Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Strawberry Spring '07 recap

Live every day with the spirit you are feeling today at Strawberry. That was headliner Tim O'Brien's message Sunday morning at the Revival and Sunday night as he closed out another idyllic edition of the Strawberry Music Festival.

Today's post is a preliminary report on the festival as a whole. We'll be following up with a collection of memorable moments and we are also producing several Festival Preview videos that you'll want to check back for over the next few weeks.

After last Spring's cold weather, conditions couldn't have been better this time out. The temperatures were comfortable day and night, and the grounds were less wet and muddy than previous Springs.

I have no sources on attendance but it seemed off from other years, which made for plenty of space in the campground and shorter lines at the bathhouses and food booths.

Some attendees would have liked a little more headliner star power, but I was more than satisfied with the musical content at the festival. For me, the big stories were the hot-picking progressive bluegrass bands, the success of Michael Franti as a Friday closer, the folk voices falling somewhat flat, and the cultural exchange mentality to the lineup.

Among Tim O'Brien's Cornbread Nation, J.D. Crowe's New South, The Infamous Stringdusters, Three-Ring Circle, Crooked Still, and Bill Evan's String Summit, that's a lot of instrumental pizzazz, especially when some of the bands jammed together. To one degree or another, these bands are all showing the way to the future of bluegrass and acoustic music, and Strawberry is right on top of the trend. [Dueling banjos above are Chris Pandolfi of the Infamous Stringdusters and Greg Liszt of Crooked Still.]

The folk voices didn't come together as well. Iris Dement was in good voice but she had precious little to say to the audience between songs. Eddie From Ohio didn't seem as charming this time. Gandalf Murphy may have won some new fans, but most yawned. Same for Honkytonk Homeslice. David Jacob-Strain was impressive but not compelling. On the other hand, Rita Hosking had a successful debut and Utah Phillips was a presence throughout the festival.

Sometimes the Strawberry lineup seems like a public television pledge break--exploring musical cultures with programming that is good for you. I enjoyed seeing Sweet Honey in the Rock, but the a capella gospel group didn't have the impact wanted from a Saturday night closer. The African drummers and dancers of the Kuzun Ensemble were fun, but was more of an oddity act for this audience. The southwestern ambassadors from the Santa Cruz River Band did resonate with me and others.

The story that I didn't see coming was the warm audience response for Michael Franti and Spearhead. I was right that there was some grumbling in the campground, but the large crowd at the main stage was lapping up Franti's vibe. It's a top story because I think the success with Franti might signal more explorations in this vein in future Strawberry bookings.

Some of the highlights for me included:

  • Tim O'Brien was great in three performances: workshop, Revival and main stage. He upheld his tradition of leading a crowd of fans in a Birch Lake plunge after the Revival.

  • The Infamous Stringdusters is my choice for best in show, against some tough competition. They proved they're the real thing in a great Saturday afternoon set and won more fans with a workshop and two onstage collaborations with Crooked Still and the Bill Evans String Summit.

  • The Thursday closer, Three-Ring Circle, really impressed me, espeically bassist Dave Pomeroy. His song standing up for bass players everywhere was one of the festival's memorable moments. Another was the unexpected salute by J.D. Crowe, whose Sunday night set was excellent, to Bruce Phillips (aka Utah) for his song "Rock, Salt and Nails." We'll give these and other memorable moments more detail in the next post.

Festival Preview also had a successful festival. We distributed a limited run of our Festival Tipsheet, which was well received. We even had permission from management to distribute through the Information Booth. You may remember that materials from Festival Preview were not allowed last year.

We got a very nice plug from the stage when Aoife O'Donovan mentioned the Tipsheet and credited Festival Preview for suggesting a Crooked Still-Infamous Stringduster collaboration.

We used the festival to begin playing with video reporting, and we have some good interviews with Aoife and her bandmate Rushad Eggleston, Tim O'Brien and Rita Hosking. We're going to do some editing and make our first Festival Preview videos available in a week or so. Stay tuned.

All in all, it was a fine festival--maybe not one for the history books but another reminder that Strawberry delivers one of the best festival-going experiences available in the roots or any other genre.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Get ready for Strawberry with tipsheet and iMix

With less than a week until the gates open for Spring Strawberry 2007, Festival Preview announces availability of a six-page festival tipsheet (including artist capsules, lists and trends) and a 31-song iTunes mix featuring two recent tracks by most festival performers.

The tipsheet is in pdf format. Download it and print copies to share with your camp mates. Download the whole iMix or individual songs to burn a CD or load your iPod for the ride up.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Strawberry analysis (trends)

Like any Strawberry lineup, Spring '07 includes its eclectic outliers--Kusun Ensemble, Santa Cruz River Band, Michael Franti & Spearhead. But I see two big trends to watch as the music unfolds next week.

Progressive bluegrass: One of the big stories in acoustic music in the last several years has been the emergence of a new generation of young string bands. Some like The Duhks, Greencards, Crooked Still and The Biscuit Burners have made memorable appearances at Strawberry. Others like The Mammals, Uncle Earl, and Chris Thile's How to Grow a Band have not yet been booked.

One of the most promising of bands in this tradition is the Infamous Stringdusters, who have made a big impression the last two seasons at places like Telluride, Grey Fox, and Wintergrass, and who I expect to be one of the big hits at the upcoming Strawberry. Crooked Still is back for a second go-around, having gained more polish but lost no energy since it debuted in 2005.

Perhaps less fresh-faced but just as musically innovative, Three Ring Circus partly fits this mold as well, melding the instrumental wizardry of three well-known bluegrass sidemen in a new unit. Bill Evans String Summit assembles more seasoned pickers who can be expected to open ears in the music meadow. Finally, banjo great J.D. Crowe, who was one of the early innovators in progressive bluegrass when the 1970s-vintage New South turned out players like Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas and Ricky Scaggs, brings a new assembly of young talent.

Soulful folk: This next crowd doesn't emphasize youth, but there is lots of soul among the folk-oriented performers. Dave Alvin can impress in a variety of styles--with his acoustic trio, I expect to see him perform some of the tradional folk material he showcased on his Public Domain record. Iris Dement's original songs and distinctive vocals put her among the top tier of contemporary singer-songwriters. Eddie From Ohio's three-way vocal arrangements were a big hit at Strawberry two Springs ago. Utah Phillips is one of the grand old men of folk, nearing the end of a legendary career. Sweet Honey in the Rock is legendary as well for its gospel a capella, and should be a natural for Strawberry. Rita Hosking impressed listeners as a tweener a few years ago, while Gandalf Murphy has won avid fans at folk festivals around the country.

