Thursday, July 03, 2008

The mellow scene at Kate Wolf

The just finished 13th Kate Wolf Memorial Folk Festival may just have been the best one ever, despite the pall of smoke in the air, the result of the fire situation in Northern California, including Mendocino county where the festival is held.

Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville, home to several festivals over the course of the summer, provides a lovely venue, with a natural music bowl, a wooded riverside location, unlimited camping, and convenient location right off the main highway.

Besides the fire concerns, gas prices and the economy could have impacted attendance and enthusiasm, but both seemed to be more than healthy. I don't have any attendance figures, but I can tell you that the music bowl was filled on Saturday and Sunday nights. The most desirable Riverside camping was well gone before I arrived Friday afternoon, but my party was perfectly happy set up in the field, especially since I now have a good canopy.

If you don't know, the atmosphere at Kate Wolf is even more mellow than other California roots festivals. Lucy Kaplansky sang "Peace, Love and Understanding," and that is basically the operative philosophy. Smoke if you want, but do it under the tree. Swimming is clothing-optional at one end of the river, but be respectful of the family area.

Speaking of Kaplansky, a New York City singer songwriter, couldn't get over just how relaxed a scene it was. Ani DiFranco. who closed Kate Wolf as her second stop on a brief California swing after a Disneyland gig the night before, said she was relieved to be in a place where she heard the name of Utah Phillips all day.

The festival was dedicated to Phillips' memory after the festival regular recently passed away. Utah's spirit, as well as that of festival muse Kate Wolf, seemed to lend the weekend's proceedings with a deeper significance than just thousands of people sharing a musical experience on a beautiful California early summer weekend.

And if the overall experience was enjoyable, the festival's music program was divine. Everybody has their own taste. For me the highlights were the Aussie invasion (The Waifs and Greencards), the opening night pairing of Keb' Mo' and Taj Mahal, and the lovely duet set with Kaplansky and John Gorka. I'll write about all that and more in some subsequent posts.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Brian Wilson to open Newport Folk

The newly eclectic Newport Folk Festival announced that former Beach Boy and composer-producer Brian Wilson will headline the festival's traditional opening night concert at The International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino on Friday, August 1, 2008 in Newport, RI.

The facility is a historic place in the history of tennis and of old Newport, and is used twice a year to host the first night of both the Newport Folk and Jazz festivals. The separately priced gala concerts lend an air of history and elegance to the festivals. For Wilson, Newport will be a marquee stop on a full summer tour.

After the opening show, the festivals' Saturday and Sunday programs are held at nearby Fort Adams State Park. The festival also added a prominent name to the main stage lineup with singer-songwriter Steve Earle performing as a duet with alt-country singer Allison Moorer, who is also his wife.

The seniors chorus Young@Heart, recently featured in the documentary film by the same name, has also been added.

Monday, June 23, 2008

TBF Festival Notebook

By Donald Frazier

Coming down out of the workaday world into any four-day festival in a remote resort location is bound to be more than a change in scenery. But in the case of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it’s an especially long, strange trip.

Festivarian Nation. More, perhaps, than any music event in America, this one positions itself as a sort of gathering of the clans. The festival website overtly says this is an annual reunion of a basically-cohesive group of music fans bonded by the culture of the festival. In the old days that meant lots of tie-dye and Indian bedspreads; now we can add dreadlocks and all-over tat’s. On the upside, it means this is an especially friendly event to attend, with sharing, caring, and narely a contrary word. On the downside, it means ‘most everybody here is already with a largish group of friends and family. Town Park, the site near the stage, is full of large emplacements comprising several tents, covered communal areas, and lots of loving if sometimes-silly décor (see photos). These groups come here every year, sometimes for decades.

Tent City. You can’t just show up in this tiny and tightly-controlled town, ticket in hand – it takes a good amount of foresight and planning. Forget about a hotel room – the few here are quite expensive, booked a year in advance and, besides, you miss out on the Festivarian vibe of it all. But finding a plot big enough for your tent in Town Park means arriving much earlier in the week. One Festivarian reports making the seven-hour drive from Denver after work on Monday, staking his claim, then driving back all night in time to be back at his law firm in time to start on Tuesday morning (”Good we have showers!”). Most parties will delegate one member to come here early and hold down the fort while the others plod through their day jobs until they can arrive on Thursday.

As for the others, refugees often have it better. There’s a large, grim commercial campground several miles down the road where you almost expect UN peacekeeping forces. We also saw more than a hundred people bedded out
in the open, in 40-degree weather on chaise lounges and such near the main gate. No, they weren’t on line for tickets. This is where they were, uh, ‘sleeping’.

Baby, you can drive my car. But not here. All of the friendliness of this event evaporates when it comes to parking your vehicle. A handful snare car camping passes. But the town bans all nonresident parking for the duration of the event, complete with a smiling but stern checkpoint on the one entrance to Telluride where they grant you enough time to unload and get out. Get out where? They say there is parking available off site. They do not say it is many miles away. Do not try for the ‘Carhenge’ lot – though closer, the lines for the shuttle bus are truly daunting. Better is Mountain Village – much farther away, but you get a fun ride to town center on the ski gondola, awesome by night.

Don’t bogart that air. Even the veterans on the Festival preview staff were amazed at the continual, thick wafting of herbal celebration over the festival grounds. No need to bring you own stash – just breathe deeply. In the campgrounds, however, serious alcohol is the party aid of choice, as we learned when a neighboring Festivarian offered up a solid belt of Jameson’s Irish – before breakfast.

Up the Creek. The finale of Sam Bush’s set on Saturday night featured everybody on the Festival program they could squeeze onto the main stage for a long, shoulder-to-shoulder version of Cripple Creek. The song has a distinct feel of a navigable body of water about it, like some murky Appalachian tributary of the Ohio. Perhaps Festival Preview is being cantankerous about this. But the real Cripple Creek in southern Colorado is a rocky gulch with, much of the year, not enough water to float a soapdish let alone a moonshiner’s rowboat. Just pointing this out.

Visa problems spoil Béla's African workshop

Some of the most immediate performances in Telluride took place far from the main stage. Living up to its mission to advance the form, this festival every year conducts a number of clinics and competitions to discover new talent, showcase new ideas and pass on skills to a new generation. For example, Saturday morning saw Michael Harnick and Bobby Wintringham expound upon the fine points of instrument construction with the precision of any exacting craftsmen.

For the next event, Bela Fleck was to appear with Senegalese kora master Boubacar Diabete. Fleck, a demanding scholar of music, has over the last several years become increasingly interested in the African origins of American roots music, conducting projects with the likes of Diebete and Senegalese superstar of Afropop, Baaba Maal. Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary of his travels and collaborations in Africa, is being screened at the festival. More to follow.

But it was not to be. Diabete, like so many African musicians over the last several years, was kept out of the United States by mysterious visa and passport complications. Such complications have always plagued African musicians. But they have skyrocketed after 9/11. Officially-condoned bigotry toward Muslims convinced many musicians they were not wanted here. Even prominent and well-known African musicians such as Salif Keita and Kanda Bongo Man have been flatly denied permission to enter the United States or seen their efforts grow vastly more complicated and expensive. Others, such as Maal, began to travel with only a small entourage rather than the complete stage show they had offered.

Certainly one element of these troubles was tumultuous internal politics of many African nations, such as the protracted civil war in Zaire. (Which is why we hardly ever see any soukous in the United States anymore.) But a far larger factor has been the antipathy of the current regime in Washington toward black artists with a Muslim heritage. Never a fan of cultural diversity, the Bush administration has since 9/11 has in its actions and with its surrogates shown a suspicion and even hostility towards of cultural influences that are not Christian, white, and allied with its geopolitical purposes.

The main one of these purpose, of course, has been to whip up war fever towards Islamic societies. Cultural exchange and the understanding it brings might make it hard to demonize them, and make us less likely to accept lies about weapons of mass destruction.

Thus the events of the harsh world outside penetrate even this sylvan bubble of privilege for those who live here and good times for those of us who visit. But there may be a silver lining. On the walk from Elks Park stage to the festival grounds, political volunteers were signing up new voter registrations. And they were not doing so for the party currently in the White House.

Skaggs-Hornsby and Leftover Salmon top Friday at TBF

By Donald Frazier

It was a night of star turns in Telluride as Ricky Skaggs, Bruce Hornsby, the omnipresent Sam Bush, and the tight ensemble of soloists in Leftover Salmon took the stage in a flurry of high virtuosity on every instrument in the bluegrass arsenal, from fiddle and dobro to banjo and mandolin.

Ricky Skaggs took it one step further, unveiling a new piano-based sound. And this is no honky-tonk percussive upright or an electronic keyboard, but the full-throated grand piano of Bruce Hornsby. The effect: layers of warmth and texture that imparted a jazzy sweep and structure to even the most familiar tunes. Add The Kentucky Thunder's ability to produce a roomful of sound with a handful of instruments, and the effect was the bluegrass version of a symphony.

