Friday, March 14, 2008

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.

No comments: