Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rockygrass 2007 - Saturday

Another night of rainfall gave way to a partly-clearing sky Saturday morning. After the monsoons of Friday, though, the crowd was able to lightly laugh off the chances of precipitation. Although people arrived prepared for weather, there was an expectation of sunshine, one that Saturday's schedule promised to fulfill.

The Carbon E-racer continued to gives sugar-fueled kids a chance to burn off calories and learn about going green. Today's total pounds of carbon avoided:

Bearfoot, known in their "younger" days as Bearfoot Bluegrass, is an Alaskan band making its six appearance on the Rockygrass stage. Fronted by a twin fiddle threat, this touring unit has matured nicely and now boasts a diverse repertoire that easily spans genres, classics and original tunes. And any young band that tackles the eighty-year old Carter Family classic "Single Girl" deserves a nod.

Angela and Annalisa of Bearfoot

If you can't book Tim O'Brien, some of former band mates might be willing to come along. Multi-instrumentalist and ham boning clogger Mark Schatz brought along a few friends, including fellow O'Brien alum Casey Driessen for fiddle support. Round out your list of friends with Missy Raines on bass and Jim Hurst for guitar and vocals. Schatz has always had a fondness for roots, and his set list dug pretty deep, finding such gems as "My Last Gold Dollar's Done and Gone", and "Bosco Stomp". Chris Thile was invited on stage early, and his mando definitely added to the string band aura.

Mark Schatz

When Rockygrass retained its traditional flavor, it opened a Colorado avenue for exploration of the deep roots of bluegrass and old-time. Friday's set by David Grisman's Bluegrass Experience certainly took listeners back in time to a Pre-Monroe era chock full of influences, but this set really set the dial of the Way Back Machine to the left. There may not be a single more important mandolinist in this genre than Jesse McReynolds. Celebrating 60 years in the business, his sit-down set with acolytes Sam Bush and David Grisman was an ear-opening explanation of the depth of innovation that Jesse, a "frustrated guitar player", brought to acoustic string music. His "split-string" technique gave Jesse and brother Jim a unique mando sound and fuels Jesse's career even today. With Sam Bush providing detailed technical commentary ("we have to use open tuning - Jesse just uses split-string"), the set list dug deep into the Jim and Jesse catalog and imported a wide range of standards and pop/rock tunes. Where else could you expect to hear three mandos sizzle on "Johnny B. Goode" followed by the deep traditional "Get Up, John"?

Jesse McReynolds

Claire Lynch returned Missy Raines and Jim Hurst to the stage for her relaxed, easygoing set. Avoiding the technical pyrotechnics of others on the bill, Claire mixed original pop-flavored bluegrass numbers with swing and Cajun tunes that kept a sizable number of dancers busy. Ably assisted by Jason Thomas on mando and fiddle, her set was a refreshing breather that coincided with a clearing of the skies above Planet Bluegrass.

Claire Lynch

If it's Saturday at Rockygrass, it must be time for the annual appearance by the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band. When the King of Telluride makes his first mando chop on the Lyons stage there's an undeniable excitement that quickly accelerates to bluegrass bliss. Maybe there's something to that "power of positive thinking" thing - minutes before Bush's anticipated opening, the clearing skies allowed spectacular views of a perfectly full moon rising over Planet Bluegrass in what Sam called "a curly maple sky".

"a curly maple sky"

But it's always the tunes that keep the crowd on its feet. Running through a catalog of his solo work, featuring "Ridin' that Bluegrass Train" and "Georgia Mail", Bush mixed in classic sources such as The Dillards and the Country Gentlemen. Even five-stringer Scott Vestal added a touch with his instrumental, "By Stealth".

Sam Bush

This 17 tune set had some incredible peak moments. Guitarist Steve Mougin repeatedly nailed solos and contributed a fine vocal for "They Tell Me Your Love is Like a Flower". Byron House proved beyond all doubt that he is a rhythm master with his bass dominating and uniting the eccentric tempos of John Hartford's "On the Road". And finally, "Howlin' at the Moon" could not have been played at a better time, place, or pace.

Of course, with any Sam Bush festival experience there's bound to be crowded encores. Chris Thile, Casey Driessen, Gabe Witcher, David Grisman, Mark Schatz, Sean Watkins and an unknown Dobro player crowded the stage for dual encores, "Nine Pound Hammer" and "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms". An extra-length set closed what has to be the climax of Rockygrass 2007.

Until tomorrow, that is.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Powered by ScribeFire.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Rockygrass 2007 - Friday

Day One at Rockygrass.

Rain threatened rain all morning, and made good most of the afternoon, usually at the beginning of must-see sets. This didn't deter attendance or the crazed hippie dancers, who seemed to relish their mud-spattered dance hall.

Rain Dancers

Miscellany -

T Shirt of the Day - "National Sarcasm Society - Like We Need Your Support"

Booth of the Day - The Carbon E-Racer is a demonstration booth designed to show how much carbon emission can be reduced by bicycles instead of cars. Using a ratio of 5 gallons of gasoline for each 100 miles biked, this interactive booth runs a tally board showing how much carbon would not have been added to the atmosphere for the number of miles their stationery bike was pedaled. Watch for daily updates.

Carbon E-Racer Tally Board

My day began with a the debut set by Sierra Hull & Highway 111. This talented teen is the current holder of the "Wow-She's-So-Young-And-Talented" vibe in the acoustic string and bluegrass world. And she does deserve a certain amount of awe for natural gifts and mature stage presence. She played a straight-up traditional set complete with perky stage banter, traditional arrangements, religious references and nasal vocals. Her bassist, Edgar Loudermilk, played his last set this morning, departing for a slot with IIIrd Tyme Out.

