Friday, June 29, 2007

Dr. John announced for Strawberry

Strawberry Music Festivals filled in the last piece of its Fall festival lineup with a big-time Friday night closer, New Orleans musical legend Dr. John, in his first Strawberry appearance. With Lucinda Williams, Mark O'Connor and Son Volt already in the grid, along with the usual tasty assortment of returning Strawberry favorites and interesting new performers, that adds up to a very strong lineup that's sure to please anyone who was grumbling about a lack of star power at the Spring festival.

The full main stage schedule is now posted. Dr. John will follow Patrice Pike and Son Volt to close Friday night. Saturday, Lucinda Williams finishes an evening session that also includes Jimmy Lafave and James Hunter. Sunday night is the most acoustic, with Mark O"Connor closing the festival after sets by Dry Branch Fire Squad and The Bills.

Long time festival favorite Marley's Ghost is the Thursday night closer. Other notable names in the lineup include Joe Craven, The Saw Doctors, Harry Manx, Assembly of Dust, Samantha Robichaud, James Hand and The Wailin' Jennies.

The appearance by Dr. John, who also answers to his real name, Mac Rebennack, will be his first at Strawberry. The four-time Grammy winner fronts a hot band with his rollicking keyboards and vocals, serving up a New Orleans gumbo of R&B, roots rock, and funk.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Jenny Brook BG Festival - Review

The sprit of Candi Sawyer pervades the Jenny Brook Family Bluegrass Festival, makes it work and brings it to life. Candi, diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis six years ago appears frail, but her iron will and good taste bring off this wonderful small festival year after year. The Weston, VT Recreation Park is located about two miles north of the picturesque village of Weston where the Vermont Country Store and the Weston Playhouse provide shopping and entertainment and the Green Mountains provide atmosphere unparalleled at this time of the year. For the past seven years Candi, her husband Seth (a wonderful singer/songwriter from that fabled heart of bluegrass music – Maine) and her two young sons Mathew and Adam establish a tone that creates a magical four days.

The volunteers arrived on Wednesday, set themselves up and began to prepare the festival grounds. Trash barrels distributed, signs placed along approach roads to point the way to the festival, tents pitched, and all the details of preparing the infrastructure of a festival accomplished. At 7:00 AM Kurt on his ATM was leading RVs to spots designed to make them happy and be sure that plenty of room was available for everyone. The Jenny Brook General Store took shape with Etta and George in charge. Candi oversaw the little details, while willing volunteers wearing bright yellow T-shirts with STAFF on the back scurried about. RVers set up and looked around to greet friends who they had known from previous years or other festivals. The day dawned bright and sunny, but the weather deteriorated as time passed. At six o’clock the music kicked off as described below. The Thursday bands were all local bands heavily loaded with friends and Sawyer family members. The music leaned toward classic country and bluegrass standards – just what the early bird audience wanted.

Friday morning dawned with the threat of bad weather which continued to deteriorate. Working the gate on Friday, we continued to marvel at the dedication of bluegrass fans, as they continued to arrive between showers and moments of sunshine. Each time the sky cleared, we thought we had seen the last shower, but no luck. Harry Grant, the sound man, arrived and set up his speakers and sound board as John and Judy got their field kitchen open and serving people wonderful breakfasts and continuing through the day with burgers to full meals featuring barbecued chicken, turkey wings, pulled pork and more. Their food and bright British personalities consistently maintained a higher than ordinary standard for fair food from 6:00 AM until the music stopped around eleven at night.

The music started at noon, with Smokey Greene leading off. Now well into his late seventies, this singer/songwriter has been on the bluegrass and country music scene for about fifty years, recently with a solo act featuring classic country and his own combination of comic songs mixed with tributes to the greats of country music and his own views of a world no longer as simple and uncomplicated as the one he thinks he remembers. Popular in the northeast as well as in Florida, Smokey’s warm baritone voice and mostly sunny songs draw his many fans to the performance area. He often opens festivals and performs around the dinner hour, helping to keep some of the audience in their seats a little longer or get them their earlier.

Junior Barber and Beartracks were up next. Barber, a fine resophonic guitar player eight times nominated for Dobro player of the year at IBMA, provides his marvelous melodic playing to support Julie Hogan’s solid electric bass, sprightly movement, and strong voice. Tom Venne, Julie’s older brother, plays rhythm guitar and sings, exchanging harmony and lead with his sister, each often moving back and forth in the same song. As pleasing to the eye as to the ear, Junior Barber and Beartracks is one of those groups that never fails to remind me how deep the musical roots are in all parts of the country. Coming from near Plattsburgh, NY, near the Canadian border, this group is a delight to hear and see.

