Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Pay no attention to the camera

No reports about Springfest's music here, but this account from Dancin' Dave gives a flavor of festival life. Thanks, Dave.

Every year that my buddy Ralph comes to the Suwannee Springfest both as a customer and a friend we manage to come up with a what we consider a damned clever saying that fits the festival occasion. We don't get to do this when we get together for Greyfox in July probably for the simple reason that we don't get to spend as much time together which keeps the saying stimulation process at a much lower level.....

Anyhow, this past weekend the saying was "Pay No Attention To The Camera". This piece of brilliancy came about from a "boys will be boys" kind of perspective. A female friend of mine was about to use my camp shower setup and while she went off to get her shower essentials it gave just enough time for some "boys will be..." foolishness-type-talk to come about from the three of us men who are always in the mood for festival foolishness anyway. In a fit of good taste I won't get into too much detail, but the most fun part of our little theater was when I looked over and noticed that Ralph had his camera on a tripod plugged into the extension cord that I had running to my tent, which was very near the shower setup.....and the camera was pointed right at the shower.

Ralph immediately capped off the foolishness by declaring (just as Gae was returning with her stuff): "And pay no mind to the camera....!" We all burst into even heavier laughter and the festival saying was born.

So-----we totally blew the chance of an opportunity that presented itself the very next morning. I had gone down to the Main Stage to set up chairs for the day and on the way I came across a very well-used, very elaborate glass pipe lying in the grass next to a tree. I brought it back to camp and almost immediately knew what to do: I put the pipe out next to the road and we started a vigil to see who would come by and pick it up. Trouble was that I had (while being very carefull to not be watched by any of the law officers roaming around while I was planting...) dropped it into some taller grass and it wasn't getting noticed. So---I kicked the pipe onto the black-top road, making it much easier to see, and retreated back again to camp.

And sure enough....as the first person approached Ralph called out: "We may have some action already...", and the young fellow never broke his stride while he scooped up his prize; he was that smooth.

It was after this happened and we were already winding down the chuckling and guffawing that I thought that a "Pay No Attention to the Camera" sign would have been perfect for that situation......

Peace, David

Oh----similar situation, same location. A few years ago a well-meaning customer left me 5 cans of Miller Lite when they left after the festival was over. I had no reason to keep these so I set them out on a park sawhorse that they used for traffic control. And, it took forever for those to disappear! There were alot of folks that did look at the cans sitting there in the sun all alone while walking by and lots of them even looked twice.....I felt alot like Alan Funt on that day.

The mission in Joe Craven's madness

From coast to coast, Joe Craven is the life of the roots festival party.

He was the MVP at last weekend's Suwannee Springfest, according to Festival Preview blogger decaturcomp, for playing "maybe a dozen sets" and displaying his talents for mouth percussion, drumming on everything but the kitchen sink, mentoring younger musicians and soloing beautifully on actual bluegrass instruments--mandolin and fiddle.

A few weeks earlier at Wintergrass, I witnessed Craven practicing the same sort of musical mayhem. Last fall at Strawberry, he was incorrigible as Senor Hots in the reunion concert of one of his old bands, Way Out West. And later this season, you can catch him at Live Oak (where he also emcees), Kate Wolf, California WorldFest, Feel Good, and Millpond, among others.

[Photos: Senor Hots at Strawberry (top), Playing the bedpan mando at Wintergrass (bottom)]

Having watched Craven do his thing for years at roots festivals around the country, I tracked him down for a chat after his workshop set at Wintergrass, during which he entertained the audience with what might be described as folk rapping accompanied by homemade instruments (such as a mandolin fashioned from a hospital bedpan) and an electronic looping machine.

Bungee jump
Considering his penchant for low-tech instrumentation, that last one surprised me, and I started out by asking about it.

"That's a Bungee jump I love," he said. "If an instrument is wood and strings like a fiddle or silicon and software like a looping machine, they are just tools. It is really about the music that is inside you.

"That is part of my mission as an educator--to dispel what I refer to as the 'mythology of talent.' It is everyone's birthright to make music--if they choose."

