Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival - Preview

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival will be held in Preston, CT from May 31 through June 3, 2007 at Strawberry Park Campground. The campground is a large facility well-equipped to put on a major bluegrass festival. It is centrally located between New York and Boston and close to two nearby Indian casinos for those who tire of the music, unlikely this year as the lineup is excellent. Offering traditional and progressive bluegrass, this year’s bill will satisfy almost any fan of bluegrass who doesn’t insist on hard-core Bill Monroe bluegrass all the time.

By this time of year, most full-service campsites are probably reserved, but the campground provides a large rough camping area and an overflow area, which probably don’t ever run out of space. To make sure, though, give the campground a call on their toll free number (888) 794-7944 or their regular number (860) 886-1944. The campground is reasonably quiet, although there is some jamming there. The rough camping area is a jammer’s heaven, where you can make music all night long. It is tightly packed with close quarters, but people staying in the rough camping area seem to be having a good time. Strawberry Park also has a number of rental trailers that can be rented for the festival. They are usually snapped up well in advance. While the campground itself is located in what appears to be a rural area, there is quite a bit of development in the area and there should be motel rooms available for day trippers, including the casinos.

Vendors at Strawberry Park are less satisfactory than at many other festivals of the same size. There seem to be two reasons for this. First, the vending area is a short walk uphill from the main amphitheater so that it is difficult to wander up to shop or eat and still listen to the music. Second, the campground has a major entertainment area including a large food service of its own with covered picnic tables. It provides snacks to full meals as well as ice cream and other deserts. While it’s something of a trek to these windows, the food is tasty. Breakfast is served. The campground has a couple of large swimming pools that are available if the weather permits, but early June can be chilly and wet in Connecticut.

The performance area is almost ideal for both viewing and listening to music. The natural amphitheater slopes up gently from the stage and spreads out as it rises. Listeners can place themselves close in a tight setting or spread out as they move further away from the stage. Last year the sound was superb, making good bands sound better and allowing the music to be heard everywhere in the performance area without every becoming overwhelming. Off to the left (facing) of the stage is a raised wooden platform ideal for those who wish to dance. It provides a good view and sound for dancers while never allowing them to interfere with the vision or enjoyment of those who prefer to listen to the music. More festivals should provide such a setting. Another platform is provided for groups to sell merchandise and meet and greet their fans. The general performance layout is one of the best in our bluegrass experience.

In addition to the outdoor facility, Strawberry Park has a large indoor room where the festival can move in case of intractable rain. Last year part of the Saturday program and Sunday morning were held indoors. While not completely satisfactory, the room nevertheless held a large crowd and offered good sound when being outside would have been pretty miserable. Since the weather this time of year is iffy, this alternative assures that people won’t freeze or be too soaked. Last year we sat in the warm rain of Friday evening and listened to the Kruger Brothers outdoors. This proved to be a wonderful experience, especially considering their unique musical offering. Nevertheless, it was nice to be able to move inside when it got really wet.

The entire infrastructure is present to serve a first rate lineup for 2007. Thursday, usually an abbreviated program, features the Greencards, an entertaining bluegrass group from Australia. April Verch is a fiddler/dancer from Canada who performs with her husband on drums, as well as a bass. She has a pleasant voice and fiddles well, too. I’ve never heard Amy Gallatin and Stillwater. On Friday the festival swings into top gear with two sets each by Nothin’ Fancy, The Lovell Sisters, Rhonda Vincent, and Mountain Heart. Nothin’ Fancy, who style themselves as successors to The Country Gentlemen and mine their materials as well as playing lots of Mike Andes songs, are always musical and amusing. Chris Sexton is a wonderful fiddler who brings his classical background to bluegrass without missing a beat. The Lovell Sisters are high energy, attractive, and sing good, too. Rebecca Lovell (16) who plays mandolin, was the first woman to win the Merlefest mandolin contest last year. These girls are comers. It will be interesting to see Mountain Heart for the first time since Steve Gulley left them to form Grasstowne. I’ve heard good things, but am interested to see for myself. Nothing much needs to be said about Rhonda Vincent and the Rage – they are simply one of the best bands touring. Furthermore, Rhonda will sign and greet fans until the last one leaves, a generous and endearing characteristic for such a big star.

Strawberry Park is unusual in that some bands only give one performance rather than the two set model used at most festivals. This means that in order to see all the bands, you gotta be there. On Saturday Cadillac Sky and Dry Branch Fire Squad repeat, but The Steep Canyon Rangers, Infamous Stringdusters, Grascals, and Chris Thile & How to Grow a Band featuring Bryan Sutton each only have a (roughly) ninety minute set. The longer sets allow a group to strut its stuff, but audience members need to hang in. Cadillac Sky is based in Texas and brings a lively new sound to bluegrass. The Infamous Stringdusters, coming from Boston are wired to tradition in a new and lively sound. Banjo player Chris Pandolfi is a great stylist, the first person to major in banjo at Berklee School of Music. Steep Canyon Rangers are a more traditional band who play and sing with conviction and musicality. Their performances are always satisfactory. Chris Thile has grown himself a new band with a new sound. A brilliant performer, he has surrounded himself with wonderful musicians. Adding Byron Sutton, a brilliant flat picker on guitar, for this performance can only improve the band. Dry Branch Fire Squad, led by satirical humorist Ron Thomason, presents an interesting mix of social satire with wonderful primitive gospel music. His performances, backed by a very fine band, are always a wonder. Dry Branch Fire Squad will also do a traditional hour of gospel music on Sunday morning. The Grascals, always reliable, fill out the Saturday bill.

It is often hard to keep an audience at a festival on Sunday. People who love bluegrass music will leave early on Sunday at their peril. After Dry Branch Fire Squad’s gospel hour, Dale Ann Bradley has a long set. Her dead on singing is back by a group of fine musicians including newly signed on Mike Bub, the best in the business, on bass. At noon the Strawberry Park Kids Academy will perform. They will have been practicing since Friday afternoon and had lots of work with very good teachers. After their performance comes the Gibson Brothers. Leigh and Eric Gibson, coming from far upstate New York have voices that blend as brothers should and write and sing wonderful songs. Each member of their band is a first rate musician. Rick Hayes on mandolin, Clayton Campbell on fiddle, and Mike Barber on bass support Eric’s fine banjo and Leigh’s excellent rhythm guitar, but the energy and quality singing of this band is what shines, and they do shine. Finally, Cherryholmes will close the festival. This family band, which tours incessantly and will probably not be new to many in the audience, has refreshed its act and has a new CD out. They have grown musically as the young band members have matured. Father Jere still can’t resist the coarse remark, but he’s learning and the band is funnier when he’s a little lighter.

People planning to attend Strawberry Park should come prepared for any kind of weather – hot, chilly, sunny, dry, wet…who knows. If it’s hot and sunny, the shaded amphitheater will provide a delightful setting for the weekend. Strawberry Park is a festival that people who take an eclectic view of the nature of bluegrass music will find to be entirely satisfying. Give it a try.