The clouds continue to scud across the sky, dark and menacing, interspersed with brief periods of sunshine. During a short stint at the gate, where Irene and I are assigned but I get a regular break to go take pictures with each one extended until I hardly show at the gate at all, we tell a woman who’s checking in that there is a shortage of programs, so we’re limiting distribution to one per carload. “At these prices, the least you can do is give each person a program,” she grumps. It never ceases to amaze me that bluegrass fans complain about the cost of festivals when they get camping and three or four days of great music for around sixty dollars a head. Some large festivals have admission tickets exceeding a hundred dollars per person, but these feature large numbers of headline bands. Compare the cost of an entire bluegrass festival to paying $80.00 to $100.00 for a seat at a rock concert held in a football stadium where binoculars are essential if you wish to even see the performers. Furthermore, bands must buy gasoline to get to festivals, often a thousand or more miles from their home base. Promoters are, therefore, squeezed between attendees yammering to keep costs to rock bottom and bands needing to make a living.

Lynn Morris had a stroke several years ago and has only recently been able to return to performing despite finding it difficult to find the words and to play. The Lynn Morris Band took the stage next. Husband Marshall Wilborn, one of the great bass players in the history of bluegrass, provides vocal and emotional support to his wife while always maintaining his incredible beat and intricate bass play. David McLaughlin on mandolin, who also plays with Seneca Rocks and Springfield Exit, contributed his fine playing and voice as well as continuously supportive presence. Ned Luberecki on banjo contributed his wonderful radio voice, humor, and fine leads and backup. Lynn Morris, struggling and inspiring, stands as a tribute to fighting against adversity and working to overcome physical and emotional trauma to perform the music they love. It is impossible not to see the connection between Lynn Morris and Candi Sawyer as each woman works to keep bluegrass growing and alive.

The Lynn Morris Band is followed by Linda and Butch Ralph’s band Family and Friends. Their classic country sound and familiarity to the crowd here always evoke a strong response. Linda and Ralph are also vendors, representing Martin Guitars at their Danby Four Corners Music booth.

The Gibson Brothers now take the stage in the spotlight next to last position for the afternoon. They will also close the evening show. Each of their last three CDs has hit the top of the bluegrass charts, and they have now had a music video playing regularly on CMT as well. With their roots in the northernmost reaches of New York, the old family farm lies only a mile or two south of the Canadian Border, this band represents what is best in bluegrass music and receives wide play on satellite radio where, according to Ned Luberecki, they are requested and very well received. Eric and Leigh Gibson’s voices blend a harmony so perfect it is often difficult to know which one is singing lead They are also extremely talented songwriters, whose works like Callie’s Reel, The Barn Song, and Railroad Line evoke love and the loss of the rural lifestyle, striking both the head and heart. Eric is one of the few lead singers who can pick intricate licks on his banjo while singing in his clear high tenor voice. He is one of the most under-rated banjo players in the business. Leigh’s voice and strong rhythm guitar exchange leads with his brother in an always tasteful and exciting fashion. Together they are dynamite and the audience always responds to them. Their music clearly belongs in bluegrass, although its links to classic country, rock, and blues create an appeal that is broader than bluegrass alone. Mike Barber, Junior’s son, has been with the Gibsons since the start, a rock on bass. Clayton Campbell on fiddle, often going inside himself to wind his tones around and through the songs, and Rick Hayes on mandolin each work closely with the others to create a unique and affecting wall of sound. Even though it is sometimes now pouring, the music continues and the folks stay, now mostly under the two large tents. An occasional lightening flash or a rumble of thunder can be seen and heard, usually in the distance.

In the evening program, Leroy Troy is added to the lineup with one performance on Friday and one on Saturday. Troy has greatly reduced his festival appearance since he has joined the regular cast of the show at the RFD TV Theater in Branson, MO. This is sad news for fans as Troy is a sure crowd pleaser, but good news for him, because he now has a steady gig in a popular place. Leroy Troy performs as a single on banjo seated before two microphones. He plays old time songs with a deep Tennessee accent and hillbilly patter. I’ve talked to him several times, and it’s impossible to tell whether he just stays in character or if what you see is really the man himself. Regardless, his playing, reminiscent of Uncle Dave Macon is a virtuoso display of what clawhammer banjo can look and sound like. On standards like Grandfather’s Clock and Make My Skillet Good and Greasy, he plays both ends of the banjo at once while twirling and spinning it in the air. He’s very good and the crowds eat it up.

The evening continues to threaten, erupt, partially clear, and get colder. None of this deters the enthusiasm that the Gibsons create in their closing show. The warmth and energy created by the band communicate themselves to the audience who stay until the end and then disperse either to bed or for a late night of jamming. Despite the weather, it has been a fine day.

Saturday dawns chilly but promising. During the night temperatures have dropped into the low forties, but the front that’s been forcing its way through may take its leave today. The campground appears full, but campers continue to arrive and are shoe-horned into place by Curt Barnes, who is busily leading them to their camping sites, covering the grounds in his four wheel ATV. His daughter Becky, a delightful nearly seventeen year old has replaced me completely at the ticket booth, freeing me to take pictures and visit with the bands. It would impossible to run this festival, or any other for that matter, without the enthusiastic support of the volunteers. Jenny Brook is special, however, for the hard work and devotion to Candi Sawyer shown by them.

