Monday, February 26, 2007

Biscuit Burners personnel change

FP's Wintergrass coverage is coming soon, but I didn't want to wait to pass on one tidbit I picked up at the festival. Probably my favorite of all the young string bands is the Biscuit Burners. The Burners weren't on the bill at Wintergrass, but their bass player and vocalist Mary Lucey was sitting in with Uncle Earl (and will be touring with them for the next month or so). Mary told me that the band has undergone a substantial personnel change, with Shannon Whitworth (banjo, vocals) and Jon Stickley (mandolin) moving on. Replacing them are Odessa Jorgensen (fiddle, vocals) and Wes Corbett (banjo). The rest of the band--Lucey, Billy Cardine (dobro) and Dan Bletz (guitar) remains the same.

Mary said that the new members are fantastic additions who have helped to inject new energy into the group. I will look forward to seeing them on the circuit later this year. (The band has a full slate of festivals on its tour, including Suwannee Springfest, Gettysburg Bluegrass, Grey Fox, Rockygrass, Podunk Bluegrass, Chilliwack Bluegrass and Sisters Folk festivals.) Nevertheless, Whitworth's sultry vocals are going to be sorely missed.

The good news for Shannon's fans is that she will continue performing as a solo artist. Her MySpace page lists a bunch of upcoming gigs, including some smaller festivals in North and South Carolina as well as one in Maine. She has such a beautiful and unique voice, so I'm sure we'll soon be hearing great things about her.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Railroad Earth's Spring Tour

New Jersey acoustic jam phenoms Railroad Earth have announced their spring tour schedule, featuring opening act support by up-and-comers The Duhks.

Railroad Earth Spring Tour:




















Saturday, February 24, 2007

Wintergrass: three amazing mandolins

I wanted to get up a quick item about the amazing Mandolins at Midnight special concert at Wintergrass last night--er, this morning. It was the first time that Chris Thile has played together with Hamilton de Holanda, the Brazilian choro master. With Mike Marshall as the multi-cultural intermediary, the results were extraordinary--a true one-of-a-kind treat. I'll have more to say when I write up my Wintergrass items within the next few days. If you weren't there and you appreciate improvisational instrumental artistry, this is one FestivaLink performance worth putting up the money to add to your collection. Wow!

The full three mandolins write-up is here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Old Settler's on tap

From our friend Jim Dirden, festival photographer:

From roots to bluegrass to Americana, the Old Settler's Music Festival showcases some of the best music on the planet. The festival is held in the gorgeous Texas hill country outside of Austin at the height of the bluebonnet and wildflower season. This year it is April 19-22. OSMF is a family-oriented event that offers much more that just great music: camping, jamming, performance workshops, kids activities, arts and crafts, youth talent competition and more. There's plenty of shade and plenty of free parking.

The 2007 lineup includes: Sam Bush, Joan Osborne, Iris DeMent, New Monsoon, Honkytonk Homeslice featuring Bill Nershi of String Cheese Incident, Pyschograss (Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, Tony Trischka, David Grier), Peter Rowan, Split Lip Rayfield, Big Sandy & Los Straitjackets, Robbie Fulks & Danny Barnes, Ruthie Foster, Darrell Scott, Mary Gauthier, Jim Lauderdale, John Cowan Band, Sarah Jarosz, Red Stick Ramblers, Grupo Fantasma, Green Mountain Grass, Flounders without Eyes, Karen Abrahams, Classical Grass, Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles, Slim Richey & Kat's Meow and 2006 Youth Competition Winner Samantha Miller.

The almost-legendary Thursday evening “settling in concert” will feature Slaid Cleaves in a one-night-only festival performance.

For more information and a limited number of early bird tickets please visit:

Friday, February 16, 2007

Review of Palatka Bluegrass Festival

I've written a review of the Palatka Bluegrass Festival, held last weekend at Rodeheaver Boys Ranch in Palatka, FL. The review is too long for these pages, but can be read on my blog at . Take a look and tell me what you think. - Ted

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The message and the medium

I'm going to need to be careful on this one. They say you shouldn't discuss politics or religion at the dinner table, but it isn't possible to exclude either one from a bluegrass festival.

Obviously, gospel music is at the heart of the music and many of the old-time spirituals are the most stirring songs in the bluegrass repertoire. And while I am not be a believer, I love hearing and singing along to that old-time religion when expressed in the form of traditional American mountain music.

