Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Reconfigured Duhks return to Tacoma

[Photos by David Conklin]

With all the recent personnel changes in the lineups of progressive acoustic bands, this was my first chance to catch up a band that started the trend already a year ago. That would be The Duhks, where Sarah Dugas replaced Jessica Havey as lead singer. More recently, Dugas' brother Christian has joined in on drums, replacing former percussionist Scott Senor (although they will apparently use both drummers on occasion, as they did on the recent Cayamo cruise).

The Duhks are one of the bands that have led the wave of so-called "new traditionalists," mixing folk styles from various world cultures with a heavy dollop of rock and roll energy. The Winnipeg MB band has been a hit on the roots festival circuit for several years now, including at two earlier Wintergrass festivals.

After missing them at the festivals I attended in 2007, I was anxious to see how the personnel changes affected the sound and personality of the band. As a bonus, the band has a new CD in the works, and I also got to sample The Duhks' new material.

Dugas certainly has the pipes for fronting the band—good range, tone and projection. Her duets with fiddler Tania Elizabeth, who now gets a more prominent supporting role, were very fine. It is not as clear that her personality and image meshes as well, however.

Not that I would expect her to match Havey in the body art department, but there is something rebellious about The Duhks' persona and Dugas seemed possibly too conventional for the part.

Mannerisms aside, The Duhks' music was true and consistent in the older material, and the new songs (a new album is on the way) build on the band's sound rather than depart from it.

They kicked off both sets I saw with a rocking "Fast-Paced World," which seems to describe both the band's international lifestyle and its up-tempo musical attack. As much as Senor added to the band with his variety of percussion instruments, the addition of a full-blown drum kit serves to amp up the proceedings even more as they swung next into the Afro-rhythmic "Old Cook Pot" from the last CD.

Next they displayed their more lyrical quality, taking on the harmonies and catchy hook of "You Don't Feel It," written by Dan Frechette, who also penned the group's hit "Mists of Down Below." That might be the single to look for on the new record.

At this point in the show, the previously quiet band leader Leonard Podolak stepped up leading an instrumental medley and a fun sing-along about all all-night interstate car ride, "95 South Cackalack," which seems destined to be a trademark. He also entertained the crowd with his implsh stage banter.

As mentioned, Elizabeth seems to be playing more of a role vocally, but her main thing is her hotshot fiddling. She and guitarist Jordan McConnell took a thrilling instrumental duet, and then set the rhythm on the Cajun-flavored "Down to the River."

The overall impression I came away with is that The Duhk's sound and musical identity remains consistent despite a 40 percent turnover in personnel. They are also one of the hardest working acoustic bands, touring worldwide and appearing at festivals large and small.

I may catch them next at Festival International de Louisiane, the Francophone fest in Lafayette LA where they should fit especially well. I hope to have a follow up then.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Oh, what a (Friday) night at Wintergrass

Three of the most highly regarded progressive acoustic bands, each with a new record in the can but not yet released, previewed their new material in a glorious evening of music Friday night on the Wintergrass main stage. The show featuring Crooked Still, The Infamous Stringdusters, and Punch Brothers with Chris Thile burnished this festival's growing reputation as a prime venue for innovative acoustic string music.

To be sure, Wintergrass presents straight-ahead bluegrass as well. The early evening program at the Pavilion Stage presented mainstream stars Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper and Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-press. Cleveland's band is full of hot pickers, not least the fiddling front man who has notched numerous IBMA honors, but the set seems packaged as an act, lacking the kind of spontaneity we would shortly be hearing. At 79, Osborne is a delight as a surviving bluegrass pioneer, but you don't see him expecting anything new.

Crooked Still
With the traditional bases covered, Wintergrass then brought out the musical firepower. First up was Crooked Still, reconfigured with Tristan Clarridge on cello in place of wild man Rushad Eggleston and with semi-regular special guest Casey Driessen on fiddle. Another new member, Brittany Haas, was not on hand, however.

As did each of the three bands, Crooked Still featured its new material while mixing in favorites from previous albums. As usual, the focal point in the band is vocalist Aoife O'Donovon, whose whispery voice and collaborative band leadership sets the tone for the proceedings. Probably the big question was how Clarridge would fit as Eggleston's replacement. The answer is that he delivers all of Rushad's trademark chops and that he adds an improvisational lyricism as an added dimension.

Of course, he could never match Rushad's personality and wisely doesn't try, letting his bow work speak for itself. Clarridge is a string-band prodigy, having won numerous fiddle championships beginning at a very young age. Now 23, he began playing cello a few years ago. In an interview with Festival Preview last month, he described himself as a follower of Eggleston's cello playing style.

The interplay of low sounds coming from Clarridge's cello and Corey DiMarco's bass, the treble coming from Driessen's artistic fiddling, and the staccato of Greg Liszt's banjo produce a unique sound, especially layered over with O'Donovan's vocals. Rushad is a unique talent, but Crooked Still will now play more as a unit without his outsized presence.

O'Donovan returned the favor from Tuesday night and had Sarah Jarosz join in on a couple of songs, including a new original by O'Donovan, "Low Down and Dirty." That was one of the highlights of the set that we can expect to see on the new album in a few months. A couple of others that stood out were "Captain Captain," "Tell Her to Come Back Home," and Robert Johnson's "Last Fair Deal Gone Down." Other new material continued the band's formula of reworking traditional folk material.

The Infamous Stringdusters
Next up was The Infamous Stringdusters, fresh off one of the hottest album debuts in recent memory. Last fall, the band picked up IBMA awards for album of the year and new band of the year. The sextet played Wintergrass a year ago, and last night marked their triumphant return.