Strawberry analysis (tipsheet)

Don't miss: Tim O'Brien, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Iris DeMent, Dave Alvin, J.D. Crowe, Crooked Still, Infamous Stringdusters
Fresh debuts: Infamous Stringdusters, Three-Ring Circle, David Jacobs-Strain, Honkytonk Homeslice
Back by popular demand: Crooked Still, Eddie From Ohio
Belated welcome: J.D. Crowe, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Bill Evans
Surprise candidates: Santa Cruz River Band, Rita Hosking, Kusun Ensemble, Gandalf Murphy
Personalities: Utah Phillips, Iris Dement, Dave Alvin, Tim O'Brien, Joziah Longo (Gandalf Murphy), Michael Clem (Eddie From Ohio)
Hot picking: Three-Ring Circle, Infamous Stringdusters, Bill Evans String Summit, J.D. Crowe & New South, Crooked Still
Vocal standouts: Aiofe O'Donovan (Crooked Still), Julie Murphy (Eddie From Ohio), Iris Dement, Tim O'Brien
Group vocals: Eddie From Ohio, Santa Cruz River Band, Sweet Honey in the Rock
Traditions: Tim O'Brien, Crooked Still, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Kusun Ensemble, Santa Cruz River Band
Original songs: Tim O'Brien, Dave Alvin, Iris Dement, Eddie From Ohio, David Jacobs-Strain, Gandalf Murphy
Dance bands: Paul Cebar, Michael Franti, Kusun Ensemble
Jam influence: Spearhead, Honkytonk Homeslice. Infamous Stringdusters
Old friends: Tim O'Brien, Utah Phillips, Dave Alvin, Iris Dement
Hometown favorite: Bill Evans String Summit, Harmony Grits, Coyote HIll
All in the family: Honkytonk Homeslice, Gandalf Murphy, Bill Evans String Summit

Strawberry analysis (capsules)

Here are capsule summaries of each Strawberry Spring 2007 act in the order of scheduled appearance:

Thursday night
Coyote Hill: Strawberry always makes an effort to showcase some of the best emerging talent from its home region. Kicking of the Spring 2007 festival is Coyote HIll, an folky trio from the California Gold Country fronted by Richard Sholer, formerly of Springfield Crossing. The band's first CD was released this month. Listen.

Harmony Grits: Long-time local favorites at Strawberry, the Grits offer tongue-in-cheek bluegrass originals with a Santa Cruz sensibility and forays into blues and folk-rock jams. Mandolinist Mike McKinley often takes the lead, with support from Jim Lewin (guitar), Jeff Baldwin (dobro) and Doug Marcus (bass). Previous Strawberry appearances: Spring '92, Fall '95, Spring '02. Sample tracks.

David Jacobs-Strain: The slide guitar riffs might sound like Mississippi Delta blues, but it's a white kid from Oregon tearing up the fretboard. In the past several years, Jacobs-Strain has broken out as an in-demand performer at major folk and blues festivals around North America. His two most recent albums, produced by Kenny Passarelli, feature mainly original compositions. He performs either solo or as a trio with electric bass and percussion. He also likes to duet with Joe Craven. Jacobs-Strain played a tweener set with pal Otis Taylor at the Fall '99 festival. iTunes. YouTube.

Three-Ring Circle: This one is a candidate for surprise act of the festival--something of a progressive bluegrass supergroup with three of the hottest-picking young sidemen in the business. It's all-instrumental, but with these guys you don't want vocals getting in the way. Rob Ickes, IBMA dobra player of the year, is also a standout in Blue Highway and has played with Patty Loveless, Earl Scruggs and more. Andy Leftwich plays fiddle and mandolin in Ricky Skagg's Kentucky Thunder and has a solo CD out on Skaggs Family Records. Dave Pomeroy's electric standup bass work has won numerous awards and has backed up numerous country, rock and jazz headliners. This is TRC's first season touring. Audio samples. YouTube.

Session Roundup: Thursday session opens with a local focus but gets down to serious business with breakout folk-blues from David Jacobs-Strain and hot instrumental progressive bluegrass from Three-Ring Circle.

Friday afternoon
Rita Hosking & Cousin Jack: Hosking's old-timey vocals are the calling card for this up-and-coming act from Shasta County in northern California. Her presentation may be reminiscent of Gillian Welch, but this California girl comes by her mountain-music sensibility with true authenticity, with original songs deeply rooted in her family's frontier experience. Cousin Jack includes Sean Feder (banjo, vocals), Bill Dakin (bass, vocals) and Andy Lentz (fiddle). She is also pals with Joe Craven. Hosking and her band played a tweener set at the Fall '05 Strawberry. Listen.

Gandalf Murphy & The Slambovian Circus of Dreams: Hailing from Ossining, N.Y., the band has been a fixture on the northeastern folk-festival circuit for almost a decade, and is now breaking out to a wider audience. The Circus schtick sometimes overshadows the music, but take a close listen and you'll hear fine original songs mixing some new-age mysticism with old-fashioned folkie activism. Gandalf Murphy isn't the actual name of the lead singer--it's Joziah Longo. The other Slambovians are Longo's wife Tink Lloyd (accordian, cello, flute), Sharkey McEwen (guitar, mandolin) and Tony Zuzulo (percussion). This is their first Strawberry appearance. iTunes. YouTube.

Kusun Ensemble: Carrying the banner for Strawberry's eclectic tradition comes this West African troupe playing "Nokoko," its own fusion of jazz and African rhythms. Well known on the world music circuit, the group is lead by Nii Tettey Tetteh (percussion, flute, vocals), who has toured the globe for more than 25 years as an ambassador of Ghanaian music and culture. The Afro-jazz performance is accompanied by colorfully costumed dancers. The ensemble's performance will be a premier on the Strawberry stage. YouTube

Session Roundup: Open-minded Strawberry-goers are apt to discover something new, while those who know what they like and this ain't it might find this to be an afternoon for enjoying the lake.

Friday night
Utah Phillips: A few Strawberrys ago, I passed a homemade sign at a camp on Yosemite Trail that read "Utah: Thanks for the Memories." At first I took that as word that the longtime story-telling folkie, hobo, and union organizer had died, and was thankful to learn later that wasn't the case. Still, with various ailments that he has suffered in recent years, it seems probable that there won't be many more years to ride the rails with him to folk music's glory years. Get on board while his baritone voice still booms. Utah appeared at three consecutive Spring festivals from 1992-1994, but this is his first time back at Strawberry since. YouTube. iTunes.

Dave Alvin Acoustic Trio: Dave Alvin earned his place in popular music history as one of two brothers fronting the rockabilly roots-rock band The Blasters, but he has since enriched his resume as a prolific singer-songwriter, folk-music interpreter and collaborator with musicians such as Tom Russell, Peter Case and others. His acoustic trio features accomplished singer-songwriters in their own right Chris Gaffney and Chris Miller. A favorite at Strawberry, Alvin has appeared in various configurations in Spring '92, Spring '95, Fall '99 and Fall '03. YouTube. iTunes.