The e-word--educator--is what Craven is really all about. He began his career not in music but in museum science, and he worked for many years in art museums. "The art stands on its own, but what enriches it for people is understanding the history of it."

He left the museum world as he got more interested in playing music full time, which he did for 17 years as a member of the David Grisman Quintet. Now, he said, his interests have come full circle.

"I've reconnected with the educational aspect of re-presenting old work in new ways and giving a sense both of continuity of old to new and of creative expression--putting one's own stamp on it," he said.

He is especially interested in reaching the younger generation (he directed the youth academy at Wintergrass) and finding new ways to keep old music alive--"both to pay tribute to the old music and to give it new vitality and survival into the future," he said.

"With folk music, unlike other kinds of music that young people listen to today, there is no prerequisite for a stage. The line between audience and performer is blurred. And that participatory aspect--the idea that folk music isn't for anyone but for everyone--helps dispel the myth that there are those that can and those that can't.

"Anybody who chooses to can make folk music, and as we see here at this festival, you can do it in an elevator or a stairwell or in the hotel lobby."

His omnipresence at festivals is part and parcel with his mission. "I think of festivals as a great learning vacation," he said.

"The wonderful thing about festivals is the sense of community. People attend in part to enjoy the stage performances, but also to participate and interact. For me as an educator, there is a great opportunity to reinforce that in people."

Beyond tradition
Besides participation, Craven's other major theme is innovation. "I have a saying that every tradition begins as an innovation and every innovation is built on tradition. That is what is interesting to me--to find creative ways to keep old things alive by making something new out of them."

He cited hip-hop music as a supposedly contemporary musical form that is in fact derivative of earlier styles but in a new cultural context that makes the music innovative and creative.

Bluegrass is another case in point. "Bill Monroe was an innovator in his day, even though he insisted on a certain kind of dogma as to the definition of bluegrass. But as any tradition moves forward, so does the range of tools that are used and the stylistic borrowings from other genres," he said.

He pointed to the emergence of young string bands at Wintergrass as an example of traditional music forms evolving.

"There will always be traditionalists, and I love that there are people interested in playing bluegrass exactly the way it was played 30 years ago.

"But I don't share the concern of some traditionalists that there is a danger that the old music will die out. All of this music has been recorded and archived. It will always be there for younger generations to go back to and discover and make referential to what they are doing now," he said.

As for his own work, Craven's current projects include an educational DVD about creativity and intuition, and several new recordings that rework traditional standards employing modern loop technology and scratching.

And, of course, you are always likely to find him near the center of the action at a roots music festival near you.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Ron Thomason goes out on a (dry) limb

Anyone who has enjoyed the hillbilly bluegrass of Dry Branch Fire Squad is familiar with the humorous anecdotes that front man Ron Thomason doles out while introducing songs. His deadpan story-telling is nothing if not convoluted, and so are the written rants he has been dispensing on the group's web site. More so than on stage, these installments are apt to veer off into political commentary, which can be interesting since his views are all over the map. See for yourself.

And if you enjoy Thomason's homespun humor or his old-timey music, you can get your fill when DBFS serves as host band at its own High Mountain Hay Fever Festival and at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, both in July. The band also has a full slate of other festival appearances this summer, including the Strawberry Music Festival Labor Day weekend.

Free Sounds of Springfest - Joe Craven, Gans and Ollabelle

If there were an MVP award for Springfest this year, it would have to go to Joe Craven. Joe played maybe a dozen sets this past weekend and supplied mouth percussion, drumming on everything from a chair to a variety of boxes (no ladders this time) and soloed beautifully on mandolin and fiddle.

You can hear a beautiful duet between Joe and David Gans on David's "Quarter to Five (for Tina Loney)" here. The studio version of this song appears on his new CD "Twisted Love Songs".

You'll also find another treat from the fest on the same page, part of the David Gans and Friends late night set with Ollabelle where they covered Neil Young and Grateful Dead tunes beautifully. This is David's "Audio Treats" page. His complete shows are available here though the full Suwannee Springfest sets probably won't appear for a while.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Suwannee Springfest 2007 Slab one

The big news at Swannee Springfest is that the Duhks will NOT appear with or without Jessica Duhk. They were refused at the US border because their management neglected to renew their visas. oy!!

Richie Stearns and Lydia Garrison (one of the Turtle Duhks) performed a living history old time set reminiscent of the Horseflies in their place. The Turtle Duhks CD is expected to be released in June or so regardless of visa or MasterCard restrictions.

...but musically, the biggest news so far (Friday night) is Ollabelle. These kids play and sing beautifully. Personally, i feel that they are the modern day equivalent of the Band. sort of the Dino, Desi and Billy of the 21st century. In fact their drummer, Tony Leone, sings very much like Levon helm which is really peculiar because Levon's daughter Amy is one of the lead singers in the band. Ollabelle really deserve to be heard live and I asked them about a live album which they say is in the works! I would love to hear their female leads sing some soul numbers like the Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love" or maybe Aretha's "Respect".

Other terrific news from the band is that they will be performing at the 1AM David Gans and friends set. Gans has consistently provided great entertainment at Springfest and it's October counterpart MagnoliaFest (the site of the Duhks "Magnolia Set" with Bela Fleck") by arriving on the East coast from Oakland with just his guitar and his songs and bringing wonderful musicians together. In the past he's brought in Mark Van Allen the wonderful pedal steel player from Planet Riders and late of Blueground Undergrass, almost all of Railroad Earth, Darol Anger, Joe Craven, Annie Wenz, and the Glass Camels just to name a dozen. Gans promises that Ollabelle's ability to cover wide and deep musical items will be on show in the wee hours. I'll report on the in the AM.

As I write Donna the Buffalo is turning in a sort of standard DTB (no, not Derek Trucks Band) set after, by all reports, playing an "all songs we've never played before" request show wherein, they had to teach each other some of the songs on stage. this is pretty brave and, except for the inertia of having a long pause in between songs, was a sterling set for the most part. Tonight they sound like they always sound. ... and that isn't too shoddy.

My last note for today is that Gandalph Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams is terrific!! They taught us all to yodel and performed a cover of Dylan's Gates of Eden as well as a song "dedicated to those folk pioneers, the Who" all in the same show. Besides, they have a CD called "Flapjacks from the Sky".

Jorma Kaukonen & Barry Mitterhoff played an outstanding set that mixed tunes long associated with Jorma as well as songs from his new CD "Stars in My Crown".


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Duhks' Havey leaving the band

Big news from The Duhks, currently the featured artists on the FP Roots page. Following this weekend's appearance at Springfest, lead singer Jessica Havey is taking an extended leave from the band to pursue unspecified other endeavors. According to a post on the band's website, her spot will be filled for the remainder of the current tour by Sarah Dugas, "a phenomenal singer known for her unconditional, inclusive magnetism, tasteful melodic and musical choices and quick improvisational train of thought." The notice adds that the band will take its time determining a permanent replacement.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Klezmer goes Latin at Jewish Music Festival

One wonderful thing about attending music festivals is discovering new performers and musical styles that you didn't know you would enjoy. I had such an experience last weekend at the Jewish Music Festival, where I heard a Klezmer Buenos Aires, an duo of talented Argentine multi-instrumentalists playing a South American variation of the traditional Yiddish musical style.

This was my first time attending an event at the JMF, now in its 22nd year and grown up from a small community event to a professionally produced two-week-long festival presenting an array of concerts at outstanding venues in the East Bay. The festival presents a mix of classical, jazz, world, klezmer, popular and folk music styles, all bound by the thread of international Jewish culture and themes.

The Klezmer Buenos Aires concert was presented at The Berkeley Repertory Theater's Thrust Stage, a small jewel of a 400-seat theater, which was completely sold out for the concert. The performance was co-presented by La Pena, Berkeley's Latino community arts organization. What was so delightful about the concert was that it mixed the comfort food of klezmer, familiar to anyone who has attended Jewish celebrations, with less customary Latin rhythms and musical forms.