The 'Dusters also had a recent band personnel change, with Andy Falco replacing hot guitar picker Chris Eldridge (who joined Punch Brothers, coming up next on stage). Falco delivers all the licks and superfast runs Eldridge supplied, ably holding down the guitar seat in an amazing instrumental ensemble that also includes Chris Pandolfi on banjo, Jeremy Garrett on fiddle, Jesse Cobb on mandolin, Andy Hall on dobro, and Tavis Book on bass.

Book, Garrett and Hall trade off on lead vocals, adding to the ensemble direction of the band. More than half of the set was new material, with a few of the hits from Fork in the Road interspersed. The new stuff is all over the map, but the common denominator is the improvisational opportunities each song provides.

Several times, the jams veered into jazzy territory and occasionally into rock and roll. Each musician is impressive, but it seems to be Pandolfi who most often leads the band into unexpected forays. They closed with an jazz instrumental encore, "Moon Man" by Pandolfi, that was a delight. Expect that along with a host of great new vocal numbers on their new album due in June.

Punch Brothers
At this point, I am thinking, how can Chris Thile's new act top those two wonderful sets? The answer is by venturing even further out into musical abstraction. The centerpiece of the performance would be the third and fourth movements of Thile's ambitious newgrass suite, "The Blind Leading the Blind," which is also the core of Punch Brothers' new album due out next week. (The band played the first two movements in an earlier set at the Church Stage that I missed.)

Punch Brothers is the new name for Thile's band, previously known as How to Grow a Band and including Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo, Gabe Witcher on fiddle, and Greg Garrison on bass, in addition to Thile's incomparable mandolin. If the Stringdusters start in bluegrass and veer into jazz, Punch Brothers starts in jazz and veers into avant-garde classical. This was my first hearing of the suite, which is a piece that will require multiple listenings to fully understand.

The suite is Thile's tour-de-force individual composition, but the rest of the material in the set and on the album is collaboratively written by all the band members, some as abstract as the suite but some grounded in familiar melodies and styles. The night closed with an encore of "Ophelia," the great song by The Band, with Gabe Witcher singing the part of Levon Helm. Wonderful.

As the happy audience filed out out of the Pavilion, many to head for the late-night dance venue or to post-midnight jams in the hotel, I had a sudden realization that this may have been the most exciting evening of music I have ever witnessed on a festival program. Oh, what a night!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Laura Love "represents" with Black and Bluegrass program at Wintergrass

There was plenty of representing and testifying at Wintergrass on opening night, with three bands exploring the "Afro-American roots of bluegrass," as hometown folk diva Laura Love described the program she curated. And while there may have been a little more funk involved than in a standard night of bluegrass, the program made a convincing case for the relationship between black music forms and the old-time mountain music that developed into the genre known as bluegrass.

But if that sounds like it was an academic exercise, it wasn't. Actually, beyond describing the idea for the program, Love did relatively little talking. Mainly the music—from Love's new ensemble Harper's Ferry, the Ebony Hillbillies and Ruthie Foster—spoke for itself.

The Ebony Hillbillies were a late replacement for the scheduled Carolina Chocolate Drops, who had to cancel. While the Hillbillies were fresh and fun, the night lost some context without the Drops, who regularly talk about the history of black string band music in their performances.

Love said she approached the festival with the idea because she is accustomed to performing at events like Wintergrass, Merlefest and Telluride, where she is frequently the only person of color performing. "But I have been noticing there are more and more black musicians reclaiming this music," she said.

Reclaim it they did. The three bands offered a range of Afro-American music styles such as blues, gospel, and old time presented with acoustic string instruments (except for Love's own electric bass) that clearly were influences on and influenced by bluegrass.

Love's Harper Ferry kicked off the night with a six-piece band featuring Orville Johnson on guitar (Love said he as an "honorary Negro"), plus banjo rapper Turbo, Tanya Richardson on fiddle, Tory Trujillo on backup vocals and Clifford Ervin on the bones. Their set began with traditional material like "Cuckoo" and "Cotton-Eyed Joe" before moving on to spirituals like "Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Not Be Moved."

Looking and sounding like a latter-day Dave Van Ronk, Johnson impressed with his fine guitar work and high-harmony vocals, especially when he was featured on "Nobody's Fault But Mine" and Bill Monroe's classic "Working On a Building."

For an encore, banjo player Turbo led on a funky-chicken version of "Cluck Old Hen" that brought down the house.

Next up were the Ebony Hillbillies, a little known group of New York street musicians who present a more urbanized style of African string music, if that makes sense. They say that they hail from the "concrete hills of New York City." Their lead instruments are fiddle, banjo and mountain dulcimer, with bass and percussion backup.

I think it is not accurate to compare them with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who play a more authentic but also a more studied form of mainly banjo-based music. Still they have an original and welcome new sound that adds to the texture of contemporary black acoustic music.

>The closer was Ruthie Foster, who lived up to her "phenomenal" billing with a strong set of eclectic material and lots of stage personality that entertained the late night audience. Backed by a bass and drums, she performed traditionals, covers of Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, an amazing reworking of Stephen Foster's "O' Susannah," and several of her own numbers, including a delicious imitation of Sam Cooke.

Her story about blues singer Jessie May Hemphill shooting a hole in her Gibson guitar was a great introduction for Hurt's "Richland Woman Blues." Now I know that Richland is a section of Memphis where the night life used to be. Any dude will do, indeed.

Foster finished with a rousing take of Son House's "Grinnin' In Your Face," with Love joining her on stage for a howling finish to an original and provocative night of music.