Michael Franti & Spearhead: As roots festivals try to rejigger the formula to bring in a younger audience, many of them have sought out standbys from jam-rock events to lively up the proceedings. That seems to be the thinking here as Strawberry imports Bay-Area native Franti and his band, who have made a big impression at festivals such as High Sierra playing reggae-flavored hip-hop. No doubt some Strawberrians will find Spearhead too loud and too far afield from the festival's bluegrass roots, but the youth audience and dancers will groove to it. Spearhead includes Carl Young (bass), Dave Shul (guitar), Manas Itene (drums), Raleigh J. Neal (keyboards).
. YouTube.

Session Roundup: An acoustic Dave Alvin is right in Strawberry's sweet spot, and he forms a reasonable bridge from pure folkie Phillips to multicultural electric Franti. I predict most attendees will enjoy either the first two sets or the second two sets, but relatively few will love all three.

Saturday afternoon
Honkytonk Homeslice: Continuing the jam-band theme, one of the heroes of that genre--Bill Nershi of String Cheese Incident--brings his countrified trio to Strawberry for the first time (though SCI played Strawberry in Fall '98). With SCI's huge success over the last decade, Homeslice figured as an informal side project for Nershi, but projects to become his main vehicle when SCI shuts down after its big festival dates this summer. Homeslice's eclectic repertoire ranges from bluegrass to Burrito-style country rock to acoustic versions of jam and alternative rock. Nershi and his wife Jilian contribute original material, and comprise two-thirds of the band. They are joined by fretboard wizard Scott Law. iTunes. YouTube.

Infamous Stringdusters: This ensemble of young instrumental standouts has been making waves the past two seasons as one of the most interesting of the new generation of progressive bluegrass bands. With Andy Hall (dobro), Chris Eldridge (guitar), Chris Pandolfi (banjo), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Jesse Cobb (mandolin), and Travis Book (bass), the Dusters assemble sidemen from a who's who's of bluegrass, jamgrass, and country acts, but its their improvisational cohesiveness as a band that really impresses. If they can avoid having members drawn off to other projects, look for a bright Stringduster future. After successful debuts at many other important roots festivals, this is their Strawberry premiere.iTunes. YouTube.

Paul Cebar & The Milwaukeeans: With more than 20 years of touring and recording under their belt, Cebar has settled into a comfortable R&B groove underlying improvisational keyboards, sax and guitar. Cebar works the midwestern circuit with regular forays east, south and west, including to Strawberry, where he has previously appeared in Fall '96 and Fall '04. The Milwauakkeeans include Cebar (guitar, vocals), Bob Jennings (saxophone, keyboards), Reggie Bordeaux (drums), Patrick Patterson (bass), and Romero Beverly (percussion). iTunes.

Session Roundup: Bluegrass purists who son't grok the jam-band phenomenon may be impressed with the instrumental chops they witness from Honkytonk Homeslice. The Infamous Stringdusters are certain crowd pleasers for discerning bluegrass fans. Paul Cebar will provide a danceable beat for folks who want to groove in the afternoon sun.

Saturday night
Crooked Still: The band's low-lonesome sound made a big impression in its Spring '05 Strawberry debut, when it won Festival Preview's poll for "discovery of the festival." Its repertoire of traditional folk standards sound fresh with the combination of Rushad Eggleston's driving cello and Greg Liszt's rolling banjo accompaniment, plus Aoife O'Donovan's haunting vocals. Bassist Corey DeMarco rounds out the unit. Eggleston alone is worth the price of admission, and the on-stage banter between him and O'Donovan is a hoot. Also look for the band to mix it up in a workshop or other venue with their Stringduster buddies.
. YouTube.

Eddie From Ohio: Another return act from Spring '05, EFO was the surprise winner of that festival's "best performance" nod in a Festival Preview poll. Drummer Eddie Hartness is said not to be the Eddie and the group is based in Virginia, not Ohio, but don't let those details confuse you. EFO's complex vocal harmonies, uplifting original songs and poppish musical arrangements are sure-fire crowd pleasers. Vocalist Julie Murphy, who has returned from a bout with cancer, Robbie Schaefer (guitar, vocals) and Michael Clem (bass, vocals) are polished performers who blend into more than the sum of their parts.
. YouTube.

Sweet Honey In the Rock: In 34 years of performing, the a capella gospel septet has made a deep impression on the musical world, but has never before appeared on the Strawberry stage (though founder Bernice Johnson Reagon's daughter Toshi has been a Strawberry favorite). The elder Reagon retired a few years ago, but the ensemble carries on with its unique blend of spiritual music and message of empowerment expressed through six powerful voices, hand percussion and sign language interpretation. Besides closing Saturday night, it's a good bet Sweet Honey will be part of the Revival Sunday morning.

Session Roundup: The return of Crooked Still and Eddie From Ohio proves that audience response has an impact on Strawberry bookings. Even lacking a typical Saturday night rocker, with two crowd pleasers yielding to a cultural icon with gravitas, fans are apt to return to camp fully satisfied .

Sunday afternoon
Bill Evans String Summit: Surely Bill Evans, the great banjo player, writer and teacher, has been a sideman on various Strawberry sets through the years. He lives in the Bay Area and has played with Grisman, Rowan, Laurie Lewis, and Robin and Linda Williams, among others. But this is Evans's first featured main stage appearance, configured as his String Summit and featuring a collection of acoustic instrumental all-stars--Scott Nygaard (guitar), Cindy Browne (bass), Michael Witcher (dobro) and the two Clarridges, Tashina (fiddle) and Tristan (fiddle and cello).

Santa Cruz River Band: That's Santa Cruz in Arizona, and these three guys are keepers of southwestern culture. This is the music of old Arizona, mixing Hispanic and cowboy influences. Ted Ramirez is the founder but Gilbert Brown and Michael J. Ronstadt, Linda's brother, each contribute vocals, instrumentals and original songs. YouTube

Session Roundup: Sunday afternoon after the Revival is a good time for some instrumental virtuousity, and that's what's in store from the Bill Evans String Summit. The Santa Cruz River Band is kind of a sleeper pick but has the potential to be a surprise hit--definitely worth checking out.

Sunday night
Iris Dement: The slightly quirky Kansas City singer-songwriter broke out in the 1990s with two well-received records of autobiographical songs, a third album that was outwardly focused but just as good, and a set of duets with John Prine that earned her a Grammy. After a recording hiatus, in 1994 she released kind of a concept album about the gospel music she grew up with. These days, she is married to folk legend Greg Brown and plays a modest touring schedule, including a selection of roots festivals. She appeared at Strawberry twice before--in Fall '95 and Spring '98. It's hotter than Mojave in her heart. iTunes. YouTube.

J.D. Crowe & The New South: J.D. Crowe, probably the next most influential bluegrass banjo player after Earl Scruggs, appears never to have played Strawberry. In the 70s, he was a leader in progressive bluegrass, and New South included players like Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas and Ricky Skaggs. The current-edition New South includes a new crop of hotshot pickers: Ricky Watson (guitar), Dwight McCall (mandolin), Ronnie Stewart (fiddle), and Harold Nixon (bass). They will feature material from a new record, Lefty's Old Guitar, but expect Crowe also to offer old favorites like "Old Home Place." iTunes. YouTube.

