Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Memorable moments from Strawberry Spring '07

Here in no particular order is my selection of 18 memorable moments from Strawberry Spring 2007. Feel free to contribute your own in the comments.

Red on Blonde. Rita Hosking introed "Angelina Farewell" by calling Bob Dylan "the father of bluegrass." He might well have been considering the number of Dylan covers we heard during the festival. Besides Hosking, Gandalf Murphy offered an interesting "Gates of Eden" and Crooked Still included "Oxford Town." Tim O'Brien showcased a lot of the material from his 2000 "Red on Blonde" album, including "Tombstone Blues," "Everything is Broken," "Forever Young," "Man Gave Names to All the Animals," and "Lay Down Your Weary Tune."

Respect for the Bassman. Three-Ring Circle was impressive as the Thursday night closer. Not many in the audience were familiar with the group, but at least one band member was plenty familiar with Strawberry. Dobro hotshot Rob Ickes, who grew up in Millbrae in the Bay Area, described his experiences attending the very first Strawberry as well as the sleet-filled 1988 spring fest. Bass player Dave Pomeroy stole the show with his great "The Day the Bass Players Took Over the World," which he introduced by noting that of all of Bill Monroe's original Bluegrass Boys, only bassist Howard Watts (also known as Cedric Rainwater) is not in the IBMA Hall of Honor.

Still lnfamous. The Infamous Stringdusters and Crooked Still confirmed Festival Preview's prediction by performing together. After swapping leads on one of Crooked Still's standards, Aoife O'Donovan stepped off the stage to give room for all the "boy energy" on a rousing rendition of "Cold Joe Lark," in which the nine pickers tore into the modified bluegrass standard.


Strange Bedfellows. On first glance, J.D. Crowe and Utah Phillips would seem to have little in common. Despite his role as a pioneer of progressive bluegrass music, Crowe and his band are from the traditional end of the spectrum, while Phillips is an unreconstructed lefty. But I had forgotten that one of Crowe's best-known songs, "Rock, Salt and Nails," is a Phillips composition. I also forgot Utah's given name, Bruce, until Crowe paid tribute to him using his real name.

Where's Earl? One of these years, Strawberry will put Uncle Earl in the lineup and the all-girl old-timey band will be a huge hit. This festival, the band's guitar/vocal/clogger Kristin Andreassen served as an advance party by appearing as a guest with Crooked Still on the main stage and at Birch Lake. Turns out she is a Watertown MA housemate of Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O'Donovan (as well as bandmate in both performers' side project, Sometimes Why, which also includes The Mammals' Ruth Ungar). Less well known but possibly more relevant to her Strawberry appearance is her close friendship with Infamous Stringdusters' guitarist Chris Eldridge.

Enigmatic Iris. Iris Dement sung sweetly but without a lot of personality. She seemingly was disturbed with the electric keyboard set up for her when she is accustomed to playing on an acoustic piano. Nevertheless, I enjoyed hearing a number of songs I hadn't heard before. A couple were from her recent "church-y" CD, but a couple others were apparently unrecorded and were in the mold of her early biographical songs. One called "The Night I Learned Not to Pray," about a girl's reaction to her brother's accidental death, was especially moving.

Tim's New Songs. Besides the already noted Red on Blonde trend in Tim O'Brien's three sets, we also got a chance to hear Tim trying out some newer material. At the amphitheater, he played a swingy tune with a great hook: "I cant get the fact you left me from the right side of my brain." On the main stage, he played "Where's Love Come From?" and he tried out a fine ballad, "Nothing to Say (That Hasn't Been Said)" at the Revival.

Three Amigos.For me, the unexpected element was supplied this festival by the Santa Cruz River Band, whose presentation of the greatest American adventure tale--the story of the Southwest--was fresh and interesting. "My Beloved Tucson," told in three languages, is a fine song that speaks to the multicultural heritage of the region. Many of the bands songs were performed ina style called "huapango," a polyrhythmic strum that bandleader Ted Ramirez demonstrated during a workshop.

Jump. Michael Franti quickly won over the audience with his groove and message. The highlight was the prison section of the set, especially the song of reconciliation, "Nobody Right, Nobody Wrong."