The Gibson Brothers are the second act in the lineup this morning, despite having closed the night before. The come on with energy and enthusiasm and get the crowd moving again. Buddy Merriam and Back Roads follow. We had seen Buddy Merriam’s band about eighteen months ago opening for the Gibson Brothers in Lexington, MA. This weekend he sounded and looked better. The addition of a female singer to his band gave it a richer sound. His bass player, Ernie Sykes, Jr., brings broad experience, a good voice and solid beat and a sense of humor to the band. He also was the last musician hired by Bill Monroe to be a Blue Grass Boy, an important element for Merriam, since he seems often to be trying to channel Monroe in his presentation. At Jenny Brook Merriam played four sets and made an important musical contribution to the festival, playing the last set on Sunday.

Each time I hear the Seth Sawyer Band I’m more impressed. The band is solid with Dave Olomoski on mandolin and Darryl Smith on banjo both contribute solid instrumentals and vocal flourish. Candi Sawyer on bass provides a steady bass. The gem, of course, is Seth, whose voice ranks up there with the likes of Junior Sisk. He leans out over his guitar and fixes the audience with his piercing blue eyes as his interpretations of other people’s songs and his own song writing cut right to the heart. His song “Green Mountain Girl” dedicated to Candi and sung to her on the stage can’t be resisted.

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys arrived from a gig in Kentucky just on time to take the stage. They were well worth the wait. Davis plays a hard driving Monroe Style mandolin and also introduces his audience to older sounds like those of Charlie Poole and Deford Bailey, the first black performer at the Grand Ol’ Opry who appeared from 1927 – 1941. By placing his own hard driving style into a tradition going way back beyond Monroe, Davis educates his audience while entertaining them. In a festival dominated by northeastern bands, Davis provided a perfect sound and flavor that enriched the festival. At many southern festivals we attend, his sound would blend in with other less able hard driving bands. At Jenny Brook, his efforts really paid off in audience appreciation and excitement. His band, especially Owen Saunders on fiddle and lead singer and guitarist Adam Duke as was Marty Hays on bass and vocals.

A highlight of Saturday afternoon was the appearance of Erin Gibson LeClair accompanied by her brothers and Mike Barber. Erin, as Eric and Leigh’s younger sister, grew up with music and it shows. While having opted to stay home in northern New York to raise a family and teach school, Erin has deprived bluegrass music of her marvelous voice. On gospel songs her clear voice and obvious sincerity are sure fire winners. Erin’s performance of The Lighthouse can be heard on the Gibson Brothers CD Bona Fide. She’d be welcome on more of their cuts.

Saturday evening vamped into a rising crescendo as Leroy Troy kicked off another set followed by a rousing performance by David Davis and the Warrior River Boys and leading to a resounding climax by the Gibson Brothers. Even as the temperature dropped into the forties, the stars came out and the excitement reached wonderful levels. As the Gibsons finished their two encore songs, everyone went home happy.

Candi Sawyer solves the Sunday problem by returning to a family format. The morning opened with Mike Robinson and his wife Mary leading a particularly satisfying bluegrass gospel sing with high attendance, enthusiastic singing, and a brief but poignant message emphasizing the lack of certainty in a life without faith. The Right Path Gospel Band followed with a gospel set and then Buddy Merriam returned for another set. The Jenny Brook Kids, who had been practicing all weekend, then took the stage. These youngsters show that bluegrass music appeals to the younger set and that the future of the music is assured.

They were followed by the Seth Sawyer Band again. During this set, Candi, who had been working hard all weekend finally gave in and had to leave the stage. With the support of her family and friends backstage, she rallied and by the end of the festival was able to walk out to where the forty of fifty people remaining were arrayed in a large circle for the traditional Jenny Brook ending, the singing of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” As Candi came out and joined the circle, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Her courage and positive view of life triumphed over her physical weakness, inspiring all who were there. With the final refrain of “in the sky Lord, in the sky” we all hugged or shook hands and Jenny Brook was over for another year.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

New generation assembles for Grey Fox

One of the highlights of Merlefest this year was when several of the so-called "new generation" string bands jammed together in a special show hosted by The Duhks. Look for an even bigger gathering of these young bands at the upcoming Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (July 19-22, Ancramdale NY).

The festival has just released its stage schedule, and the new generation is all over it. For example, on Friday afternoon beginning at 1 pm, you can see The Duhks, The Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still and Uncle Earl one after the other. The last is listed as an Uncle Earl Jam, so expect to see members of all those bands playing together.

On Saturday, there's an official Uncle Duster combination--that's a merger Uncle Earl and The Infamous Stringdusters. Recently at Strawberry, the Dusters and Crooked Still collaborated in a set this blog dubbed as Still Infamous. Maybe there will also be a reprise of that grouping.

Besides those four acknowledged new-generation bands, lots more breakout young bands are in the Grey Fox lineup--The Wilders, Biscuit Burners, Bearfoot Bluegrass, The Greencards, The Waybacks and Red Stick Ramblers. Also, one of the most celebrated groups of young acoustic talent, Nickel Creek, closes the main stage on Friday night in one of the band's final performances. Expect Nickel Creek's Chris Thile to be on call for some of the other new generation sets.

Besides all the young talent, the festival also features newgrass superstars Sam Bush, Bela Fleck (with Abigail Washburn's Sparrow Quartet) and Rowan & Rice, as well as some of the biggest names from the traditional side of the bluegrass spectrum--Marty Stuart, Mountain Heart, Claire Lynch, Doyle Alexander and Michael Cleveland. Dry Branch Fire Squad will play its accustomed role as festival host band.