A stew of influences
The band includes Cesar Lerner on piano, accordion, and percussion and Marcelo Moguilevsky on recorders, clarinet, chormatic harmonica, jews harp, whistle, and voice. Some of these--clarinet and accordion, for example--are traditional klezmer instruments, but others--especially piano--are decidedly not. Nor did the band employ the stringed instruments--mandolins, fiddles and others--that are common voices in klezmer ensembles. Whatever the combination of instruments, the interplay between the two was playful and inventive, jumping around among various moods, tempos, and styles.

The pieces seem to me to be more composed and less improvisational than I might have expected, yet they included flights of fancy and stylistic surprises. Many of the songs built to a crescendo before ending in dramatic stop.

Wearing a loose open-neck white shirt and looking to me like the comedian Mort Sahl, Moguilevsky spoke for the band on stage. He explained that the Argentine Jewish community is very vibrant, having grown from a wave of eastern European immigrants, including the musicians' own grandparents who came to Argentina in the early 1900s from Russia and Poland.

He said that the immigrants brought Yiddish music with them, but that the tradition had faded when the following generation began to assimilate with mainstream Argentine culture. When Lerner and Moguil sought to revive the music, they had to learn it from books and old recordings.

He said that they have played together for 26 years, both as a party band playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and in a more formal trio with cello, piano and flute. The current project brings the two approaches together, providing the opportunity to play klezmer-influenced compositions as serious music in a concert setting.

"We mixed it with our other influences--tango, The Beatles, Stravinsky--and out of that came our style of klezmer in Buenos Aires," he said.

Preservation vs. innovation
At the concert, I was seated next to a knowledgeable listener, Rena Fischer, who gave me some context of how the group fits within the klezmer tradition. Klezmer was Jewish folk music from Eastern Europe, with itinerant bands of musicians traveling from village to village playing for weddings and fairs. The music has always absorbed some of the musical culture of its surroundings, whether that was the gypsy forms and classical art of Europe or the improvisational patterns of American jazz that that were alive in the new world of the Jewish diaspora. Klezmer flourished in America until the postwar period, when it declined in the assimilationist era for American Jews.

The last 20 years have seen a revival of the form. She said there are two distinct trends in klezmer, a preservationist streak typified by the Klezmer Conservatory Band and innovators such as The Klezmatics who have combined the music with modern influences. Klezmer Buenos Aires is clearly more in the latter camp, but they also gave a respectful nod to tradition by bringing up special guest Michael Alpert, the leader of the leading klezmer revival band Brave Old World, for a moving vocal.

Moguilevsky and Lerner ended the concert with a bittersweet ballad and then a rollicking klezmer dance encore with the audience clapping to the rhythm and Lerner stomping his foot like an old-time klezmer accordionist. For this listener, it was certainly an ear-opening evening of music.

Next up for this fascinating festival are (Thursday) Ensemble Lucidarium recreating the music and poetry of the Jews of Renaissance Italy (who knew?), Pharoah's Daughter (Saturday) offering a mix of psychedelic sensibility and pan-Mediterranea sensuality, and Diaspora Blues (Sunday) with free-jazz exponents Steven Bernstein and Peter Apfelbaum, both Berkeley natives who made major reputations in modern jazz.

The following week, several well-known classical and popular Israeli musicians will be on stage. The festival concludes with a community music day including workshops, instrument petting zoo, family concert, and dance concert at the East Bay Jewish Communiity Center on March 25.

For more information on all the upcoming events, visit the JMF web site.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Telluride schedule posted

It might not all be bluegrass, or even some of it (according to Dr. Banjo Pete Wernick's classification), but the lineup for the 2007 Telluride Bluegrass Festival will blow the socks off any acoustic music fan. The festival posted its daily schedule yesterday, and it's enough to make me want to reconsider my plans for June.

Most of the big names (Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Chick Corea, Yonder Mountain, Counting Crows, Los Lobos, Rowan-Rice, and all the usual Fleck/Bush/Douglas/Meyer/Angor/Cowan/Sutton newgrassers) had already been announced but seeing them arrayed on a day-by-day schedule gives it a whole new impact. There's a whole new cast of string-band virtuosity with Chris Thile, Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still, Mike Marshall & Hamilton de Holanda, Greensky Bluegrass,

But some of the newer names (either just added or previously overlooked by me) should be a lot of fun. Andy Statman is a musician's musician--his combo of klezmer and mando jazz should make the canyon swing. Dougie Maclean is the biggest name in Celtic folk. The New Orleans Social Club add some rollicking gumbo. Jackie Greene is a captivating entertaininer. The Avett Brothers bring a punk sensibility to their off-the-wall bluegrass. I don't know much about Augie March (besides the novel they're named for) or Guster, but the bios make them both sound fun.

