Tuesday, February 06, 2007

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.

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