As one of the legends of Telluride where it was born several years ago in the serendipitous combination of two undermanned bands, Leftover Salmon brought two of everything, with battling solos in fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. Technical and self-referential? Perhaps - but only if you expect introspection and revelation from these songs. In their hands, even the most familiar songs in the canon such as 'Shuckin' the Corn' became an enthusiastic demonstration of the form and its varieties that infected the audience with the artists' joy in playing.

Sam Bush brings a whole lotta Led to Telluride

By Donald Frazier

Perhaps it’s too soon to name the high point of the festival season. But the peak of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival took place at precisely 9:37 p.m. Saturday night of the Summer Solstice, when Sam Bush swung from a jazz fusion violin homage to Jean-Luc Ponty into a Celtic fiddle improv that segued, with a vast collective gasp from the crowd of thousands, into Whole Lotta Love.

Prancing and weaving about the stage, he showed us what it would have been like if Jimi Hendrix had played the violin. Led Zeppelin started out, surprisingly enough, as a Celtic roots revival band. But it takes an energetic music scholar like Sam Bush to demonstrate the bloodlines connecting bluegrass with its forebears and everyone else who followed, even big-hair rockers. One onlooker even expected him to set fire to his fiddle.

The entire evening was like that. A lengthy version of Bob Marley’s Freedom laid down the right reggae beat, but his treatment of the classic was anything but a druggy ganja reverie. In his hands, it gained a propulsion and urgency that made it new. John Oates – yes, that John Oates – sat in for classics such as Maneater. Even the standards kicking off the set forged the new direction that Sam Bush was thinking of when he conceived The New Grass Revival some years ago.

Like so many of the acts here, the Yonder Mountain String Band traces its lineage to his seminal act from the seventies. No Expectations, the center of their set earlier on Saturday, was not simply a countrified version of the Rolling Stones classic. True to its roots as an homage to Robert Johnson, it attained a wide range of tone and feeling reaching deep into the Delta Blues. This is in keeping with Yonder Mountain’s mission: with one foot in the conventions of bluegrass and another in the free-wheeling, eclectic experimentation of the jam band movement, they seem to be putting levels of personal expression into a style that used to prize form over feeling.

The Frames closing set took the program far beyond anything a bluegrass purist would recognize. Leadman Glen Hansard, familiar to Americans as the star of the Academy Award winning film Closer, traces his musical roots to the street buskers of Dublin. Moody, contemplative, and at times even turgid in the mode of The Cowboy Junkies, this Irish act exposed a vein of astringent romanticism as far as possible from the lively moods of a bluegrass event. Music from the underground clubs of a rainy country, here in a high country box canyon.

Sam Bush’s Led Zeppelin moment was so electrifying that the next day, Canadian folk-rockers The Duhks, when called upon for an encore, tried out their own version of Whole Lotta Love with wheeling and soaring violins. It capped off a decidedly non-bluegrass morning: the Duhks, with Cajun, Gospel and even Latin grooves; and the patriarch of country soul, Grammy-winning Solomon Burke. Not a mandolin in sight.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Ryan Adams and Ani DiFranco anchor Thursday night at Telluride

By Donald Frazier

As a number of high-profile commercial festivals command attention this summer, the Big Daddy of bluegrass events continues to draw thousands to its Rocky Mountain home of 35 years, the once-funky and now-tony Telluride, Colorado. More than any other event, this one positions itself as keeper of the flame for the ongoing evolution of this musical form.

Headliners include Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby, Leftover Salmon, The Yonder Mountain String Band, Hot Rize, Arlo Guthrie (!), and the artistic founder of this event, the venerable Sam Bush. But opening first night, featuring Ani DiFranco and Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, demonstrated two threads pulling bluegrass in new and different directions.

Time was, an urban and edgy artist like DiFranco would not be at the TellurideBluegrass among all of the old-timey pickers. But times change, forms evolve, and now a new generation of bluegrass fan has emerged with less loyalty to the past but an appreciation for the authenticity of experience they find here. From the looks of it, they found what they want in her terse, moody set that broke through the angst with shouts and yells of pain and passion.

Meanwhile, Ryan Adams delivered a highly proficient, even slick performance that got the crowd to its feet but would have been equally at home in a conventional rock arena.

Closer to the bone, the next morning Bela Fleck presented a series of duets with a wildly diverse set of partners, from Bryon Sutton (guitar), Sam Bush (violin) (not mandolin), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Abigail Washburn (banjo) and Edgar Meyer, a standing bassist of extraordinary attainment in classical music as well.

Best, he then turned in a solo set inspired by his study with masters of African music such as Toumani Diabete and Baaba Maal that has been made into a new documentary, Throw Down Your Heart. Fair to say that this, also, would not happen in the old days. Same later on, when Telluride veteran Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce gave a rousing clinic of what happens when you interpret bluegrass through the prism of reggae, Tex Mex, and rockabilly. This, from a disciple of Bill Monroe.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Mather negotiations are back on track

Following the outcry that resulted from news that Strawberry Music Festivals could lose its lease for Camp Mather, the City of San Francisco-owned camp in the High Sierras, the festival revealed Friday that negotiations are back on track. An open letter from Strawberry management said that the festival and city Recreation and Parks department are now in agreement on the terms of a new lease.

"While this process is not over and there are several very important steps that remain, Strawberry Management is optimistic that a final agreement will be reached given the progress made to date," the letter read.

The lease must pass muster by the San Francisco City Attorney and gain final approval in a Recreation and Parks Department Commission meeting on August 18. If all goes well, the Strawberry community can celebrate 10 days later when the Fall 2008 festival opens for what otherwise could have been the last Strawberry at Camp Mather. —Dan Ruby

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Pastures of plenty

By Jimmy Carlisle

It’s less than a month till the large field overlooking the Okemah golf course and the distant hot and cold water towers will be transformed into Pastures of Plenty, which will hold the main stage for the 11th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, also known as WoodyFest (July 9-13, Okemah OK).

That's the stage where Judy Collins (yes, the Judy Collins, in answer to one of the festivals message board writers) will be closing the festival with her performance on Saturday night. She will have come full circle with this performance, having performed at the benefit for Woody Guthrie back in 1968, where she sang "Union Maid" and "Deportee."

Collins once said that after hearing Woody she stopped playing classical music on the piano and took up the guitar. Thank goodness she did, because without her hearing Woody we would not have had her version of songs such as "Both Sides Now," "Send in the Clowns" and countless others she has blessed us with. And now 37 years later she is playing in Woody’s home town, and she may even check out the Crystal Theater, where Woody once played and watched an occasional movie.

The theater is the festival's second main stage and the site of the Wednesday night opening show with the one and only Country Joe McDonald doing his Woody Guthrie tribute show, a one-man two-act play using Woody’s words and music.

There is some sadness this year. The festival recently lost one of its true stars, the godfather of red dirt music, Mr. Bob Childers, who passed away in April. There will be a special benefit show in his honor at the famous Cains Ballroom in Tulsa Tuesday night before the official start of this year’s festival. It will be a night to honor Childers and the great music he has left us with. If you are in the area, it will a show you will not want to miss.

Check the festival web site to find out more info and a complete lineup of the artists.

Another special guest this year will be the original Left Lou, who was Woody’s partner on KFVD radio in Los Angeles. On Friday, at Lou’s Rocky Road tavern will be Lefty Lou’s story time. It was on Lou’s back porch that Woody penned Oklahoma Hills while waiting on Lou to get ready. It’s a treat to have someone who worked so close to Woody come and share her experiences.

Friday night will also feature a special performance called Remembering Phil Ochs, hosted by the folk singer's sister Sonny Ochs and featuring Jimmy Lafave, John Gorka, The Rangers and many more. Phil of course was a protest singer who left his mark in the music world with such songs as "Power and the Glory" and my favorite, "Love Me, I’m a Liberal." What better way for the festival to honor the man than in Woody’s home town in a pasture just outside of town, full of music fans in the middle of an Oklahoma night with the full moon overhead. Who knows who might come on stage to join in the tribute to a true icon of the 1960s (maybe the FBI will even show up). This is destined to be a show that will be talked about for years to come.

Okay, gas is at an all-time high, but this year is shaping up to be an especially memorable festival. Do yourself a favor and come join the festivities in the Pastures of Plenty.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Strawberry fest acknowleges site uncertainty

By Dan Ruby

Strawberry Music Festivals today acknowledged the truth of rumors that the festival is in danger of losing its lease for the idyllic site where the event has been held twice a year since 1984.

In a detailed email posted to several lists, Strawberry management laid out the issues involved in the lease negotiations with the City of San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department, which is responsible for the property. The tone of the message was not particularly hopeful, but the message said the festival would make every effort to reach a settlement before August 18, which appears to be a deadline set by the festival so that it has sufficient lead time to make plans for a move if necessary.

