Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Jenny Brook Family Festival – Review

The sprit of Candi Sawyer pervades the Jenny Brook Family Bluegrass Festival, makes it work and brings it to life. Candi, diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis six years ago appears frail, but her iron will and good taste bring off this wonderful small festival year after year. The Weston, VT Recreation Park is located about two miles north of the picturesque village of Weston where the Vermont Country Store and the Weston Playhouse provide shopping and entertainment and the Green Mountains provide atmosphere unparalleled at this time of the year. For the past seven years Candi, her husband Seth (a wonderful singer/songwriter from that fabled heart of bluegrass music – Maine) and her two young sons Mathew and Adam establish a tone that creates a magical four days.

The volunteers arrived on Wednesday, set themselves up and began to prepare the festival grounds. Trash barrels distributed, signs placed along approach roads to point the way to the festival, tents pitched, and all the details of preparing the infrastructure of a festival accomplished. At 7:00 AM Kurt on his ATM was leading RVs to spots designed to make them happy and be sure that plenty of room was available for everyone. The Jenny Brook General Store took shape with Etta and George in charge. Candi oversaw the little details, while willing volunteers wearing bright yellow T-shirts with STAFF on the back scurried about. RVers set up and looked around to greet friends who they had known from previous years or other festivals. The day dawned bright and sunny, but the weather deteriorated as time passed. At six o’clock the music kicked off as described below. The Thursday bands were all local bands heavily loaded with friends and Sawyer family members. The music leaned toward classic country and bluegrass standards – just what the early bird audience wanted.

Friday morning dawned with the threat of bad weather which continued to deteriorate. Working the gate on Friday, we continued to marvel at the dedication of bluegrass fans, as they continued to arrive between showers and moments of sunshine. Each time the sky cleared, we thought we had seen the last shower, but no luck. Harry Grant, the sound man, arrived and set up his speakers and sound board as John and Judy got their field kitchen open and serving people wonderful breakfasts and continuing through the day with burgers to full meals featuring barbecued chicken, turkey wings, pulled pork and more. Their food and bright British personalities consistently maintained a higher than ordinary standard for fair food from 6:00 AM until the music stopped around eleven at night.

The music started at noon, with Smokey Greene leading off. Now well into his late seventies, this singer/songwriter has been on the bluegrass and country music scene for about fifty years, recently with a solo act featuring classic country and his own combination of comic songs mixed with tributes to the greats of country music and his own views of a world no longer as simple and uncomplicated as the one he thinks he remembers. Popular in the northeast as well as in Florida, Smokey’s warm baritone voice and mostly sunny songs draw his many fans to the performance area. He often opens festivals and performs around the dinner hour, helping to keep some of the audience in their seats a little longer or get them their earlier.

Junior Barber and Beartracks were up next. Barber, a fine resophonic guitar player eight times nominated for Dobro player of the year at IBMA, provides his marvelous melodic playing to support Julie Hogan’s solid electric bass, sprightly movement, and strong voice. Tom Venne, Julie’s older brother, plays rhythm guitar and sings, exchanging harmony and lead with his sister, each often moving back and forth in the same song. As pleasing to the eye as to the ear, Junior Barber and Beartracks is one of those groups that never fails to remind me how deep the musical roots are in all parts of the country. Coming from near Plattsburgh, NY, near the Canadian border, this group is a delight to hear and see.

The clouds continue to scud across the sky, dark and menacing, interspersed with brief periods of sunshine. During a short stint at the gate, where Irene and I are assigned but I get a regular break to go take pictures with each one extended until I hardly show at the gate at all, we tell a woman who’s checking in that there is a shortage of programs, so we’re limiting distribution to one per carload. “At these prices, the least you can do is give each person a program,” she grumps. It never ceases to amaze me that bluegrass fans complain about the cost of festivals when they get camping and three or four days of great music for around sixty dollars a head. Some large festivals have admission tickets exceeding a hundred dollars per person, but these feature large numbers of headline bands. Compare the cost of an entire bluegrass festival to paying $80.00 to $100.00 for a seat at a rock concert held in a football stadium where binoculars are essential if you wish to even see the performers. Furthermore, bands must buy gasoline to get to festivals, often a thousand or more miles from their home base. Promoters are, therefore, squeezed between attendees yammering to keep costs to rock bottom and bands needing to make a living.

