Friday, June 1, 2007

Strawberry Park BG Festival - Thursday

Imagine an opening night of a bluegrass festival without a banjo in sight. Well, that’s what happened last night at Strawberry Park and the music was both interesting and enjoyable. As a banjo picker making such a statement hurts me a bit, but, despite the inclement weather, which we should expect to continue all weekend, the first evening provided enjoyable and interesting music. We had spent a good chunk of our day visiting the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center, which is worth your time and effort to visit. At five we took the short walk from our campsite down to the Amphitheater and found that someone had placed a seat between us and the side rail on the platform in front of the stage. We had carefully left space for an aisle, but whoever this guy is put a single seat in, meaning that it will be difficult for me to get out and take pictures. It’ll be a problem for him, us, and the folks behind, but we’ll work it out.

April Verch opened the program, as she did last year. She is an able and fun fiddler who comes from the Ottawa Valley in Ontario Province and plays in what she describes as the unique style of that region. She also plays French Canadian and Maritime styles whose difference eludes me, but that’s my problem. From time to time April comes out from behind the microphone to dance providing a highlight and some variety. Verch’s band, which she asserts is her best band yet, backs her well and ads well orchestrated syncopation and rhythm to her fiddling. Marc Brue, April’s husband, plays a variety of percussion instruments with interesting effects. Isaac Callender gives her band drive, solid rhythm guitar and flat-picking as well as singing harmony. Cody Walters on bass always gives a strong and steady beat. The band played a bunch of good fiddle songs interspersed with some vocals, but the instrumentals are the strongest element of her band. Only a small crowd attended, but they responded quite positively. Her second set took place in the midst of a thunder storm. Eamon McLoughlin, fiddler for the Greencards, later spoke of the tenacity of festival crowds for sitting in the pouring rain to hear April Verch.

Amy Gallatine and Stillwaters followed for their single set. Gallatin, born in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and raised in the west, has settled in Connecticut, where she fronts a band which offers country, folk, bluegrass, and western swing in combination. Her voice is true and pleasant. Her band features Roger Williams on Dobro. Williams, who we first saw a couple of years ago with the New England Bluegrass Band, has played with a variety of regional and national bands and is an acknowledged master of the Dobro. He will be presenting a Dobro workshop today at noon. On mando the band features Ben Pierce, a recent alumnus of the Rhode Island School of Design, where he majored in architecture. Fiddler Mike Barnett is only seventeen years old, but has enough chops that he’ll be appearing with Tony Trischka as well as Jesse McReynolds this summer. John Urbanick supports with a solid bass and vocals.

Gallatin sang a couple of cowboy songs and I wrote a note that I’d like to hear more northeastern bands take on themes like logging, whaling, and the lives of mill workers in their singing when Gallatin broke into a song called “Immigrant Eyes,” which talks about looking into the eyes of the singer’s grandfather and seeing the hope that coming to America inspires. The song says, “Don’t take it for granted say grandfather’s immigrant eyes.” Amy later told us this song had been written by Guy Clark and she was convinced he had been inspired by a face in a film shown at Ellis Island. While this theme of immigrant success is not the stuff of southern experience, many people in the northeast the rust belt of middle-America recognize it. Such themes belong in bluegrass music. We’d like to hear more of her interesting blend of themes and styles, but she has only one set.

The thunderstorm interrupts matters and we return to our trailer where I write and we watch TV. Irene decides to go to bed, but I head back to the amphitheater to see the Greencards and am happy I did. This genre busting group arrived from Australia a few years ago playing traditional Flatt & Scruggs, Monroe, and Stanley Brothers. Then they went to Austin and discovered the range and flexibility of music available to them. Two years ago we heard them as an opening act for the Willie Nelson/Bob Dylan tour. Last night they headlined Thursday and provided a highly entertaining mix including Nanci Griffith, Paul Simon, the Beatles and more. While they are a trio, here they were augmented by very ably played flat picking and rhythm guitar (I’ve lost the name and wasn’t taking notes. As soon as someone leaves me his name I’ll edit this part of the blog.) At first I was under whelmed by Carol Young’s bass playing, but her singing, particularly on slow, sultry songs excelled. Eamon McLoughlin on fiddle is fast and offers excellent tone. In addition his British wit adds a great deal to the Greencards mix. Kym Warner is outstanding on the mandolin and showed himself on the bouzouki as well. The mix of sounds this group offers ranges from fast virtuoso pieces to low down and sultry. Altogether, a very satisfying band. Despite fairly sparse attendance held down by the residual weather, they were enthusiastically called back for an encore.

As I walked back to our trailer, I reminded myself of my own advice not to judge too quickly before I write. I had enjoyed each of the bands we heard while each was also a departure from what might be called bluegrass; each band deserves to perform at an eclectic bluegrass festival. And I didn't miss the banjo...much. Stay tuned for more tomorrow.