Tim O'Brien's Cornbread Nation: Fans at Telluride and Grey Fox are disappointed Tim O'Brien is skipping some of his regular summer stops this year, but he is back for his tenth Strawberry, most recently Fall '05. He is appearing with his semi-electric configuration, Cornbread Nation, with Danny Barnes on guitars and vocals, Casey Driessen on fiddle and Dennis Crouch on bass. The band will feature songs from his two 1996 records, Cornbread Nation and Fiddler's Green. Will Tim keep up his tradition of going in the lake during the Revival?
. YouTube

Session Roundup: This is a very solid finish starting with the first chance to see a former folk sweetheart in recent years, followed by bluegrass great in his first Strawberry appearance, and capped off by a bonafide Strawberry star holding down the closer slot with his recent Grammy win and hot electrified band.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Dancin' Dave's Merlefest (part 4)

By Dancin' Dave

Not all was exciting from my point of view about Merlefest 2007... When I learned that Elvis Costello was booked I was curious...mostly because I knew so little of him. As Iearned of his musical journeys I became even more curious and when I saw that his band would include Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas and Byron House I started to become excited. Funny thing---I talked with a bunch of folks about Elvis before the festival and half of them really were big fans and the others were either big non-fans (one young woman won't let her husband play any of Elvis' music while she's in the house...>g<) or ambivilant.

ottom line for me: I watched his first 4 or 5 tunes, played solo, and was counting on Sam and Jerry's appearance to "make it better". During the last song I watched and listened to without the boys I decided to head over to the Dance Tent for the Red Stick Ramblers and a cajun dance...where I had a blast!

I was having way too much fun at the dance but I did want to see the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band so I headed back to the Watson Stage, where I was again disappointed. I've been a big Dirt Band fan for lots of years, saw them more times than I can count and have loved the fact that they have presented us with sooo much great music through the years. But, without Jimmy Ibbotson it wasn't the same right off the bat, and as the show went on and I realized that they were going to play the same dozen or so songs that they've been playing on stage all of these years I lost interest. I was thinking: "come on guys, you have a huge catalogue of music; please mix it up a little!"

All in all, Merlefest 2007 was another super festival and I can't wait for next year. I love working with the part of the Merlefest staff that I do and I love working with the different campground folks who all go out of their way to help not only me and my operation, but are there for all of their customers. It's a great feeling.

On the other hand, I understand that there were some major breakdowns as far as the infrastructure of the festival venue itself....not enough porta-johns, way too long of lines at the food vendors (for there are obviously times when the amount of food vendors can't keep up with demand), and I heard that there was a big snafu Saturday evening as the big crowd tried to exit the campus.

There is lots of discussion of these problems on the Merlefest website, and there are some pretty angry and or disgusted folks who are reacting to the problems that I've stated. I do have the confidence in the Merlefest organization that they will take a hard look at all of the situations that come up when dealing with such a big crowd (especially on Saturday...) And that from this hard look solutions will present themselves.

As I said, I can't wait fo next year! (I'm especially anxious to see if those three fellows who book me come back from England for the fourth year in a row...! >g<)

Dancin' Dave's Merlefest (part 3)

By Dancin' Dave

I'm finally out of that motel in Asheville and am camped along the French Broad River just out of town....'tis much prettier here! My final Merlefest highlight memories have been replayed in my mind and it was fun to go over the program schedule again, reminding me of some good musical times!

The first and probably the best was the Creekside Stage set with Doc and Jack and T. Michael. I have seen and heard these fellows many many times over these many many years and I still wish I'd get to see them more often! I think they even did three or four songs that I never had heard them play was a super set. I had gone down to the Creekside Stage at 8:30 that morning to set a couple of chairs up that would guarentee good viewing.... (of course, Lynn and I had to sit through a Crooked Still set and a Sierra Hull set while waiting for Doc and Jack and T., but sometimes you have to do what you have to do...>g<

Another highlight was the solo rendition of John Hartford's "Vamp In The Middle" by John's old buddy Tut Taylor, during the festival's opening jam. That was one sweet tribute, Tut!

During the Sunday Crooked Still set on the Americana Stage Aoife O'Donovan announced that there was going to be an impromptu "Sometymes Why" mini-set on vendor row, soon after.... She is part of this group with Kristin Andreassen and Ruth Unger Miranda and I have been hoping and hoping that I'd get to see such a concert someday. Aoife and Kristin are friends and dance partners of mine and I had the priviledge of being the first person to buy the Sometymes Why cd....and I love it. The girls had to borrow instruments for this set....when Kristin asked the crowd if anyone had a "c" harmonica a young man generously offered his to her and when she returned it he claimed that he will never wash it again...>g< This 15 minute set was a sweet sweet treat; totally unexpected, which made it even more special.

The Lovell Sisters are another young group that is a real pleasure to watch and listen to! I first saw them at Greyfox last summer and they are just as cute as they were then. It will be fun to watch them in the coming will the Belleville Outfit; there are just sooo many young hot groups these days!

Of course I missed much great music! The Carolina Chocolate Drops kept getting mentioned by folks, especially my sweet wife Lynn, as being hotter than hot. I tried to see them in the Pit, but the seats were filled before I could nab one. I will catch them at the LEAF festival next weekend.... I didn't get to see Del McCoury or the Jerry Douglas Band; man, how could THAT happen?! (merlefest)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Stagecoach breakdowns

As I wrote earlier, most everything at Stagecoach ran like a Swiss clock. But that doesn't mean the festival is problem-free. By far, the biggest problem is the main-stage sound blasting into the other stages. I assume Coachella has the same problem, but in that case every band plays loud so that spillage from another stage may not be noticeable. I don't know if there is any way of reconfiguring the stage layout. If not, this seems to me to be a significant drawback.

The other problem is the flies. Big black houseflies that buzz down on your arm or leg and you brush off. It's not like they are everywhere but definitely enough to be bothersome. I wonder if it is related to the polo ponies who usually are romping on these fields. The outlying areas near the grounds are full of stables. Is that related to Stagecoach's fly problem, and what could be done during festival weeks to reduce the insect population?

Abigail in Disneyland

I caught up with Abigail Washburn as we were both hustling to the Palomino Stage for the Kris Kristofferson set. Abby had earlier performed her set with the Sparrow Quartet on Appaloosa, where she had received a warm response from an audience that was not familiar with her. To attendees of Americana, folk, and bluegrass festivals, Washburn is well known as the waifish banjo player in the all-girl string band Uncle Earl. The Sparrow Quartet is a side project with banjo great Bela Fleck in a string quartet known for Washburn's explorations into Chinese folk music.