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Brian Simpson of Cadillac Sky

FP favorite Cadillac Sky fired up the afternoon schedule with a frenetic set charged with incendiary fiddle, snugly-fitting high speed harmonies, excellent songcraft and relentlessly upbeat patter. No longer just another radio-friendly bluegrass band from Texas, CS has now taken on a unnecessarily gimmicky persona, dressing in green flight suits that lead to the inevitable joke, "Hi, we're Kenny Loggins and the Danger Zone." Perhaps the association with Skaggs Family Records had something to do with the infusion of schlock, but in any case these guys are too talented and too improved to play the clown card. A highlight of the set was an extended bass-and-banjo classical interlude that lead into a beautiful "Blind Man Walking". Judging by the partial standing ovation at set's end, Cadillac Sky gained a new popularity.

Next up, the Kruger Brothers returned to the Rockygrass stage for an impeccable set of classically-oriented tunes and suites. The Swiss-born Brothers (hey, it's still mountain music) are excellent technical players with a low-key but thoroughly entertaining vibe. Every time I've had the pleasure of seeing these guys, the Brothers have made new friends. Today certainly was no exception.

Uwe Kruger

As the afternoon drew on toward evening, Chris Thile and How to Grow a Band took the stage for their farewell performance. As I noted in my review of their Telluride set, HTGAB has an uncertain feel to its sets, as if the band is still trying to realize its immense potential. Any unit matching the unquestionable talents of Chris Thile with guitarist Bryan Sutton, banjoist (is it banjo-IST and BAN-joist?) Noam Pickelny, and his fellow Leftover Salmon alum Greg Garrison on bass has an embarrassing surplus of raw talent. And yet HTGAB can't seem to quite jell, resulting in a manic-depressive set that soars way, way up and sinks way, way down.

Chris Thile & Noam Pickelny Play Their Last Set as How to Grow a Band

Sadly, we won't see this potential realized. This afternoon's set was the swan song for this theoretical super group of young pickers. In an unintentional irony, Thile introduced a tune from his solo CD, "The Deceiver" saying, he "clearly should have recorded with these guys." Yeah, he probably should have. If he had HTGAB would have time to become a much better band.

Although billed as the Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet, Bryan Sutton remained on the stage after the Thile set, to replace a mysteriously-missing Tony Rice (still no explanation for the substitution). This turned out to be an auspicious replacement. The Quartet delivered an impressive set, vastly improved over their Telluride performance. New bassist Catherine Popper seems to have settled into her role, replacing Bryn Davies with a pure rhythmic technique that complements mando player Sharon Gilchrist's chops very effectively. The single sour note came when Rowan launched "Cold Rain & Snow", which heralded the start of the afternoon's rainfall (the power of music, huh?). The band has clearly been rehearsing vocals, too, as their vocal harmonies now boast a soaring weightlessness, particularly in the iconic "In the Pines". Sutton's guitar style, distinctly different from Rice's, nevertheless raised the bar to a level of excellence that should daunt the rest of this weekend's acts.

Peter Rowan and Catherine Popper

Returning to the Rockygrass stage after an unnecessarily-long absence, David Grisman brought his son, Sam, on bass, and an eclectic ensemble to exhibit his Bluegrass Experience. Much as I like the Quintet, I have to say that Grisman returning to his bluegrass and old-time roots is very welcome. Gris' knowledge of roots music informed a wide-ranging set that included Carter Family originals and dawg music standards. For the encore, Grisman orchestrated a massive clusterpluck involving Chris Thile, Sara Jerosz, and numerous others.

David Grisman's Clusterpluck Encore

Friday's finale featured the excellent Del McCoury Band, still, by anyone's standards, the best traditional bluegrass band performing today. Del doesn't change much, preferring a winning set list and stage style. "Traveling Teardrop Blues" made an early appearance, followed by DMB standards "Never Grow Up Boy", "Blackjack County Chain", "Cheek to Cheek with the Blues", and "1958 Vincent Black Lightning." If you've seen one Del show, you've probably seen them all, and yet his performances, backed by sons Ronnie on mando and Robbie on banjo, never go stale or cliche. There's a goofy energy in Del's banter that offsets the typically-tragic subjects of his tunes. Del McCoury always reminds me of Rev. Jeff Mosier's description of the first time he heard bluegrass, describing it as people "playing happy music with sad faces." Throw in an encore featuring David Grisman and Chris Thile and you have three of the best mando players alive on stage. It's hard to get much better than that.

Ronnie and Del McCoury

(Props and credit to The Stone Cup, who provide fine dark-roasted coffee and free wifi. Thanks, Mindy & Sam. Remember, Friends Don't Let Friends Drink Starbucks)

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Powered by ScribeFire.

Friday, July 27, 2007

RockyGrass 2007

The 35th RockyGrass kicked off on a wet Friday morning following a night of steady, drought-busting rain. Although tents and camps were exposed to the deluge, the enthusiasm for the fest wasn't dampened. A sold-out festival of 3,500 warmed up early for the Friday land rush and tarpage competition.

Today's schedule starts easy with Long Road Home, an up-and-coming young band contest winner. Teen phenom Sierra Hull and Highway 111 follow to round out the morning. The afternoon schedule kicks off with FP favorite Cadillac Sky, with the Kruger Brothers and Chris Thile's How to Grow a Band rounding out the afternoon.

