Wednesday, May 16, 2007

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.