Mosh Pit. Crooked Still's Rushad Eggleston impressed with his frenetic cello virtuosity, but it was his costumes (Liberace pink on the main stage and cave-man chic at Birch Lake) that got the most notice. As the band cranked up the lake crowd for its singalong on "Shady Grove," Eggleston threw himself into the upraised arms of the fans and was passed from hand to hand through the audience. Crowd surfing is a regular feature at rock festivals, but this may have been the first instance of it at Strawberry.

The Virginians. Eddie From Ohio didn't go down as easily the second time around. The San Francisco and marijuana jokes seemed off key. But they scored a coup when Sweet Honey in the Rock, introduced as coming from their same home town in Northern Virginia, joined EFO for a full a capella chorus on "Down to the River to Pray."

African Drums. Okay, the Kusun Ensemble was interesting--the drums, the costumes, the instruments. I liked the demonstration of the levels of playing the aslatua, and how to use it to impress Canadian immigration officers. But more interesting was the Ensemble's appearance in the campgrounds Saturday night, putting on an impressive demonstration of African drumming behind Bathhouse C.

Classic Dallas. In warning about possible bears in the campground, emcee Dallas Dobro verbally riffed about a bear who got someone's brownies, but they weren't the usual kind. "They're hungry enough already," he joked.

High on the Hill and Above the Town. What's most impressive about The Infamous Stringdusters is not their adventuresome jams or their great original material, but when they stick to the bluegrass basics. At a couple of points, if you closed your eyes, you might have thought it was Monroe himself. And then they broke into one of the master's signature songs, "Uncle Pen," and earned whatever license they might want to experiment by positively nailing the classic.

Old Home Place. Speaking of classics, J.D. Crowe rolled out some of his greatest hits in a set featuring lots of material from his latest release. I've been studying the Ricky Skaggs solo on the original Crowe recording of "Old Home Place" in hopes of replicating it for the band I play with. The current mandolinist for New South, Dwight McCall, matches Ricky note for note. Needless to say, I do not.

Bum on the Plush. It was great to see Utah in good health again. His stories sweep you back to an era of hobos and Wobblies, yet have some resonance with us today. Perhaps we festival-goers are a modern version of the traveling nation. I enjoyed learning the distinction among hobos, bums and tramps. And I concur with his musical proposal: "Let's get rid of the bum on the plush not the bum on the rods."

California Suite. I'm a big Dave Alvin fan and I found his set satisfying but unamazing. For their billing, the two Chrises, Gaffney and Miller, didn't get to do very much. The set startly strongly with Alvin in his poet laureate mode on a sequence of songs about the Golden State: "King of California," "Out in California" and "Here in California," the latter by Kate Wolf.

Tim Takes a Dive. There was never any doubt that Tim O'Brien would be going in the lake. He signaled it early pointing out his new turtle t-shirt. When the moment came, he dropped his long pants, waved from the stage, jogged through the crowd to the lagoon, and dove in. After he surfaced, a whooping crowd of fans jumped in and surrounded him in the water. Later, O'Brien would close out his main stage encores and the Spring 2007 festival with one last piece from "Mr. Dylan": his reminder to be "Forever Young."

1 comment:

Bill Rehm said...

As most of us have experienced at music festivals, it's hard to see all the performers we want to see because of the multiple stages and venues taking place at the same time. I suspect that's what happened with Dan Ruby on Sunday morning at Strawberry. There was a tough choice to be made: stay at the Birch Lake Sunday morning Revival Stage and hear the end of very spirited set by Crooked Still or head over to the Main Stage and catch the Bill Evans String Summit. Ruby must have stayed at the Revival Stage. How else to explain Bill Evans being left off Festival Preview's 18 Memorable Moments list?

The Bill Evans String Summit played solid bluegrass from beginning to end, although there was long (and well-received) medlee of songs from the Beatles in the middle of their set. Fresh from a recent trip to Liverpool, where Evans made a pilgrimage to John Lennon's boyhood house, we were treated to five songs ("A Hard Day's Night", "You're Going to Make Me Feel Alright", "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away", "Nowhere Man", and "I Feel Fine") from the Fab Four.

The highlight of the set, however, came at the end when four members of the Infamous Stringdusters joined the six-member String Summit for an encore rendition of "The Wheel Hoss" by Bill Monroe. There were ten musicians on stage -- including two fiddles, two banjos, two guitars, two dobros, a mandolin, and a bass fiddle -- in a rousing, dueling finale. Now that was a memorable moment!