Bela Fleck will be the busiest musician in town, playing in four configurations--with The Flecktones, in a duo with Chick Corea, in the Sparrow Quartet with Abigail Washburn, and as part of the trademark Telluride House Band. Chris Thile will be almost as ubiquitous, with his new How to Grow a Band band, in a duet with Edgar Meyer, and in what appears to be a solo set (though I'm thinking that may turn out to be his new Tensions' Mountain Boys).

Tickets, camping and condos are still available from Planet Bluegrass.

A mellow shade of green

Having been a fan of The Greencards for several years now, I was excited to see them showcasing their new album "Viridian" at Wintergrass. I caught one set at the festival's ballroom stage ("our first dance venue," said bass/vocalist Carol Young) and I sat in at their workshop, titled "Stretching the Boundaries."

After the workshop, I had a chance to sit down with mandolinist Kym Warner for an interview. I asked him what was new on the album.

"More and more it is about the lyric and the vocal," he said. "Instrumentally, we try to add the texture around that as opposed to just feeding in a bunch of flashy licks."

Indeed, after the exuberance that marked their earlier outings, many of the songs on "Viridian" seem almost restrained. The effect is to give greater prominence to Young's soft, haunting vocals, which evoke comparisons to Alison Krause and Patty Griffin. With harmonies and occasional lead vocals from Warner and fiddler Eamon McLoughlin, the sound projects a growing maturity of a band coming into its own.

[Photos: Carol Young (top) and Kym Warner (bottom) on the Wintergrass Ballroom stage.]

"Viridian," from the Latin for "green," is not the name of a song on the record, just a play on the 'Cards favorite color. Since its release a few weeks ago, it has gained lots of airplay and is ranked near the top of the Americana charts.

One departure with this record, Warner said, was the use of a co-producer, Doug Lancio, guitarist and producer for Patty Griffin, a performer the Greencards much admire. The two previous records were self-produced.

"We wanted someone who would push us into areas we might not have gone otherwise but still sounds like the Greencards," Warner said.

To emphasize the richer tone, McLoughlin supplements his outstanding fiddle work with mellow turns on viola and cello. There is also a growing emphasis on guitar accompaniment. On the record, guitar great Bryan Sutton takes most of the six-string work (with additional contributions by Lancio and friend-of-the-band Jed Hughes). The record also includes subtle percussion of most of the tracks.

A spectrum of styles
The new material covers a wide swath of styes, from the straight-ahead bluegrass of "Lonesome Side of Town," which sounds more authentically home-grown than you'd imagine possible from two Aussies and a Brit, to the slow, mournful "Su Prabaht," built on a Hindi riff finger-picked on McLoughlin's fiddle, to the beautiful ballad "All the Way From Italy," the story of Warner's immigrant grandfather's journey from the old country to Australia.

With the variety of styles, the Greencard's musical style is difficult to pinpoint, and Warner is reluctant to put a label on it. "I feel comfortable in the folk scene, and there are elements of what we do that are bluegrass. I think the best description is that we are a 'contemporary acoustic folk band'," he said.

"We made the record about 10 months ago and have been touring since but not playing the songs live. So this is really our first tour featuring the new material," he said.

While the core band is a trio, it usually performs with a guitarist sitting in. On the current tour At Wintergrass, the guitar seat is filled by Andy Falco, an in-demand session player from Nashville who has most recently been a regular with Alecia Nugent. "It's not easy to find someone who is equally at home with the ballads we do and the bluegrass playing and the rhythmic thing. Andy is really good at covering the spectrum," he said.

Since people like Sutton and Pat Flynn have toured with them in the past, I wondered if a guitarist might be added as a permanent member at some point. "Well, we started as a trio and it is the three of us that write and arrange, so that is our identity," Warner said.