I said that she had drawn a good crowd, and she remarked that almost nobody had any idea who she was. It is great to get a chance to play for a new audience and win some new fans. I asked how she get booked for this gig? She really wasn't sure. It was just through her booking agent.

She said she'd been around for the whole festival and had enjoyed many of the performances. The festival was so professionally run that it was like Disneyland. She agreed with me that there was a lack of chemistry in the production, noting the absence of unscripted jams and collaborations on stage. She suggested a stage coordinator could have been used to facilitate such pairings.

Just a few minutes earlier, during Marty Stuart's fine turn on Appaloosa, Stuart had noticed Bela Fleck sitting in the audience and called him as "the greatest banjo picker on the planet." Then he added, "I hope you bought a ticket." At another festival, maybe Bela would have sat in on a song. To be fair, that did happen one time later when Ricky Skaggs brought up Del McCoury.

Despite the spontaneity thing, the Stagecoach Festival was amazing for a first run, Abby said. Consider that this crowd is mainly local. This has the potential to pull people from all over. It has some maturing to do in how it combines country music subgenres, but it could be a great new outlet for acoustic roots and Americana musicians to play for a bigger audience.

Kristofferson sidled into Me and Bobbie McGee for his second song, and I rushed off to get to the photo pit ahead of the three-song limit.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival - Preview

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival will be held in Preston, CT from May 31 through June 3, 2007 at Strawberry Park Campground. The campground is a large facility well-equipped to put on a major bluegrass festival. It is centrally located between New York and Boston and close to two nearby Indian casinos for those who tire of the music, unlikely this year as the lineup is excellent. Offering traditional and progressive bluegrass, this year’s bill will satisfy almost any fan of bluegrass who doesn’t insist on hard-core Bill Monroe bluegrass all the time.

By this time of year, most full-service campsites are probably reserved, but the campground provides a large rough camping area and an overflow area, which probably don’t ever run out of space. To make sure, though, give the campground a call on their toll free number (888) 794-7944 or their regular number (860) 886-1944. The campground is reasonably quiet, although there is some jamming there. The rough camping area is a jammer’s heaven, where you can make music all night long. It is tightly packed with close quarters, but people staying in the rough camping area seem to be having a good time. Strawberry Park also has a number of rental trailers that can be rented for the festival. They are usually snapped up well in advance. While the campground itself is located in what appears to be a rural area, there is quite a bit of development in the area and there should be motel rooms available for day trippers, including the casinos.

Vendors at Strawberry Park are less satisfactory than at many other festivals of the same size. There seem to be two reasons for this. First, the vending area is a short walk uphill from the main amphitheater so that it is difficult to wander up to shop or eat and still listen to the music. Second, the campground has a major entertainment area including a large food service of its own with covered picnic tables. It provides snacks to full meals as well as ice cream and other deserts. While it’s something of a trek to these windows, the food is tasty. Breakfast is served. The campground has a couple of large swimming pools that are available if the weather permits, but early June can be chilly and wet in Connecticut.

The performance area is almost ideal for both viewing and listening to music. The natural amphitheater slopes up gently from the stage and spreads out as it rises. Listeners can place themselves close in a tight setting or spread out as they move further away from the stage. Last year the sound was superb, making good bands sound better and allowing the music to be heard everywhere in the performance area without every becoming overwhelming. Off to the left (facing) of the stage is a raised wooden platform ideal for those who wish to dance. It provides a good view and sound for dancers while never allowing them to interfere with the vision or enjoyment of those who prefer to listen to the music. More festivals should provide such a setting. Another platform is provided for groups to sell merchandise and meet and greet their fans. The general performance layout is one of the best in our bluegrass experience.

In addition to the outdoor facility, Strawberry Park has a large indoor room where the festival can move in case of intractable rain. Last year part of the Saturday program and Sunday morning were held indoors. While not completely satisfactory, the room nevertheless held a large crowd and offered good sound when being outside would have been pretty miserable. Since the weather this time of year is iffy, this alternative assures that people won’t freeze or be too soaked. Last year we sat in the warm rain of Friday evening and listened to the Kruger Brothers outdoors. This proved to be a wonderful experience, especially considering their unique musical offering. Nevertheless, it was nice to be able to move inside when it got really wet.

The entire infrastructure is present to serve a first rate lineup for 2007. Thursday, usually an abbreviated program, features the Greencards, an entertaining bluegrass group from Australia. April Verch is a fiddler/dancer from Canada who performs with her husband on drums, as well as a bass. She has a pleasant voice and fiddles well, too. I’ve never heard Amy Gallatin and Stillwater. On Friday the festival swings into top gear with two sets each by Nothin’ Fancy, The Lovell Sisters, Rhonda Vincent, and Mountain Heart. Nothin’ Fancy, who style themselves as successors to The Country Gentlemen and mine their materials as well as playing lots of Mike Andes songs, are always musical and amusing. Chris Sexton is a wonderful fiddler who brings his classical background to bluegrass without missing a beat. The Lovell Sisters are high energy, attractive, and sing good, too. Rebecca Lovell (16) who plays mandolin, was the first woman to win the Merlefest mandolin contest last year. These girls are comers. It will be interesting to see Mountain Heart for the first time since Steve Gulley left them to form Grasstowne. I’ve heard good things, but am interested to see for myself. Nothing much needs to be said about Rhonda Vincent and the Rage – they are simply one of the best bands touring. Furthermore, Rhonda will sign and greet fans until the last one leaves, a generous and endearing characteristic for such a big star.

Strawberry Park is unusual in that some bands only give one performance rather than the two set model used at most festivals. This means that in order to see all the bands, you gotta be there. On Saturday Cadillac Sky and Dry Branch Fire Squad repeat, but The Steep Canyon Rangers, Infamous Stringdusters, Grascals, and Chris Thile & How to Grow a Band featuring Bryan Sutton each only have a (roughly) ninety minute set. The longer sets allow a group to strut its stuff, but audience members need to hang in. Cadillac Sky is based in Texas and brings a lively new sound to bluegrass. The Infamous Stringdusters, coming from Boston are wired to tradition in a new and lively sound. Banjo player Chris Pandolfi is a great stylist, the first person to major in banjo at Berklee School of Music. Steep Canyon Rangers are a more traditional band who play and sing with conviction and musicality. Their performances are always satisfactory. Chris Thile has grown himself a new band with a new sound. A brilliant performer, he has surrounded himself with wonderful musicians. Adding Byron Sutton, a brilliant flat picker on guitar, for this performance can only improve the band. Dry Branch Fire Squad, led by satirical humorist Ron Thomason, presents an interesting mix of social satire with wonderful primitive gospel music. His performances, backed by a very fine band, are always a wonder. Dry Branch Fire Squad will also do a traditional hour of gospel music on Sunday morning. The Grascals, always reliable, fill out the Saturday bill.