The email also confirmed that the festival has been exploring the purchase of a property in nearby Mariposa County that is said to possess many of the characteristics of the Camp Mather location. The email said the festival would consider a more distant move if a "spectacular" venue presented itself, but seemed to imply that the preference is to stay in the same general vicinity.

It also plainly stated that the festival has every intention of continuing whatever the outcome of this issue, refuting rumors that management would shut down the festival rather than undergo a move.

Once before, Strawberry and SF Parks Rec went to the mat before reaching a new four-year deal. A letter writing campaign by Strawberry-goers was thought to have been helpful in that case, and now the festival has asked fans to contact city officials with their comments. Full information and addresses to write to are posted on the festival home page.

As I posted here earlier this week, a move like this will be a wrenching experience for the Strawberry faithful but other festivals have executed site changes with relatively little pain. An example is the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, which will debut its new site next month in upstate New York.

Strawberry management is to be applauded for its open communications with fans on this matter. If a move becomes necessary, this kind of advance warning to its fans will reduce the inevitable outcry when it is finally announced. One way or another, it seems there will be a resolution on or before the August deadline.

Strawberry Park finishes on a high note

By Ted Lehmann

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival finished on Sunday with four very strong performances surrounding the delightful on-stage debut of this year’s Kids Academy. After a short rain delay and some mugginess on Saturday night, the day dawned misty and a little muggy but quickly cleared into a warm, dry, sunny day – perfect for bluegrass.

The morning’s music opened with Dry Branch Fire Squad’s traditional gospel set. Now, considering that it’s Dry Branch Fire Squad and Strawberry Park is in New England, you might expect something quite different than you would find a bit further south. And different it was, although filled with respect at the same time.

Nature and the power of God’s creation remained before the audience with Laurie Lewis’ very fine set. Lewis’ lovely voice blended with Tom Rozum or Scott Huffman in close harmony explores lost love, the beauty of the outdoors, lost friends, and more.

The Grascals have been busy on the festival circuit and in the recording studio for about three years now. They have made a couple of personnel changes, first adding Aaron McDaris at banjo and recently replacing Jimmy Mattingly on fiddle with Jeremy Abshire. McDaris took over with barely a ripple. Abshire is a fine fiddler with lots of life and enthusiasm to him. The Grascals present a lively and fast moving show that’s entertaining and musical at once.

How many festivals save one of the all-time great bluegrass bands for closing on Sunday afternoon? Not many, but Strawberry Park does. What’s left to say about the Lonesome River Band. Sammy Shelor, four time IBMA banjo player of the year, has established his own style as a standard for others to emulate.

These are excerpts from Ted's full report, available here with original photography.

Jenny Brook Bluegrass preview

By Ted Lehmann
The Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival will kick off its eighth four-day season on June 26, 2008 at the Weston Recreation Area a mile or two north of the picturesque village of Weston, VT off Greendale Road. This delightful, small festival will feature the strongest lineup in its history. National bands are led by The Dan Tyminski Band and include The Gibson Brothers, Dan Paisley & Southern Grass, and David Parmley & Continental Divide. Supplementing these bands will be local and regional bands, many familiar favorites at this annual get together. Although the park offers no hookups, camping spaces will be a premium. The gates open first thing Thursday morning, and wise campers will arrive early.

While the Weston Recreation Area has no water or electricity, it is not without its charm. There’s a pond on the premises for children to swim in, a playground area, and a tennis court used for basketball during this festival. The views of the surrounding hills are lovely and the air bracing and refreshing. This year Jenny Brook is being held a week later than it has historically been held. The site, the crowd, and the Sawyer family make this a family friendly event. Hosts Candi and Seth Sawyer’s two young sons, Mathew and Adam, are listed as co-hosts, are very much in evidence, and are truly part of the charm of this event. Candi’s valiant battle against multiple sclerosis and Mathew’s medical history are an integral part of this festival, making it a celebration of their struggles as well as a testimony to their love of the music. Seth Sawyer is a gifted songwriter as well as singer, whose contributions to the festival are quiet and very important.

Jenny Brook bills itself as a traditional festival and tends towards booking traditional bands. This year two of the headliners are among the hottest traditional bands on the circuit and offer an interesting contrast. The Dan Tyminski Band has come together for a year while Allison Krause is on tour with Robert Plant and Union Station is on hiatus. Tyminski and Barry Bales, also from AKUS, have joined with Ron Stuart on banjo, Adam Steffey (on leave or having left Mountain Heart) on mandolin, and Justin Moses on fiddle. This band has garnered lots of attention and rave reviews from those who’ve seen them. They’re a straight ahead bluegrass band playing familiar songs and ones that sound familiar, even if they aren’t. Tyminski, a native of Rutland, VT, has a familiar and well-liked voice. He has lead a musically first rate band into the most desirable venues right out of the box. Getting him at a small festival like Jenny Brook is a real coup. Each of the individual players in the Dan Band, as it has come to be known, is at the top of the profession in acclaim as well as in terms of national recognition.

This is an excerpt from Ted Lehmann's full Jenny Brook preview, available here with complete lineup analysis including original photography. Thanks Ted.

Video: Laura Love and "Black to Bluegrass"

Funky folkie Laura Love talks with Festival Preview about the "Black to Bluegrass" evening she hosted at Wintergrass 2008 featuring Ruthie Foster, The Ebony Hillbillies and her new band Laura Love & Harper's Ferry. The performances paid homage to the African American roots of bluegrass music. Love makes the argument that American traditional music resulted from a union of folk traditions from the British Isles and Africa.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Wintergrass gets an early jump

There is so much competition for festival attendees that some festivals have taken to making earlier and earlier lineup announcements, possibly intending to discourage regular festival attendees from sampling competitive fests.

At least that's my best guess for why Wintergrass put out its preliminary February 2009 lineup yesterday, at least three months earlier than usual. In past years, I have run into the Wintergrass producing team at the IBMA conference in September or October, where they would be dropping hints but not publishing a full list.

It's just the beginning of June, but, hey, who's complaining. The festival is off to a great start with the following names attached: Tim O'Brien, Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, The Steeldrivers, Alison Brown & Joe Craven,
Tony Trischka Territory, Adrienne Young, Blue Highway, Missy Raines, 3 Ring Circle, The McCoury Boys, Bearfoot Bluegrass, Hot Buttered Rum, Scythian and Monroe Crossing.

One item of interest is the appearance of The McCoury Boys, which is presumably the name of the Del McCoury Band when Del stays home. Or when the band plays a late-night show after a main stage appearance, as with the upcoming Telluride Bluegrass Festival, in which the full band plays on Thursday afternoon and The McCoury Boys & Friends play the Sheriden Opera House that night.

In our interview with Del several months back he talked of his future retirement. I doubt this is it, but the Telluride and Wintergrass bookings suggest that sons Ronnie and Robbie are getting ready to step into the vacuum that Del will leave behind him when he does decide to hang it up.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Buzz grows over possible Strawberry move

The Strawberry Music Festival email list is buzzing today with talk about a possible move to a new location that could become necessary for the 2009 season. The festival's long-time home, Camp Mather outside the gates of Yosemite National Park, is an ideal setting that thousands of fans have come to think of as their home away from home. It is owned by the City of San Francisco, and the festival's contract for occupying the camp for two holiday weekends each summer is up for renewal, according to several posters on the list.

Once before, the festival went toe-to-toe with the city in contract negotiations, but ended up with a settlement. The posters are suggesting that the city might insist on more favorable terms this time around. The hints we have been hearing could be leaks from the festival, either to prepare fans for the possibility of a difficult move or to show a willingness to move as a hard-nose negotiating tactic.

[Update: Subsequent postings suggest the issues are more complex than this analysis. We'll follow developments.]

If the change happens, knowledgeable fans believe it could be announced before or during the Fall festival August 28-31. (Tickets for that festival sold out last week.) While a site change would surely be a daunting challenge for the festival and its fans, it could also yield long-term benefits.

This year, an analogous east coast festival, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, is undergoing a site change after 31 years in the same location. The first Grey Fox festival at the new site on a farm in Oak Hill NY is coming up July 17-20.

The results of the move will be seen then, but from all I have seen both the festival and the fan base are making a relatively smooth transition. Sure, some problems can be expected to arise and attendance may be off a tad due to the uncertainty, but it would appear that the Grey Fox team is on its way to having successfully managed a wrenching transition.

