Friday, January 11, 2008

First-in-the-nation bluegrass at Portland's RiverCity

[Seldom Scene closes out RiverCity on Sunday afternoon.]

The year in roots acoustic music got underway on the first weekend of 2008 with the fourth running of the RiverCity Bluegrass Festival at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland OR.

Among an outstanding lineup of top bluegrass names, the top music headline was the debut of one of the sure-fire new acts on the roots festival circuit, the Dan Tyminski Band, headed by the Alison Krauss & Union Station guitarist and including bluegrass standouts Adam Steffey on mandolin and Ron Stewart on banjo.

Actually, the band's Saturday show was its third official performance, after gigs in Nashville and San Francisco earlier in the week. See the related post for details on the Tyminski Band set.

For a still-emerging festival, RCBF put on an outstanding lineup, featuring top acts Seldom Scene, Tim O'Brien, Del McCoury Band, Rhonda Vincent, Marty Stuart and many more. Styles ran the spectrum of acoustic music from bluegrass gospel (Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver) to Texas country (The Flatlanders) to improvisational string-band (Darol Anger's Republic of Strings).

Other standouts included David Grisman Quintet, Dry Branch Fire Squad, Foghorn Stringband, David Grier, John Reischman, Tony Furtado, Bryan Bowers, plus a whole contingent of Pacific Northwest regional bands.

Besides the outstanding lineup, the event impressed me as a full-featured festival experience--with two stages, full-fledged workshop program, kids program, extensive vendor exhibits, attendee jams in halls and lobbies, and a special "jam train" to bring in patrons from Seattle.

Convention center festivals usually lack for charm, and that was somewhat the case here. The main stage and vendor area was set in a dark, cavernous exhibit hall space, but the sound was excellent and the sight lines were fine.

Outside in the soaring glassed-in concourse, the second stage and workshop area had the bustle of an outdoor festival. The convention center central location on Portland's river front, adjacent to the trendy Pearl District, compensated for the otherwise uninspring site.

Unsurprisingly, the weather was gloomy with occasional downpours, but that didn't seem to dampen the mood. The festival promoters did not have an official attendance count, but were hoping to hit about 4000 for the three days, which seemed consistent with my rough estimate of the crowd sizes.

Unlike many festivals, RCBF is run as a for-profit enterprise, though the profit part may continue to be theoretical. It is run by Palmer/Wirfs & Associates, a Portland exhibition producer specializing in antique shows and similar events.

For Christine Palmer and her husband Chuck, it seems to be more a labor of love than a breakthrough business opportunity. The area bluegrass community has embraced the event by volunteering and participating as though it was a non-profit undertaking.

Bravo for a top-notch event whose first-in-the-nation status makes it the bluegrass equivalent of the New Hampshire primary.

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