telluride Music Festival radio station on Pandora was the first user-created station to be featured in its customer email. Unfortunately, while recognizing the station, Pandora did not credit Festival Preview as its creator.

Camping with Dancin' Dave

Since I'm still trying to figure out the best way to travel long-distance to festivals, I decided to try out Dancin' Dave's campsite setup service as a compromise lodging alternative. My other choices would have been a motel (if I had booked early enough) or a bare-bones camp I'd set up myself.

I prefer the traditional campground and jamming model of music festivals, and Dancin' Dave delivered. As large as MerleFest is, the camping is in a huge area running along the Yadkin River a few miles from the festival site. The shuttle service to the site was quick and reliable, but meant that people spent less time in camp. As a result, there was less opportunity to jam. Overall, I'd say the MerleFest camping, like many of the event logistics, was well organized and fairly problem-free but lacked somewhat in warmth and fuzziness.

Dave's setup was great. On arrival, I had no trouble finding his group camp and locating the tent with my name on it, one of about eight identical domes and couple of canopies. Besides the River's Edge camp I was in, Dave also had two other clusters of customers in camps farther down the river.

I had reserved the basic package from Dave for $50 a night. He also offers a setup with gazebo kitchen for twice that. Here's what I got: a large Eureka Sunrise 9 tent with carpeted floor and wood-slat entry mat, cot with pad and sleeping bag, camp chair, small side table, electric lantern, water carrier, first aid kit and earplugs.

To supplement that I brought along a foldable cooler, coffee pot and a one-burner stove. I'm not sure, but Dave would probably supply these add-ons if asked. Altogether, the camp was extremely comfortable. Having a large tent and cot was a revelation to me, and made me think I should invest in those for myself for future Strawberry festivals, where I am able to make a more elaborate camp.

The other nice thing about camping with Dave was meeting fellow campers. My group had an international flavor with a charming Barcelona couple and Maggie from Leeds in England. Also, I had Sunday coffee with a group of three Grey Fox regulars from upstate New York. Everybody I met was very friendly and had a story to tell.

Overall, Dave provides a good value, not cheap but very much worth the price in comfort and community. I would like to try it again at a smaller festival where the camping is adjacent to the stages, with all the benefits of festival camping. Maybe Grey Fox.

For more information, check out the Dancin' Dave website.

Strawberry Spring TBA filled with Simien's Zydeco Experience

Breaking news from Strawberry Music Festival that the last slot in the Spring schedule, Friday afternoon at 1:45, is filled by Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience. Along with The Subdudes on Sunday night, this lends the festival a strong Louisiana component in the first year after Katrina.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Weir and The Waybacks

A festival highlight for me was the two sets The Waybacks performed with Bob Weir, especially the Hillside stage double set with additional guests Sam Bush, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. This was the fourth appearance at MerleFest for James Nash, Stevie Coyle and the Waybacks.

Weir brought out more Deadheads in the audience than I would have predicted, and they were rewarded with a big helping of Dead tunes, from Jack Straw and Brokedown Palace to Brown-Eyed Woman and Casey Jones. The most inspired choice for me was St. Steven. They also sourced material from Led Zeppelin (Kashmir) and The Stones (19th Nervous Breakdown), as well as more predictable selections such as The Weight and All Along the Watchtower. The encore for both shows was Like a Rolling Stone.

After one night in San Francisco earlier in the week, the MerleFest shows were the first time Weir and Waybacks had played together as an announced act. According to the interview Weir gave to PJ Finn at Martha's Vineyard Radio, he first met The Waybacks at a wedding where he was a guest and the band had been booked. He has sat in with them a few times since, and they rehearsed at Weir's home last week.

In the interview Nash said "the thing with Sam [Bush] and Kashmir took shape around 3 this afternoon. That's the great thing about festivals. You see people backstage and ask them to be a guest for your set."

Homecoming for The Biscuit Burners

Asheville, N.C.-based The Biscuit Burners have been making a splash on festival stages for the last several years, but this was the first the band has played MerleFest. Along with their band performances on the Americana stage and the Walker Center auditorium, Mary Lucey and Shannon Whitworth were featured in several workshops and showcases.

I chatted with Mary for a bit after one performance. She said the debut appearance at MerleFest was exciting because the individual members have attended the festival for many years. "I went to my first MerleFest 11 years ago, and Shannon, John [Stickley] and Billy [Cardine] have been coming a long time as well. For Dan [Bletz], this is his first time."

I suggested it was ironic that local bands might have a tougher time getting recognition from festivals booking national talent. Each of the North Carolina acts that was featured--The Avett Brothers and Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell, as well as the Biscuit Burners--are well-established performers. "We've been working toward this for a long time," Lucey said. "You really have to develop your local base."

Since the Burners are local, lots of family members were on hand to support the band. Lucey's parents and other relatives came over from Fredericksburg, Va., where her mom runs an independent book shop. With so many friends and family on hand, it was like homecoming weekend.

On stage, the band was as wonderful as ever. If you've been following Festival Preview, you know what a fan I am. I was especially moved this time by "A Mountain Apart," the title cut from their second album, in which Lucey and Whitworth trade off vocal parts as friends on different sides of the Civil War.

Random access MerleFest memories

Having just finished my first MerleFest, I know a lot about how to do it better next time--most importantly securing Internet access for live reports. Lots of other folks were blogging. I've featured Hickory Wind and Americana Roots in the Live Roots Music feed at

The very best coverage was done by Martha's Vineyard Radio, which along with its live broadcasts, presented a well written journal with three or four posts a day. I'll do a featured item on MVY later, but don't hestitate to go there now for its streaming audio archive of about 25 MerleFest performances. I'm using it to listen to artists I missed because of schedule conflicts.

For here, since I'm not being timely, I'll be posting snippets about things I observed and the people I met, in no particular order. First up is The Biscuit Burners.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Who's the picker?

I'm just back from MerleFest with lots to report on over the next few days. Here's a little tease of fingerboard closeups of some of the festival's hot pickers. Can you identify who's who? I'll post the solution later.