Should the Strawberry rumors come true, we can hope that Strawberry management does an equally good job of preparing the festival regulars for what is sure to be a difficult experience. — Dan Ruby

Kate Wolf lineup is fresh yet familiar

How do they do it at the Kate Wolf festival? Every year I am amazed at how good a lineup the Wolf family and Cumulus Presents manages to put together for this northern California folk festival. They got me again this year with the following artists, all favorites of mine:

Keb' Mo', Taj Mahal, The Waifs, The Greencards, Greg Brown, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky, Todd Snider, Ani DiFranco, Los Lobos, David Lindley—and the list goes on. A lot of those names seemed pretty familiar from previous festivals, including the two I've atttended before, so I sat down to do a bit of analysis (thanks to the festival for providing complete historical lineups).

The first thing to note is there are a handful of musicians who are part of the festival almost every year, including Greg Brown, Rosalie Sorrels and the great sidewoman Nina Gerber. Utah Phillips was another of these until he passed away last month. Each of these had close associations with the late Kate Wolf, who passed away in 1986.

But what may be more interesting is the number of artists who are semi-regulars, which I will define as having appeared at three or more Kate Wolf festivals since its inception. Among this year's crop, we have John Gorka (3), Lucy Kaplansky (4), Jimmy LeFave (5), The Waifs (3), Cris Williamson (3), and Ruthie Foster (3).

I think this is a smart way to program a festival, by creating a core set of artists who can be expected to return every third of fourth year. Fans get a chance to follow these artists as they progress in their music, without burning out on too much repetition. Some other semi-regulars who are not on this year's bill are: Dave Alvin, Eliza Gilkyson, Iris Dement, Laurie Lewis and Peter Rowan.

On the other hand, each lineup also brings in some artists who are first-timers, usually including several of the headline names. This year the Kate Wolf performing virgins include Keb' Mo', Todd Snider, Los Lobos, Ani DiFranco and The Greencards. Not at all bad as fresh blood goes.

Lots of other festivals have some version of this programming formula. Among the bigger roots festivals, both MerleFest and Telluride Bluegrass seek to program a mix of regulars and newbies. But I know of no other mid-sized roots festival that plays the lineup game as well as the Kate Wolf festival.

Kate Wolf fest will be a Utah Phillips memorial

Of all the artists who are frequent performers at the Kate Wolf Music Festival, coming up June 27-29 at the Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville CA, few were as part of the festival scenery as the great Utah Phillips, who passed away two weeks at 73 after a long bout with heart disease. (I'll have more to say about the Kate Wolf lineup in another post.)

Musicians and folk music fans around the country have joined an outpouring of tributes to the folksinger, who always seemed like he came to us from an earlier time but whose songs of tramping on steam trains and organizing workers with the Wobblies continued to have relevance to our times. But few of the tributes are apt to be as heartfelt as at Kate Wolf, where Utah appeared on the main stage, in workshops and as an emcee for nine of the festival's 12 years, missing only 1999 and 2004-5, when his ailment put him out of commission.

Fortunately, Utah rebounded and was able to appear at Kate Wolf and other festivals in 2006 and 2007, giving his many fans a last chance to see him in good form on the circuit. At Strawberry Spring 2007, I got a chance to chat with him a bit, as well as enjoy his familiar repertoire one last time.

The festival is a memorial for Kate Wolf, another great deceased folksinger, with whom Phillips performed together on numerous occasions. Another of Utah's frequent partners, Rosalie Sorrells, is also a Kate Wolf regular, and can be expected to lead the remembrances along with Ani DiFranco, another past recording partner of Utah's who is one of the headliners at the upcoming festival. — Dan Ruby

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Strawberry Spring latest 2008 fest to get soaked

Attendees at last weekend's Spring Strawberry Music Festival are remembering this year's event as "Drizzleberry." The event offered some great musical moments, according to posters on the festival's email list, but many fans missed them while seeking refuge from the coldest and wettest Strawberry festival in recent memory.

Strawberry is just the latest 2008 festival that has offered less than hospitable weather. Among other wetter-than-usual events so far this year were Langerado, MerleFest, New Orleans Jazzfest and Lake Eden Arts Festival.

Weather is always an unpredictable factor at outdoor music festivals. Experienced attendees come prepared for possible storms, and festival audiences are notoriously good at shrugging off bad weather and letting the show go on.

That said, 2008 is off to a particularly stormy start. Festival producers are protected by the "rain or shine" policy that most adopt, but with so many big new events on the docket for this summer, promoters, artists and fans alike are hoping for blue skies ahead.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson to be inducted

The Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame will honor acoustic music greats Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson as its first inductees in a ceremony and concert June 13 at the Walker Center at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro NC.

The organization was created in 2006 to recognize musicians and others who have contributed to the musical heritage of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The area was a “melting pot” of international music influences that merged into American country music styles.

Besides Watson and Scruggs, others to be honored include The Carter Family, Tommy Jarrell, Dolly Parton, David Johnson, Ralph Rinzler, Ralph Epperson, Wayne Henderson and Sam Love Queen, Sr.

The Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame will be housed in the Wilkes Heritage Museum located at 100 East Main Street, Wilkesboro, NC. Tickets for the event are available from the Walker Center.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Judds reunion leads superstar lineup at Stagecoach

The local Palm Springs newspaper The Desert Sun offers comprehensive news, reviews, photos and more from last weekend's Stagecoach festival. Among a high-powered lineup of country music stars, the highlights were probably the reunion concert by The Judds and a rare performance by The Eagles. Until Saturday, Naomi and Wynona had not performed together since 2000.
Desert Sun's Stagecoach coverage

Photo by Omar Ornelas of The Desert Sun

Friday, May 02, 2008

Michigan Mountain festivals cancelled for '08

Citing financing issues with its festival venue property, Silver Ridge Music Festivals announced cancellation of the two festivals—Mountain Country Festival and Mountain Rock Festival—it had scheduled this summer in Farwell MI.

Silver Ridge had run a successful debuts for the two festivals last year at the former ski resort after making significant property improvements including a main stage amphitheater. A second stage was under construction for this year, and partial lineups including headline performers had already been announced.

Details of the financial problems are sketchy. Here is the full text of the announcement at the Silver Ridge site: "The 2008 Mt Country Music Festival has been postponed for this season. Please stand by for further information. All of us at Silver Ridge are committed to restructuring the financial affairs of our venue just as soon as possible. We believe at this point in time it will take a minimum of at least 60 days.....possibly more. We understand this is a frustrating experience for ticket holders vendors, bands, and media alike. The management of Silver Ridge is committed on a bi-weekly basis in providing updates to the general public as to how this process is proceeding. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this has caused and ask for your continued cooperation and patience as we work through this process."

While the cancellation does not seem to be related to ticket sales, it does clear the calendar of competing regional rock events. The big new Rothbury festival takes place two weeks earlier and 100 miles away from Mountain Rock.

DelFest lists late-night shows and "playshops"

Filling out the program for the first DelFest, coming May 23-25 in Cumberland MD, High Sierra music announced the schedule of late night shows and artist "playshops."

Late night programming is a popular feature of jam-band festivals, and the opening night midnight show offers a full cast of top jammers—Jon Fishman, Drew Emmitt, Billy Nershi, Tyler Grant and other special guests—playing with Ronnie and Rob McCoury, followed by a full set by jam-band Railroad Earth.

Saturday and Sunday nights begin at midnight with The McCourys and Friends All-Star Jam, with follow-up sets by Mike Garris & Area 51 and The Davisson Brothers, respectively. Late night shows are held in an intimate indoor room and require a separate ticket for admission.

Artist "playshops" are a trademark feature of High Sierra Music Festival, the flagship event of DelFest producer High Sierra Music, which will import that concept to DelFest with interactive artist sessions in the fairground's Multipurpose Building throughout the festival weekend.

Playshop artists include the mandolin duo of Ronnie McCoury and Drew Emmitt, Billy Nershi and Tyler Grant of the Emmitt-Nershi Band, songwriter Ronnie Bowman, former Phish drummer Jon Fishman, multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg, and the trio of McCoury, Fleck, and McCoury.

In addition to the mentioned artists, the main stage schedule includes Vince Gill, Dierks Bentley, Keller Williams, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Sparrow Quartet, Punch Brothers, Steep Canyon Rangers and many more. Visit the DelFest website for complete details.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

MerleFest wrapup

Following are highlights from Ted Lehmann's full review of MerleFest 2008. Thanks for the thoughtful and timely coverage, Ted.

Once again, for the twenty-first year, Merlefest presented a varied, interesting, exciting, engaging, diverse, and frustrating program of American and, increasingly, world music.

This year the weather threatened throughout the festival. Fortunately, the clouds and threat of rain kept the grounds comfortably warm in the evening right through the festival. The loud and wet thunderstorm on Saturday afternoon provided relief from direct sunlight and heat, leaving muddy grounds but no real surprises for Merlefest veterans. By Sunday afternoon, a steady rain had developed leaving precious few people to enjoy the much anticipated Dan Tyminski Band’s closing set.

