Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Suwannee Springfest - Part III - Saturday and Sunday

Saturday was a day, for us, characterized by wonderful music and a continuingly difficult environmental situation. Because of the hours we keep, when we awoke on Saturday we headed for the shower at about the same time a good number of other attendees were showering and using the toilet before heading for a few hours of sleep. The Herd compound was the center of a good deal of noise and a bass could still be heard pounding out its rhythm somewhere across the lake. At home we’d call it a pond; an impoundment of perhaps an acre with no visible inlet of outlet.

We arrived at the main stage to find a group of fellow campers brushing the leaves and dust off the concrete pad in front of the stage before placing their chairs. At around eight a couple of festival volunteers arrived to tell us they had been sent to clear all the chairs of the pad. This was actually one of the first efforts by the festival to enforce any of the principles that appear to stand for rules here. They managed to get the people standing around to move most of the chairs to the side before we put them right back. They commented that they weren’t there to be police. We ended up on the front row, which seemed to be a good thing at first, but later turned into quite a problem.

the everybodyfields” were the second group on the bill for Saturday. A competent trio without much to distinguish them in either voice or musicianship, they continued the pattern of droning sadness we had heard floating up the hill on Friday. But the monotony ended there as The Infamous Stringdusters took the stage. This is a very versatile bluegrass group that plays both progressive and traditional music with enthusiasm and skill. Lead singer Jeremy Garrett and Dobro picker Andy Hall sing and play well. Chris Pandolfi on banjo is the guy whose brilliance on the banjo helped encourage renowned Berkley School of Music in Boston to permit students to major in banjo. Chris Eldridge on guitar provided strong flat picking with a strong rhythm guitar and quality voice. This Nashville based group has a distinctive northeastern sound and feel without ever spurning the southern roots of bluegrass.

Joe Craven appeared on Friday with Darrell Scott. On Saturday he appeared with guitarist Bobby Lee Rodgers in a thoroughly satisfying performance. Since Craven is a one man band, there was no need to worry about there performance appearing thin. Craven has led a diverse and interesting life as musician and scholar. He now prefers to blend his formal performances with musical outreach to local schools. It’s difficult to imagine that his school appearances aren’t very well received. We first saw him last year at Merlefest, where he appeared as a guest with virtuoso jazz banjoist Allison Brown. On one number in that set he got down on his knees in front of her and drummed on her banjo while she continued playing. Wonderful!! Craven opened his performance using his mouth and head as a soundboard, creating percussive sounds in accompaniment of Rodgers’ guitar. He also played a jawbone, his boot lace, his chair, and a cardboard box. In Craven’s hands, anything can turn into a credible instrument. I’d love to see him play a car with all its many surfaces and the sounds they could produce. His John Henry, sung and played on a canjo he had built out of a commercial size tomato can with a neck and two strings was a wonder. Craven, while seeming to be something of a novelty, does his thing with such skill and taste it never seems out of place. His fiddle and mandolin playing are also superb and should not be overlooked in the whole picture.

The wonderful thing about festivals, even ones that aren’t fully working for us, is the discovery of a new performer or group, one we had not previously heard or been aware of, that simply jumps out and grabs us. Verlon Thompson is a long-time Nashville songwriter whose songs have been recorded and performed by the biggest names in country music. Why he never became a headliner himself is a complete mystery. On this day he is paired with Shawn Camp, a younger version of himself, whose songs are well known and whose voice and flat picking are nothing short of great. Mike Bub, perhaps the finest bass player around, only makes any band he plays with better without calling undue attention to himself. We’ve seen him four times in the past year with four different bands, and each time he has added his rock solid beat and virtuoso sound to the mix, sometimes turning ordinary into special. Thompson’s song about Johnny Bench pictures this Hall of Fame catcher as a great who pays for his greatness with knees that won’t carry him anyway. The refrain from Thompson’s wit and freshness comes through in his “Tornado Time in Tulsa.”

Tornado in Tulsa’ll take the paint right off your barn.

Tornado time in Tulsa’ll blow the tattoo off your arm.

By turning it funny, Thompson increases the horror of the storm and makes it acceptable.

