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.

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