Evening sets start with Peter Rowan and Tony Rice Quartet, build with David Grisman's Bluegrass Experience, and the peak with the grand finale of the Del McCoury Band.

The electronic amenities at RockyGrass aren't quite as cool as Telluride, but expect to see daily reports and pix throughout the weekend.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

Powered by ScribeFire.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

MerleFest spokeswoman responds

Discussion board posters who are concerned about management changes at MerleFest "are speculating on topics they are not directly involved with and do not represent the facts," according to Christie Hutchens, public information officer for Wilkes Community College and MerleFest.

Hutchens contacted Festival Preview today to correct several facts and respond to yesterday's item about online discussions on the MerleFest message board. She said the college does not comment about personnel matters and thus would not address concerns about three former staff members who have recently left the organization.

Regarding the influence of Lowe's Companies in festival management, Hutchens wrote, "Lowe’s Companies involvement with the festival is as a sponsor and the company is not involved with planning, programming, and personnel decisions."

She added that Lowe's has supported Wilkes Community College for more than 40 years, and has been a sponsor of MerleFest for eight years. "As a result of that successful partnership and long-standing relationship the company became the presenting sponsor of MerleFest in 2007," Hutchens wrote.

Regarding the current management team, she wrote that festival executive B Townes continues to guide festival planning and leads the programming team. "The entire MerleFest staff remains committed to the MerleFest core values, including a commitment to the music of Doc and Merle Watson, which Doc has always referred to as 'traditional plus,'” Hutchens wrote.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

MerleFest management shakeup

By Dan Ruby

Note: This is an updated version of an item originally posted on July 24, based on corrected information from several sourcers.

Posters on the MerleFest discussion board are raising alarms about the future direction of the 20-year-old festival in the wake of recent departures by three key staff members. Since the most recent MerleFest last April, artistic director Claire Armbruster, marketing director Art Menius and volunteer coordinator Nancy Watson (no relation to festival godfather Doc Watson) have each left the organization, possibly less than willingly.

MerleFest is owned and operated by Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro NC, which is also the site of the festival. The festival was founded in 1986 by Frederick B Townes, then a horticulture professor at the college and now its director of development. Townes is also the executive director of MerleFest.

Two years ago, the festival promoted Ted Hagaman to the position of managing director. According to some of the disgruntled long-time attendees posting on the discussion board, Hagaman has been the driving force behind what's seen by many as MerleFest's increasing commercial orientation.

Hagaman, a former executive for the festival's presenting sponsor, Lowe's Companies, who has a background in auto-racing marketing, had been on the college and festival staff for a number of years before his promotion.

Several of the discussion-board posters have pointed to Hagaman's management style and vision for the festival as the reasons for the departures of long-time staffers. It is unknown whether any of the departures were outright dismissals, or if they were voluntary.

The 2007 festival was the first with Lowe's as presenting sponsor, a designation that puts the sponsors name into the name of the event, as in "MerleFest, Presented by Lowe's." Some posters suspect the company has influenced the direction of the festival more than is typical for festival sponsors, including getting its former executive Hagaman appointed to run the event.

The posters have questioned whether Hagaman and Lowe's share the goal of many attendees to preserve traditional music that honors the memory of Merle Watson. Instead, they worry that Hagaman will seek to include more mainstream country acts in an effort to make the event even more commercially successful.

Most of the posters acknowledge that lineup for the 2007 festival was consistent with past festivals. However, with Armbruster, Menius and Watson now gone, there is considerable concern that next year's festival will tilt in a more commercial direction.

Festival Preview will be watching and will report on any new developments.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Adventure Bluegrass on tap

From Acoustic Sound, the producers of the highly regarded Wintergrass festival, comes their much smaller summer event, Adventure Bluegrass, set for July 27-29 at the Skamania County Fairgrounds in Stevenson WA. The featured performers include Johnny Gimble, The Grascals, Cache Valley Drifters and Steep Canyon Rangers, as well as a number of bands from around the Pacific Northwest.

Okay, there are no elevator jams (Wintergrass is noted for them) on the rustic grounds, but camping is scenic and plentiful--with electricity, showers and restrooms available. The nearby Skamania Lodge is also a good lodging alternative. Besides the four stages of music, the festival includes a band competition, band scramble and all the jamming you can manage.

Newport Folk casts a wide net for 2007

The Newport Folk Festival has played a pivotal role in the history of American folk music, crystalizing important developments in the genre, such as Bob Dylan's introduction of electric instruments at the 1965 festival. In recent years, the festival has lost some of its cachet as the genre fractured into subcategories and many other festivals have competed with it for prominence.

Now presented under the banner of its lead sponsor, Dunkin' Donuts, a name that may undercut the festival's image as the home of uncompromised musical expression, the programming of recent festivals has aimed to broaden Newport's scope and lift its profile. Based on the lineup for the upcoming festival, held August 3-5 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport RI, the producers define folk music broadly to include rootsy rock and blues styles in addition to more traditional genres.

Among the possibly surprising names in the 2007 lineup are The Allman Brothers Band (scheduled for a double-length set), The North Mississippi All-Stars, jam-rock band Assembly of Dust, and Tom Morello, who is best known as the guitarist/vocalist for indie rockers Rage Against the Machine.

Understand that I have no objection to a more inclusive definition of folk. My favorite roots festivals are those that bring in an unexpected mix of styles. But it seems to be worth noting that the festival that was once considered to be the standard-setter for folk music now appears to be positioned as an eclectic roots festival.