Lynn Morris had a stroke several years ago and has only recently been able to return to performing despite finding it difficult to find the words and to play. The Lynn Morris Band took the stage next. Husband Marshall Wilborn, one of the great bass players in the history of bluegrass, provides vocal and emotional support to his wife while always maintaining his incredible beat and intricate bass play. David McLaughlin on mandolin, who also plays with Seneca Rocks and Springfield Exit, contributed his fine playing and voice as well as continuously supportive presence. Ned Luberecki on banjo contributed his wonderful radio voice, humor, and fine leads and backup. Lynn Morris, struggling and inspiring, stands as a tribute to fighting against adversity and working to overcome physical and emotional trauma to perform the music they love. It is impossible not to see the connection between Lynn Morris and Candi Sawyer as each woman works to keep bluegrass growing and alive.

The Lynn Morris Band is followed by Linda and Butch Ralph’s band Family and Friends. Their classic country sound and familiarity to the crowd here always evoke a strong response. Linda and Ralph are also vendors, representing Martin Guitars at their Danby Four Corners Music booth.

The Gibson Brothers now take the stage in the spotlight next to last position for the afternoon. They will also close the evening show. Each of their last three CDs has hit the top of the bluegrass charts, and they have now had a music video playing regularly on CMT as well. With their roots in the northernmost reaches of New York, the old family farm lies only a mile or two south of the Canadian Border, this band represents what is best in bluegrass music and receives wide play on satellite radio where, according to Ned Luberecki, they are requested and very well received. Eric and Leigh Gibson’s voices blend a harmony so perfect it is often difficult to know which one is singing lead They are also extremely talented songwriters, whose works like Callie’s Reel, The Barn Song, and Railroad Line evoke love and the loss of the rural lifestyle, striking both the head and heart. Eric is one of the few lead singers who can pick intricate licks on his banjo while singing in his clear high tenor voice. He is one of the most under-rated banjo players in the business. Leigh’s voice and strong rhythm guitar exchange leads with his brother in an always tasteful and exciting fashion. Together they are dynamite and the audience always responds to them. Their music clearly belongs in bluegrass, although its links to classic country, rock, and blues create an appeal that is broader than bluegrass alone. Mike Barber, Junior’s son, has been with the Gibsons since the start, a rock on bass. Clayton Campbell on fiddle, often going inside himself to wind his tones around and through the songs, and Rick Hayes on mandolin each work closely with the others to create a unique and affecting wall of sound. Even though it is sometimes now pouring, the music continues and the folks stay, now mostly under the two large tents. An occasional lightening flash or a rumble of thunder can be seen and heard, usually in the distance.

In the evening program, Leroy Troy is added to the lineup with one performance on Friday and one on Saturday. Troy has greatly reduced his festival appearance since he has joined the regular cast of the show at the RFD TV Theater in Branson, MO. This is sad news for fans as Troy is a sure crowd pleaser, but good news for him, because he now has a steady gig in a popular place. Leroy Troy performs as a single on banjo seated before two microphones. He plays old time songs with a deep Tennessee accent and hillbilly patter. I’ve talked to him several times, and it’s impossible to tell whether he just stays in character or if what you see is really the man himself. Regardless, his playing, reminiscent of Uncle Dave Macon is a virtuoso display of what clawhammer banjo can look and sound like. On standards like Grandfather’s Clock and Make My Skillet Good and Greasy, he plays both ends of the banjo at once while twirling and spinning it in the air. He’s very good and the crowds eat it up.

The evening continues to threaten, erupt, partially clear, and get colder. None of this deters the enthusiasm that the Gibsons create in their closing show. The warmth and energy created by the band communicate themselves to the audience who stay until the end and then disperse either to bed or for a late night of jamming. Despite the weather, it has been a fine day.

Saturday dawns chilly but promising. During the night temperatures have dropped into the low forties, but the front that’s been forcing its way through may take its leave today. The campground appears full, but campers continue to arrive and are shoe-horned into place by Curt Barnes, who is busily leading them to their camping sites, covering the grounds in his four wheel ATV. His daughter Becky, a delightful nearly seventeen year old has replaced me completely at the ticket booth, freeing me to take pictures and visit with the bands. It would impossible to run this festival, or any other for that matter, without the enthusiastic support of the volunteers. Jenny Brook is special, however, for the hard work and devotion to Candi Sawyer shown by them.