Another aspect of their identity is as foreigners playing an American style of music, a contradiction hinted at in the name Greencards. "You always draw on where you are from, and that is a big part of the reason we sound the way we do," he said.

Festival favorites
Though the Greencards have had a lot of success the last three years on the festival circuit, this was their first Wintergrass.

"We really didn't know what to expect with it being indoors and in a hotel. It is kind of like IBMA, though much broader in musical styles," he said. "We've always had a great reception in the Northwest, and that has been true this weekend as well."

He said that festivals are rewarding both for the exposure and the opportunity to hear and play with other bands. As an example, at the workshop, up-and-coming instrumental star Sarah Jarosz, a friend of the band since its start in Austin, sat in to swap mandolin riffs with Warner on the Alison Krause song "Another Night."

Festival audiences will have plenty of opportunities to experience The Greencards featuring the new "Viridian" material. Among the band's 2007 festival stops are Strawberry Park, Wakarusa, Grass Valley, Grey Fox, Rockygrass, Sisters, Winfield and Joshua Tree.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Crooked Still's Aoife O'Donovan: "Immersed in a community"

To get an inside perspective on the string-band renaissance, I chatted with Aoife O'Donovan, vocalist with Crooked Still, after the band's main stage set at Wintergrass. This was the first year that the band has been in the lineup here.

"It is more than a movement but a community of friends and of people inspiring each other. I feel really immersed in a community," she said. The week before the festival, band members from Crooked Still and The Infamous Stringdusters took time off together in Idaho, she said.

Crooked Still's regular lineup of O'Donovan, innovative cellist Rushad Eggleston, four-fingered banjoist Greg Lizst, and bassist Corey DeMarco got additional support at Wintergrass from fiddle standout Casey Driessen. Last year, when Lizst was on tour with Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions, How to Grow a Band's Noam Pikelny filled in on banjo.

[Photos: Crooked Still puts its own stamp on traditional American music. At bottom, Rushad Eggleston models his eye-grabbing costume.]

"It was great having Casey join us here, since we hadn't seen him since a festival in Denmark last year," O'Donovan said. The interplay between Driessen's soaring fiddle and Eggleston's driving cello made a striking sonic contrast, but O'Donovan said the group's core instrumentation suits its repertoire well.

"Banjo, cello and bass--how much more string-band can you get?" she said. "Although we have elements of bluegrass and old-time and folk and blues, we think of ourselves as a string band."

The Boston-based group got together six years ago when the members met each other during bluegrass jam sessions at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge MA. Each member also plays in other performing ensembles, but Crooked Still is their main gig, she said.

For example, O'Donovan also performs in a trio, Sometimes Why, with Kristin Andreasson of Uncle Earl and Ruth Ungar of The Mammals. In that setting, she performs some of her original songs, but Crooked Still's repertoire draws primarily from traditional sources.

"This band is not the vehicle for our own writing. We're really focused on reworking traditional tunes. Next week, we are going on retreat to work up five or six new songs, which we'll premiere in a hometown show the following week," she said.

2007 is a big festival year for the young band, with gigs on tap for Suwannee Springfest, Merlefest, Wakarusa, Telluride Bluegrass, Grey Fox, and the Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton folk festivals. In addition, the band will play festivals in Ireland, Scotland and Denmark.

"We have a big following in the British Isles because of my family background," she said. O'Donovan's father is a well-known Irish music performer and radio personality. "That's really how I got my start, with all these Celtic musicians around the house."

Aside from their music, one of Crooked Still's trademarks is the comical stage banter between bad-boy Eggleston and sometimes-exasperated O'Donovan.

"Rushad keeps us on the edge of our seats," she said. "When you have worked with someone for five or six years, you become really comfortable with them and that tends to come through on stage," she said.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Young string bands break out

Despite the presence of established names like Tim O'Brien and Jerry Douglas and traditional bluegrass bands like Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Blue Highway, the big story at Wintergrass was the confluence of a whole crop of youthful string bands.