Another notable trend in the lineup is the appearances by three prominent female vocalists, Linda Ronstadt (appearing at her first Newport in a featured opening-night concert), Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss (who has been a frequent performer since debuting at Newport as a teenager).

Besides the headliners, some of the well established performers are Alejandro Escovedo, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Cheryl Wheeler, Grace Potter & The Nocturnals and Amos Lee. Among the promising debuts are Carolina Chocolate Drops, Elvis Perkins, John Butler and Madi Diaz.

Three members of the musical Wainwright family--Martha, Sloan and Lucy--will appear in a song circle. One of the side stages will feature music from the Canadian Maritimes. Appalachian music will be represented by the great Hazel Dickens and Diana Jones, while one of the greats of traditional bluegrass, Ralph Stanley, appears with his Clinch Mountain Boys.

I will be on hand for my very first Newport Folk Festival to give my first-hand impressions and perhaps do a few artist interviews. Till then....

Once again, San Francisco celebrates the ukulele

The ukulele had precursors in Portugal and was developed in Hawaii, but it was popularized during the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Now the uke is coming home to the scene of that triumph in a festival and related museum exhibition that celebrate the history and culture of the four-stringed instrument.

The San Francisco Ukulele Festival, to be held September 7-8 at Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, will feature an opening night benefit concert by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro and a full day of performances by well-known uke-centric soloists and bands.

[Photo: Jake Shimabukuro]

For a month before and after the festival (August 2-October 21), the Museum of Craft and Folk Art presents "Evolution of the Ukulele: The Story of Hawaii's Jumping Flea," an exhibition exploring the history and fine craft of the popular instrument. Related events presented by the museum include a lecture and concert by ukulele historian John King (August 4), a demonstration of ukulele building (August 19) and a studio tour of a Berkeley CA ukulele luthier (October 13).

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

In the beginning

Unfortunately the attached image isn't legible. If you could read it, you'd see the stage schedule for the first (1976) Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival, the precursor to today's Grey Fox. Then as now, the festival presented the top names in bluegrass on the Rothvoss farm in Sullivan County NY. Check out the list of headliners: Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse, Osborne Brothers, Boone Creek, J.D. Crowe, and lots more blasts from the past.

Thanks to Rich Stillman, the banjo player in Southern Rail and long-time BMBS/Winterhawk/Grey Fox attendee, for unearthing this treasure.

Line party underway at Grey Fox

As of Monday afternoon, the line of festival-goers waiting for the Grey Fox gates to open had reached 420. Getting on line early, up to weeks in advance, is a tradition at the festival and provides an occasion for some serious celebration. Some regulars view the line party as much a part of the festival experience as anything that happens once the gates open at noon on Wednesday.

To catch some of the flavor of the line party, check out this video.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Grey Fox attendees react to rowdiness charge

Ted Lehmann's recent Grey Fox preview article provoked a considerable amount of response on the festival's email list. A number of posters took strong exception to his characterization of the audience as overly boisterous.

Bill Stempek, a festival volunteer and active poster on the list, called the article "biased and inflammatory" and took Festival Preview to task for publishing it without a balancing point of view.

"I for one am tired of those festival goers/reporters who expect the silence of St. Anne's Chapel at an outdoor summer festival. Festive is not a drunk, drug induced's excitement. Such a small minority get carried away that it barely merits mentioning," Stempek wrote.

He also corrected Lehmann's comment about volunteers getting prime camping spots, pointing out that volunteers are directed to camp in an area for non-paying attendees. (Lehmann since updated his article to correct the comment of volunteer camping.)

David Lawson pointed out that "It is a festival. People talking and wh00pin' it up goes hand in hand with any kind of live music, except maybe classical, and I have heard people screaming at the cannons going off during the 1812."

Lawson offered a simple suggestion for attendees like Lehmann who like a quieter experience. "Not trying to be condescending, [but] I might suggest learning to sleep with ear plugs," he wrote.

Glenn Soika questioned whether Lehmann was going to the right kind of festival. "No dancing at the main stage? He should stick to folk festivals," he wrote.

On the other hand, several posters backed up some of Lehmann's complaints.

"I have to say that out beyond the soundboard there are a lot of talkative rude drunk folks that talk the night away ," wrote Dave Falkner.

And Sue Rokos, chipped in to say that some of Lehmann's concerns were also "pet peeves" for her. "The program clearly states tall back chairs [are allowed only] behind the sound booth. We set up a tarp, and have a few of the lowest of low beach chairs, and my husband gets to hear me comment about all thetall chairs (my favorites are the ones correctly branded "Dick's" on the back)."

Rokos also listed smokers in the main stage area, large rain umbrellas that block sight lines and RV generators in the quiet camping area as other pet peeves.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Preview: Pros and cons of the Grey Fox experience

Grey Fox is not a festival for everyone. Let’s start by saying this thirty year old festival is one of the oldest and most respected events in the northeast, if not the country. It features one of the strongest lineups of any festival and enthusiastic participants return year after year, wait in line for up to a month, and create a large, boisterous, and fun-filled community on the top of the Hill from which they jam, party, socialize, and listen to great music.

This year is no exception. Where else can you hear four days of Dry Branch Fire Squad? How about promised jams with The Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still, and the Duhks? (Well, it happened in April at Merlefest, but where else in the northeast?) The music is eclectic, featuring traditional bluegrass bands like James King, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and Michael Cleveland and Flamekeepers, Barefoot Bluegrass, and of course Dry Branch Fire Squad. For those who want to hear traditional bluegrass, Friday is the best day to attend.