It is often hard to keep an audience at a festival on Sunday. People who love bluegrass music will leave early on Sunday at their peril. After Dry Branch Fire Squad’s gospel hour, Dale Ann Bradley has a long set. Her dead on singing is back by a group of fine musicians including newly signed on Mike Bub, the best in the business, on bass. At noon the Strawberry Park Kids Academy will perform. They will have been practicing since Friday afternoon and had lots of work with very good teachers. After their performance comes the Gibson Brothers. Leigh and Eric Gibson, coming from far upstate New York have voices that blend as brothers should and write and sing wonderful songs. Each member of their band is a first rate musician. Rick Hayes on mandolin, Clayton Campbell on fiddle, and Mike Barber on bass support Eric’s fine banjo and Leigh’s excellent rhythm guitar, but the energy and quality singing of this band is what shines, and they do shine. Finally, Cherryholmes will close the festival. This family band, which tours incessantly and will probably not be new to many in the audience, has refreshed its act and has a new CD out. They have grown musically as the young band members have matured. Father Jere still can’t resist the coarse remark, but he’s learning and the band is funnier when he’s a little lighter.

People planning to attend Strawberry Park should come prepared for any kind of weather – hot, chilly, sunny, dry, wet…who knows. If it’s hot and sunny, the shaded amphitheater will provide a delightful setting for the weekend. Strawberry Park is a festival that people who take an eclectic view of the nature of bluegrass music will find to be entirely satisfying. Give it a try.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Personal Bee down

Not good. Not only is it preventing me from updating the site with posts from Stagecoach and the usual Monday content refresh, but readers are shut out. In the past when the site went down it was only for a half hour or so. We're going on a couple of hours now. I'm going to hit the road and stop in for more posting at the Harris Ranch in Coalinga, where I know I can get Internet access. Hopefully, the Bee will have returned to life before then.

Update: The Bee was fine by my next stop. I'm now back the next day hoping to post some new stuff shortly.

Older-wiser country rockers recall when it all began

The expected reunion of two-thirds of the Souther-Hillman-Furay country rock band of the 70s didn't quite materialize as expected. Yes, Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson put on their customarily great show, and yes Richie Furay put on his resurgent act, but the two consecutive sets were entirely independent.

Both men struck a chord with Stagecoach fans who remember the days when a circle of musicians from southern California were forging a new synthesis of country and rock. Hillman and Furay (and Pederson for that matter) played key roles, the former as a member of The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and The Desert Rose Band and the latter with Buffalo Springfield and Poco.

Their Souther-Hillman-Furay was conceived as a second country rock supergroup to follow Crosby, Stills and Nash, but the trio lasted for only two recordings.

These days, Hillman and Pederson play mostly in a bluegrass mode, but they segue easily into country rock, Bakersfield-sound country and other styles during the set.

The highlights for me were Love Reunited (which I'm learning for the acoustic band I'm playing with), Sin City (if all Hillman had done was co-written that song, he'd be in the country rock hall of fame), Streets of Bakersfield (Hillman and Pederson played with Buck Owens), and The Old Crossroads (Bill Monroe's gospel-grass cautionary tale).

Hillman includes songs of faith in his material, but he never seems to be preaching. Having visited his website a few days ago, I wasn't sure that Richie Furay would be equally discreet.

I shouldn't have worried. Furay put forth a set celebrating his contributions to the genre, including a new song he opened with, Do You Remember How It Was When It All Began. The golden memories included Picking Up the Pieces, Do You Feel Like Dancin'?, Gotta Good Reason for Loving You, You Can't Run Away and Hide.

There may have been Christian messages in some of the new material, but they were not at all overt. Overall, he expressed a boyish enthusiasm about returning to the stage (a full tour is in the works). He also seemed to get a kick sharing the limelight with his daughter and harmony singer Jesse.

I had planned to do an interview with Chris Hillman after the show, but our plans got crossed. We've rescheduled to do a phone interview later this week.

Lewis Family Homecoming and Bluegrass Festival - Review

During the 1940’s, country music musicians toured the southeast in tent shows which were much like circuses, medicine shows, and tent revival meetings that inspired them. Bluegrass festivals, the first of which occurred in 1965, took this idea, brought numbers of music fans together in a campground or open field, and created a way for fans to come together for two to four days to listen to their favorite form of music, jam together, eat, and have a good time. The twentieth anniversary Lewis Family Homecoming & Bluegrass Festival held May 3 – 5 at Elijah Clark State Park in Lincolnton, GA partakes of elements of all these elements to create an event.

The Lewis Family, styled as the “first family of bluegrass gospel” dominates this festival as its leader, Little Roy Lewis, dominates the family. Roy Lewis, 63, is the youngest sibling of the Lewis Family, which has toured churches and festivals and appeared on television and radio for over fifty years. Roy Lewis is perhaps five foot three inches tall, doughy red faced, with graying blond hair. He is a constant whirlwind of energy on stage and on the festival grounds where he greets friends and strangers, tells stories, helps vendors sell their wares, and never stops moving. On stage he transitions seamlessly from singing the family’s characteristic up-beat gospel music to baggy-pants clowning. At least once a session, he dons an outrageous costume, often in drag, and becomes a part of some other band’s act, convulsing members of the band as well as the audience. He is a consummate showman and clown.

The Lewis Family Festival is promoted by Norman Adams and Tony Anderson, who organize seven bluegrass festivals from Florida to North Carolina during the year. Their promotions generally appeal to a fan base, the majority of whom are well past retirement, which prefers hard driving, old-time bluegrass music in the fashion of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the other pioneers of this country music genre. Adams and Anderson provide what their core audience wants in spades. Rarely do they try to challenge or educate their audience to new music, although they do bring younger, newer bands to their shows, especially if they feature a solid dollop of traditional music. The Lewis Family Festival was no exception. Highlights of this year’s version included Earle Scruggs as both a participant and an attendee and Mac Wiseman. Mac Wiseman, 82 years old and no longer mobile due to a reoccurrence of paralysis from childhood polio, sang his classic repertoire, reminisced for his audience, and signed for hours. Earl Scruggs, whose new album features Lizzie Long, Little Roy’s protégé and Roy Lewis, played better than he had the previous weekend at Merlefest, and seemed relaxed and happy in this more informal setting where he felt himself to be among long-time friends. Emcee Sherry Boyd and sound man Gene Daniell did their usual first class job.

This festival, as one might expect, featured a high proportion of gospel music. Wednesday evening, before the festival began, offered a Community Southern Gospel Night sponsored by the Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce. The music was not bluegrass and featured local church groups singing to recorded backgrounds with enthusiasm and a range of skill and musicality. During the festival itself, the Lewis Family played and sang an afternoon and evening set on each of the three days. This must have been exhausting for the three sisters, who are aging and not in good health. There was also a featured gospel group on each day. With the exception of New Found Road, these bands are most appreciated by the choir to whom they preach.

