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.

Suwannee Springfest

Suwannee Springfest
March 27-30, Live Oak FL
Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park

Magnolia Music enters its 12th season presenting a tasty mix of Americana and roots music.at Suwannee Springfest this month and MagnoliaFest in October. The idyllic north Florida music park boasts five festival stages and two campground stages, plenty of camping hookups and primitive camping. The festival adds a magic circus, song writing contest, healing arts, and low-power FM broadcasts from the Amphitheater stage.

Headliners: David Grisman Quintet, Peter Rowan, Donna the Buffalo, Railroad Earth, Guy Clark, Commander Cody, Jim Lauderdale, The Greencards, The Waybacks, The Infamous Stringdusters

Springfest 2007 slide show

Video by chrisowenvt.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lots to like as RockyGrass lineup firms up

Planet Bluegrass announced the final slots for the 36th Annual RockyGrass Festival (July 25-27) in Lyons CO—virtuoso string duo Mike Marshall & Darol Anger and Infamous Stringdusters fiddler/vocalist Jeremy Garrett in a solo gospel set.

Highlights of the lineup are the all-new Dan Tyminski Band, old-time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, the folk operatic Punch Brothers with Chris Thile, plus seminal newgrass pioneers Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer.

Younger bands are well represented with Chatham County Line, The Steeldrivers, Infamous Stringdusters Bearfoot, Stairwell Sisters and Spring Creek Bluegrass Band. Other big names are Peter Rowan, Natalie MacMaster, Sparrow Quartet, J.D. Crowe, Adrienne Young, and Psychograss.

The complete day-by-day RockyGrass lineup:

Friday, July 25
Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas & Edgar Meyer * Dan Tyminski Band * Béla Fleck & Friends * John Cowan Band * Russ Barenberg & Bryan Sutton * The Steeldrivers * Mike Marshall & Darol Anger * Spring Creek Bluegrass Band

Saturday, July 26
Natalie MacMaster * Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile * Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet featuring Béla Fleck * Psychograss * Infamous Stringdusters * Bearfoot * Chatham County Line

Sunday, July 27
Sam Bush Bluegrass Band * Carolina Chocolate Drops * Peter Rowan * JD Crowe & The New South * Adrienne Young & Little Sadie * Stairwell Sisters * Gospel Set featuring Jeremy Garrett

For complete information, visit the official site.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Jewish Music Festival to honor trumpeter

The co-founder of the seminal American klezmer band The Klezmatics, trumpet extraordinaire Frank London, will be honored at this month's Jewish Music Festival with the first annual Shofar Award, given to musicians who have made a significant contribution to Jewish music.

“Frank is without par the most prolific composer, player, and bandleader on the international Jewish music scene,” says festival director Ellie Shapiro. “Deeply rooted in klezmer, he has done more than anyone else to bend the genre in ways that connect across cultures."

London is also known for performing with artists as diverse as Itzhak Perlman, David Byrne, LL Cool J and They Might Be Giants.

The 23rd annual Jewish Music Festival runs March 22-30 in venues around the Bay Area. London performs his score for 1907 Yiddish play by I.L. Peretz A Night in the Old Marketplace in a opening night performance March 22 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Berkeley CA.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Strawberry looking sweet for Spring

Maybe a theme for Strawberry 2008 is artists playing with different configurations. Today, Ricky Skaggs was announced for Spring, where he will join old parter Emmylou Harris on the bill, along with Tim O'Brien, Peter Rowan, john Cowan and lots more. Skaggs is playing many festivals this year together with piano great Bruce Hornsby, but that is presumably not the case here.

Similarly O'Brien seems to be appearing solo, while he is a part of Hot Rize/Red Knuckles reunions at several other festivals this summer. Rowan will appear at Strawberry and other festivals with his Free Mexican Airforce instead of the quartet he has mostly toured with in recent years.