The Gibson Brothers are the second act in the lineup this morning, despite having closed the night before. The come on with energy and enthusiasm and get the crowd moving again. Buddy Merriam and Back Roads follow. We had seen Buddy Merriam’s band about eighteen months ago opening for the Gibson Brothers in Lexington, MA. This weekend he sounded and looked better. The addition of a female singer to his band gave it a richer sound. His bass player, Ernie Sykes, Jr., brings broad experience, a good voice and solid beat and a sense of humor to the band. He also was the last musician hired by Bill Monroe to be a Blue Grass Boy, an important element for Merriam, since he seems often to be trying to channel Monroe in his presentation. At Jenny Brook Merriam played four sets and made an important musical contribution to the festival, playing the last set on Sunday.

Each time I hear the Seth Sawyer Band I’m more impressed. The band is solid with Dave Olomoski on mandolin and Darryl Smith on banjo both contribute solid instrumentals and vocal flourish. Candi Sawyer on bass provides a steady bass. The gem, of course, is Seth, whose voice ranks up there with the likes of Junior Sisk. He leans out over his guitar and fixes the audience with his piercing blue eyes as his interpretations of other people’s songs and his own song writing cut right to the heart. His song “Green Mountain Girl” dedicated to Candi and sung to her on the stage can’t be resisted.

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys arrived from a gig in Kentucky just on time to take the stage. They were well worth the wait. Davis plays a hard driving Monroe Style mandolin and also introduces his audience to older sounds like those of Charlie Poole and Deford Bailey, the first black performer at the Grand Ol’ Opry who appeared from 1927 – 1941. By placing his own hard driving style into a tradition going way back beyond Monroe, Davis educates his audience while entertaining them. In a festival dominated by northeastern bands, Davis provided a perfect sound and flavor that enriched the festival. At many southern festivals we attend, his sound would blend in with other less able hard driving bands. At Jenny Brook, his efforts really paid off in audience appreciation and excitement. His band, especially Owen Saunders on fiddle and lead singer and guitarist Adam Duke as was Marty Hays on bass and vocals.

A highlight of Saturday afternoon was the appearance of Erin Gibson LeClair accompanied by her brothers and Mike Barber. Erin, as Eric and Leigh’s younger sister, grew up with music and it shows. While having opted to stay home in northern New York to raise a family and teach school, Erin has deprived bluegrass music of her marvelous voice. On gospel songs her clear voice and obvious sincerity are sure fire winners. Erin’s performance of The Lighthouse can be heard on the Gibson Brothers CD Bona Fide. She’d be welcome on more of their cuts.

Saturday evening vamped into a rising crescendo as Leroy Troy kicked off another set followed by a rousing performance by David Davis and the Warrior River Boys and leading to a resounding climax by the Gibson Brothers. Even as the temperature dropped into the forties, the stars came out and the excitement reached wonderful levels. As the Gibsons finished their two encore songs, everyone went home happy.

Candi Sawyer solves the Sunday problem by returning to a family format. The morning opened with Mike Robinson and his wife Mary leading a particularly satisfying bluegrass gospel sing with high attendance, enthusiastic singing, and a brief but poignant message emphasizing the lack of certainty in a life without faith. The Right Path Gospel Band followed with a gospel set and then Buddy Merriam returned for another set. The Jenny Brook Kids, who had been practicing all weekend, then took the stage. These youngsters show that bluegrass music appeals to the younger set and that the future of the music is assured.

They were followed by the Seth Sawyer Band again. During this set, Candi, who had been working hard all weekend finally gave in and had to leave the stage. With the support of her family and friends backstage, she rallied and by the end of the festival was able to walk out to where the forty of fifty people remaining were arrayed in a large circle for the traditional Jenny Brook ending, the singing of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” As Candi came out and joined the circle, there was hardly a dry eye in the house. Her courage and positive view of life triumphed over her physical weakness, inspiring all who were there. With the final refrain of “in the sky Lord, in the sky” we all hugged or shook hands and Jenny Brook was over for another year.