New Found Road, appearing on Thursday, have chosen a different path. While still committed to gospel music, which they dispense liberally in their program, this band has decided to widen its audience and broaden its appeal by singing secular singer/songwriter songs and traditional bluegrass standards as well as gospel music. They bring strong musicality and a lively appeal to their performances. Lead singer Tim Shelton has a strong and appealing voice while Rob Baker on mandolin and Jr. Williams on banjo are very solid players and good singers. This band has withstood criticism from traditional gospel quarters and is persisting in offering up this appealing mix of music. They will find an audience that will hear their faith while enjoying their music.

Honi Deaton and Dream have strengthened their program and group since we saw them at Denton in October. By adding a Dobro, Wade Powell who recently graduated from North Georgia State where he majored in classical guitar, is just feeling his way into the band, but will add color and a richer, fuller sound to the band. Honi Deaton, whose red hair and warm smile complement her singing, has a voice that ranges from sweet and balladic to a throaty belt and has continued to grow in her delivery. The bands interplay and humor have lost their rough edge, and this band has improved itself in only six months. Other Thursday bands, especially Lonesome Will Mullens and the Virginia Playboys, continued the traditional mode. Mullens harkens back to hillbilly music in his humor, presentation, and appearance. His act is extremely high energy.

Friday offered so much good music it was difficult to take it all in. Lorraine Jordan and the Carolina Road Band have found their groove and have continued to improve since the addition of Jerry Butler to the group as lead singer. By taking on some of the emcee role and bringing an element of humor to the group, Butler has freed Jordan to sing and play better as well as to become a more personable band leader. Josh Goforth is a first rate young fiddler who can play with anyone and adds versatility and quality to the band. Todd Meade plays a strong bass and doubles on fiddle with Goforth for the double fiddle tunes, a highlight of traditional bluegrass. Ben Green on banjo offers solid soloing as well as fine backup. This combination of band mates has enabled Lorraine to find her groove in singing tenor and concentrate on her mandolin playing. Her lead singing is stronger since she has to do less of it. Jordan has achieved notice through producing two Daughters of Bluegrass albums featuring the finest of women players. When some of these women are at the same festival, as here at the Lewis Family, they share the stage with her for at least one song, and this is always a pleasure.

Since the Gary Waldrep Band was also at the Lewis Family Festival, we had the pleasure to see two versions of the Daughters play. Mindy Rakestraw and Jane Baxter, regular members of Waldrep’s band also appear on the Daughters album. In his typically generous fashion, Waldrep invited Jordan to join him for a song, making it possible for part of the Daughters of Bluegrass combination to appear twice on Saturday. Waldrep, a shy man who puts it all out on the stage, should be recognized for his willingness to put three women on his stage at once. Rakestraw on rhythm guitar and singing strong lead on several songs is one of the best as is Jane Baxter on the acoustic bass. Shirley Seim on fiddle and is very solid, too. Waldrep plays fast and energetic three finger style as well as claw hammer. His mix of deeply held faith and high value entertainment works very well. His band’s performances are always highly satisfying.

Mac Wiseman has not traveled with a band for years. He appears at an event, assembles his band from those available, and takes to the stage to present his program of songs both new and old, reminiscences of the early days of bluegrass, and jokes that evoke a rare response from this somewhat stodgy and tired audience. With Little Roy Lewis as his banjo player, Lizzie Long on fiddle, and 2005 IBMA Dobro player of the year Phil Leadbetter, Wiseman could not have had better support. It’s amazing to see a man of his age present two full sets without ever appearing tired or waning in his presentation. Wiseman is a national treasure for bluegrass and a joy for those who get a chance to see one of his infrequent performances.

Grasstowne rounded out this fine day of music. When Steve Gulley left Mountain Heart, Phil Leadbetter opted out of Wildfire, and Alan Bibey removed himself from Blueridge, the bluegrass world wondered what sort of band would emerge. Now, with their first CD hitting the table at this festival and two polished performances, it has become clear that this band will soon be solidly entrenched in the first rank of bluegrass music. Each player left his previous band because he found something lacking in where he was. In Grasstowne, the three men have an opportunity to blend their styles and create a sound that shows respect and love for traditional bluegrass and country music while creating a sound uniquely their own. Each is a consummate musician, recognized by other musicians as belonging at the top of the field. Together, these three men show no individual ego as their work blends together seamlessly. Jason Davis on banjo and Jayme Booher on bass, both in their early twenties but deeply experienced and highly skilled, add to the mix. This group allows its music to speak for itself, not relying on excessive showmanship or glitz to sell the music. We have seen Grasstowne four times in the past four months, and each performance has improved and deepened. Steve Gulley’s lead singing and humorous impressions of country musicians are top notch. Alan Bibey’s mandolin break on Sunny Side of the Mountain was astoundingly good, although it blew past many of those who were in the audience. Phil Leadbetter never has a moment of bad taste in his playing, which deepens the already rich sound of Grasstowne. What a day!

Saturday could not help but be a letdown from the previous day. The weather had turned cool and rainy, putting something of a damper on the day, too. Heaven’s Echoes, a gospel band, managed to sing a song so offensive to American values of tolerance and acceptance that even this Christian and patriotic audience only gave them a lukewarm response. Carl Shifflet and the Big Country Show continued the tone of hearkening back to the bluegrass past. Shifflet, looking something like a tired bloodhound, spends a good deal of his time mugging at the audience while he stands on one foot with his other leg waggling in the breeze. His solid band provides good support for a range of recognizable tunes. Jimmy C. Newman & Cajun Country offered a change of pace with their chink-a-chank Cajun sound, but Newman relied more on his Grand Ol’ Opry reputation than on rehearsal and polish. He ended up trying to remember the words and having difficulty deciding what song to sing next.

Saturday offered two musical highlights. LeRoy Troy gave his one man show. Troy’s presentation is reminiscent, they tell me, of Uncle Dave Macon. He plays clawhammer style on both resonator and open back banjo, singing amusing hillbilly songs backed by good playing and humorous patter. His most requested songs feature his playing on the open back banjo while he flips it and swings it in the air, playing all the time. His Grandfather’s Clock, in which the banjo serves as the clock’s pendulum, is a wonder.

The Cherryholmes Family is always a crowd pleaser. While only having been on the bluegrass scene for four years, this energetic family band has achieved top honors in IBMA, performs regularly on Grand Ol’ Opry, and tours ceaselessly. Father Jere Cherryholmes has taken some of the edge off his presentation and daughter Cia continues to improve on an already very good performance in her singing and playing. Recently she appears happier and more relaxed on the stage. The Cherryholmes keep the music coming at the audience and have added new material as their newest album is about to hit the stands and has had extensive air play on XM radio.

The Lewis Family Festival presented just what its audience wanted. That being the case, it seems odd that the audience required so much work from the performers for so little response. Perhaps this is because as the audience ages, it just doesn’t have the energy to give back to the entertainers. If a newer, younger audience is to be attracted to this music and to keep it vital, promoters like Adams and Anderson need to provide a broader range of bluegrass sounds. Groups like Crooked Still, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Cadillac Sky have kept themselves rooted in bluegrass while extending the sound of the music. Mountain Heart, Special Consensus and Blue Highway continue to lead the way. Including music from these groups will help to educate the audience for traditional music while attracting the younger audience needed to keep the music alive and vital.