A stronger element at this festival is the choice of progressive and innovative bands offered. The Waybacks, Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, Duhks, Biscuit Burners, and The Greencards are just a sample of the superb new, young bands performing as individuals and in combination. Older performers who have led the way in making it possible for these bands to emerge include Sam Bush, Peter Rowan & Tony Rice, Mountain Heart, and more. Also included are bands more difficult to categorize like The Kruger Brothers, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, Danny Barnes, and Tony Trischka’s Double Banjo Spectacular. All in all, it’s difficult to find a place where you can hear more or better bands than Grey Fox, except…the hubbub, noise, and freedom of audience self-expression sometimes make it hard to hear and enjoy the music.

Getting a seat on The Hill is a problem for most people attending Grey Fox. A relatively large contingent begins arriving for this festival in late June. They set up camp in a field prepared for them just outside the main entrance starting in late June. By July 18th, when the gates open, there are hundreds of people in line to set up camp at the top of the hill. By July 18th, when the gates open, there are hundreds of people in line to set up camp at the top of the hill and claim preferred seating areas. These early liners are thus rewarded for waiting in line for weeks. (Note: A great way to gain access and to have a lot of privileges at this festival is to volunteer. Grey Fox volunteers are, appropriately, very well treated.) Last year we arrived in the line at about noon on Thursday and it took nearly three hours for us to move into the quiet camping area, which we preferred. The Hill itself is quite steep, so much so that the rear legs of seats must be dug in to permit flat seating. Festival rules call for low seats and low backs, but these rules are pretty much ignored, making it somewhat more difficult to see, although the steepness of the hill takes much of this problem out of play. Nevertheless, arriving early on the first day the gates were open and hurrying to the hill before even setting up camp, we only found space to place our chairs well behind the sound booth, about forty rows back.

Located on a rather steep hill that is usually farmed as a hay field, Grey Fox is wide open to the elements. Weather is a major factor in this festival almost every year, whether it rains or is clear and hot, the weather affects the experience more than it does many other festivals, even those others held in the open. When the sun shines hot, the hill can be dangerous. Attendees need to keep themselves covered and hydrated. Often hydration is accomplished through the consumption of copious amounts of beer carried in coolers to the performance area. The festival helps here by providing a misting tent, but there is no shade on the hill not provided by people who erect shelters. Rain is actually less of a problem than sunshine as its effects can be more easily mitigated.

Grey Fox web site and promotional materials talk about “The Grey Fox way.” The “Way” suggests a set of guidelines and principles for behavior, which can be lumped together into a sort of golden rule consideration. If these guidelines were followed, Grey Fox would be an ideal festival to attend for all. However, like the sixties communes on which many of these guidelines are based, the Grey Fox Way is adhered to where convenient and ignored whenever it gets in the way of an individual’s doing whatever he or she likes. We found that people shouting out requests and yelling drunkenly to each other in the audience, dancing in front of the stage, smoking tobacco and marijuana, and chatting incessantly rather than listening to the music trod unnecessarily on our enjoyment of the music. While I’m more tolerant of those differences than is Irene, nevertheless, we both deserve to have a full and fun experience.

Vendor’s row at Grey Fox is one of the largest and most diverse of any we see. The food is excellent and not too expensive, but you can still buy a funnel cake. Cash is not accepted at any vendor’s tent, but Grey Fox scrip is sold at a booth and can be redeemed at the end of the festival. People wishing to buy beer in vendor’s row must also get a proof of age wrist band attached. There is a good festival shopping on the hill, too with fine instruments, modish clothing, and stuff for kids. Cash is, as I remember, good at bands’ sales booths. A problem attendant to vendor’s row is the steady rumble that can be heard by spectators sitting on the right side of the sound booth. This steady, busy noise is distracting to wishing to concentrate on listening to the music.

Camping at Grey Fox is truly camping in the rough. There are no fixed facilities available. The festival provides trucks full of fresh water, which you may walk to to draw water and carry back to your campsite, (Perhaps this is why so much beer is consumed. It’s easier to carry to your campsite.) There is a place to take showers, which cost, I think, $5.00. There are three designated camping areas. The top of The Hill is a free for all camping area where people, many of whom have come to Grey Fox since the beginning, set up elaborate camping areas with kitchens, jamming areas, living quarters, and so-on. These compounds may accommodate twenty or more people, but are not walled off with tarps or wall hangings the way they are at Springfest. I understand that multi-story structures will not be permitted this year at Grey Fox. Jamming in this area is permitted 24 hours a day and the number and quality of these jam groups is very high. Below the performance stages is an area called Lower Camping area which has a time limit on jamming, but is still close to the action. About a quarter mile away, down the hill in a large meadow, is an even quieter camping area where little or no sound bleeds over from the sound stage, there is no jamming, and it’s relatively easy to get a good night’s sleep. Regular bus transportation is provided from this area to The Hill. This area is also used as an overflow, so some people camping there are not so enthusiastic about maintaining the quiet, but they responded very cooperatively to a reminder one morning at 2:00 AM. The entire camping area provides very few level spaces. People planning on using some sort of RV should come equipped with plenty of boards and jacks to use for leveling their rigs. Grey Fox claims to limit camping tickets to 4,000 and I see no reason to doubt this, but this many camping units probably translate to more than 10,000 people. In addition, there are many day trippers.