While the crowd seemed smaller to me than in the previous two years, this is purely subjective judgment. Festival officials tell me that their preliminary estimated total attendance was 76,900, slightly down from last year’s 79,000, but quite good considering the threatening weather and the price of gasoline.

Musically the festival provided many more highlights than disappointments. In no particular order, I’ll point out some of my (our) highlights and disappointments. All judgments are completely my own and Irene’s, and I am happy to have anyone disagree with me, but this is a report on our Merlefest. Yours is likely to have been completely different....

One of the great joys of Merlefest is always the unusual combinations of musicians brought together in jam situations. Girls for Merle was a perfect example of this on Saturday afternoon. Imagine Alison Brown, Sierra Hull, Laurie Lewis, Rhonda Vincent, Missy Raines, Claire Lynch, and Sally Van Meter appearing on stage at the same time.

Ralph Stanley showed up for a performance with Doc Watson, David Holt, and T. Michael Coleman. Tim O’Brien appeared at the Creekside Stage with The Infamous Stringdusters for a delightful set. Mando Mania on Saturday afternoon put some of the greatest mandolin players in the world on the stage at once. Tony Williamson hosted Darin Aldridge, Mike Compton, Sierra Hull, Rebecca Lovell, Barry Mitterhoff,James Nash, Tim O’Brien, Tom Rozum, and Sam Bush in an hour-long jam.

Other highlights for me included The Infamous Stringdusters with sets on three major stages on two days before heading off for an appearance at The Grand Ol’ Opry and then a trip to Europe. Blue Highwayhad a fine set on Friday afternoon.It’s easy to take this great band for granted, since they’ve been together without a change for fourteen years. They remain fresh and lively presenting music that manages to be cutting edge progressive while paying due deference to the founding musical ideas of bluegrass music. Laurie Lewis and her band had a very good, strong set on the main stage on Thursday and then followed it up with great courage, taking the stage right after a big thunderstorm on Saturday afternoon.

A major highlight for both Irene and me was the performance of Pete Wernick and Flexigrass. Pete has assembled a band composed of drum, bass, vibraphone, clarinet, and banjo as well as his wife Joan singing in a pop style I had no idea she had the voice for. The music, a sort of jazz-bluegrass fusion was pleasant to the ear and challenging to senses unused to this instrumental combination

The Carolina Chocolate Drops were a minor hit last year, earning them an opportunity for complete sets on the Watson Stage, Americana Stage, and Cabin Stage. Their main stage set also featured Joe Thompson, an elderly black fiddler who had deeply influenced their development. It provided a terrific hour of entertaining musical history.

Two sets of young comers let bluegrass fans know the music isn’t only for traditionalists.Sierra Hull and Highway 111 featured the sixteen year old mandolin virtuoso along with young Cory Walker on banjo. Hull also appeared in Mando Mania and Girls for Merle, keeping her busy all weekend. The Lovell sisters, a trio of fine young musicians, were also in frequent evidence. Ruthie Foster, a fine young blues singer from Texas, made a brief appearance on the Cabin Stage, where she quickly captured the audience.The Alison Brown Quartet with Joe Craven put on a great set on Sunday morning.

Grammy winner Tim O’Brien’s solo set on the main stage, multiple Grammy winner Doc Watson everywhere, and the final set of the weekend played by Dan Tyminski were all very fine and lived up to expectations.

Perhaps the highlight of the weekend for us was the performance of The Circuit Riders. Members of this band were the core of The Country Gentlemen at the time Charlie Waller died. In both their major sets they showed their potential for bluegrass stardom.

There were, of course, bands we didn’t much enjoy. Recognizing this as a matter of taste, I still want to mention a few we found less than satisfactory. Old Crow Medicine Show, a band we had looked forward to seeing, seemed loud and un-melodic, not offering much of interest to us. Similarly, Donna the Buffalo, who we have come to loath, were simply loud and misplaced on the Watson stage late afternoon slot.

The Avett Brothers are loud and undisciplined, although they have a loyal following. Peter Rowan has long outlived his hippy base and needs a new act.I can’t quite understand the musical marriage of Bruce Hornsby and Ricky Skaggs, an act which gives lip service to bluegrass history while playing often interesting rock with Hornsby at the Steinway Grand, an instrument that seldom graces the Watson stage. Finally, The Sparrow Quartet, featuring Abigail Washburn, Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen, and Ben Sollee played a too long set of discordant modern music, much of it in Chinese, that legitimately belongs in the Felt Auditorium of Lincoln Center, but which drove [away] much of the audience.

New Railroad Earth Release Announced

Railroad Earth
Amen Corner Website
Launches April 29th, 2008

Railroad Earth and SCI Fidelity Records are pleased to announce the
launch of the new website for the forthcoming Railroad Earth studio
release, Amen Corner - in stores nationwide on June 10th, 2008!

The website features streaming audio & video, photos of the band in
the recording studio, news and other information, all centered around
the release of Railroad Earth's remarkable new album.

The first single from the album, "Hard Livin," will be available for
free download, and we'll be updating the site regularly with new
songs, as well as videos of the band recording information
on how to purchase Amen Corner!

Stay tuned for news about online listening parties, webcasts , and
special content only available through this site!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Just three stages at Stagecoach 2008

The Stagecoach Festival set schedule released yesterday by Goldenvoice reveals that the festival will present three simultaneous stages in 2008, down from four last year and five from the previous week's Coachella, held on the same site. 

On the other hand, the festival has added a third day with a Friday session beginning around 3 pm. So the overall number of bands remains about the same as last year. 

It seems that the programming on the two main stages is consistent with last year. The big Nashville artists are most booked on the Mane stage. The Palomino stage hosts alternative country, Texas country and other less mainstream styles. 

The cutback comes by combining the programming that ran last year on a bluegrass-oriented tent and a Western tent featuring mainly cowboy musicians. This year, the cowboys and bluegrassers are sharing the Mustang Stage on Saturday and Sunday, while that venue is given over to country newcomers on Friday night. 

Attendees like me who are drawn mainly to more authentic country music will do well to set up mainly at the Mustang Stage to catch artists like the Dan Tyminski Band, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and The Greencards, while planning regular visits to Palmino for the likes of Billy Joe Shaver, Charlie Louvin, and Shooter Jennings, not to mention country greats Dwight Yoakam, George Jones and Glen Campbell. 

I'll also be sampling the big acts on the Mane Stage, names like Tim McGraw, The Judds, Rascal Flatts, Dierks Bentley, Taylor Swift, Trisha Yearwood, Carrie Underwood and lots more. Friday night on the Mane stage are two acts—The Eagles and John Fogerty—that could draw a different and older crowd for the added night. 

Overall, it is clear that Goldenvoice is still tinkering with the Stagecoach formula to find the right combination of musical styles that attracts a mega-audience to the country extravaganza. 

Monday, April 28, 2008

Live streams from MerleFest: Next best thing to been there

I would have loved to have been at MerleFest this year, but couldn't work it into my schedule--or more to the point, my budget. But I was still able to catch all the live action on the Watson and Cabin stages throughout the weekend courtesy of MVYradio, the live music site that has been streaming performances from MerleFest, with permission from the festival, for the last three years. 

So I was able to use the handy pocket schedule published by the festival, facgtor in the time difference and tune in as if I had reserved seats for Levon Helm's Ramble on the Road and The Dan Tyminski Band, the Saturday and Sunday night main stage closers. 

Many of the sets are archived at the MVYradio site, though not those two. But if you want to hear live sets from last weekend of Sam Bush, Tim O'Brien, Tift Marritt, The Waifs, The Waybacks and many more, they are free for the listening. Please don't copy or distribute the recordings, so this fine service can be continued in future years.

Meanwhile, experience the best of MerleFest as if you had been there. 

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Rhythm & Roots puts out relocation feelers

Update: This head-scratcher of a story took another strange turn. Festival honcho Chuck Wentworth outright denied publicist Giurleo's comments about fee increases and policing issues, but he did not deny that the festival is looking at a possible move in 2009. HIs message to the festival's official email list did not say what other reasons are driving management's thinking. One thing is sure—Chuck and his PR rep ought to get their stories straight.


With local officials considering a significant fee increase for use of Ninigret Park in Charleston RI by music festivals, the producers of the popular Rhythm & Roots Festival, held Labor Day weekend at the beachfront park, have made public that they are considering other options.

The producers' other big event, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, was forced to find and move to a new location on short notice this year after its long-time venue was sold to new owners. At this point, everything is on track for a successful debut on the new Grey Fox site at Walsh Farm in Oak Hill NY on July 17-20.

According to Rhythm & Roots publicist Ellen Giurleo, "The bottom line is we want to stay at Ninigret. The festival has invested plenty of money to make improvements in the park for it to be festival-worthy, and [we] hope for it to be a permanent home for Rhythm & Roots."