Earl and Lizzie Long

Robert Earl's party goes on at Stagecoach

By Dan Ruby

Probably my favorite set Saturday was Robert Earl Keen on the Palomino stage. There is a buzz in the crowd while the stage is set and then REK ambles in wearing a purple cowboy shirt and wraparound sunglasses-–cool personified.

Some performers have a magnetic pull. With his winning smile and aw shucks presentation, he pulls you into his world of hard-rocking Texas story songs.

Here's the setlist for REK aficionados: Dreadful Selfish Crime, Corpus Christie Bay, Shades of Gray, Amarillo Highway, Buckaroo Song, Farm Fresh Eggs, The Road Goes On Forever.

The band, led by flash guitar Rich Brotherton and featuring an inventive steel guitar, tears it up on the big rockers but backs off on Robert's more sensitive moments. The one Keen record that I don't know is Farm Fresh Eggs. On first hearing, I didn't love the title song as much as some other REK material, but I was impressed with the theatrics as Robert ampped it up with an evangelical fervor.

Plus it was a great lead in to the party climax with the road going on forever. That night in the campground, it went on for a few more hours as I found a few Robert Earl fans and picked my version of Corpus Christie Bay well into the night.

Stagecoach Sunday gallery

I had some trouble with the auto focus on my camera and missed a lot of the afternoon action. My photo picks for Sunday are Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Jimmie Dale Gilmore (The Flatlanders), Garrison Keillor, Brooks & Dunn, and Ricky Skaggs.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Chesney closing Stagecoach

The festival is wrapping up with only the Mane stage still going. I just came from a great pure bluegrass set by Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. It was the only set I sat through beginning to end today, since there were so many great choices on the different stages that I generally saw only half of less of most acts.

Some of the highlights for me: Kris Kristofferson, Marty Stuart, Abigail Washburn, and Skaggs. Garrison Keillor seemed to be doing standard Lake Wobegon material and while humorous didn't make me want to commit. Ramblin' Jack Elliott, an old favorite, was running through his standard material and didn't seem to exploit the cowboy opportunity.

I have more great photos, but just discovered that I failed to bring my camera cable to the festival grounds, so I won't be able to transfer photos till I'm back in the campground, where I probably won't have Internet access. The upshot is that my Sunday photo gallery and additional posts won't be up until Monday sometime. My plan is to get the camp broken down and then find a cyber cafe in Palm Springs before setting out on the nine hour drive home.

Till tomorrow.

Stagecoach runs like clockwork

The Stagecoach country music festival is off and running in a strong inaugural showing. It's the baby brother of last week's Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival, a spinoff with the reasonable business proposition that it makes sense to get double mileage from all the infrastructure that goes into holding one of the planet's largest music festivals.

The "coach" in both festivals' names is no coincidence. Working from a template certainly helps. Overall, this is one of the best-managed festivals I've attended, obviously a benefit of having produced seven previous Coachella fests.Of course, it didn't hurt that the crowd was only a half that Coachella packed in last week. With the repurpose economics, Stagecoach doesn't have to attract 100,000 or more. It was comfortably successful, for the audience, artists and management, at a projected 60,000.

The smaller crowd produced a minimum of problems--no security incidents, no serious lines for food or bathrooms. The weather cooperated--in the 90s but not at all uncomfortable. One of the things the festival does right is provide plenty of comfortable, shaded sitting areas.

Overall the grounds are amazing. The Empire Polo Field provides completely flat, grassy fields for the festival grounds, adjacent camping area, parking. As long as you are prepared to walk some considerable distances, it's an ideal site. Everywhere are the desert palms the area is famous for and on all sides the horizon is shaped by towering desert mountains. On the grounds are ample food and shopping pavilions. There's a midway filled with Western games, kinetic steamworks, a sponsor pavilion (Toyota Tundra is the big commercial backer), and more.

About the only thing to complain about the festival setup is the considerable sound spillover from the main stage to the other stage areas. Several of the artists on Palomino, the second stage dedicated to alt-country, were noticably disconcerted about having to compete with the concert next door.

I would say that the festival's musical chemistry is not quite a perfect mix as the production logistics. With AEG's massive tie-ins to the country market, the audience was clearly most into seeing the big country artists. And they had the cream of the crop to pick from: headliners George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Alan Jackson, and Brooks & Dunn, plus stars like Sara Evans, Melissa Lambert, Gary Allan, and Sugarland.

As I wrote earlier, the audience was very much of a NASCAR-type audience. Lots and lots of young people. I guess it is not big news that Nashville has tapped an enthusiastic youth market for country music. But this is the first time I've really seen that demonstrated.

With George and Kenny and the others on the Mane Stage, many of the audience never checked out the other three stages, except to wonder over for some Willie or Emmylou on Palomino, or perhaps to check out a favorite bluegrass act at Appaloosa or plug into the cowboy vibe on the Mustang stage. In fact, the lineups at each venue were over the top excellent.

Personally, I spent most of Saturday shuttling between Palomino and Appaloosa. I've have more to write about some of the performances in later posts.

Another factor in the chemistry was the stage management. Sets started and ended on time. Nobody took an encore except for George Strait, who closed the evening with an almost two-hour set. With the clockwork sets, there seemed to be little time for artists to stretch out or do anything off the script.

For example, with the presence of so many artists with intersecting careers, there would have been many opportunities for interesting collaborations and guest shots. When Willie Nelson did a Kristofferson mini-set with Help Me Make It Through the Night and Me and Bobby McGee, how cool would it have been for Kris to have joined him? Or when Chris Hillman and Herb Pederson launched in to If I Could Only Win Your Love, wouldn't it have been great if Emmylou Harris stepped out?

These kinds of spontaneous collaborations are not uncommon at other festivals. At Stagecoach, they have all the right ingredients for musical breakthroughs, but the size and logistical complexity won't allow for it.

My overall music evaluation. There were some really great individual performances, but not a transcending event that makes a festival truly memorable. I have the impression that the Rage Against the Machine show at Coachella a week ago was that kind of moment. Also, the assortment of music types casts a wide net but projects an unfocused identity.

But such questions aside, did Goldenvoice get what it wanted out of the first Stagecoach? There is no doubt they proved the concept. This will only get bigger as more of the music industry coalesces around the idea that Stagecoach can be the premier West Coast country and Americana music festival on the calendar.

Stagecoach: Photo gallery (Saturday)

I have excellent access to the photo pits here. Here in no particular order are some picks from Saturday: Alan Jackson, Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen, The Grascals, Chris Hillman, Richie Furay (with daughter Jesse), Melissa Lambert, Willie Nelson.