The combined performances by How to Grow a Band, The Infamous Stringdusters, Uncle Earl, The Mammals, The Greencards, Cadillac Sky, Hot Buttered Rum and Crooked Still imbued the festival with a fresh, energetic outlook that bodes well for the future of acoustic music.

[Photos: The Mammals' Ruth Ungar-Merenda leads the onstage festivities. At bottom, dueling banjoists Greg Lizst of Crooked Still and Abigail Washburn of Uncle Earl join the fun.]

Together with a few other bands such as The Duhks, who played Wintergrass a year ago, these bands represent a new movement that melds elements of old-time and bluegrass music with a youthful sensibility that breathes new life into a musical form that's as old as the hills.

The festival organizers recognized the significance of the trend in its festival theme, "the changing face of bluegrass." According to festival co-producer Stephen Ruffo, "It was not really a planned thing. We just go looking for talent and when we looked at what we had, we thought 'this is interesting.' The theme just emerged from that."

The trend was encapsulated during Saturday's late night, dance hall set, a regularly scheduled performance by The Mammals. But the band kept calling up musicians from several of the other young bands until the stage was crammed with 17 performers hooting and hollering through an exuberant blues finale.

Aoife O'Donovon, the vocalist with Crooked Still, explained to me earlier that many of these bands are friendly with each other, and that it is not uncommon for members of one band to sit in on performances by other bands. Before the final number, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger of The Mammals shouted out a thanks to "the people who booked this festival. They did great," he said.

Ruffo said that several of the bands were not even formally hired for the festival but chose to show up so they could hang out with their friends. The one problem was that they didn't want to be scheduled playing against one another so that they could attend each others' sets, which wasn't always possible to accommodate, Ruffo said.

However, the late night set by The Mammals ran unopposed by performances on any of the other stages, so that was the time where everybody congregated.

Of course, all the bands have been playing festivals around the country (and world) for the last several seasons. But the cumulative significance of the youth movement in acoustic roots music was there for all to see at Wintergrass 2007.

Bravo: three memorable mandolins

Mandolin master Mike Marshall has had successful duet collaborations both with Hamilton de Holanda, the Brazilian choro virtuoso, and Chris Thile, the hotshot mandolinist formerly of Nickel Creek who is the popular choice for most innovative musician on the acoustic music circuit today.

But never before have the three played together on the same stage--until last weekend's Mandolins at Midnight set during the Wintergrass festival in Tacoma WA.

As the organizers hoped, the chemistry between the three was explosive, producing a mix of choro, new compositions, and deconstructed bluegrass that left listeners amazed at having witnessed three inventive instrumentalists set loose in a musical playground.

"For me, this is a dream come true," said Marshall. He explained that Thile and de Holanda had met previously but never played together before the previous night's rehearsal in Marshall's hotel room. "Tonight you saw it go to another level," he said, before launching into a jazzy encore of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely."

Playing in unison or in counterpoint, the contrast between Marshall's and Thile's F-style mandolins and de Holanda's 10-string bandolim was striking. At times during the set, Marshall added a sonorous low end with his mandocello while de Holanda shifted to bouzuki for the encore.

The stage manner of the three players accentuated the musical lovefest, full of soulful gazes and more body English than you'd find in a London brothel. There was no question that they were having as much fun as the audience.

The set included highly improvisational renditions of "Fisher's Hornpipe," "Lay Me a Palette on Your Floor," Marshall compositions "Egypt" and "Gator Strut," and several choro pieces including "Desvairada."

Audience members who had heard Marshall and de Holanda were familiar with the rhythmic, polyphonic choro style, but Thile's playing in this style may have been a revelation. After all, choro is de Holanda's native musical language and Marshall has studied it intensively. Thile is a relative newcomer to the idiom but he delivered licks every bit as fluent as the masters.

Possibly the highlight was the original piece that the three composed. Working from a rough framework, each musician had composed a piece of it working independently, and then the whole came together on stage.

It is unclear if the performance was just a one-time event, or if there could be a future "three mandos" project in the works. Thile of course has his hands full with his several new bands, but one hopes he'll find time to reprise this threesome--or if not, that a recording of this unique performance is made available. If a recording is released, don't hesitate to buy it.