Similarly Camp’s song about his grandfather’s funeral called “The Grandpa that I Know” says:

I won’t commit this to memory,

That’s not the Grandpa that I know.

Lyric after lyric from each man sends a strong emotional message presented with conviction and in fine voice.

Crooked Still’s appearance proved without doubt why the cello is not a bluegrass instrument. The bass and the cello don’t meld well or fit in effectively with the very good Aoife O’Donovan is a fine lea

d sing

er. Rushad Eggleston on the cello is too affected for words and the de

pth of his cello clashes with the bass to make a sound unrelated to the material the band plays. Dr. Gregory Liszt on the banjo is quite good.

The Duhks, through some visa mix-up, were unable to appear, but their fine fiddler, Tania Elizabeth was there with a scratch band featuring Dan Freshette, Canadian singer/songwriter. Through good luck or good management, she also asked Joe Craven to sit in as percussionist, and he did his magic again, saving the evening. Around this time on Saturday evening, the young people had at last slept off last night’s party and began showing up and crowding the stage area. Deciding that the stage front was their territory, they crowded in front of those of us seated there, smoked cigarettes at will, danced wildly, and became increasingly drunk and intrusive. For many people, the smoke, which the rules require be kept behind the sound booth, was the greatest insult. People seated near the front tended to be older, to prefer sitting during the long hours of music, and to react negatively to cigarette smoke. The dancer/smokers cared not at all for these people’s comfort or ease; rather they pushed in front and took over.

Peter Rowan and the Tony Rice Quartet, that is the Peter Rowan band with premier flat picking guitarist Tony Rice, are familiar to both bluegrass and Americana fans. Rowan has the distinction of having been a member of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys and Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass band “Old and In the Way.” As such he spans the spectrum from bluegrass to rock. His song “Midnight Moonlight” alone would make him a famous song writer. In his performance at Springfest he was at a better level than we had ever seen him. Playing with Rice, a taciturn man who plays with great discipline appears to curb the self-indulgent excesses that Rowan is prone to. His band includes Sharon Gilchrist on mandolin and Kathryn Popper, replacing Bryn Davies, on bass. When he performs as a trio, Rowan manages to project a lecherous sensuality that some fine offensive. In performing with Rice, he seems somewhat more controlled, leading to a more nuanced and effective performance. Meanwhile, an offensive girl smoking in the front row and screaming, “I love you Tony,” managed to diminish a fine performance while calling attention to herself, something no one in the audience had paid for or wished.

The Avett Brothers followed Rowan. Before the Avetts appeared a mass of people intruded between the front row and the stage barriers, standing and waiting. As this very popular punk bluegrass band which at extremely high energy and speed uses banjo, guitar, bass, and a lot of screaming and jumping around to sell their brand of music to young hipsters. What’s interesting about them is that within their seeming chaos lies a level of discipline and musicianship beyond superficial early assessment. While not exactly our cup of tea (or anything else) they still create a level of excitement approaching hysteria that cries out to be danced to by young people. The lone security person tried his best to keep the dancers to the side, but eventually enthusiasm overturned discipline and the crowd triumphed. As the Avetts finished their performance, we headed for our trailer, passing up the Saturday evening performance of Donna the Buffalo, a cult seeking band that played into the night.

Opening Sunday morning was the kids camp group headed by a group of adults who must have been counselors and abetted by a clown on stilts. The kids sang three or four songs with enthusiasm. Efforts like this provide parents with an opportunity to be free of their kids while having them supervised and promises that at least some kids will grow up never remembering a time they weren’t involved in traditional music. This is a worthy effort. Sunday was a day devoted to the memory of the late great fiddler Vasser Clements who died a year or so ago. Never having been at Springfest before, it’s difficult to tell the extent to which his presence truly dominated this festival. Surely the tributes to him from co-promoter Beth Judy and especially from Joe Craven were heartfelt and moving. Nevertheless, the dominating spirit of this festival seems to be more Donna the Buffalo than the pure music played by Vasser who was one of the most creative musicians and whose sound covered everything from old time through bluegrass to jazz and progressive styles. He was a true innovator.