This unparalleled lineup will give fans of all styles of bluegrass much to cheer about, but for those tracking the emergence of the new generation there is no better festival to attend this summer.

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Telluride Vignette

I had some serious technical issues Saturday and Sunday that shut down any blog posts. My impressions of Saturday night and Sunday will be forthcoming. In the meantime, here's a group of guys waiting in line for the tarp run on Thursday morning.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

More on Saturday in Telluride

By Saturday the momentum of the Festival schedule is fully charged and aimed at one target - maximum enjoyment.

I started off with a visit to Elk's Park for one of the many workshops organized by Planet Bluegrass. This session, on songwriting, featured Ron Block (of Alison Krauss' Union Station), Emmylou Harris, and Peter Rowan presenting an hour of chat and performances. It's a small setup at the bottom of a natural slope. Although the soundman was having issues, the intimacy of the setting more than made up for it.

Emmylou Harris

The Elk's Park audience. Stage is under white shelter at right.

I cut my stay a little short in order to hoof it up the street for Festival Preview favorite Sarah Jarosz. She's one of the many young talents Planet Bluegrass is so successful at finding. A multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, the teenaged Sarah has played on the main stage with Tim O'Brian as a 'tweener, short performances to take up the time between acts. Today was her debut as a full-fledged artist on the main stage. Accompanied by mandolinist Mike Marshall and cellist Ben Sollee, Sarah once again wowed the crowd with her mature-beyond-her-years instrumental, vocal and songwriting chops. According to her MySpace page, Sarah hasn't got a record deal. After her impressive performance today, that's bound to change.

Sarah Jarosz and Ben Sollee

There's a stratospheric talent level at TBF represented by the certified genius Edgar Meyer. Not content to redefine double bass in acoustic string music as the timekeeper for Strength in Numbers, he's active in classical and jazz circles, too. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between genres, as in the classical CD "A Short Trip Home", that features classical violinist Joshua Bell and bluegrass mando legend Sam Bush. Add to that list Chris Thile, who joined Meyer for an acoustic duet that explored lots of new harmonic and melodic territory. It may have been a little abstract for the early afternoon crowd (an completely out of reach for the dancers, but for those who listened it was an engaging experience.

Edgar Meyer - maybe the best bass player alive

Next up - the John Cowan Band. Johnny has been a part of the Telluride experience since the very early years as part of the legendary New Grass Revival. A capable bassist with a world class tenor, Cowan has gradually emerged from the shadow of New Grass to become a band leader with the confidence and gravitas to arrange a ten-member "clusterpluck" in mid set by inviting the Infamous String Dusters on stage for a long, loose rendition of the Louis Jordan classic, "Caledonia".

John Cowan

Jeff Austin & Ben Kaufmann of Yonder Mountain String Band

Colorado jamgrass favorites Yonder Mountain String Band followed John Cowan to close the afternoon's schedule with their brand of eclectic covers and straight up, rocking originals. Spiced up with new tunes, the YMSB setlist still clung to their tried-and-true formula of attacking acoustic standards with post-punk sensibilities. The addition of guest fiddler Darol Anger is always a stimulus for excellence from the Yonder boys, and they responded to the adoration of the crowd with a maturity they didn't have a few years ago. Even frontman Jeff Austin's histrionics have calmed, making me wonder if someone found a cure for what I think of as "Austinette's Syndrome", although someone once suggested Austin as a poster child for "spazmatic bluegrass".

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Colorado Bluegrass Day

Saturday at the Festival was a particularly special day - the Governor, Bill Ritter, proclaimed June 23 Colorado Bluegrass Day.


June 23, 2007

WHEREAS, for approximately two decades Planet Bluegrass has staged a music festival with the express goal of using renewable energy to help protect our environment while producing a world-class festival;

and WHEREAS, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is powered entirely by renewable energy, offsetting 100 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions created by the traveling attendees of the concert, or “Festivarian Travel”;

and WHEREAS, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival will host world-renowned musicians, as well as contests, workshops, jugglers, clowns, and many more fun-filled activities that will continue day and night for the entirety of the festival;

and WHEREAS, Planet Bluegrass has exerted countless hours and immeasurable efforts to create a unique, environmentally friendly festival in a naturally beautiful location, not only for the people of Colorado, but for those that have traveled from across the country and from other nations;

and WHEREAS, the State of Colorado appreciates the tireless work of Planet Bluegrass to protect and sustain the environment, while giving the people of Colorado an incredible celebration to attend;

Therefore, I, Bill Ritter, Jr., Governor of Colorado, do hereby proclaim June 23, 2007, BLUEGRASS DAY in the State of Colorado.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Telluride Bluegrass Festival - Friday Afternoon, Friday Evening

I'm so old I remember when Alison Krauss was just a fiddlin' teen phenom in the bluegrass world making her TBF debut at a very tender age, 14? 15?. There's been others since, of course, but few with as much native genius as Chris Thile. With the Watkins siblings Sara and Shawn, a prepubescent Thile turned Nickel Creek into an acoustic force to be reckoned with. Now that he's grown he naturally wants to take his talent along another path, hence Nickel Creek's impending hiatus, hence his new release "How to Grow a Woman From the Ground Up", and hence this appearance at TBF with his new band.

