Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Kissimmee Bluegrass Festival - Review

As we drove into the Osceola Heritage Park near Kissimmee, Florida, I felt my heart drop. The Heritage Park is a large entertainment and convention facility containing a major league spring training facility where the Houston Astros prepare for the season, a rodeo ring and associated pens and barns, and a multi-purpose open space building. The large parking lot held a scattering of RVs. It didn’t look at all like the sort of simple grounds we’re used to inhabiting at an RV festival. There wasn’t a Porta-Potti in sight, a problem for us. The hall itself offered a large room with space for camp chairs and plenty of convention style padded seats, too. The area was divided roughly in half, permitting concessions and artists’ sales areas to be separated from the performance area. As Thursday passed, more RVs showed up and several groups began jamming.

We checked in at the Festival office, where promoter Steve Dittman and his wife Janice were busily getting set up. Steve is a tall, jovial man who wears his half-lens glasses dangling from a strap around his neck. He’s wearing a T-shirt advertising one of his other festivals (Yahoo Junction), jeans, and a smile that never seems far from breaking out across his face. Steve has assembled an interesting and varied lineup for this festival, leaning heavily toward the traditional and offering bands he knows will appeal to a largely retired Florida crowd. His cell phone is constantly buzzing, and it’s hard to have a conversation with him as he puts out organizational fires with good humor and dispatch. It’s easy to imagine him in his day job as an insurance adjuster. Last year he spent nearly six months on the Mississippi gulf coast helping settle claims after hurricane Katrina. Familiar faces from other festivals, both here in Florida and in the northeast show up all day long. The bluegrass community really is small and tightly knit.

The three day lineup for Kissimmee seems to have a different focus for each day, even though most of the performers will be available over a two day period. Each day presents headliners, solid standbys, and a heavy dose of nostalgia. Lorraine Jordan and the Carolina Road Band kick off the festival with vigor and power. First position in a festival is difficult for a band, because they must perform to half-filled seats as people arrive and yet attempt to establish a sound and level of energy that sets a tone for the coming weekend. Lorraine, who has become a friend of ours during the past couple of years, fronts a band that has changed completely in personnel and sound during the past two or three years. The current band, with Josh Goforth on fiddle, Todd Meade on bass, Bennie Green on banjo, Jerry Butler singing lead and playing guitar, and Lorraine singing and playing mandolin. Each change Lorraine has made has improved the band. Butler, the latest, has brought a new lightness and an element of humor to the band. Josh Goforth plays a fine fiddle, but can play all other instruments in the band, except mandolin, which he can’t pry from Lorraine’s very capable hands.

Michelle Nixon and Drive hit the stage after Eddie and Martha Adcock, about whom more later. Nixon belongs in a solid group with other bands headed by women, like Valerie Smith and Alicia Nugent. Her voice and enthusiasm sell a strong combination of fairly recent and traditional songs. The band is well named, as it has plenty…of drive, that is. Her song “I Know Rain” delivers bluegrass emotion the way fans like it, the pain hidden under a lilting melody and driving rhythm.

The James King Band took the stage with a new face. Banjo player Chris Hill apparently feel in love and left the road, a wise choice if he want to sustain a relationship, difficult to do in a band that travels as incessantly as the King Band does. His replacement, Adam Poindexter, spent eight and half years on the road with King previously and fits in well, despite the fact this is the first gig of his return. He closes Friday night talking of his need to drive a thousand miles before the next evening. King’s band seems to fly without a playlist as James makes his choices depending on some combination of how he feels, what the band wants, and whether he can remember the song. His band has a strong combination of excellent musicians who can roll with his moods and choices. Kevin Prater, about 80 pounds lighter over the past year, has a strong tenor voice he uses to good effect both as a solo instrument as a member of the trio and the gospel quartets the band does so well. “Just As the Sun Went Down” is one of their best. James’ patented “pathetic” songs like “Bed by the Window” and “Up on Echo Mountain” are crowd pleaser, made more so by the tears he brushes away as he sings.

The Lewis Family followed with their combination of a deeply felt gospel message and Little Roy’s clowning mad palatable by brilliant instrumental work on banjo, guitar, and auto-harp. His aging sisters manage to hang in and smile benevolently on their naughty brother. Polly, who sadly is quite ill, performs gamely and keeps on trouping. The Lewis Family sings only gospel words, but includes lots of patriotic and other familiar instrumentals. Janice Lewis’ son Lewis Phillips ably supports Roy on banjo and guitar. The center of attention, though, is always Little Roy, who between sets sometimes shows a completely different self. On Friday afternoon he picked up a Deering Goodtime banjo, a plain wood entry level instrument, and jammed with a bunch of novices at The Dixie Sweethearts music concession. Here Roy showed exactly how good he is by pulling terrific music out of a much lesser banjo than he usually plays while teaching and joining in with musicians who couldn’t possibly keep up with him on stage. Impressive. An hour later, towards the end of the second King set, Roy wandered on stage wearing a white cowboy hat like the king had, but only his red suspenders over his lily white skin. He wandered up close behind King, who was concentrating and didn’t realize Roy was there until he turned around.

Saturday – Steve Dittman schedules his festivals so that most of the bands play for two days. On Saturday, Carolina Road, Michelle Nixon, and Eddie and Martha Adcock returned for a second day. Nevertheless, the day had several high lights worth mentioning. In a sense, Saturday became a day of nostalgia for past great groups and promise for the future of bluegrass.