Sarah Jarosz impresses as Wintergrass opener

Wintergrass has been a champion of the youth movement in acoustic music—not just the crop of young bands like The Duhks, Infamous Stringdusters and Crooked Still who are playing here this weekend, but also the amazing bluegrass prodigies who we have watched grow up at Wintergrass and a few other festivals.

One of those kids is Sarah Jarosz, the 17-year-old Texan who first gained notice for her mandolin picking but is now emerging as a full-blown performer on every acoustic instrument but especially as a singer-songwriter. Jarosz opened the Wintergrass festival Thursday night fronting a musically inventive trio including teen prodigy compatriots Alex Hargreaves on fiddle and Sam Grisman on bass.

Jarosz alternated among banjo, guitar and her trademark mandolin on a series of her own compositions, both vocal arrangements and instrumentals, as well as some well chosen covers.

Like any young vocalist, she takes a risk singing love songs, but she comes close to convincing on the couple she tried. In her classy blue dress and high boots, she is emerging not only as a musician but as a young woman, a perspective best expressed in an original song performed solo on guitar, "End of a Dream," about wanting to figure life out, which she said was written only days ago.

After the solo, the band came back with special guest Aoife O'Donovan from Crooked Still, whom Jarosz called "one of my biggest influences," for a wailing duet on another Jarosz original. For an encore, Hargreaves, Grisman and Jarosz let loose some tasty blues licks on Tom Waits' "Come Up to My House."

Jarosz has something bigger in mind than being the next bluegrass sweetheart. She has the talent and poise to be something like a future Shawn Colvin.

Wintergrass goes chic

Each time I have been to Wintergrass, I always think I'll make a visit to the famous Tacoma Museum of Glass, but each year the music schedule is so intense that I never seem to make it. This year it seems that the museum has moved in with the festival, with the newly renovated festival hotel, renamed The Murano, features beautiful glass art throughout the hotel, much of it truly stunning.

You might wonder how all that high design fits with the flavor of a bluegrass festival that has inhabited this space for all of its dozen years of operation. This answer is pretty well. There are lots of changes—lobby and lounge spaces rearranged, some no-jam zones, and boutique hotel flourishes throughout.

But the jammers seem to be finding new favorite places to set up, including a lounge area with fireplace to one side of the lobby that is a beautiful cozy nook. Even though parts of the renovation are still in progress, everything looks to be working smoothly.

One issue with the old hotel was not easy to fix, and the three elevators are again overwhelmed with traffic. Anyone trying to make it to suites on the upper floors may wait several minutes for an elevator and then make a dozen or more stops on the way up.

Jamming at Joe Val

Our friend Lisa G, who blogs at Festive Living, filed a report and photo gallery from last weekend's Joe Val Bluegrass Festival in Framingham MA.

Here's a great excerpt about the elevator jams at the festival. Go here for the full report and here for the images.

When one thinks of elevator music, it usually brings to mind some bland, boring background music meant to relax, but invariably having the opposite effect (at least to me). But at the festival this past weekend in Framingham, MA , the term "elevator music" took on a whole new meaning.

As you ride the elevator between floors, you can hear the sounds of banjos and mandolins getting closer and closer and then surprise! The doors slide open to a pickin' party. Don't care for that rendition of "Old Home Place"? Step back in, go up or down a floor and find another group playing "Foggy Mountain Breakdown".

This is what turns a 3-day concert into a real bluegrass festival, since bluegrass is a type of music where a high percentage of the audience are musicians themselves. You can just travel between floors listening to or taking part in endless jams all weekend.

Quaint old stage may be history at Grey Fox

While reaction on the Grey Fox email list to news about the festival's new site has been generally positive, posters expressed surprise and concern about the festival's decision not to use its historic old stage on the new grounds.

The same funky little stage has been used since the founding of the festival, but it lacks the facilities and amenities of a modern festival stage. So I can see that it makes sense for Grey Fox to use the move as an opportunity to upgrade, although rumors of a temporary metal stage are disappointing.

Probably it is too late for this year to build out an elaborate new facility, so bringing in a portable structure may be the only alternative. I have no doubt that management will do all they can with stage sets and graphics to make it feel homey. But nobody expects it to have the charm and character of the old stage.

Hopefully, the portable stage will be a stopgap solution and plans are underway for a grand new structure on the Walsh Farm site for Grey Fox 2009 and beyond.

Meanwhile, email list posters are proposing lots of interesting ideas about what to do with the old stage. A section of it could be incorporated in a new design, or pieces of it could be auctioned for charity.

The following post by Angela Hall was one of the moving tributes to the old stage.

Now that we are about to settle onto the [Walsh] Farm site and are filled with anticipation and heightened excitement for all things new. I lament over what I consider to be a true loss, that is, of our Main Stage.

Our sweet, looks like somebody's front porch, little stage resonates with the harmonies, melodies and rhythms of (without exaggeration) some of the greatest music in the world.

Our little stage, all dressed up in its best floral arrangements, was both humble and charming at the same time. It has nurtured the likes of the Shankman Twins, Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, to name a few, as they grew and honed there art. Not to mention the future Casey Dreasons, Sam Bushs, Mark Suttons, Missy Raines through the Kids Academy. Who's performances highlighted Sunday Morning.

It has hosted the Greats of Bluegrass. Some of which are no longer with us. One memory I hold dear was standing in the pouring rain in 2000, mud up to my ankles, to hear John Hartford, loving every second of it.