Chris Thile

But even with three stellar backups, Leftover Salmon grads Noam Pickelny and Greg Garrison, and the typically superb Bryan Sutton, Thile's new direction toward the pop side seems to be more a tentative probe than a full-blown leap. I imagine it's tough to find a new voice after so many (and so important) years with the same band mates. There's clearly a major talent seeking to redefine itself, but that definition hasn't been written just yet.

Guster debuted on a hot afternoon with their brand of neo-acoustic pop, and made a pretty good impression. The band boasts competent electric and acoustic skills and solid vocal harmonies, if a little skimpy on catalog. They did have the presence of mind to invite Bela Fleck to the stage for a tune. Trying to cozen up to the crowd, Guster performed it's first ever single mic encore, and made a respectable presentation of it, too.

Guster's 1st Single Mic Encore

Another first happened after the Guster set, when Rashad Eggelston and Ben Sollee took the chairs for a dual cello 'tweener.

Rashad Eggelston and Ben Sollee

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones are the antithesis of bluegrass, and yet this audience keeps welcoming this warped quartet back into its loving arms. There's a serious range of acceptable musical styles at TBF, one that bewilders newcomers and sometimes gives oldtimers pause.

Bassist Victor Wooten from the Flecktones

The Flecktones, though, aren't everyone's cup of tea. During their set, I was taking my turn in "the line to form the line" for the next day's tarp run. this task consists mostly of huddling in a lawn chair on the banks of the San Miguel river and trying to not die of hypothermia, but it does give you a chance to hear a lot of conversations. To my right was a largish group of friends talking about Bela's set, which could be heard even over the rushing waters. Money quote, to a new arrival's question about the Flecktone's set, "Well, you know Bela. He's been playing the same tune for the past hour."

And then we were treated to the rare pleasure of a live set by Los Lobos, the tightest rock band to take a stage. Mixing up blues, rock, salsa, cumbria and throwing in stunning covers of Allman Brothers (One Way Out), Grateful Dead (Bertha) and Neil Young (Cinnamon Girl) tunes rocked the still-sizeable crowd. The closers at TBF aren't just throwaway bands for the mindless party 'round the clock element. Craig Ferguson and his staff have chosen a significant roster of talent well worth losing sleep to hear. Los Lobos is certainly a great example of that.

Los Lobos Takes the stage

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Telluride Bluegrass Festival - Friday Morning

There's a particular vibe to Friday mornings at the Fest. It's only the second day, nobody's too tired from the festival and nightgrass shows, and there's still plenty of beer in the campgrounds. The land rush is a high speed event with lots of calories expended by light-footed sprinters exhaling a whole lot of carbon dioxide (if the runner is vegetarian is that carbon-neutral?). Here's little poorly-shot video. Soundtrack courtesy of the TBF crew.


Once the tarps are thrown and the lawn furniture arranged it's time for tunage. Today's schedule opened with the winners of last year's band contest, Greensky Bluegrass. Fronted by Dave Bruzza, this classic quartet has excellent technical chops and a good sense of material. There's no standout musician in the group, but they play tight, fast traditional and original tunes with confidence.

Michael Devol, bass, and Dave Bruzza, guitar, Greensky Bluegrass.

The Infamous Stringdusters took command of the morning stage with a potent set of mostly original pieces from their recent CD "Fork in the Road". Including survivors of the fine Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band, the Stringdusters have a smooth stage presence organized around a quasi-single mic setup that keeps bassist/vocalist in motion as the harmonies shift among the front players. I've been paying particular attention to these boys for a while now: they get my vote for Most Improved (so far)

Jeremy Garret, Travis Book and Chris Hall of the Infamous Stringdusters.

You can always count on Mike Marshall to take the mandolin places Bill Monroe wouldn't think much of. In this case, travel plans included Brazil and its intricate choro music. Marshall brought along a friend this time, Hamilton de Holanda, for a fascinating set. Choro isn't exactly what the crazed hippie dancer might expect, but it's exactly what the take-all-comers attitude at TBF demands.

Hamilton de Holanda and Mike Marshall

Jerry Douglas is an undisputed string master. With others he effortlessly switches between graceful support and challenging lead, but with his own band he just indulges himself in a completely entertaining way. His band, with the same members as last year, easily changes from Weather Report to Johnny Cash while still mastering Earl Scruggs without breaking a sweat. Wih fiddler Luke Bulla on vocals and Guthrie Trapp adding his distinctive guitar and mando, The Jerry Douglas Band is more than an indulgence. If Douglas ever decides to leave Alison Krauss's Union Station, he's got a terrific fall back position.

Jerry Douglas and Guthrie Trapp

On Thursday Evening. . .