Some festival-goers have complained about an increased police presence in the Ninigret campgrounds at last year's festival, possibly an overreaction to problems at a reggae festival held on the site earlier last summer. In addition to their concerns about the fees, the festival may be seeking reassurances that police will have a lower profile.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ani DiFranco joins stellar lineup at Kate Wolf fest

For one of the lesser known California roots festivals, the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival in Mendocino County always offers up a star-studded lineup to honor the memory of the influential singer-songwriter who passed away at too early an age. The 13th KWMMF runs June 27-29 at beautiful Black Oak Ranch in Laytonville CA.

Check out the lineup: Los Lobos, Ani DiFranco, Taj Mahal Trio, Keb' Mo' Band, Greg Brown, David Lindley, The Waifs, Ruthie Foster, Todd Snider, John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky, Nina Gerber, Jimmy LaFave, Rosalie Sorrels, Cris Williamson, The Wailin' Jennys, The Greencards, Pieta Brown, Blame Sally, Vance Gilbert, and Moira Smiley & VOCO and more to announce in the near future.

The festival is always strong in folkies—I've seen Greg Brown, John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky, The Waifs and Jimmy LaFave in previous years. The just-added Ani DiFranco adds more firepower in that dimension. But the big theme in this lineup looks to be acoustic blues—Taj Mahal, Keb' Mo' and Ruthie Foster would make quite the threesome at almost any festival.

That is more than worth the three-hour drive north from the Bay Area, or to travel in from further afield. The festival offers three music stages, great camping, kid's activities and plenty of crafts and food vendors. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

FIL gets jump on the weekend with a big Thursday night

The 2008 Festival International de Louisiane gets off to an early start Wednesday to get the jump on cross-state rival New Orleans Jazzfest, and it presents some of its headline names on a big opening Thursday night show at Popeyes Scene International main stage in downtown Lafayette LA.

This year, Thursday night kicks off with hometown roots rocker Sonny Landreth, followed by the incomparable Blind Boys of Alabama (with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band horn section), and closing with jazz funkster Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk. Later in the weekend, The Duhks, Burning Spear and Terrance Simien's Zydeco Experience are among the highlights.

Formed in 1986, Festival International de Louisiane is a community-based, non-profit arts organization that provides a free (yes, free) family event celebrating the French cultural heritage of southern Louisiana. The 22nd FIL runs April 23-27 in Lafayette LA.

ROMP ramps up

The International Bluegrass Music Museum's River of Music Party is a festival designed to celebrate the past and future of bluegrass music each June in Owensboro KY, considered by many as the home of bluegrass music. This year's event offers a tasty mix of traditional and progressive bluegrass styles with a lineup featuring The Infamous Stringdusters, Cherryholmes, Crooked Still, Hazel Dickens, Claire Lynch, Cadillac Sky, Dale Ann Bradley, Dry Branch Fire Squad and many more.

The festival opens with a Thursday program June 26 at RiverPark Center's Cannon Hall, including an evening legends concert with The Isaacs, The Lewis Family and The Sullivan Family, with Dry Branch's Ron Thomason emceeing.

The Friday and Saturday program run all day June 27-28 at Yellow Creek Park in Owensboro. Other festival highlights include a film series, vendor exhibits, workshops and free camping. For tickets and more information, visit the festival website.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Final Strawberry Spring lineup and schedule

Strawberry filled out its Spring festival lineup with a last batch of mostly first-timers, but the full schedule looks pretty compelling. One of the newly named is an old Strawberry hand, Laurie Lewis, who will be the opening night closer with her current configuration The Right Hands, including long-time collaborator Tom Rozum, super bassist Todd Philips, and Craig Smith on banjo and Scott Huffman on guitar.

The Friday, Saturday and Sunday closers are, respectively, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Emmylou Harris, and Peter Rowan & The Free Mexican Airforce. The lead-in sets to the closers are also strong, with Carlene Carter, Tim O'Brien and Chuck Prophet in that slot Friday through Sunday.

The other newly announced names are The Trespassers, Tony Furtado, Caroline Herring, Mountain Laurel, Po' Girl, Los Pinguos, and Mike Farris & The Roseland Rhythm Review.

Among artists making Strawberry debuts, attendees might want to pay special attention to: Cadillac Sky, one of the best young contemporary bluegrass outfits; Po' Girl, a Canadian folk trio that has been getting lots of buzz; Caroline Herring, a sweetheart of the Folk Alliance crowd; Carlene Carter, country traditionalist from the great Carter family; and JJ Grey & Mofro, southern-fried electric blues.

Strawberry also features musical subthemes in each lineup. This season, one theme is Latin roots with classically flavored Del Castillo and Argentine transplants to L.A. Los Pinguos. Texas-style Americana is represented by South Austin Jug Band and Belleville Outfit.

Strawberry always showcases emerging northern California bands. The two from that category this festival are The Trespassers, a Yosemite-area string band, and Mountain Laurel, traditional bluegrassers from the Gold Country.

For full lineup details, visit the Strawberry website. Tickets from the festival are fully sold out. The unofficial Strawberry Ticket Exchange is a good place to find resale tickets, as is Craigslist SF Bay Area edition.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Newport Folk lineup leans toward rock

The preliminary lineup for the Newport Folk Festival is raising some eyebrows among long-time attendees. Sure, the folk versus rock argument is beyond stale now that it is more than 40 years since Bob Dylan plugged in an amplifier at the hallowed festival. In recent years, the festival has featured big-name rock acts to top the lineup and attract ticket buyers, but the bulk of the program has maintained the its traditional focus on homemade music styles.

The lineup announced yesterday includes acts like The Black Crowes, Cat Power, Stephen Marley, Cowboy Junkies, Jimmy Buffet and others that seem to be shifting the focus towards roots rock. Faithful festival-goers are watching closely because of changes underway at the festival's production company, Festival Network, which acquired long-time producer Festival Productions Inc. last year.

Bob Jones, who has headed the festival for more than 40 years, is still nominally in charge, but associate producer Jay Sweet, an editor of Paste Magazine, seems to be putting his stamp on the historic event. In a recent interview with Fox25 News, Sweet said, "This year is going to be a lot different. We are trying to bring more youth into the festival, and let people know that in our own backyard in New England we have a really first-class festival."

Actually, the Sunday schedule trends toward somewhat folkier styles, with Jimmy Buffet, Levon Helm, Gillian Welch, and The Avett Brothers heading the bill. It may be that the festival programmers are setting up a schedule that will skew younger and rockier on Saturday and older and folkier on Sunday.

Or it may be too early to divine the producers' intentions. More artists are due to be announced soon.

One sign of the times is the scheduled appearance by Jakob Dylan, son of Bob, with his new band The Gold Mountain Rebels. Dylan is on a number of top festival lineups this summer, including Bonnaroo, Rothbury, and Austin City Limits, as well as Newport Folk.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dancin' Dave: "Me and Sammy"

Dancin' Dave is well-known personality on the roots festival scene. Besides boogie-ing, he supports the festival industry by providing a camp setup service for out-of-town attendees at about a dozen festivals a year. In the past we have posted some of his regular email musings. Now we are glad to see that he has launched a regular blog.

The first several posts are some thoughts on the upcoming MerleFest. Today he began a series of posts about Sam Bush, whom he regards as the "king of newgrass" and his all-time favorite musician. As our welcome to the blogosphere for a fellow festival head, here is an excerpt from Dave's first "me and Sammy" installment. Go here for the full report plus more to come.

I had known for a long time that I should visit Nashville. I finally did in 1996, when I had some extra time on my hands while on the way to Merlefest. I met some friends who were headed down to New Orleans for the Jazzfest, and we spent a couple of days exploring the Music City. It was a blast!

I had heard of the Station Inn in Nashville, so this was one spot that had to be checked out. We went there on Friday night, and upon entering the building I noticed a small, hand-written note on a torn off piece of paper, announcing that Sam Bush was playing the next night. So that evening for my first Station Inn show was Butch Balassardi's Nashville Mandolin Ensemble—eight mandolins, one guitar and bass. It was amazing.

The next day we were driving around Nashville, thinking of getting something to eat, when I realized that we were near the Station Inn. Just for giggles, I mentioned that we ought to stop to see if Sam was rehearsing. We actually did drive over and noticed that the padlock was unlocked and just hanging on the door. My friend Sandra jumped out of the car, rushed into the place, came back out, and motioned for us to join her. Sure enough, Sam and his buddies were about to start to rehearse. I asked Sam (we didn't know each other at this point) if I could hang around and he graciously said: "Sure, make yourself at home...we're breaking in a new guitar player, a fellow named Darrell Scott, and he's a dandy."