This is where Doc Watson sat. This is where Del McCoury stood. This is where Rushad Eggelston leap into the crowd. This is where the "Old And In The Way" reunion was held and where Sam Bush played until 2:00 a.m. and that's only "current events."

This little stage has endured season after season, loyally waiting for the warmth and beauty that came annually every third week in July.

Not modern, back stage looked like a shack. But, if walls could talk! This truly is a relic of Americana History and will be missed. For this I mourn.

Way down yonder in the Indian nation

By Jimmy Carlisle

With festival season looming, in a matter of months it will be time to make the annual pilgrimage back to those Oklahoma hills where Mr. Woodrow Wilson Guthrie was born. But to you and me, he’s just plain old Woody.

This year's event runs July 9-13 in Okemah OK. I have been attending the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival since its first year in 1997. It was of course smaller 11 years ago, but the spirit has grown along with the attendance. The festival has grown into a homecoming for both the artists and the fans. A handful of artists are festival regulars. Jimmy Lafave, Ellis Paul, Joel Rafael, the Red Dirt Rangers, Don Conoscenti and Bob Childers have appeared at every festival.

This year's preliminary lineup includes all those plus John Gorka, Sara Hickman, Butch Hancock and more. Over the years, performers such as The Kingston Trio, Country Joe McDonald, Jackson Brown, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Pete Seeger as have come through the hallowed streets of Okemah Oklahoma. The list goes on and on. And it only takes playing in Okemah once to become a member of the Woodyfest family.

From the first year with the only performance venue being out at the Pastures of Plenty, it has grown to the point where the hardest decision you have is not who to see, but how are you going to see as many artist as you possibly can each day. Of course, you have to start your day off at the Brick Street Café, but then your choices get harder.

You have the option of staying at the Brick and enjoying great performers right there, or you walk out the front door and turn left and go next door to the Rocky Road Tavern and enjoy some great open mic sets the are presented by the Oklahoma Songwriters and Composers Association. Or you walk the few blocks to the Crystal Theater, considered the second main venue of the festival, to take in another stage of festival greats.

Mixed in with those decisions are the ones that involve the Children's Festival on Saturday morning, or finding the time to explore town and see where Woody left his marks in the cement on main street, or walking down to the Hot and Cold Water towers, and finding time to pay your respects out at the cemetery on the hill overlooking the town of Okemah.

This is a festival that demands a full five days of your time. And when Sunday afternoon rolls around and you realize its 2 o’clock and the hootenanny at the Crystal is over and its time to hit the road and head home, you will think to yourself, "do we have to go?" and "how long is it till next year’s festival?" That’s when you realize that your have become part of the Woodyfest family.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Ted Lehmann on the ETA Bluegrass Cruise

Intrepid festival blogger Ted Lehmann leaves his RV parked in Miami this week while aboard the ETA Bluegrass Cruise with Cherryholmes, Grasstowne, Bradley Walker and more. His first installment of his shipboard blog (Internet access is $.37 a minute) is more about the ship than the music. If you ever wondered what it is like on a music cruise, Ted's reports will give you a good idea what to expect.

Here's a snippet about the first evening concert on Sunday night:

The bluegrass crowd reassembled in the Sphinx Lounge for the first bluegrass show of the week. There are about 270 people on the bluegrass cruise most had time to change back into more comfortable clothing in keeping with the usually informal dress of a bluegrass festival, which after all, this looks very much like, even if it’s taking place at sea.

Promoter Steve Wallach served as emcee, combining his usual combination of corny stories, long experience running this cruise, and familiarity with many of the people who have taken this cruise a number of times kept the proceedings moving forward in good humor.

Tonight three bands performed. Tim Graves and Cherokee opened, followed by Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road with Grasstowne closing the evening as midnight approached. The response, even from this rather stuffed and tired crowd, was enthusiastic, too say the least.

The performers, struggling with a sound system not designed for the demands of the acoustic instruments of a bluegrass band, acquitted themselves very well, and the music was of a very high quality, even though it was sometimes difficult for the musicians to keep their feet as the ship’s rolling increased into the evening.

IBMM "first generation" documentaries featured at bluegrass film festival

Three "first generation" oral history documentaries produced by the International Bluegrass Music Museum were featured at the first annual "IBMM Bluegrass Master's Film Festival" presented by the Northern California Bluegrass Society.

The event, hosted by Museum Trustee Carl Pagter, was part of the NCBS "Bluegrass On Broadway" Festival, held February 14-17, 2008 in Redwood City, CA.

The IBMM documentaries featured The Goins Brothers, Jake Quesenberry,and Vern Williams. The two non-museum films on the festival bill were about the songwriter family of Ola Belle Reed (produced by Tom Sims of the Reed family) and about Bill Knowlton's Bluegrass Ramble Picnic (produced by WCNY).

"The IBMM oral history project formed the basis for this new festival," said Michael Hall, director of the event and NCBS president. "We wanted to make these bluegrass history films available outside of the museum for our California fans."

The successful first-time film festival will likely become an annual part of the larger "BOB" city-wide music festival. The film event was produced by the Society with financial support from the Redwood City Civic Cultural Commission and the Redwood City Public Library.

The 3 festival films were chosen from the IBMM's 18 completed documentaries. Over 150 additional "First Generation" documentaries have been shot and are currently in the production process. Three more IBMM films will be used in 2009.