Nostalgia is recalling the fun without reliving the pain. - unknown

Typically, Thursday evening at a four day festival is booked for those up-and-coming acts that can deliver more than the 40 minute set, or perhaps a major name who's just passing through on the way to a big main stage on Friday or Saturday somewhere down the road. Last night's performances by the Telluride House Band and the evergreen Emmylou Harris completely upended that conventional wisdom.

The House Band, evolved from the Telluride Allstars sets of the '80's, boasts a density of talent so high it's a wonder we didn't witness the acoustic version of a supernova explosion lighting up our corner of the galaxy. With Darol Anger on fiddle, double Genius Grant recipient Edgar Meyer on double bass, Bela Fleck on banjo, Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Bryan Sutton contributing lead guitar and backing vocals and the King of Telluride, Sam Bush, on mando and lead vocals, the THB effortlessly ran through a stunning catalog of rarefied tunes.

Relying on the classic Strength in Numbers disc The Telluride Sessions, the House Band reinvented "Futureman" on the way to amazing the sold-out crowd with extended solos from each player. By the fifth tune of the set, John Hartford's "Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie", each member had laid out an "Oh, wow" moment, especially the meticulously creative Bryan Sutton.

A leit-motif in the midst of this is the interplay between Bela Fleck and Edgar Meyer. If you haven't heard their extraordinary "Music for Two" CD, stop reading this and go buy a copy. Fleck and Meyer play with an astonishing rhythmic and harmonic telepathy that can be overlooked in the general sound of a large ensemble. But with the THB that relationship serves as an important driver in the music's flow. In the Fleck-penned "The Lights of Home", for example, a haunting Dobro line was augmented and enhanced by Meyer's sensitivity to tempo while Fleck worked around the clockwork with elegant runs and fills.

The House Band isn't just a group of superior musicians exercising their musical rights to knock one out of the park with every tune, they're also good friends who have a great time on stage. "Ride the Wild Turkey", a Darol Anger composition that apparently refers to "animal husbandry" was an intense rendition that featured Jerry Douglas. Edgar's "The Green Slime" is a hoot and set the mood for a rollicking "Polka on the Banjo" later on. Sam Bush's reinterpretation of "The White House Blues" contributed the little jab at authority that is folk music's heritage. The set ended with an epic "Duke and Cookie" from the Strength in Numbers catalog.

I've got a page on, sort of a MySpace for people who bow toward Rosen, Kentucky five times a day. The folks over there think quite highly of traditional instrumentalists such as Rhonda Vincent and IIIrd Tyme Out and tend to disdain the newgrass elements as somehow inferior to "the way Bill woulda done it". I beg to differ.

Emmylou Harris has been a Telluride regular for years now, sometimes just taking vacations here so she can drop in on other people's sets. This time she brought along a quartet of historic importance, guitarist John Starling, Dobro master Mike Auldridge, bassists Tom Grey and Ronnie Simpkins, all former members of the Seldom Scene. Fans of Emmylou will recall she started out singing folk tunes in the clubs around the Washington, DC area, where she met and was influenced by the thriving acoustic culture nourished by the Seen.

Her set was a retrospective of her career, opening with the classics "Roses in the Snow" and "One of These Days" then veering to the pop side of things with a beautiful cover of CCR's "Stuck in Lodi Again". It's sometimes hard to remember how constant a presence Emmylou has been in the acoustic world, but when she revives Louvin Brothers standards along with James Taylor compositions the breadth of her career begins to come clear. Stories of living room jam sessions at John Starlings' house provide an innocent, historical point of view while her cover of Townes Van Zant's "Pancho & Lefty" recalls her long term relationships with outlaws and vagabonds.

Closing the set was a beautiful "John the Baptist", the classic Bill Monroe tune that brought the performance round the full circle with Sam Bush's supporting mandolin prominently featured.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Telluride Bluegrass Festival - The Avett Brothers

There's a considerable buzz among the jamgrass element about the Avett Brothers, a trio currently touring in support of their "Emotionalism" CD. I admit to being intrigued by the single live recording I've heard - the Avetts (pronounced A-vetts) seemed in the vein of other old-timey revivalists like Old School Freight Train or Old Crow Medicine Show.

(By the way, what are we going to call this emerging subgenre? Young bands that interpret old-timey music with modern song structures and sensibilities? Double-timers? Neo-timers?)

The Avetts do put on a helluva high energy stage show. There're clear punk influences in their manic rhythms and constant in-motion stage style while their instrumentation reflects roots elements expressed in the single acoustic guitar, banjo and double bass. But there's percussion, too, in the high hat and kick drum operated by one brother each. The bassist departs from tradition as well, behaving more like one of Edgar's kids than following the Mike Bubb school of acoustic bass play.

But in the end there's just not much "there" there. While their energy is spontaneous and infectious, they suffer from ragged harmonies wrapped around lyrics that range from superficial to silly. As instrumentalists they handle high speed picking reasonably well, but there's no "Oh, wow" moment, something the Telluride crowd expects at least once per set. Their hyperactive jug band style will probably gain them a considerable segment of the 20-something acoustic string music crowd, but without a little more maturity in their songcraft they'll risk relegation to a sort of Yonder Mountain String Band 2.0 category. And that's too bad, because the Avett Brothers have far more potential than that.