Grey Fox has all sorts of other activities going on in addition to the music. Pete Wernick’s Jam Camp precedes the festival and his jam campers perform from the main stage on Thursday afternoon. At the Masters stage a number of bands and performers talk about their art and give demonstrations. The Grass Roots tent offers clinics and workshops. Last year we attended workshops by Ron Thomason for beginning mandolin players and one by the legendary Bill Keith on banjo. There’s a dance pavilion where first rate bands play for dancers late into the night. This brings up the issue of dancing near the main stage. Since bluegrass in primarily a performance art, it isn’t really designed for dancing, yet many people can’t seem to sit still. While Grey Fox attempts to keep dancers from getting in front of watchers, they still can be a distraction. Because there is so much offered at the dance tent, it seems that those wanting to express their love for the music through movement could confine themselves to doing it at the dance tent. There’s a Family Stage where there are performances aimed at young people as well as a Bluegrass Academy for kids. In other words, there’s plenty to do and many choices to make at Grey Fox.

Having catalogued all the good stuff I have, why won’t we be there? Too loud, too boisterous, too chemical induced, too noisy, too drunk, too much….The Hill. There are some bands that draw us to bluegrass festivals, but they aren’t at Grey Fox this year. Perhaps in another year, we’ll be back for a day or for the whole festival, but this year we’re staying home. That doesn’t mean you should. Perhaps the very issues I raised are the elements attracting you to a festival. We found our interactions with other attendees to be almost all positive, and there is a spirit that pervades this festival. We have spoken to other people, though, who don’t want to go back either as well as those who are highly enthusiastic. Give it a try.

Addendum: An anonymous commenter informs me that I'm mistaken about volunteers getting preference in seating, that they must wait for several hours after the gates open to put down their seats. I've made the appropriate changes in the text.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mammals sing to their young

When a pair of fans wearing Macy's-parade-style inflatable costumes bounced along in front of the Live Oak stage just as festival emcee Joe Craven was introducing The Mammals, Craven asked the band if they would qualify as mammals.

Mammals vocalist Ruth Ungar laid out some of the qualifications of the class: Do they sweat? Do they sing to their young? But Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, grandson of Pete Seeger and a member of the band, noticed that the costumes seemed to depict characters wearing pants but no shirts, and he settled the question: "They have nipples."

[Photo: The Mammals' Tao Rodriguez-Seeger channels his granddad.]

With that, the band ripped into it's first-ever California festival performance, a 90-minute Sunday night set that delighted the audience of Central Coast roots music fans.

I've been writing a lot about the so-called "new-generation" string bands, a class in which The Mammals are a charter member. But though I have caught bits and pieces of their act at Merlefest 2006 and Wintergrass 2007, I always seemed to be distracted when they were performing. At Live Oak, I finally got a chance to pay close attention.

Like another of the new generation bands, Crooked Still, The Mammals mine the catalog of traditional American folk songs--but with a hopped-up energy and improvisational attack that makes the material new and exciting. In this set, we heard versions of "John Henry" and "Worried Man Blues" along with a square-dance reel and several old-timey instrumentals.

Besides Rodriguez-Seeger on banjo and guitar, the band includes Ruth Ungar, also the offspring of folk music pros, on fiddle, and Mike Merenda on guitar and banjo, as well as an electric bass and drums. The three front-liners all sing, with Ungar as the primary vocalist.

Besides the old-timey stuff, the band plays some modern material and its own songs, many written by Merenda. One of the highlights was what Ungar called "the best motorcycle song ever" (sorry, Arlo), Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Another was their original "Kiss the Break of Day," about an all-night jam with another new-generation band, The Duhks. (Apparently, The Mammals and Duhks sometimes perform together under the combined name Platypus.)

They also did a nice cover of The Biscuit Burners' "Red Mountain Wine" and Merenda contributed a Dylanesque original (at least the lyrics were original) involving a snowboarder and didgeridoo.

Overall, it was a very satisfying performance that only whetted my appetite. I expect to see much more of The Mammals down the festival trail.

All-American bluegrass girl

The highlight of my quick visit to Grass Valley was Rhonda Vincent--not her main stage set, which I found to be a bit too, well, stagey, but the open jam she held with fans after her Thursday night show.

Part of what makes bluegrass festivals so much fun is that the artists are so accessible. Even so, I was truly amazed by how much time Vincent spent trading songs with her admirers, and by how much she genuinely seemed to be enjoying herself.

During her set, she told the audience she would be available for a jam in "the Martha White boutique," the tent where Vincent's CDs and other merchandise was for sale. I figured it was really a way to sell more product, but later I found that she and fiddler Hunter Berry were more interested in making music than they were in vending their stuff.

Among the cluster of fans who crowded around with their fiddles, banjos, guitars and mandolins were a half dozen young ones, ranging from maybe six years old to 12 or so. The first thing I noticed about them was that most of them were quite good pickers, and that they familiar with many of the bluegrass standards that were played.

What came across next was how much Vincent related to them. Of course, Vincent started her own career as a child performer, playing mandolin and singing in her family band when she was eight.

With these kids, she took the time to speak to each one and then let them take the lead while she chopped chords on her mandolin. After a few rounds of "Old Joe Clark" and "Angeline The Baker," one little girl stepped to the center of the circle and belted out a version of Vincent's autobiographical "All-American Bluegrass Girl." When she finished, Rhonda set down her mandolin and hugged the child, swinging her around in a warm embrace.