NCBS has issued a call for bluegrass documentaries to fill the non-museum slots on next year's program. Submissions should be sent to Michael Hall, 610 Island Place, Redwood City, CA. 94065. Deadline: October 10, 2008.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ebony Hillbillies to fill Chocolate Drop slot at Wintergrass

Wintergrass moved quickly to fill the Thursday-Friday hole created when the Carolina Chocolate Drops cancelled their appearance at the festival, which opens in one week. The replacement band, The Ebony HIllbillies, are another African American string band--this one from New York City--playing banjo-driven mountain music. They appeared at last year's IBMA conference, where they apparently caught the eye of the Wintergrass organizers.

They appear to be a near perfect replacement for CCD in the Thursday night "Black and Bluegrass" program, which also features Laura Love and Ruthie Foster. (I saw the Drops perform last week in Berkeley, and plan to post a review soon.)

For those unfamiliar with the Ebony Hillbillies, check out this video by carltheclod:

Monday, February 11, 2008

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Grey Fox finds its farm

The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival has a new home in Greene County, New York, across the Hudson and 45 miles from its old location. The festival announced it had reached an agreement to hold the 32-year-old event on the Walsh Farm, also known as the Poultney Farm, in Oak Hill NY.

The 236 acre site is said to be well suited for a festival--relatively flat with open fields and some woodlands, bordered on one side by Catskill Creek. In the announcement, festival spokesperson Mary Burdette also noted that the land parcel "is shaped like a mandolin."

Excited Grey Fox patrons spent the day looking at Internet mapping programs to get the lay of the land (see above). Overall, the reviews among festival regulars were mostly positive. The new location is still within easy range of Boston, New York and is an hour closer for anyone coming from the west. Logistics are likely to be easier in a level location.

Though just a county away, there will be differences. The festival was begun as the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival and has always identified with that mountain range. The view from the old festival site was westward to the Catskill Mountains in the distance. Now the new site is in the shadow of those same Catskills.

In its announcement, the festival noted that Greene County is known for its Irish and Celtic culture. Bluegrass music, of course, is based in large measure on the music of the British Isles.

The announcement puts the focus back on producing a 2008 festival this July 17-20. Sam Bush was added as a Saturday closer to boost an already strong lineup. Musically, the most anticipated performance of the festival is sure to be the 30th anniversary reunion of Hot Rize.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Life After The Waybacks

I had a chance the other day to listen to a podcast interview with former Waybacks finger-picker Stevie Coyle on Michael Gaither's Songs and Stories blog. It's a loose rambling conversation covering Coyle's varied background, the Bay Area music scene and the influence of Hot Tuna. It was recorded a month before he stepped down from the Waybacks to pursue solo work.

That's well underway now, according to Coyle's MySpace page. He has been in the studio and a solo CD is on the way. And he is hitting the road beginning next week for a tour in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Most of those dates are house concerts and intimate venues, but I imagine we see him on festival stages soon enough.


Bay Area bluegrass keeps on coming

A week after the currently running San Francisco Bluegrass & Old Time festival, Bay Area bluegrassers will get together some more at Bluegrass on Broadway, with events running Thursday to Sunday (February 14-17) in Redwood City CA.

The centerpiece of the event is a day-long free Bluegrass Concert & Awards Show held at the Peninsula Christian Center Main Hall in Redwood City ( February 16, 10:00am-7:00pm). The awards show hands out musician of the year honors to top Norcal pickers in various vocal and instrumental categories. The nominees are here.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Telluride lineup keeps getting better

The second round of Telluride Bluegrass lineup announcements adds cross-genre punch to an already strong lineup. The new adds are Leftover Salmon, Del McCoury Band, Paolo Nutini, Tift Merritt and Solomon Burke.

They join a roster including Sam Bush Band, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby, Ani DiFranco, Yonger Mountain String Band, Béla Fleck, Tim O'Brien Chris Thile, Peter Rowan, Jerry Douglas and lots more.

The Festivarian faithful have got to be feeling good about having all the festival all-stars on hand along with a tasty selection of newcomers.

Grey Fox site announcement expected soon

All signs are that a deal is done on a new site for the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, and that an announcement is coming within the next week. The festival's loyal fan base has been in a state of shock over last month's news that the festival would move from its long-time home on the Rothvoss Farm in Ancramdale NY.

Among the questions foremost in attendees' minds: Will the new site be geographically central to draw attendees from across the Northeast? Will the site have the kind of character where festival traditions can flourish? Will the site owner permit pre-festival line parties?

Wherever Grey Fox goes, it is going to be different than The Hill. I'm guessing that the festival management has secured a location where Grey Fox can maintain its attendee base and sink new roots.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Cadillac Sky at Snobird & Cracker

Ted Lehmann posted an in-depth review of last week's Snobird & Cracker Bluegrass Reunion at Craig's RV Park in Arcadia FL. Here are his comments about the three festival performances by the progressive string band Cadillac Sky. Read here for Ted's full report.


Cadillac Sky is a progressive bluegrass band coming out of Texas. All their instruments are miked and their presentation is strongly rock influenced. The five men in the band are each accomplished musicians and fine singers. Their performance is strong and well-choreographed. This band is part of the Ricky Skaggs stable of performers and recording artists and have received considerable attention over the past two or three years. They are currently working on their third CD.

[Brian Simpson of Cadillac Sky. Photo by Ted Lehmann.]

The audience for a festival like Snobird & Cracker vastly prefers listening to traditional bluegrass. The challenge facing a band like Cadillac Sky when they appear before such a crowd is to win the crowd over before moving into their preferred mode. This can be done by taking the stage and opening with several pieces of hard-driving bluegrass music from the Monroe/Flatt & Scruggs era to show both respect for the founders and then the ability to reproduce this music. After such a showing, the band can move towards its preferred music and probably keep the audience in its seats.