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TBF 2007 Thursday, Part 1

Thursday dawned cool and clear with a promise of some weather, which was fulfilled early during Crooked Still's debut set at Telluride. The faithful started lining up for the choice real estate early Wednesday and by midmorning today the line had, as expected, stretched down the street, around the corner, and another three blocks with more additions arriving by the minute. It's always a mellow crowd, serviced by junior capitalists offering coffee and cookies from the beds of their Radio Flyer wagons. Fortunately, there are way to be amused in line, like this impromptu trio.

The day's first scheduled acts posed a dilemma for your Humble Blogger - Chris Thile doing a solo opener for the first time or taking the gondola across the mountain to the Heritage Square stage set up in Mountain Village and featuring Houston Jones. Well, Thile has been thoroughly corrupted by the TBF influence and can be counted on to drop in on anybody's set - Houston Jones it is.

This California quintet includes several graduates of The Waybacks, which may give you an idea of the acoustic influences HJ presents, but there's a healthy dose of Cajun spice and blues influences as well. Former Waybacks fiddler/mandolinist Chojo Jacques joined HJ for this gig. A tiny crowd greeted the fullbore set with enthusiasm. Watch for a new CD release from Houstin Jones very soon.

Over at the Main Stage, Crooked Still took the stage for their premier in Telluride. Still relying on material from last year's "Shaken by a Low Sound" studio release, this quartet performed to an appreciative crowd that seemed to particularly enjoy cellist Rashad Eggelston's tribute to Cheeko Marks.

Next up - the Avett Brothers. There's a real anticipatory buzz for these guys.

Telluride Bluegrass Festival, Day One, Wednesday

Day One, Wednesday, June 20, 2007 - The Margarita Tour

The last leg of the drive up to the box canyon containing the Telluride Bluegrass Festival is a steep climb up a winding two lane highway, punctuated by the inevitable Colorado highway construction. But once you clear the last rise and your trajectory flattens out on the smooth valley floor, you're in a special temporal space occupied by 10,000 semi-naked campers, a few hundred musicians and crew, and a thousand or so agents of retail. Automobile traffic is scant, consisting mostly of delivery trucks. (Unless you have San Miguel county license plates or a barricade pass issued by the condo you've reserved, your car stays out of town.) The result is a town uniquely safe to walk through, even at night, even in some sort of impaired state.

Until the Fest actually starts on Thursday, the town is relatively quiet, with the bartenders and wait staff enjoying a brief respite until the festival frenzy begins to build. Wednesday is the last lull before the storm. A perfect time to conduct the annual Margarita Tour.

This year's tour included five likely candidates. Each was rated on a scale of 1 star to 5 stars, and the assessment considered such factors as grade of tequila, proportionality of the ingredients, the sweet to sour ratio, the presence or absence of artificial sugars or syrups, and the finish.

The Broken Dollar is reported to be under new ownership, and perhaps that explains the Buck's dismal contribution to this year's tour. The mix is poured straight from commercially prepared ingredients, including one element from an aluminum can. The mix ends up being too sweet by far, a syrupy orange-ade base into which indetectable amounts of Jose Cuervo are poured. A disappointing experience. By taste alone I might have rated this cocktail two stars, but pricing it at $6, the same as superior competitors, knocks is down. * 1/2.

Smugglers is a popular brewpub off the main foot traffic pathways, but worth the trek for its hearty menu and 12 handcrafted beers. They make a pretty fair Margarita, too. Served in the classic pint glass, the mix is a pale green garnished with fresh lime wedges. The price meets the Telluride average at $6, but I found the appreciable level of tequila was inadequate, resulting in a pleasant but watery mix. ***

My favorite bar to visit is the New Sheridan Bar. It's a beautifully maintained historic location that boasts a fine pool hall in addition to a magnificent bar and backbar that complements the pressed tin ceiling. In years past, the New Sheridan easily trounced the competition in the quality of Margarita, but for the second consecutive year this venerable watering hole has fallen short.

The cocktail was served in a pint glass with fresh lime wedges. The mix was nicely tart and finished with a crisp aftertaste. The well tequila was Jose Cuervo, which made for a fairly typical Margarita experience. A little pricey at $6.50, this sample on the tour gathers ***.

O'Bannon's Irish Pub is still a funky little blasphemous basement where patrons sit at an altar recycled from a Catholic church of the old style. Travis, last year's winning bartender, was again on duty for this year's event, and served up the same high quality recipe as in 2006. The serving sizes are a bit light compared to the standard pint, but are still an excellent bargain at $3, especially considering the use of Kosher salt and Grand Marnier in the drink's construction. ****

The hands down winner this year is Las Montanas, known to old TBF hands as Sofio's, now comfortably settled into the new location. Boasting over 150 tequilas and a Menu de Tequila y Vino that can cause a virgin Visa card to burst into flames, the $6 "house marg" arrived in beautiful stemmed glass trimmed with dark blue. The cocktail has the classic rarified green color that comes only of perfect proportions. It's an elegant, simple recipe that avoids the syrupy sweetness of lesser margs by substituting a slice of fresh orange on the glass rim. The presence of good tequila balanced the tartness, resulting in a clean, smooth finish. Las Montanas takes first place in this yea's tour at **** 1/2.