Brian and Sandra were still hungry so they took off, but I somehow lost my appetite, so I stayed and watched as Sam and John Cowan taught Darrell some songs. Larry Atamaniuk was drummin' up a storm, and I hung around all afternoon. I was the only person in the place, other than the band and two sound men. At one point Sam pointed out that there was beer in the coolers behind the bar, so now I was really in bluegrass heaven. Later that night, Sam and the boys rocked the joint!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

DelFest schedule looks dandy

The full music schedule and other festival details are up for the first ever DelFest, coming Memorial Day weekend in Cumberland MD. Besides the great lineup (more below), the festival has special touches like a late-night stage, artist workshops, kids' area and great onsite camping. Early bird ticketing ends April 14. Go here for more on ticketing and the deluxe VIP plans.

The lineup is a delightful mix of styles that is a reflection of the festival's namesake Del McCoury—some big country names (Vince Gill and Dierks Bentley), a top lineup of jam bands (Keller Williams and The Keels, Emmitt-Nershi Band, Railroad Earth, Vince Herman's new project, and Jon Fishman as artist-at-large, the best in progressive bluegrass (Sam Bush, David Grisman, Chris Thile and more), and assorted other folk musicians (David Bromberg, Abigail Washburn, and Adrienne Young).

For great straight-ahead bluegrass, there is the Steep Canyon Rangers, Dan Paisley & The Southern Grass, Ronnie Reno and of course the host Del McCoury Band, on stage each night at 8:30 as a warm up for the big closing act.

This is shaping up to be a great festival launch, and its western Maryland location is in easy reach of cities around the eastern U.S. Partners McCoury Music and High Sierra look like they have a winning concept here.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Yonder Mountain returns to 7th NW String Summit

Jamgrass standard bearers Yonder Mountain String Band will return as host band for the seventh year at Northwest Sting Summit July 18-20 at Horning's Hideout in North Plains OR. Also featured on the bill are special guests Darol Anger and Danny Barnes, both standout performers familiar to roots festival attendees.

This is a festival rooted in the jam market. Other jam artists on the bill are Keller Williams, Drew Emmitt, and Bill Nershi. Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell will appear in a duet performance with Barnes. Yonder Mountain will close the show each of the festival's three nights culminating in a super jam with many of the festival artists on stage.

With its natural amphitheater and ample primitive camping, Horning's Hideout is a beautiful festival venue. One of the highlights of the festival is its Friday night band competition. Tickets ($140) are available at the festival's website.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Knitters are back for Strawberry Fall

The legendary original purveyors of country punk, The Knitters, will play on the same bill as The Avett Brothers, probably the reigning champs in that category, at Strawberry Music Festival Fall, August 28-31 at Camp Mather near Groveland CA.

The festival announced the rare festival date for The Knitters along with singer-songwriter Patty Griffin as the most recent adds to a lineup also featuring Sam Bush, Marc Broussard, Mavis Staples and the Avett Brothers, among many more. Knitters guitarist Dave Alvin is an old Strawberry hand, but this will be a debut performance for The Knitters, who released one album in 1985 and another in 2005. Patty Griffin has played two previous Strawberrys, but her Spring 2006 performance was marred by cold weather.

22nd Seedtime on the Cumberland to celebrate Appalachian roots

Seedtime in eastern Kentucky refers to the period when settlers first crossed the Cumberland Gap into what was then the western wilderness. Appalshop, a non-profit arts and education center in Whitesburg KY, will present the 22nd Seedtime on the Cumberland to celebrate Appalachian culture June 10-14 on the Appalshop grounds and nearby venues.

Country traditionalist Kathy Mattea, singer-songwriter Darrell Scott and bluegrass great Jesse McReynolds—all performers with strong ties to the region—will headline the full-featured festival. Besides musical stages, the event offers film screenings, picking contests, gallery exhibits, sing-along, literary readings, a square dance and a lot more. Except for the headline concerts, all of it is free to the public.

While Seedtime has been a long time local tradition, it may gain broader notice now that Art Menius, formerly of MerleFest, has arrived as the director of Appalshop. It sure looks like a good option for the second weekend in June if you are anywhere within driving distance. There's a handy calculator on the festival directions page to figure that out.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Getting the Most from Merlefest - Preview

Watson Stage
What’s your roots music taste? Do you want to see old favorites, new discoveries, or some of each? Would you prefer to get your music in more or less intimate settings, or don’t you mind big crowds? Do you want it traditional or progressive, mountainy or rocky? Just about the only constant, and now-a-days not even that, at Merlefest is that it’s an acoustic music festival. Beyond that, it’s your choice. Merlefest, to be held in Wilkesboro, NC from April 24 – April 27 this year, is easily the largest festival held in the east by any standard. Daily attendance approaches 20,000. Thirteen different sound stages. Hundreds of performers. Dozens of vendors. Every camping space and motel/hotel room within fifty miles filled. The very top names in acoustic and bluegrass music performing. It’s all there at Merlefest. With all this size and diversity, the question arises, “How can I get the most out of my Merlefest experience?” This post is designed to help you do just that.

Gospel Jubilators on Cabin Stage

Planning - The best source for planning and managing your time at Merlefest remains the Merlefest web site. Once both a resource and a more-or-less open forum, the web site has changed in recent years, eliminating the lively message board it once carried. This has been, at least partially, replaced by The Unofficial Merlefest Forum, which provides for the discussion, but loses out because it hasn’t yet attracted the large group once posting at the Merlefest home site. Despite this loss, the official site of this great festival still provides most of the information you need in order to plan your four days in Wilkesboro.

Scene at Creekside Stage

Where to Stay – During our first four years at Merlefest, we stayed on campus in our trailer. Last year, when they raised the price, we migrated out to Fort Hamby on W. Kerr Scott Reservoir outside town. It worked for us. There are other campgrounds in the area, but by this time they are pretty well filled. The Merlefest web site gives a good overview of these. Unless you’re very lucky, you won’t find a motel room in the area, and if you do, it’ll be quite expensive. For next year, make your reservations early.

Doc Watson at Creekside

Seeing What You Want and Getting Around - Your first task, and do it today, is to download and print the Merlefest Schedule. Once you arrive at Merlefest, the pocket guide the festival provides will become your best friend, but until then you can use these Adobe PDF documents as a tool to guide your planning. The pocket guide will also be accompanied by a large, elaborate, and useful festival program describing all the performers as well as detailing the vendors and their locations. Until you get this booklet in your hands, the 2008 line-up will have to do. This listing has the advantage of providing links to most of the artists performing at Merlefest, allowing you to research them to your heart’s content and listen to samples of their music. Since one of the great joys of Merlefest is being introduced to new bands and sounds, this resource shouldn’t be overlooked. You can also find a festival map here. This recently updated map provides a much more accurate picture of the Wilkes Community College campus than earlier versions. The only missing element is a sense of the geography of the place, and this is important. At Merlefest you’ll do a lot of walking and climbing. The campus is quite hilly, the hills are steep, and two important stages (Walker Center and Hillside) require quite a hike. The final important resource is a list of stages. Click on stages on the Merlefest home page and you’ll be provided a list of each stage at the festival. Select each one and read about its focus. I’d prefer a more elaborate discussion, but combined with the map and the artists list, this link is helpful. Remember the reserve seating section at Watson Stage is open until 5:00 PM. Just go in and sit in an empty seat. If the owner returns, move somewhere else. Some people with strong bladders manage to stay inside into the evening, but once you leave, you won't get back. Once you have these resources in hand, you can begin to chart out a tentative schedule. But remember what Don Rigsby sang, “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.”

Sam Bush's Annual Jam

Dressing for Merlefest is an important consideration. Remember a few things. It always rains at Merlefest. You won’t know when or how much, but count on rain. No matter how warm, sunny and pleasant the day is the evening is likely to be cool or even cold. The Watson Stage is set on a flat plain surrounded by steep hills. As the sun sets, cooling air begins to roll down from the hillsides and settle onto this main performance area. By nine or ten in the evening, everyone wishes they had more and warmer clothing. Bring several layers of clothes with you, including a fresh, dry, warm pair of socks. Remember that keeping your feet and head warm increases your chance of keeping the rest of you warm. As the evening progresses, layer up to stay warm. In the bottom of your pack, make sure you have a nylon shell to ward off dampness in either its drifting or falling form.

Reserve Seats at Watson Stage

Eating at Merlefest - A couple who have sat three rows in front of us ever since we began coming to Merlefest always carry a lot of food in with them. I suspect, in addition to hors d’oerves, they have the forbidden cocktails in a thermos. They carry fruit, salads…all they need for the day. Our seat neighbors always bring sandwiches as well as plenty of snacks with them. Both ways work well. We do some of that, too. However, we also believe in doing what we can to support the vendors at the festival. The massive food tent, to the left of the Watson Stage, offers a range of foods from hamburgers and hot dogs, through barbecue, to Thai, Italian, and Indian specialties. Meals are tasty and reasonably priced. There’s one problem: at meal times the lines are long and seats at the nearby tables are scarce. The best way to shorten your wait in line is to eat at off hours or during the performances of big headliners. You can hear from the food tent and see the huge television screen, and the lines seem to be shorter. Last year, several vendors of snack foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, and the ever popular funnel cakes were spread around the grounds. There were still long lines. I’ve been told that this year the festival has worked with vendors to increase efficiency and staffing at high traffic periods. They’ve also worked to make pick-up foods like hot dog, hamburgers, pizza, and ice-cream more available in high traffic areas. Coffee will be brewed on-campus making it more quickly available in larger quantities. Merlefest leadership is aware of the problems and has worked hard to alleviate them.