By taking this posture, Cadillac Sky could broaden their appeal and remain true to their preferred tone, pace, and sound. Cadillac Sky chose not to take this route and early lost much of the audience to volume, electrified instruments, and their brashness. Many people left before they gave this excellent young band sufficient chance to show its stuff. In the middle of their set, for instance, they produced a very fine version of “How Mountain Girls Can Love” which, had they chosen to open with it, might have done the trick.

To ignore or disdain the audience is self defeating for Cadillac Sky and deprives them of a part of the audience they could capture by showing them greater respect. Individual musicianship and singing in this group is of the highest quality and they deserve widespread recognition. At present, they have chosen to go for a younger, more hip audience. Those people were present on Friday night and very much enjoyed the show. It’s a little sad they weren’t joined by the older contingent who went home.

Cadillac Sky had the last afternoon slot before dinner break and would later close out the evening as the festival’s major headliner. After going through their too lengthy changeover of microphones, hookups, and sound checks, they kicked off their performance and won back the audience.

They played with a little less volume and showed a more genuine feeling for and appreciation of their audience. This resulted in a much more listenable set which held a significantly larger portion of the crowd in their seats. I’ve heard Cadillac Sky at least two other times. This set was the first one they offered in which I could truly understand the lyrics of their songs. Since their lyrics are powerful and their voices, especially Mike Jump’s, very good, this stood as a significant improvement for me.

Apparently the audience agreed, because they were greeted with great enthusiasm. Their evening set, beginning shortly after 9:00 PM held a slightly smaller, but highly enthusiastic crowd. While somewhat more amped up than earlier, Cadillac Sky showed a continued awareness of their audience, suggesting a new maturity. This band has a great future in bluegrass, Americana, and indie rock festivals and can build their reputation by proving themselves flexible enough to appeal to all audiences. They made a big step up at Snobird & Cracker.

Kellybeez at Cayamo: Wednesday

Wednesday, February 6
The full report is here. Excepts below.

First look at Brandi Carlile

Brandi and cellist Josh Neumann took the stage about a half hour late yesterday, maybe because of the rockin' of the boat. No, not the music, the literal rocking of the boat. whew. Brandi remarked she was glad she wore her purple tennis shoes instead of the high heeled cowboy (she said cowboy, not me) boots, due to the uneasiness on stage.

I will confess that she is the least researched of my headliners. I guess I went on the recommendations of the others in the "Who Are You Looking Forward To The Most" thread in the Cayamo pre-cruise forum. There are people from Australia and the UK who jumped on this boat for the chance to see Brandi, and I did look at her stuff on YouTube, per fellow and gal cruisers. In a way, I'm glad that she and Josh were the duet I met in the Caribbean Lounge last evening.

With that caveat, I will say that while Brandi is truly and most mightily her own voice, I could detect a helping of kd lang with a dollop of Ricki Lee Jones, peppered by generations of torch singers and the songs of young women trapped in their unfinished lives, yearning to break free and be a damn fine appreciated woman. Amen, sister!

On planning a schedule
Sitting on the deck as we line up in the glorious blue port of Cozumel, waving to the other cruisers and wondering how lazy I should be today. I may need to rest up for John Hiatt, my six o'clock intimate gathering. Did I mention that tomorrow at six is Emmylou? Friday, Shawn Colvin and Saturday is Patti Griffin. Is there an anticipatory limit on a human being?

It is hard not to think ahead to what's "Just Around The Bend" (thanks Earache), yet the balance of being in the moment and planning ahead can be illusionary on this ship. It is not so much planning to see specifics rather than trying not to miss anything. There ought to be large dry-erase bulletins in each stateroom to map out the must-sees and fill in the gotta-sees, then pepper with the wanna-see and, of course, the why-not-sees can serve standby, just in case. And this doesn't even take into consideration the running into a band/artist/jam while walking to and fro to these other destinations.

Kellybeez at Cayamo: Tuesday

Tuesday, February 5
The full report is here. Excepts below.
Getting around the ship on Day 2 of the ultimate roots music cruise:

Just can't get anywhere on this big boat without running into a musician. I started out to the Internet café to tell you more about the Dewayn Brothers. All I had to do was walk down 2 floors, cut through the casino (go figure), then down another floor to the Ionian Room, where in the back, behind the wizard's blackout curtains lay the connections to the ethereal e-world. You would think I could do this successfully. Ha!

Well, let me see. First, I run across Ari Hest, highly recommended by many of the Cayamo forum participants. Except here he's performing on an amped acoustic with his electric guitar player, without the balance of his band. Why does this man need a band, I'm thinking, as he announces his next performance on the Lido deck Thursday night with full regalia. This sounds deep and rich and full without any other accompaniment. No personal offense to the electric dude, but Ari doesn't need you in this venue. Ever the critic is moi, but truly, the source is evident in Heist's solo output.

Then - I've been holding out on you – I run across Russ Kunkle in the hallway. He's with Lyle Lovett this time around, and I wasn't able to get an unobstructed shot of him last night. Today, there's a decent shot, but being the ultimate percussionist that he is, of course he's hidden by mikes and the other musicians who stand up when they play.

Last night, Theresa from Nashville said at Lyle's show, "That's Russ effing Kunkle! Russ effing Kunkle! I don't believe it!" I wonder if effing is Russ' real middle name.

