Monday, August 13, 2007

Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival - Review

On a sunny Saturday morning we drove north through the Adirondack high peaks and emerged onto the flats of Lake Champlain heading up I-87 to the very edge of New York. A few hundred yards short of the border we turned right and crossed the bridge into Vermont. Soon we saw a mass of huddled RVs in the midst of a large field. We drove in, exchanged our tickets for wrist bands and were carried on a golf cart to the stage area where we set up our chairs and looked around. This sort of service, the golf carts, is typical of the attention to detail and friendly environment of this sixth edition of the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival. Because of a dog sitting responsibility, we had missed the great Rhonda Vincent’s performance the night before, but other than missing her, the Saturday lineup offered two great headliners and almost all the other regional and local bands appearing.

This festival, while it takes place in the middle of a field with no appreciable shade, is well laid out, roomy, and people friendly. Promoter Steve Palmer, with the able assistance of Rich Kendall as well as a personable and enthusiastic staff of volunteers has continued to learn as the festival progresses. He will continue to grow as he follows his own advice to listen and respond to the wants and needs of his audience. The grounds are laid out to permit plenty of room for people to select seating while leaving room at the rear for those requiring shade to set up their own shade tents. The RVs for a U shaped corral allowing early arrivers to set up beside or in front of their rigs and watch or listen from a distance. A shade tent for seniors is provided. The Alburgh Fire Department provides food, including chicken barbecue, hot dogs, burgers, and so-on. They also cook breakfast. Other food venders offer ice cream, fancy coffee, and cotton candy. I missed having my fried dough (Once a festival, whether I need it or not!) but didn’t miss the smell of hot grease. All told, the grounds were well managed, roomy, and attractive.

I’ve written quite a bit recently about the strength of local and regional bands. This festival, in addition to headlining The Gibson Brothers, who once were a local band, offered a whole afternoon and early evening of local and regional talent before bringing on The Gibsons and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver for four back-to-back sets ending at midnight. I generally prefer seeing the headliners first in the late afternoon and then having them come back for a set at night, but Steve Palmer was persuasive in saying that the excitement and immediacy of night-time performances as well as the opportunity for more people to show up trump balancing the schedule.

When we arrived the fiddle contest was in progress. The senior division was won by Harry Ralph, Jr. who also played fiddle for The Cabin Fever Band. The fiddle contest was interesting due to the various categories offered and the range of skills. The banjo contest was won by Fred Warner. Bob Degree and the Bluegrass Storm with a solid set. Degree has a good voice and his mandolin player both sings and plays well. Adam Dewey and Crazy Creek followed. Dewey is a solid Monroe style mandolin player with a good voice. He is complemented by Rich Stillman on banjo, a fixture in the New England bluegrass scene. Rich, who played with two bands, participated in two workshops, and stopped to talk about his Kell-Kroyden banjo with anyone who showed an interest, was a constant whirlwind at Arlburg. Adding to the high quality of this band is the very fine fiddle work of young (21) Luke Price who comes from Salt Lake City and is a student at Berklee School of Music in Boston. Joe Singleton on guitar adds a fine tenor voice and strong rhythm guitar (Look for his wife’s photos on flickr where she posts from bluegrass festivals as well as putting up her own art photos.)

Southern Rail followed with their customary mix of southern bluegrass, gospel, and folk influenced work. Jim Muller and his wife Sharon Horovitz provide most of the vocal strength, although all four members sing. Bob Sachs on mandolin and vocals arrives for this Boston-based band’s shows from his home in Charleston, SC. Rich Stillman is a welcome addition with his crisp and technical banjo work. This is a fine band which has deep roots in southern bluegrass while having a New England cast to its work. The Mad Mountain Scramblers were not my favorite band at Lake Champlain, but they did a creditable job on several Peter Rowan covers. The Cabin Fever Band (careful here, there’s also a Bay area band of the same name.) is a is a lively group from central New York, which features traditional bluegrass. Leader Mike Tirella is happily recovering from a heart attack and playing lead guitar. Brian Jiguerre, remembered by many for his years with Smokey Greene sings wonderfully and Harry Ralph, Jr has quite a career ahead of him as a fiddler if he goes for it. James Reams & the Barnstormers followed with a strong set as well as doing a jamming workshop. Yonderhill, from Montreal, impressed with their harmonies as well as the unusual clawhammer banjo work of Teri Joe Rodriguez. While all this sounds like a long afternoon of little known bands, it stands as testimony to the depth of quality music available to New Englanders from their home grown product. Lots of good stuff!

Doyle Lawson’s band Quicksilver is very much in transition these days. Joey Cox has been them for about five weeks on banjo after stints with Blueridge and the Kenny and Amanda Smith band. Alan Johnson, a fine fiddler joined the band back in April after the breakup of Blueridge. His excellent fiddling and resonant bass voice has been well integrated into the band since we last saw them at Merlefest in late April. Carl White on bass will be picking up some of the humor role being lost by the Jamie Dailey’s leaving to form his own band. Because of Lawson’s well-known exacting standards, the band will continue to offer the high quality of performance fans expect. One member of the band said to me, “Four years with Doyle is like getting a Ph.D. in bluegrass and gospel music.” Darren Beachley has moved from bass to rhythm guitar where he provides extremely solid work and a strong voice. The trio remained very tight as Jamie moved to the rear, befitting his eminent exit, during their second set. When Johnson adds his bass voice to the gospel quartet, chills run down your spine.

The Gibson Brothers added two more sets to their record of lighting up bluegrass festivals in New England and New York. Fortunately, the past two or three years have seen their audience widen as they’ve appeared at Winterfest in Yakima, the festival in Argyle, TX and High Mountain Hay Fever in Colorado within the past year. This winter they will be seen at YeeHaw Junction and Palatka in Florida. Their increasing national profile has been helped by lots of satellite radio play, interviews on XM radio, and three number one albums. Not a bad record for a pair of brothers hailing from just south of the Canadian border. In addition to performing two sets, Eric Gibson did a banjo workshop as well as working with brother Leigh to do a song-writing workshop. All this in addition to graciously meeting the hundreds of fans who came to Alburg for their performances is part of what makes them so popular. Beyond their personalities, their musical excellence and distinctive sound always work in their favor. Rick Hayes, playing his own design mandolin contributed his usual solid mandolin play as well as his patented smile, which somehow makes others smile, too. Mike Barber, as always, was strong on the mandolin. This Saturday I particularly was aware of the wonderful contribution Clayton Campbell makes on fiddle, his soaring breaks and strong backup contribute mightily to this rising band. Clayton is also a long-time performer with the Kentucky Opry, where he has performed since he was seven years old. This is a band not to be missed if they perform in your area.

We arrived home tired and happy at about 2:00 AM. I had originally not thought I wanted to go to this festival, but it turns out to have been more than worthwhile, and we’ll surely be there next year.


Mike Tirella of Cabin Fever

Luke Price of Crazy Creek