And that's the Annual Margarita Tour for 2007. The 34th Annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival starts at 11:15 tomorrow morning with Chris Thile. Stay tuned.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mountain Music Meltdown - Saranac Lake, NY June 30 - July 1: Preview

Fair Warning! It’s difficult to preview an event which I myself have not been to before. It’s even harder to preview one which has no history, as there are not even comments by others to take into account. Mountain Music Meltdown, to be held in Saranac Lake, NY on June 30th and July 1st boasts a varied schedule of Americana and world music. This event is billed as “the first annual” so I hope it succeeds, as the Adirondack region is much in need of a couple more strong music festivals. This festival is promoted by Lazar Bear Productions, whose principal is Les Hershhorn.

For us, the premier attractions, when we heard of this festival, were (and remain) the appearances of Doc Watson and The Gibson Brothers on Friday. Doc Watson, at age 84, is still a wonder flat-picker on the guitar. (Do your own Google search on Doc; there’s a wealth of information and lots of it is worth looking at.) His picking style, which first made a splash during the folk revival of the sixties, is fast and accurate and his singing voice is mellow. His musical tastes range from old mountain ballads through bluegrass and blues to rock and roll. He’s played it all. As host of his own festival, the fabled Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC, which annually attracts in the neighborhood of 80,000 admissions, he has set the standard for Americana festivals. Each year we go to this remarkable event to hear old favorites and are introduced to bands we never heard before who make a deep impression on us. Doc Watson is still worth hearing and seeing on his merits as a picker/singer and a must see as an important part of music history.

The Gibson Brothers bring the tight harmonies of brothers to a delightful mix of music with their feet very deep in bluegrass, but not so embedded that their music doesn’t reflect modern tones and sensibilities. Coming from upstate (now in this case, upstate doesn’t mean “anywhere north of Westchester, but Ellenburg Depot, just south of the Canadian border) New York, these two singer/songwriter/musicians have put out three number one bluegrass albums in recent years and are becoming an increasing draw on the festival circuit around the country. In New England and New York, where they have a large following, they always draw a crowd eager to respond to their exciting singing and playing. Supported by Mike Barber on bass, Rick Hayes on mandolin, and Clayton Campbell on fiddle, this group sends out a big wall of sound that reflects all that is best in contemporary bluegrass music while still paying respect to the founders of both bluegrass and classic country.

Sven Curth opens the program on Saturday. His MySpace entry lists him as a singer/songwriter who plays guitar for a group called Jim. Curth’s sound, as sampled on his site, seems to be a nice rocky/bluesy sound complemented by interesting lyrics. It sounds like the sort of material that would be pleasant listening under the sun at the opening of an eclectic music festival. He is based in Lake Placid and performs around the Adirondacks and over into Vermont. He is followed by the George Bailey Trio, billed by Lazar as a regional bluegrass group. As this band doesn’t have a web presence, I’ll have to leave it at that. The Gibson Brothers appear at 3:30 and are followed at 5:30 by Doc Watson. These two offerings are sufficient to make the day ticket price of $50.00 worthwhile. They are followed by Tcheka from Cape Verde, Africa whose music is described as Afrofunk. A second stage provides additional music.

The Chaz dePaolo Blues Band kicks of Sunday's performance. He describes his music as “traditional blues played with a rock feel.” The two samples of his music available on his MySpace page support his assertion. He sounds, again, like an enjoyable opening act. He is followed by Ana Popovic, Yugoslavian guitar Diva. Her American debut Album, titled “Still Making History (2007) is about to be released. She comes from Belgrade, Yugoslavia and sounds good enough to me to spend some time listening to her.

I have to admit that Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen are a group that I’ve never heard, but whose name strikes some kind of chord with me, though I can’t say where or how. Their press kit says they originated at the University of Michigan during the sixties and migrated to San Francisco during the late sixties. Songs like “Hot Rod Lincoln” a talking blues and “Hawaii Blues” have a really listenable west coast sound that’s pretty sure to please. The samples on their web site suggest a strong country influence informed by the Grateful Dead. New Riders of the Purple Sage close the show on Saturday. The fact that Jerry Garcia appeared on their first album probably had no influence on them or their development. The early editions of this band also included Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead and David Nelson. Their sound is western hippie jam band – easy to listen to. Most of their recordings were released from 1974 – 1980.

This new festival looks like a very good way to spend the early part of 4th of July week. As nearly as I can tell, spending your time at this festival might well provide a good deal of enjoyment. As I listened to sound clips in preparing this preview, I was impressed and enjoyed the music. Mountain Music Meltdown will be held on the North Country Community College soccer field in Saranac Lake, NY on June 30th and July 1st. You can by tickets on line for $75.00 advance or can get them at the gate for $80.00. Day tickets are $45.00 and $50.00. Food vendors and a beverage tent will be available. Bring your lawn chairs or blankets. You can buy tickets here. You can find Saranac Lake here. For my taste, Doc Watson and The Gibson Brothers offer the most exciting part of this new festival, but there’s good diversity here and lots of surprises in store.