Saturday, June 2, 2007

Strawberry Park 2007 – Friday

The day dawned damp and drizzly, but by noon the sky had cleared and people were ready for a great day of bluegrass. Early on we were made aware that Mountain Heart had had bus problems or traffic problems or both and were going to be at least late. This concern hung mildly over the festival all day. As Nothin’ Fancy was setting up their merchandise table, Irene asked whether they’d like some help staffing the table while they were performing, and they jumped on her offer. She would end up spending almost the entire day there, happily helping people choose among the variety of CDs and other paraphernalia and smiling as she made change.

Nothin’ Fancy has had remarkable stability as a band; in their thirteen years as a band they have had very few changes. This yields a clear, recognizable sound led by singer/songwriter/leader Mike Andes, who wears his hair long and a fashionably trim beard. Much of Nothin’ Fancy’s material is written by him, and it ranges from amusing songs like “I Met My Baby in the Porta-John line” to serious and inspirational works like “Little Wooden Crosses.” Supported by his strong baritone voice and deadpan expression he keeps the show moving. Much of the rest of their work is inspired by The Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene. They create a mellow sound that makes them one of the great listening bands in contemporary bluegrass. During their performance, the personality of each of the band members emerges.

Chris Sexton, a classically trained violinist, on the fiddle manages to be a clown and remain aloof simultaneously. He excels at both physical comedy and musical jokes, interspersing references to other songs and other genres in his playing. His sprightly use of themes from classical music always evokes a laugh from knowledgeable listeners. Gary Farris, a fine tenor singer and rhythm guitar player, is the elder statesman, bringing his own form of discipline to the group while providing perfect harmony and singing the occasional lead. Mitchell Davis on banjo provides steadiness and a wounded sense of pride. His glare and pause while he waits for the rest of the band to pay attention is near perfect. Tony Shorter on bass returns to the band, of which he was one of the founding members, after a brief break from the road. His rock solid bass playing and strong voice help make sure the trio is dead on. There’s often too little humor in bluegrass music. Nothin’ Fancy maintains an elevated musical standard while keeping the mood light. They’re really funny without resorting to corniness.

The Lovell Sisters are next on this afternoon’s lineup. All three of these young and attractive (it would only be churlish to call the lovelly) women sing a play with skill and style, displaying their early classical training as well as a clear ear for country and bluegrass music. The Lovell sisters deserve special recognition as a girl band that refuses to allow their physical beauty to interfere with their high quality musicianship. They are strong both instrumentally and vocally. Their singing reflects what many describe as a genetic tone that allows them to blend together in a closeness that singers not related to each other never or seldom achieve. Groups from the early Morris Brothers through the Stanleys, Lillys, and down to today’s Gibson Brothers achieve this kind of closeness, and the Lovells belong in this company. Furthermore, their mere existence as a group proves that bluegrass music continues to appeal to young performers who can attract a younger audience.

We first heard the Lovells at Grey Fox last year and then saw them again at Merlefest this year. On Wednesday evening at the Wilkes Folk Society pickin’ tent at Merlefest, I didn’t recognize who they were, but was taken by their lively jamming with the local group which assembles each afternoon and evening before Merlefest begins. The love of the music shown in this impromptu jam comes through in their on-stage performances, too. Jessica Lovell is the eldest of the three sisters, having reached her early twenties. She sings lead and fiddles with verve and energy. She’s a study in constant motion and facial expression as she provides leadership and color to the band. Sister Megan, just turned eighteen, plays resophonic guitar and sings harmony vocals. Inspired by Jerry Douglas, she also claims to be influenced by some of the great rock guitarists. Of the three, Megan is the most retiring, but she expresses a high level of musical virtuosity. Rebecca, sixteen, was the first woman and youngest contestant ever to win the Merlefest mandolin contest. She plays a mandolin with style and speed while also showing a good solid chop. She will only improve on this key bluegrass instrument. The band is ably supported by young Jake Stargell (17) on rhythm and flat-picking guitar, and Andy Nail, a kindergarten classmate of the girls’ father, on bass. This group has not completely found its groove and will improve from an already excellent start as they do.

What’s left to say about Rhonda Vincent & the Rage? The band tours endlessly, plays a variety of kinds of venues, and attracts a loyal and large following. Rhonda has been named IBMA female vocalist of the year seven times. Perhaps the hit counter on her web site says it all: 1306818 – for a bluegrass band! When the Martha White bus rumbles into a campground or festival site, fans know they’re in for a good show. Backed by an exceptional band, including Mickey Harris on bass, Josh Williams on rhythm and flat-picking guitar, Hunter Berry on Fiddle, and the incomparable Kenny Ingram on banjo, Vincent is backed by one of the best bands in the business. She, herself, is underrated on the mandolin, which she handles with skill and verve. In today’s second set, a somewhat juiced crowd hollered out requests and the band picked up the challenge with Rhonda accepting the disruption as well as the funny and entertaining byplay with better than good graces before pulling the band and crowd back to business.

While her playing and singing puts her on a level above many others, an admirable characteristic of Rhonda Vincent is her devotion to her fans and her willingness to spend all the time they need with her at the merch table. The time and energy she expends there extends way beyond any need she may have to sell CDs, T-shirts, and other merchandise. She shows genuine interest in her fans, many of whom she knows by name. She willingly poses endlessly for pictures. After leaving the merch table she and her band had supper at one of the camper’s sites. This means that she has to be “on” all the time. Given the demands of the tour, it must be exhausting for her to give so much of herself to her fans.

Mountain Heart did not make their afternoon set and some question arose as to whether they would get to Strawberry Park at all. They arrived less than an hour before their scheduled time and took the stage about 9:30. This band has recently been through a shakeup, lead singer and co-founder Steve Gulley having left to form Grasstowne with Alan Bibey and Phil Leadbetter . Steve has been replaced by Josh Shilling, who at Strawberry Park is playing his first bluegrass festival and who only started playing the guitar this year. Shilling has an adequate voice and is beginning to fit into the band, but Gulley’s shoes are hard to fill. Mountain Heart’s sound keeps one foot solidly in traditional bluegrass while committing a good portion of its energy to a “wall of sound” rocky style that young audience who grew up on rock respond to with energy and appreciation. Adam Steffey has won the coveted IBMA mandolin player of the year five successive times and his bass voice adds a gravelly sound that complements the others singers in the band well. Clay Jones, whose lightening fast flat-picking explodes off the stage, exudes electric energy. Bass player Jason Moore always provides a solid beat and on his solo in the encore of their set shows that he’s a virtuoso on the instrument. Jim Van Cleve is simply one of the very best fiddle players around. It’s clear that his creative energy is one of the driving forces behind this band’s move from its original bluegrass sound and the much more progress, rocky sound they now feature. Barry Abernathy, on banjo, plays a strong Huber banjo despite having only one finger on his left hand. That he can play at all is a small miracle. He has developed a banjo style that fits in well with his band and sounds good, too. Altogether, Mountain Heart’s sound is sure to bring a crowd and is a great closing band, generating huge excitement and noise from both sides of the stage. The crowd is both excited and somewhat rowdy, whether from the music or chemical enhancements is not entirely clear.