That said, I did not enjoy the musical evangelism of The Isaacs in their SuperGrass set. On reflection, I decided that the difference was that their songs seemed not to honor or celebrate the gospel tradition, but to proselytize their born-again beliefs.

So that is not my cup of tea but, mindful of the dinner table maxim, I ordinarily wouldn't mention it. Except that I left The Isaacs' main-stage set to catch the end of Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands playing on the ballroom stage. Here I was culturally more in my element, enjoying the California style of folk and bluegrass music applied to more "sophisticated" themes.

For example, I especially enjoyed Laurie's "Willie Poor Boy," a cautionary tale about guns, and "The Wood Thrush's Song," a lament about man's impact on the environment--both set to melodies modified from Woody Guthrie songs.

Then I realized that in their own way these songs were just as preachy about the musician's beliefs than what I'd just heard from The Isaacs. I happened to like the message in one case and was made uncomfortable about the message in the other case, but what really was the difference?

I guess the answer is that every artist needs to express what is inside of them, and that audiences will pick and choose what appeals to them. But we should be honest that one kind of message song is not better or worse than another kind of message song, at least not based on the content of the message.

Ear-openers at SuperGrass

What invariably amazes me at top-rung bluegrass festivals are the many hot young musicians, some I haven't heard of, that are tearing it up alongside the biggest names in the business. Here are a few to look out for when they come to a festival near you.

Justin Carbone isn't the flashiest picker on the scene, but there few faster than this New Jersey born guitarist and vocalist for Special Consensus. I've admired his playing for a while, but his "Justin Time" instrumental at SuperGrass really opened my ears.

Jesse Brock's mandolin sets the rhythm for Michael Cleveland and the other Flame Keeper soloists as he struts around the stage, but his own leads are breathtakingly fast and clean, such as in his mando-fiddle duet with Cleveland on Bill Monroe's Jerusalem Ridge.

The two young Jasons in the Kenny & Amanda Smith Band--Jason Robinson (mandolin) and Jason Davis (banjo)--provide cut-up stage banter but really impress when they cut loose on their instruments, such as in their tradeoff leads with Kenny Smith on his original instrumental "Studebaker."

In both appearance and talent, Dwight McCall might be the second coming of Ricky Skaggs as he contributes effortless mandolin leads with J.D. Crowe & The New South. His break on Crowe's classic "Old Home Place" is note for note from Ricky's work in the original 1975 recording.

Of course, there are also standout sidemen who are more seasoned. Notable among those I saw at SuperGrass are Craig Smith (banjo) and Scott Huffman (guitar) from Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands and Ron Spears (mandolin) of Special Consensus. Also Michael Cleveland is one of a kind fiddler, getting more notes out of his wildly gyrating bow than seems could be humanly possible.

Other eye-openers for me at SuperGrass were the down-home authenticity and energy of The Bluegrass Brothers and the old-time recreations of The Foghorn String Band.

Finally, I should mention that with my short stay at the festival I missed some bands, including top headliners The Grascals. From my previous experiences seeing The Grascals, Danny Roberts (mandolin) and James Mattingly (fiddle) certainly shred it as fast or faster than anyone else mentioned here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A float down Chris Hillman's river of time

With all the virtuoso pickers burning up the stages at SuperGrass, it was a pleasure to enter the mellow dream world of Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen for their marvelous set at SuperGrass.

"All these hot bands are great," Hillman said near the beginning of his evening set (I missed the afternoon performance), "but we are older and slower and we are going to take our time." In fact, Hillman's mandolin style is as accomplished as any at the festival, full of tremolo and weavings of harmonic lines in his leads. The rich blend of his vocals with Pedersen's high harmonies added to the feeling of a lazy float down a river of time.

That river is what HIllman's performance is all about, a flow of acoustic memories from all the stages of his musical life (The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, The Desert Rose Band, and his various collaborations with Pedersen).

But it is much more than a greatest hits show. I've seen him three or four times in recent years and each time the show is fresh because it includes themes that are relevant to the setting. For SuperGrass, the relevance included a tribute to hometown hero Buck Owens, with whom Hillman worked (who knew?) and several solid bluegrass numbers including one from Bill Monroe and one by Country Gentleman Pete Kuykendall.

He was also able to feature his two bandmates, Pedersen and bassist Bill Bryson, on three of the songs in the 13-song set. Pedersen contributed his classic "Wait a Minute," a melancholy acknowledgment of the downside of a life on the road.