Vincent's rapport with fans also came through in her support for the California Bluegrass Association, which ran the festival. A year ago, when the CBA was deep in the throes of a financial crisis, Rhonda had donated for auction a dress that she had recently worn on stage while accepting the IBMA award for best female vocalist.

It turned out that the buyer of the dress had since re-donated it to the organization to be auctioned a second time. So Vincent got a chance to show it off for the audience and make a further appeal on behalf of the CBA.

I may find that Rhonda Vincent's stage banter can seem somewhat over-rehearsed, but her rapport with the bluegrass audience is nothing but genuine.

Fathers' Day weekend with The Claire Lynch Band

Now that we're in high season, not a weekend goes by when dedicated festival-goers don't have to make tough choices. For bluegrass and roots music fans in California, the recent Fathers Day weekend presented such a dilemma.

There were at least three significant festivals that bluegrassers had to choose among: the California Bluegrass Association's Fathers Day Festival in Grass Valley CA, Live Oak Music Festival near Santa Barbara and the Huck Finn Bluegrass Festival in Victorville in the Mojave Desert.

To ease matters somewhat, the organizers of Grass Valley and Huck Finn seemed to have collaborated on scheduling headliners, and quite a few including Rhonda Vincent and Del McCoury appeared at both events. One performer, Claire Lynch and her band, appeared at all three.

To get a feel for the life of a touring musician during festival season, I took in parts of two of the festivals, spending Thursday night and part of Friday at Grass Valley and Saturday night and Sunday at Live Oak--plus putting in nearly 500 miles on the road in between. California is a big state.

[Photo: Claire Lynch and Missy Raines]

Before hitting the road on Friday, I caught a Greencards set and did an interview with Kym Warner and Eamon McLoughlin, and then took a front row seat for Claire Lynch. I had never really paid close attention to her act before and was more than impressed.

What everyone knows is that she possesses a soaring soprano voice that is often compared to Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris. What I didn't expect was her eclectic song selection that included some hardcore bluegrass but also extended into western swing and folk styles. Her guitarist Jim Hurst demonstrated why he is a multiple IBMA guitarist of the year honoree. Another IBMA winner, Missy Raines, laid down the bass lines, while new band member Jason Thomas impressed on mandolin and fiddle. No doubt this is a hot band.

Lynch mentioned to the audience that she was headed off to two more California festivals and invited folks to come along. I don't think anybody did other than me.

While I drove, Lynch's band flew from Sacramento to LA and rented a van for the drive to Santa Barbara (and later Saturday night to Victorville). I had arranged with Claire a time for an interview before her Live Oak show, but by the time I arrived and got myself set up time was short and she was enjoying a pre-set backstage massage.

So I got to see another, much longer performance before finally catching up with her afterwards. I heard a couple of the same songs but lots of different material including a bit of cajun, a gospel number, a song by Pierce Pettis and one from the Delmore Brothers. Among her own songs, I especially liked the innocence of young love in "Hickory Ridge" and her bluegrass chart-topping "Train Long Gone." After a 90-minute show, she encored with a rousing, improvisational take on "Wabash Cannonball."

Afterwards I found her shopping in the hippie-ish craft stalls along the festival midway. I watched her try on and then buy a caped red dress that looked more California than Alabama. She told me later that she had a photo shoot for a future album scheduled for later in the week, and that she bought the dress to wear for that.

When we finally got to sit down for a chat in a backstage dressing room, I found her charming but not as purely down-home Alabama as I expected. It turns out that she lived her childhood in upstate New York, and arrived in Alabama only when her computer-programming father took a job at NASA's Huntsville Space Center.

Growing up, she was more likely to be listening to Joni Mitchell than Bill Monroe, which explains her continuing taste for folk. She didn't plan to become a professional until she married a musician, and his bandmates heard her singing around a festival campsite.

So she joined up with husband Jim Lynch in Hickory Wind, and later that band transformed into the fondly remembered Front Porch String Band, which also included Hurst and Raines. Then after seven years and with a marriage on the rocks, she dropped out of the business and went home to Alabama.

In the end, she couldn't save the marriage, but maybe she gained some wisdom that has served her well as a songwriter. After five more years, in 2005 she got the band back together and has since taken the bluegrass world by storm. Her New Day album with The Claire Lynch Band was one of the top-selling bluegrass records of 2006.

I asked Lynch about her feat of performing on three consecutive days at three different festivals. She said she was accustomed to the bluegrass scene, and felt much at home at events like Grass Valley, but that she was especially excited to play a more eclectic festival like Live Oak.

"I like reaching out to other audiences, and these folks really seemed to appreciate our music," she said. "Also, the organizers here really take care of the artists."

It all sounds a little California, but clearly this is one Alabama girl who appreciates a skillful massage, a flowing red gown and an audience that was more Grateful Dead than Flatt & Scruggs.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Telluride Bluegrass 2007 - The Last 24 Hours

Saturday nights at Telluride are, in many ways, the climax of the festival. Traditionally, the night belongs to veteran hot pickers, like New Grass Revival, Sam Bush, or Leftover Salmon. In later years, as the musicians and I age, these sets were rescheduled to an earlier hour, allowing the booking of an off-the-menu closing act.

The later afternoon slot belonged this year to Alison Krauss and Union Station with guitar legend Tony Rice. Any band that features Alison, Tony, Jerry Douglas and Dan Tyminski is bound to redefine something every set. This performance was a jaw-dropping display of musical precognition. In particular, Jerry and Tony re-wrote "Freeborn Man" with Dan contributing muscular vocals. My personal favorite, though, was Tony's ripping "Manzanita", a version that rivals last summer's RockyGrass performance for power and elegance.