The Great Tut Tayler - Honoring the Pioneers

Chances to connect with band members are smaller, briefer, and less intimate than at typical festival settings. Merlefest is too large and complex for much meeting and greeting or shake and howdying. If you want to get to know members of a band, this isn’t the place, but you can say hi and get autographs either at scheduled signings at the entrance to the Watson Stage or get a chance for somewhat closer contact at the smaller stages spread about the campus. The map, the schedule, and the stage descriptions, taken together, will help you make these choices. It’s not as frequent at Merlefest as at other festivals to see band members around the grounds, but that happens sometimes, too. Often, however, they seem to be with friends and give off a vibe of preferring not to be interrupted.

The Little Pickers Tent
Instrument contests and the Chris Austin song writing contest are central elements of Merlefest. The recognition coming to a musician who wins an instrument contest or the visibility a songwriter gains from having a song sung from the cabin stage can serve as important boosts to a career. Contest winners get to sing their songs from the Cabin Stage on Saturday night, and it’s a pretty big deal. Sometimes you hear new songs that end up in major albums a year or so later. Lorraine Jordan had a song take second place a couple of years ago. Grasstowne selected “Devil’s Road” which Brink Brinkman won with for recording and performance. It’s a great showcase. Another feature of Merlefest is the organized jams happening almost every day. These jams bring musicians from different bands, but often with a musical affinity, together for an extended extemporaneous performance. Last year, at one point, the members of New Grass Revival were on stage at once for the first time in years. Such jams take place at a variety of stages. Another opportunity to see musicians jamming occurs at the area sponsored by the Wilkes Acoustic Society both during the festival and during the three evenings preceding it.

Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson on Stage
I thought maybe I’d put up a list of bands I particularly wanted to see and hear during Merlefest. I went through the 2008 Merlefest lineup, looked at my choices, and decided they were mine. Merlefest is actually 20,000 different festivals each day. As such, it’s up to each person who attends to decide who they want to see, and how much effort they want to make to see them. I showed the list to my wife and her concern was our ability to stay in touch when not at the same performance. Lots of people carry walkie talkies. I recommend not bringing them and relying on cell phones instead. There are just too many people clogging up too few channels to make the family radios very good communications tools. Be sure, however, to keep your cell phone on vibrate so your ring tone doesn’t bother others.

Evening Jam on Watson Stage
In the end Doc Watson and his friends established and maintain the spirit of Merlefest. The festival is a celebration of his son Eddie Merle, but it’s a recognition of Doc’s accomplishments, his taste, and his friends. As long as that remains, the festival will continue to be one of the great musical events in America. Doc’s spirit pervades the entire event.

Annual Sand Sculpture
For a different perspective focused on specific musicians and coming from a somewhat differently nuanced place, read Derek Halsey’s Merlefest Preview here.

Merlefest's Heart - Doc Watcon

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Indoor bluegrass is fine at Carolina Road

Ted Lehmann posts his usual in-depth review and photo gallery from the Southeast circuit, this time from the second Carolina Road Homecoming last weekend in Burlington NC.

Here's an except. Visit Ted's site for the full report.

Wow! What a weekend of music, jamming, getting together with old friends, and making new ones. Usually, we prefer to take our bluegrass music outdoors, come rain or shine. The festival scene works great when RVers pull in from all parts of the country to congregate for a few days before returning home or moving on to the next event. On this, the last weekend in March, however, North Carolina is an unlikely place for an outdoor festival. While it was quite warm on Friday, Saturday turned chilly and wet; even a pretty tough and committed festival goer would have been challenged to stay outdoors for the music.

Inside the Burlington, NC Ramada Inn, however, it was warm and toasty, the bands ran from quite good to outstanding, the jamming reached heights I hadn’t heard at many other festivals, and Lorraine Jordan, one of the hardest working people in bluegrass, aided by her very competent staff and a herd of committed volunteers, kept things running smoothly and people involved and having fun.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Great Southern shows great potential

Promoter Ernie Evans and park owner Pat Tillman courageously took on the task of creating, promoting, and presenting a bluegrass festival in only six weeks after the unfortunate demise of the Spirit of Suwannee Bluegrass festival. While too few people came, this festival bodes well for the future if they decide to continue to build the lineups offered here as well as to develop the site.

Read the full review by Ted Lehmann.

If You Go: Festival Internationale de Louisiane

Tips for festival-goers: Tiny Lafayette Regional Airport serves only a few airlines, requiring a stop in Houston or Dallas. But good interstates make Lafayette a long and hard but possible drive from much of the South and Southwest. Festival Preview has never heard of anyone camping out for this event—not the best idea in alligator country. The local motels, most on the borderline seedy Evangeline Throughway, are cheap and plentiful. You do need a car to get around, but you can use it to visit local tourist attractions such as the Evangeline Oak (so you can say you did it), the McIlhenny plant where Tabasco sauce comes from (underwhelming but the grounds are nice) and dozens of alligators lounging, yawning and occasionally munching on nutria at Lake Martin in the Cypress Island Preserve (awesome).

Preview: Festival Internationale de Louisiane

Festival Internationale—funky, free regional alternative

By Donald Frazier

As the best-kept secret in Louisiana music, the Festival Internationale has presented music of southern Louisiana and the rest of the French-speaking world for the last 22 years to a loyal local audience, plus an increasing number of fans who make the 135-mile drive from the more famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on the same weekend.

The year’s event, taking place April 23-27 in downtown Lafayette LA, marks a well-rounded Louisiana-based program, with headliners such as slide guitar bluesman and local hero Sonny Landreth, The Blind Boys of Alabama, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band Horns, Geno Delafose and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Others include The Duhks, Burning Spear, Terrence Simien & The Zydeco Experience, Yerba Buena, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstahunk, hailed by The New York Times as “the best funk band from New Orleans,” and a score of other acts from a music-rich local region offering zydeco, blues, and even the more electric kind of Cajun.

What you won’t hear is the strong focus on the Francophone world of previous years. Word-class French-speaking superstars such as Salif Keita (Mali), Baaba Maal (Senegal), Boukman Experyans (Haiti), Angelique Kidjo (Benin), Kanda Bongo Man (Congo) and Ali Farka Toure (Mali) made this event a unique annual must-see for the burgeoning world music crowd in the 1990s. But civil war in Zaire (now Congo) plus post-9/11 travel restrictions reduced the trans-Atlantic traffic to a trickle.

The program still has decent representation from Africa and the French West Indies, if not of the same level. Guitarist Habib Koite, one of the most accessible of Mali’s musicians, heads up an African contingent with lesser known entries from Niger and Togo. Among Caribbean performers, the program includes Cuba’s Javier Garcia and acts from Martinique, Jamaica and Belize.

What the Festival Internationale does not have in African music it makes up in street-party vibe. Most of downtown Lafayette is blocked off for the festival with its four main stages, food courts, and a much better than usual retail pavilion with a strong selection of funky world-beat gear. A number of arts organizations conduct exhibits, erect street art, and perform street theater. The food – this is Louisiana – is anywhere from pretty good to downright memorable, and mostly quite cheap. Much drinking on the street, with no designated stumbler required. As the high point of the season in a sleepy Southern town, this festival draws locals quite heavily, diluted only when students from Louisiana State University in nearby Baton Rouge flood in starting Friday afternoon.

In an era of increasingly corporate musical events, this one is friendly, community-based and unlikely to ever become part of a national circuit. As such, it can be somewhat ragged around the edges, but there's a big upside. While JazzFest becomes more and more of a mainstream, pop-flavored event, the Festival Internationale will always retain a vibrant regional identity.

And did we point out – it is entirely free.

Attendee tips

Monday, March 24, 2008

Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen

Commander Cody & The Lost Planet Airmen
Yes, the feel-good swing-rockers from the '70s--think "Hot Rod Lincoln"--are back on the circuit with Commander George Frayne leading a lively new unit. The band has its roots in Ann Arbor but hit it big as part of the San Francisco scene with a sound that set the stage for other bands like New Riders of the Purple Sage and Asleep At the Wheel.

Personnel: George Frayne (keyboard, vocals), Steve Barbuto (drums, vocals), Rick Mullen (bass), Mark Emerick (guitar, vocals)

Commander Cody Plymouth MA 2006

Video by 50174.