Regrettably, FP's dispute with Strawberry Music Festivals continues and we will not be at Camp Mather for the 2008 festivals May 22-25 and August 28-31. Both lineups are about half done and both offer a lot to look forward to. For Spring, I would expect a powerful debut for Cadillac Sky and I'm interested in hearing the comeback tour for Carlene Carter.

The Fall festival leads with Sam Bush, but has a number of younger bands with big-time buzz--The Avett Brother, The SteelDrivers, Spring Creek Bluegrass Band and local favorites Belle Monroe & Her Brewglass Boys. Stand by for more announcements for both festivals.

Our disagreement aside, Strawberry remains one of the very best roots festivals going. We hope to be back in future years.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Aoife in Wonderland

Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O'Donovan narrates a photo montage from Wintergrass 2008. She discusses the band's personnel changes and upcoming album, the dynamic Boston music scene and the fun of playing among friends at Wintergrass. Festival Preview presents.

Wintergrass notebook

I had been told that the Nordic roots trio Väsen, especially joined by two heros of the American progressive acoustic scene, Mike Marshall and Darol Anger, would be a special performance. But I had no idea how special.

With Olov Johansson on the traditional Swedish nyckelharpa, a multi-stringed bowed instrument that produces an amazing range of sound, and Roger Tallroth on 12-string guitar and Mikael Marin on viola, they transform traditional Scandinavian folk music (somewhat akin to traditional forms from the British Isles) into sweeping improvisational sound scapes. With Marshall and Anger inciting more experimentation, their performance was my pick of must sublime set of the festival.

* * *
Given the overblown controversy about Cadillac Sky and its sound system a few month's back, I noticed the unusually long sound check before the band's set on the Marriott Stage. When Brian Simpson and company finally let loose, it was more than worth the wait. It may be a cliche, but this is bluegrass with a rock 'n' roll energy. With his mop-topped teasing manner and great vocals of his original material, Simpson has charisma to spare, plus plays a hot mandolin alongside ace sidemen Matt Menafee (banjo) and Ross Holmes (fiddle).

The band delivered its hits "Born Lonesome" and "You Can't Trust the Weatherman," and offered some material I didn't know. To me, the key differentiator in Cadillac Sky is the song-writing. Simpson has had some success on Music Row as a writer for country artists. That personal perspective plus the rock riffs give C-Sky the potential to cross into the mainstream, as suggested by the airtime it gets on country video channels.

One tidbit that may not fit with that analysis but is fascinating. Simpson said the band is set to do a record with Mike Marshall, which would imply a more musically ambitious and less poppy direction for the new project.

A word about the reconfigured setup of the festival stage in the Marriott ballroom. The room was set up more conventionally with the stage at one end of the horizontal room. Previously the stage was set up along the side wall with bleachers in a semicircle around the stage. That was an intimate setup that works well for workshops, but the new layout seems to work better for a concert set.
* * *
With all the focus on younger players, I was blown away by the front porch pickiing of two veteran players, Mark Johnson on clawhammer banjo and Emory Lester on mando and guitar. "I'll try keeping up with all these youngins," Lester said, as the duo ripped into blazing double leads on "Big Scioto." Johnson said their style "is either clawgrass or bluehammer." Either way, I loved it.
* * *
Another older player who impressed with just his solo instrumental guitar was Russ Barenberg, best known for his long-time collaboration with Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer. His medley of Cape Breton reels and somber Scottish air flowed like a river from his six-string, but the highlight was his composition "Drummers of England" with echoes of regiments of drums and fifes coming over the hill.
* * *
I missed seeing The Wilders on the circuit last year, so it was a pleasure catching up with the high-energy honky-tonkers from Kansas City. The sound produced between Ike Sheldon's guitar and vocals and Betse Ellis' frenetic bow work, supported by hot dobro and thumping bass, is still intact and still unique. The band put out a limited edition EP on vinyl last year, but an upcoming full CD will bring lapsed fans like myself back up to speed. Look for it in April.
* * *
The great progressive bluegrass band Seldom Scene has been living down its name this year, heading the bill at a number of winter festivals, including Wintergrass. The current configuration includes just Ben Eldridge from the original band, but it still sounds terrific on true bluegrass material like Monroe's "Blue and Lonesome" or "Old Train" by Tony Rice with Dudley Connell or Lou Reed at the mic. On some of the Fred Travers vocal numbers, the band sounds too schmaltzy for my taste. Fairly early on, when the band opens it up for requests, the audience goes wild with calls for old favorites.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