For the last 33 years, Saturday night has involved a Sam Bush band, either NGR or his current lineup. Arriving with his stable and able partners, Sam delivered one of his more technically adept sets, showering the capacity crowd with elegant riffs, runs, and his contagious slide mando figures. Even though his setlist varies little from year to year, Sam projects a relaxed stage presence that brings an element of the front porch to this slickly-produced festival. And nobody stage directs clusterplucks with more confidence and style.

Saturday wrapped up with a rock solid blowout by the New Orleans Social Club, a serious funk unit that features some of the Funky Meters, Henry Butler, and the obligatory member of the Neville clan, Ivan. In classic Nola nonstop fashion the NOSC blew through a set of New Orleans standards, ably assisted by Flecktone Futureman on percussion, encoring with a timely re-write of CCR's antiwar classic, "Fortunate Son".

The Sunday morning vibe is a little less intense, a bit more relaxed. By this time the major night parties are just past, and while there's still plenty of fest ahead, we see that Monday is more part of our immediate future.

Frequently, TBF has featured a gospel group for the Sunday morning slot. This Sunday launched with a stunning set by the Sparrow Quartet, a string ensemble fronted by the gifted Abigail Washburn (clawhammer banjo, vocals), backed by Bela Fleck (banjo, bad Chinese translations), Ben Sollee (cello) and Casey Driessen (fiddle). Fresh from a Far Eastern tour, the SQ blended traditional West Virginia folk music with Chinese tunes. You know, it's really weird to hear a bluegrass tune sung in Mandarin Chinese, but it does grow on you after a while. Highlights included the Ben Sollee tune "Bury Me with My Car", a very mutated "Keys to the Kingdom" and a favorite from the Uncle Earl catalog, "Coffee's Cold".

In a sort of gospel vein, klezmer master Andy Statman took the stage for definite change of pace and style. Starting a set with a quarter hour of clarinet improvisation is a little bit of a stretch even for the TBF audience, but Statman redeemed that indulgence with excellently-played mandolin pieces.

I always look forward to Peter Rowan's set. He's brought a variety of configurations over the years, most recently a quartet with Tony Rice (guitar), Sharon Gilchrist (mandolin, vocals), and Bryn Davies (bass, vocals) with Pete on rhythm guitar and vocals. Bryn, though, left the Quartet to join Patty Griffin. She's been replaced by Catherine Potter on double bass, thus preserving the bluegrass-babes-and-legends configuration of the past eight years.

The unfamiliarity of the newest band member with the core group limited the dynamic range of the Telluride performance. Where once the bass would drive a tempo, as in, say, "Walls of Time", there's now a serviceable but tentative beat. Missing, too, are Ms. Davies soaring backing vocals. Sharon Gilchrist's whispery vocal contributions are on the mark, but too easily overshadowed by Rowan's dominating leads.

One of the amenities at Telluride is the Kid's Tent, this year re-located to the ice rink in Town Park. This provides programs for the younger festivarians that culminate on a Sunday afternoon parade through the fest grounds accompanied by a brass band soundtrack. It was a nice diversion while the ace stage crew turned things over for euphemistically-titled "Drew Emmitt & Friends".

One of the mysteries of acoustic music is the decision by Leftover Salmon to call it a day on the heels of their impressive self-titled CD. Since then, Vince Herman has caught the Great American Taxi while mando/vocalist Drew Emmitt brought out his own band. Hopes of a reunion have followed the LoSers since, but it took Craig Ferguson to make it happen. Lacking keyboard/vocalist Bill McKay it isn't quite the old LoS, but they did enlist spirit drummer Jeff Sipe. Add Greg Garrison on bass and a smiling Noam Pickelny on banjo and I think you've pretty much got the Leftover experience. Introduced by Yonder Mountain String Band, LoS launched a sizzling set of their best party tunes, accompanied by a dizzying series of special guests. Bringing Sam Bush out to fiddle for "Whisperin' Waters" was a masterstroke that just heralded better things to come. By the fifth tune of the set, Leftover had been joined by Sam Bush, John Cowan, Jeff Coffin, Andy Hall, and Tyler Grant. Despite the overpopulation, the set went on to reach new energy levels in "Euphoria" and the stunning encore "Down in the Hollow".

Just a few more notes. I viewed the Bela Fleck/Chick Corea set with some trepidation. Bela can get very far out there where the light is dim and you have to rely on other senses. As I mentioned in an earlier post, his Flecktones material can get pretty hard to grasp. But I was very pleasantly surprised at the cohesiveness of this duo performance. More amazingly, I actually witnessed Bela taken aback by another musician. During a tune where the banjo and piano alternated solos, Bela was clearly impressed by Corea's play. Their CD is pretty cool, too.

For blog purposes, Telluride 2007 ends at Bela & Chick. Officially, Alison Krause and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas closed the Sunday night chapter. Unfortunately, AKUS forbids broadcasting, recording and photography during its shows (although, strangely, not when Tony Rice sits in). It's a short-sighted policy, but it's enough for me to decline the chance to comment on the performance.

But I do have one more tidbit. Just after the Fleck/Corea set, a small war broke out in the crowd. Some aggressive types had smuggled in WMDs and, during a lull in the schedule, opened fire on innocent bystanders. These WMDs (Weapons of Marshmallow Destruction) flew fast and furious, and at short range.

One plucky young lad found a great way to return fire without getting his hands sticky.