Sean Camp and Verlon Thompson kicked of the music with another set of their wonderful work. The two sets following exhibited some of the most exciting music found at this festival. It turned into an extended jam with most of the musicians remaining at the festival, with the exception of Donna the Buffalo folks, appeared on stage with the listed band and jammed with energy, skill, and enthusiasm. It’s hard to imagine a group of musicians, many of whom had never worked together, creating a more enthralling musical environment. Verlon Thompson and Sean Camp reprised Saturday’s performance with more great work.

Peter Rowan and his group returned to lead a jam devoted to the memory of Vasser Clements. This jam, mostly with a bluegrass feel and sound to it, included most of the performers remaining on the grounds. It was a particular pleasure to see members of a new generation of bluegrass players on the stage with men who had played with the first generation. Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, old masters, on the stage with Josh Pinkham, Shawn Camp, Tania Elizabeth and others, showed that passing the baton to new players will maintain old traditions while shaping acoustic music for new listeners and new players. The future of acoustic music is assured as long as the fans allow it to revere the old while finding new directions. Bands like The Infamous Stringdusters, The Pinkham Family Band and other bands Josh has and will play with, Crooked Still, and The Avett Brothers will continue to experiment with the old forms. Some will join the pantheon, while others will die off without leaving even a ripple. A problem of niche narrowcasting is that it doesn’t ask music lovers to learn to listen to developments in the music as they occur, and we become stuck in watching music die as its adherents pass away.

Summing It All Up – Springfest is not a great festival because it is poorly managed by both the promoter and the Suwannee Music Park. There are so many really good things to say about Springfest that it almost seems churlish to focus on the negative, however, what’s wrong with this festival so seriously interferes with the pleasure of so many that a reviewer cannot ignore them. Furthermore, the problems can be addressed and solved by the application of a little money and a lot of courageous leadership. Our own experience might, indeed have been quite different if we had known more about what we were getting into. Perhaps reading the web site with more insight or asking the proper questions when we made our reservations would have helped. At both Merlefest and Gray Fox we had the advantage of an active message board or mail list to ask previous attendees to help us understand the festival. In each case our experience was improved because of the advice we were able to get from resources sponsored by the festival itself. If we had camped in the loop rather than in the lake area, we would have slept better without finding ourselves so far away from the main stage that we would have felt isolated. However, no amount of planning would have solved the problems of smoking in performance areas, dancers impinging on viewers, inadequate concern for safe health practices in rest rooms and portable toilets, playing amplified music, and general lack of concern for the comfort and enjoyable experience of others.

It’s important to say that on an individual basis we met lots of people from a variety of communities who we enjoyed talking with and being around. What I have to say here is not a reflection on cultures or lifestyles. Rather, it’s a comment on behavior and the true meaning of mutuality and concern for others. Also, while we have definite musical tastes, we heard music that was new to us and will be on our list of music we want to hear in the future. My criticisms have to do with the need for leadership and modeling in an environment where youth, music, alcohol, and generations meet, interact, and try to have a good time together.

In the end, the issue comes back to leadership from the festival promoter. Randy and Beth Judy were happy to take the stage to speak of the great traditions of the festival, to introduce the bands, and to say they wanted everyone to have a “good time.” But when it was necessary to ask people at the Amphitheater Stage to alter their behavior, they sent a minor staff member to do the job. For instance, on Sunday morning, I sent a note to Beth asking that she request smokers to stay behind the sound booth as the rules of the festival request. She gave me a smile and a high sign, but sent someone no one in the audience recognized to deliver the message. And the message was delivered with no great conviction. Leadership requires the leader to stand up and be counted. If the Judys wish to host a festival where all have a good time, then they need to tell people that their behavior makes too many people uncomfortable to be continued. In the case of smoking, many people sitting in the “No Smoking” area commented how glad they were to hear the announcement, but it was to no avail. Also, there were no “No Smoking” signs in evidence, even though they were posted the week before at the bluegrass festival.

Randy and Beth can address these issues and improve their festival. All it takes is commitment and courage. Will they show it?