The past was represented by former and present members of cornerstone group The Country Gentlemen. Formed by Charlie Waller, John Duffey, Eddie Adcock and Tom Gray in the 1962, this pioneer group from the Washington, DC used songs from folk and rock music with a bluegrass sensibility to broaden the appeal of the music. While Waller and Duffey have died, Tom Gray and Eddie Adcock were at Kissimmee along with Jimmie Gaudreau, an innovative mandolin player with a distinctive sound, and Charley Waller’s son Randy, who sang with the reunion band as well as his own, now called Randy Waller and The Country Gentlemen, also. Adcock, who performs as a duo with his wife, Martha, can no longer hold a banjo up, but has invented a banjo stand permitting him to play without bearing any weight. He still shows a remarkable sense of creativity and tonal variety unusual for the banjo despite the debilitating effects of an Intent Tremor which keeps him from being able to play anything like he once did. Gray, who stood in for one song with his cousin Lorraine Jordan as well as playing with the reunion band and as part of a trio with Eddie and Martha, is still a brilliant player, touring with John Starling, his former band mate with The Seldom Scene. Gaudreau, who is somewhat younger than the others, plays a fine mandolin and sings well, too.















Randy Waller, son and heir to Charley Waller, currently tours as Randy Waller and the Country Gentlemen. My reaction, after several chances to see him perform, has been, generally, negative. He mugs, looks smug, and rolls his eyes, seemingly mocking the very music that he claims to celebrate while misusing a marvelous baritone voice. A conversation with a friend well-connected in the genre on Sunday afternoon helped me to understand Waller, who, my friend says, needs to pull himself out from under his Dad’s shadow and find a way to come into his own as a singer and song stylist while still giving his father’s memory an appropriate platform.

Carolina Sonshine is a gospel group which also features the comedy impressions of its lead singer, Danny Stanley. I commented two weeks ago about Dennis Cash’s rendition of a song, “God’s Been Good to Me,” that bothered me. This weekend I had a chance to discuss my concerns with him, and I’m glad I did, as we found more in common about ways of seeing the world than the ideas separating us. We also had a chance to spend some time with banjoist Tom Langdon, whose solo project is quite good. Carolina Sonshine has made a step up in the bluegrass world and belongs in the company it is joining. In order to sustain their position in this wider world, however, they will have to expand their repertoire. Meanwhile, they have a pleasant sound and fit well, especially on Sunday, with their deeply felt gospel renditions.

The Gary Waldrep Band, coming out of the hills of Alabama, is a marvelously entertaining and highly skilled band. Waldrep, once world champion banjo player, is fast and clean playing Scruggs style and one of the few banjo player who truly loves playing clawhammer style, too. He is also one of the truly most generous players around. This weekend, three of the women playing in the groundbreaking album “Daughters of American Bluegrass,” produced by Lorraine Jordan, happened to be at Kissimmee at the same time, Mindy Rakestraw from Waldrep’s own band, Michelle Nixon from hers, and, of course, Lorraine Jordan. Waldrep welcomed the two women to join his band in singing a song from their album. This important album has completely broken the stereotype that bluegrass is a boys’ club by offering an all female band playing great bluegrass. In addition, Waldrep has three women playing in his band. Last year we saw him welcome three or four fiddlers to his stage for what turned out to be one of the most stirring renditions of “Orange Blossom Special” we have ever heard. Furthermore, Waldrep presents deeply stirring gospel music in his regular show as well as the Sunday show he presented. His rendition of “Thomas” brought tears to many eyes.

The Goldwing Express includes three sons, known as the Indians, and their blonde father. They are a group which spends most of the year performing in Branson, MO, where, I gather, they’re a pretty big hit. At bluegrass festivals, their act consists of a blend of bluegrass, gospel, and comedy emphasizing their mixed race and cultural superiority to their somewhat dazed, elderly father. They’re an act that has lots of adherents. Some bluegrass fans show up for Goldwing and then leave immediately on the end of their act. I couldn’t wait until the end.

Sunday – Sundays at bluegrass festivals are largely devoted to gospel music. This day, Mike and Mary Robinson, whose bluegrass ministry follows the sun, led their Sunday morning gospel jam. The jam is a great place for novice musicians to play, and this day they were supported by three members of Carolina Sonshine, a generous gift. Mike keeps the preaching low key, although he is quite clear about his faith and its biblical grounding and does a capable job leading the jam and the group singing.

Carolina Sonshine and the Gary Waldrep Band followed with all gospel programs followed by another performance by Goldwing Express. Roger Bass & the Hillbillies, a Florida band, played two sets. The highlight of Roger’s performance was a song he has written about his very ill wife that James King has said he will record. It belongs in company with the King classic, “She Took His Breath Away.”

Sunday’s highlight was two performances from an up and coming family band called “The Doerfel Family.” This family, consisting of nine children, eight of whom are boys, plays with enthusiasm and skill as the younger children wander around the stage. The children are killingly cute and the adolescents very good. Sister Kim has a fine bluegrass voice and plays an able fiddle. Their schedule keeps them performing largely in western New York State, near their home as well as across the border in Ontario. They’re a band worth keeping your eyes on.

Three days of bluegrass draw to a satisfying close as many of the rigs pull out, headed for home or the next festival. On a weekend in which high temperatures varied by 25 degrees, the indoor venue has proven itself. We head to Crooked River State Park in Georgia for a ten day stay before heading for out next event at Suwannee. It’s been a good weekend.