A different Duhks configuration:
Tim and Jan from Winnipeg came to Cayamo because of Patti Griffin, but they are long-time Duhks fans and gave me the heads up the the band's status. The banjo player had a "passport incident" and couldn't board with the rest of the band, but the compensation just about makes up for the - the original drummer joins the group, now composed of 2 percussionists, one blasting guitar player, a fiddlin' chick that wails a good vocal and the lead singer, who's voice takes up about two instruments worth of sound.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Kellybeez at Cayamo: Monday

Blogger kellybeez may be having the time of her life onboard the Cayamo cruise. Keep up with her frequent reports on her MySpace blog. We'll excerpt portions here.

Monday, February 4

I am in the sixth row on the main, or lower, floor. I don't think there is a bad seat in the house. I don't think there is a person in this room who doesn't love Lyle. There are as many "Thank you, Lyle"s belted out from the crowd as there are hoots and whistles. This, my friends, is a serious audience. This isn't an ordinary arena crowd. We are here to get as close as we can to our musical heroes, or lyrical saviors, those artists who say things in their songs that we only dare to whisper to ourselves. We are the radiant recipients of the songwriter's message.

Truthfully, I have not had time to gather the proper names of the entire band. There were these other things, like catching The Dewayn Brothers again in the casino, Brandon Young in the Atrium, and of course, my catalyst for being here, The Duhks on the Lido deck, and Gaelic Storm rounding out the night (and the Guinness) in the casino. I can hear them as I write. Not a bad way to work, huh?

Every now and then I run up to the stateroom and load the photos on to the computer. It looks like I've shot several hundred already, and if I didn't shut off the camera to dance, there'd be more.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Film was just a tease for the full Hardly Strictly experience

As enjoyable as it was, I was disappointed that the Austin City Limits' film "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass" wasn't better. Unless there is a longer version for release on DVD, the one-hour program that aired nationally last weekend on PBS was a flagrant missed opportunity.

With five stages, seven hours per stage and two festival days, the ACL crew had up to 70 hours of footage available. To cut the whole thing down to 60 minutes meant eliminating most of the context and color that would have communicated what makes the event so special.

Watching this truncated version, I could tell that a lot of great artists performed, but I didn't get a sense of the place or the experience. For example, the viewer doesn't have any idea of the scheduling, the stages, or even the history of the event. Oddly, Warren Hellman isn't interviewed or shown on stage.

On the positive side, the images and sound are stunning. Golden Gate Park has a unique cast of light in the late afternoon, which was captured perfectly by the filmmakers. The multiple camera angles, including fly-over cameras on giant booms, made for unusual effects that are tastefully used.

Best of all are the performances. With the time constraints, nobody gets more than one song, but several of them are standouts that I did not catch when they were performed (because of the five stages).

The highlights for me were Gillian Welch and David Rawlings performing "Look At Miss Ohio,"Jim Lauderdale Band's "Lost In the Lonesome Pines," the Steve Earle-Allison Moorer duet on "Days Aren't Long Enough," and Robert Earl Keen with a twinkle in his eye belting out "Amarillo HIghway." Chris Smither's cameo was also an eye-opener.

I hope this comes out on video as a feature length film, or better as a six- or eight-hour compendium. There was so much great music at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2007. The PBS film only scratched the surface.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Old-time festival opener Martha Spencer is the real McCoy

With the revival of young bands playing old-time music, many on display at this week's San Francisco Bluegrass & Old-Time Festival, we are accustomed to seeing young urban sophisticated musicians imitating the sound and style of Appalachian mountain music.

Last night at one of the SFBOT kickoff concerts, we saw the real McCoy, Martha Spencer, a 22-year-old Blue Ridge Mountain sweetheart who fiddled, warbled and clogged her way into the hearts of a willing audience at McGrath's Pub in Alameda CA.

Spencer is a third-generation musician from the "crooked road" region of southwest Virginia, where she has long performed with her parents' family band, The Whitetop Mountain Band. Last year, she toured the country as part of The Crooked Road Tour. At SFBOT, she appeared as half of a duet with partner Jackson Cunningham. [Photo courtesy of Whitetop Mountain Band]

Spencer and Cunningham performed at at McGrath's Pub, one of the festival's 17 venues, while The David Grisman Bluegrass Experience kicked off the week's proceedings at The Independent in San Francisco. A full lineup of concerts, workshops, films and more continues every day through next Saturday, February 9. Festival Preview will be covering selected events.

Watching Spencer, fresh-faced and fetching in short print dress and cowboy boots, I was reminded of the girl singing "Shady Grove." Some come here to fiddle and dance, some come here to tarry. Spencer did all that and more. If she wasn't on her way to becoming an old-time music sensation, it is easy to imagine her among the girls at the square dance who also came to marry.

Much of the music was pure square dance—reels, hornpipes, and all manner of fiddle tunes, including a cajun number. Spencer alternated among fiddle, banjo and guitar and traded off solo vocals and harmonies with Cunningham, who shined on mandolin, guitar and banjo.

The repertoire also called on country duets, including a George Jones song; gospel, with Bill Monroe's "Crossroads" as a concert highlight; a murder ballad; and several heartfelt Spencer originals, "Echoes of the Blue Ridge" and "Home is Where My Mama Sings."

Spencer's voice had as many variations, from sweet and pure to big and throaty. On a raucous bluesy number, "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man," she leans back and holds a long note before breaking into a small yodel to end the chorus. Between songs, with her still developing confidence and richly accented speech, it was somethimes difficult to decipher her comments.

Several times during the evening, she put on enthusiastic displays of country dancing—not the graceful two-stepping one might expect, but loud, almost comedic clomping in her great big boots, sometimes while keeping her fiddle bow in full swing.

