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.