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.

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