Cunningham was outstanding as Spencer's instrumental and vocal partner. With his overalls and aw-shucks manner, he looks the part of Spencer's country cousin. I'm not sure he is authentic as she is, however, having originated in Oregon. HIs mother was in the audience at McGrath's.

Earl Brother goes solo
The night opened with one of the leaders of the West coast old-time revival, John McKelvey, an original member of The Earl Brothers who is now breaking out as a solo act. Actually, his delightful set was far from solo, with Evie Laden from The Stairwell Sisters, members of First Base Stringband, and a rockabilly bassist rounding out a full sound.

There is no doubt McKelvey has talent, a droning vocal style on top of a driving rhythm guitar that works well solo or with a backing band. With his pork-pie hat, goatee and dark-framed glasses, he might be the epitome of the old-timey hipster type I mentioned earlier. Most nights I would have bought it big-time, but juxtaposed with Spencer he was striking a pose. She was being herself.

McKelvey's set included mainly original songs mixed with traditional material like "Cluck Old Hen," which cooked with the fiddles, banjo and bass backup. Later he joined Spencer and Cunningham during the latters' set, with Laden taking a spin on the clogging board.

All the mixing and matching seemed to be part of the festival's plan, where many of the program's concerts involve multiple bands and collaboration opportunities. McGrath's, a comfortable room well known to the Bay Area bluegrass community for its regular Monday night jams, will be back in the SFBOT mix Wednesday, February 6, with Ida Viper and The Barefoot Nellies.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Floating with instruments, Part 2

By kellybeez

Cayamo: A Journey Through Song is the culmination of that first floating jam session described in my earlier post. This is a true floating festival, marrying the concept of the music cruise (i.e., The Legendary Blues Cruise) with the focus on the art and craft of songwriting. Anyone can book a band. Can you book the person who wrote the song? Why yes, yes you can.

The line-up, although sketchy at the time I signed up, was headed by Lyle Lovett, Emmylou Harris, John Hiatt, Patti Griffin, Brandi Carlile, Shawn Colvin, Buddy Miller, Ari Heist...what more could I ask for?

How about guests being encouraged to bring their instruments. Open jams? Oh yes. Sixthman, who produces Cayamo, even provides a forum for cruisegoers. Very good sport artists Meghan Coffee, Patrick Davis and the Scarlet Kings have generously taken emails from me and joined us online to get to know each other and jabber about what the cruise will be like. We've got an international music posse ready to meet greet on the high seas. We are already compadres via the forum and myspace and the love of the love of the song.

Intriguing? Genius? Sixthman has the right idea; Carnival's non-musical offerings have not tempted me, unless you count Bingo with the Duhks, oh wait, that is bound to be musical in some fashion. There are loads of things to sign up for, mardi gras floats to decorate, coffee to drink. I don't need to get off of the boat, unless the I choose to visit the home of musician Bob Marley.

I've only been thinking of the music and the musicians. I want the floating festival. I want to be totally enraptured, encompassed, embraced by the music. I want to walk around the deck with my mandolin and just ride the waves of music that ride the waves of the ocean that ripple around this big blue ball. This big blue ball full of the best noise in the universe. As I'm sure it felt on that first pontoon ride around the lake.

Floating with instruments

Or, How I came to be embarking on the world's greatest music cruise in about 48 hours

By kellybeez

Once upon a time, a smart music lover invited all of his musician friends to join him at a cottage on the lake.

After dinner, just about the time folks start unlatching cases, looking for misplaced picks, and shuffling through song sheets in subdued chaos not unlike orchestral rehearsal halls, the music lover's wife strolled over to the pontoon and leaned on the railing. The relaxed movement of her posture struck a chord with the guests, who then loaded up the coolers and hopped on board the boat all tuned up.

At least that's how I'd like to think floating on the water with instruments began.

Then just last year, on the last day of the 2007 Wheatland Music Festival, we were pretty mellow, although some people were still on duty and fulfilling volunteer obligations. By Sunday, most of us who have worked the festival are tired and are looking forward to to the quiet once the first ten thousand people go home. We just don't spend Sunday afternoons in front of main stage religiously like we used to.

“The Duhks are on! The Duhks are on!” squeals could be heard a throughout Workshop Lane, and the pines were quaking. Then we heard the wail of the fiddle, and zoom zoom, you never saw so many mature people skedaddle up the sandy path at the same time, and, er, the same mature pace. Those kids on stage are still rockin' it out like it was prime time Saturday night and the old, er, mature ones were following suit.

At the end of the set, there's the collaborative bittersweet let down, although we're really never out of festival mode until later, maybe the day you decide to unpack the duffel bags. Some of us even manage to hang on to the afterglow our first few days back at work. Usually the walk back to the campsites focuses on the festival goers, because we've just put the music to bed. Not this time.

The mobile crowd was holding an interesting debate. Most of the people were still reeling from the Duhks sheer energy force, but some were closer to shock than awe. The underlying feeling of some long time bluegrass fans that an “old style” should close out the festival, rather than “new” wasn't a negative vibe, it just signified the changing of the guard, the passing of the baton, the reason that I refer to my same age friends as mature, and my purpose for documenting this historic time in Michigan music history.

My curiosity aroused, I looked up the Duhks online once I landed back home. Exciting sound, exciting band, exciting groove, and apparently making old-style music fans excitable. In the investigation I found a link to Cayamo: A Journey Through Song, where The Duhks would be joining an amazing roots music artist lineup on a music cruise.

That's right, floating with instruments. So, here I am, a few days before flying out to Miami to set sail on Cayamo next week. I'll have some details in my next post, and a full report after I get back.