With latest additions, Telluride lineup touches all the bases

The latest adds are prolific songwriter Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, legendary folkie Arlo Guthrie, and progressive bluegrass pioneers Hot Rize, the latter in a second booking for the legendary band's 30th anniversary reunion. They supplement a deep lineup of talent that crosses many genres beyond the one--bluegrass--mentioned in the festival's name. Among the lineup trends:

First-time performers: Adams and Guthrie are first-timers in Town Park. Other debuts are Scottish soul-pop singer Paolo Nutini, sweet-voiced country singer Tift Merritt and country-soul pioneer Solomon Burke.

Reunions: Beloved festival favorites Leftover Salmon and Hot Rize (with Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers) reunite for special Telluride performances.

Falling slowly: Recent Oscar winners Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova from the film Once perform both as the stripped-down acoustic The Swell Season and with one of the only 2008 dates for the Irish rock band The Frames.

Collaborations: Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby with Kentucky Thunder, Darrell Scott and John Cowan, “Duos with Friends” by banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck.

The Telluride House Band: King of Telluride Sam Bush performs for his 34th straight year. Other house band regulars are Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, and Bryan Sutton.

New generation: The younger generation of stringband musicians is well-represented, including Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile, Uncle Earl, and The Duhks.

The complete lineup:

35th Telluride Bluegrass Festival - June 19-22, 2008 – Telluride, CO

Ryan Adams & the Cardinals * Sam Bush Band * Ani DiFranco Band * Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby with Kentucky Thunder * Telluride House Band featuring Sam, Béla, Jerry, Edgar & Bryan * Arlo Guthrie * Yonder Mountain String Band * The Swell Season: Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova from the film Once * Hot Rize with Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers * Paolo Nutini * Béla Fleck, Duos with Friends * Tim O’Brien * Del McCoury Band * Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile * Peter Rowan & the Free Mexican Airforce * Leftover Salmon * Jerry Douglas Band * The Frames * John Cowan & Darrell Scott Band * Edgar Meyer * Brett Dennen * Tift Merritt * Uncle Earl * The Emmitt Nershi Band * Solomon Burke * The Duhks * Cadillac Sky * Steep Canyon Rangers * Spring Creek Bluegrass Band

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Great Southern steps up to replace cancelled Suwannee fest

Here's an excerpt from Ted Lehmann's latest on the winter bluegrass circuit. The full report is here:

It’s a sad event when a scheduled festival has to be postponed or cancelled. The Spirit of Suwannee Bluegrass Festival had been scheduled for the weekend of March 20 – 22, but it was cancelled. Promoter Don Miller tells me the cancellation was necessary because of inadequate pre-registrations and lack of sponsorship. My hunch says that Spirit of Suwannee Music Park was less than enthusiastic about this event, scheduling a large canoe festival for the same weekend and putting its emphasis onto Springfest coming the following one. Beer sales for Springfest are huge! Thus a fine festival with a varied lineup and a quality venue has gone down the tubes.

Fortunately, Miller’s co-promoter, North Florida’s Ernie Evans has stepped into the breach and arranged for a festival called “The Great Southern Bluegrass Festival” and held at Picker's Paradise Park in Ochlocknee, GA (near Thomasville) on March 21 – 22. The headliner will be Grasstowne, a band only a little over a year old, but creating a buzz across the nation at concerts and festivals as well as through its hit CD “The Road Headin’ Home.”