And then there were the classics--Turn, Turn, Turn, Hickory Wind, Eight Miles High, It Doesn't Matter, Love Reunited--a repertoire that encapsulates not just Hillman's career, but in many ways the story of a generation.

Most of it wasn't bluegrass, but the bluegrass crowd soaked it up with appreciation for the unique contributions and continued relevance of a musical survivor.

California bluegrass unites for SuperGrass

The bluegrass festival season is off to a fast start, with several Arizona and southern California events already in the books. Last weekend it was SuperGrass, the second running of the California Bluegrass Association's indoor event in Bakersfield CA. I hadn't planned to attend, but an invitation from the CBA convinced me at the last minute to make the drive for a 30-hour immersion in California bluegrass culture.

I'm glad I did. In addition to hearing great music from the likes of Michael Cleveland, J.D. Crowe, Chris HIllman, Laurie Lewis, Special Consensus and many more, I was able to meet much of the CBA leadership as well as other festival promoters from all over the state.

It sure is an active community, which I've known from the one CBA Father's Day Festival that I've been to plus the active participation of the CBA in the IBMA and other events I've attended since blogging for Festival Preview. The organization is able to turn out a big portion of its membership for its events. I don't have a reliable attendance figure for Supergrass but I would estimate it at around 2500.

It seemed that most of them had brought their instruments, because the jamming scene in the lobbies, halls and suites of the Holiday Inn and adjacent Rabobank Convention Center was as pervasive as any I've experienced at IBMA, Wintergrass or elsewhere. The jammers were a mix of young and old, long-hairs and traditionals, great pickers and those just having fun--all bound by their love of old-time and mountain music.

I was able to chat over dinner with CBA President Darby Brandl to learn how and why SuperGrass came into being. She told me that, despite its name, the CBA has traditionally been mainly a northern California organization. The organization conceived of SuperGrass as a way to have a winter festival to match its big summer event, to bring in attendees and new membership from the southern California, and to work together with other bluegrass associations from all over the state.

Bakersfield was a natural choice as a location because of its south-central location and its strong tradition of country music. The event was named SuperGrass because it was held for its first two years on Super Bowl weekend, though beginning next year it will move up to the second week in January.

The local community has welcomed the festival with open arms, and the CBA has reciprocated by introducing an educational bluegrass program for Bakersfield public schools. The convention center with its magnificent auditorium, exhibit space and breakout rooms and the adjacent hotel are a good fit for an event of this size.

The hotel is in the process of changing management from Holiday Inn to Marriott, which created a few glitches in operations this year, Darby told me, though I didn't experience any myself. The contract to hold the festival at the site has been extended, and Darby expects the change will bring an upgrade in amenities for a minimal increase in room rates.

Of course, the main attraction was the programming, with two stages running full-time with top national and regional acts, a slate of instrumental workshop sessions, and a first day devoted to Loarfest West, a celebration of the work and influence of the great mandolin maker Lloyd Loar.

Unfortunately, I missed the Loar program, but I'll offer some observations about the music in several related posts.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A taste of bluegrass heaven

Every once in a while I get to enter into “bluegrass heaven” and, boy, was I there Saturday night. During the winter months, my husband and I search out indoor bluegrass shows to hold us over until festival season arrives. Last Saturday night we went to see an upcoming band, Roscoe Morgan & Lonely Train, at The Back Hills CafĂ©, an intimate, artsy, down-home venue in Maryville, Tennessee, that holds about 60 people.

When we walked in the first thing we noticed was the delicious smell of home-cooked food. I guess it’s my Appalachian heritage, but I firmly believe good food goes with every occasion. But as good as the food was, the music was even better. Roscoe Morgan & Lonely Train is a local band made up of: Roscoe Morgan (tenor and lead vocals, mandolin and fiddle), Ronnie Raper (lead and tenor vocals, guitar), Johnny Siler (baritone vocals, banjo) and Brian Davis (bass vocals, electric bass). The band hit the stage with a high energy that never let up. Lonely Train does not fit into any typical bluegrass category and we were delighted with the different styles they played--traditional, contemporary, even some grassed up Phil Collins.

A couple of my favorites? One was a hard driving “Head Over Hills (In Love With You).” Although this song has been played and recorded many times, these boys gave it a brand new sound. Another favorite was a new song written by Roscoe “Hucky" Branham. I won’t spoil it for you, but be prepared for a great ending. If you get a chance to see this band, do it. Lonely Train will be a band to watch in bluegrass for 2007. --DJ Dunlap