Monday, October 1, 2007

White Oak Shores Bluegrass Festival - Review

White Oak Shores Campground and RV Resort is a relatively new RV park located along the White Oak River a few miles west of Emerald Isle in the backup waters behind North Carolina’s southern Outer Banks. This waterman’s world, extending from just south of Virginia Beach, VA to near Wilmington, NC on its southern end is protected by the most beautiful barrier islands along the Atlantic coast. The waterways behind the barriers provide the spawning grounds for the commercial fishery along the Atlantic Coast as well as cruising and sport fishing for millions of people. Until a generation ago, this region was little known and mostly uncrowded. Towns like Washington, NC, New Bern, Beaufort, Southport, and Wilmington are shipping, commercial fishing, and, more recently, retirement living centers.

Owners and developers Harold, Governor, and Robin Comer, in building an RV resort from the ground up, have had the opportunity to do things right, and are meeting the challenge. This lovely park is spread out across 150 acres of what once was a turf farm, so the grounds are grass covered; there is little dust and paving has been done judiciously, providing plenty of green and open space. Sites are large and well laid out. An elaborate swimming pool with a huge water-park style slide and plenty of room for lap swimming is located just behind the marshes, and a long, attractive fishing dock reaches out to the river. While almost all sites are full-service, a well-designed bath house has twelve full bathrooms with shower, sink, and toilet for guests to use. A Wi-Fi system provides Internet access at a reasonable price, and the service is being improved and broadened as this is written. The development is clearly designed to encourage park model development, but only a small portion of the lots are now so occupied. The developers contend that they will always provide plenty of spaces for transient visitors.

The White Oak Shores Bluegrass Festival is this park’s major fall event. A natural looking, grassy amphitheater stands at the top of the park near the main office and the bathroom complex. A large portable stage, brought in for this event, is larger than most stages used for bluegrass festivals. The lineup for this festival featured a good mixture of local and regional bands along with two headlining national touring bands. Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road along with the incomparable Lonesome River Band headlined Saturday and provided the star quality a good festival needs. Several regionally known bands performed to their usual pleasing levels. Perhaps more interesting, however, were two or three new or little known bands appearing here early in promising careers.

TR and the Boys is a family band that has gradually begun to move from its base in gospel bluegrass to a more mixed program of traditional bluegrass and gospel. Brothers Devin and Trenton have strong voices which blend together very well. They should consider working up some songs as a brother duo. Banjo picker Terry Hunsucker brings fine banjo and a marvelous bass voice to add depth this group’s gospel quartets. While they have appeared at a couple of festivals, this group will gain in popularity as they widen their audience beyond just gospel music. They appeared at White Oak Shores as a replacement to a band that was not able to appear and provided a strong program on Friday.

Lost County 35, in a delightful note on their MySpace site, note that they seek to present the broad spectrum of bluegrass music in a way that keeps bluegrass tradition alive and promotes a love of bluegrass music in those that hear them. Appearing in their first festival, they sang and picked creditably, but need to add energy to their performances to develop an audience. As they develop greater stage presence, their performances will become more interesting.

Another band that bears watching is Carolina Junction, a band that appears regularly in the Piedmont at several venues, but was appearing in only its second festival at White Oak Shores. This band offers very good instrumentals, highlighted by Mark Roshelli’s flat picking on the guitar, which is truly excellent. Tim James on banjo and David Sampler on bass are also very good. James is also an able songwriter, and the band features several of his originals. This band bears watching as it seeks to broaden its audience.

Ted Jones & the Tarheel Boys were Friday’s featured band. Jones, rail thin and pale white, has an annoying stage presence, and the band lacks energy and verve, despite Jones’ very creditable Monroe and McReynolds influenced mandolin play. Jones is only 21 years old, and with experience and hard work he could step up.

Saturday dawned bright and happily cooler than the brutal sun and heat of the day before. It’s ironic that a girl group called Sweet Potato Pie would be performing on a day when the producer of a great album of women in bluegrass would be one of two headliners. Lorraine Jordan’s two albums featuring the “Daughters of American Bluegrass” showed the bluegrass community the high level of virtuoso performance that women in bluegrass have achieved. This group, whose members have only been playing bluegrass instruments a few years, is winsome and enjoyable. A couple of their songs are quite winning, including “Katelyn Grey” a piece about Missy’s new daughter and “Penny’s Banjo.” Their performance was winning, but suffered from amplification that was inappropriate to their mode. Playing into instrument microphones would significantly benefit their performance. This is made quite clear on their CD “Patches of Blue,” which showcases their instrumental and vocal skills more effectively than the sound at White Oak, which proved better than adequate for other performers. Sound, provided by Crabtree Acoustic Sound achieved consistently high quality, never blowing the audience away and keeping an excellent balance between instruments and voices. Their voices and harmony are strong, and lead singer Missy Pyne stands out. Sonya Stead’s song writing also draws attention. This group offers a warm alternative during a day of hard driving, traditional bluegrass and will continue to grow and develop.

Roby Huffman & the Bluegrass Cutups and The Marshal Stephenson Band are well known in the region. Huffman was a noted touring bluegrass in the seventies and Stephenson has been a mainstay on radio and in promoting bluegrass musicians for many years. They provided solid performances. Huffman’s pure tenor voice is wonderful. He also appeared in support of Stephenson. Perhaps as interesting was the evening appearance of Shannon Casey, banjo player Daniel Casey’s eleven year old daughter, who had won the Oreo Cookie jingle award the night before. She came home to an enthusiastic reception. The Boys from Carolina are a regional band that sings traditional bluegrass with a particular emphasis on excellent Country Gentlemen covers. Their voices and instrumentation are both strong and they help fill the middle of a good lineup.

Saturday’s lineup featured two bands that are both top bands at any festival. Sammy Shelor and the current manifestation of the Lonesome River Band were in top form for both their sets. In the afternoon they played a number of theirs well-know pieces. In their evening set they called the audience to edge of the stage and really wailed. Their rock-informed bluegrass style lit up the audience. Shelor, of course, is one of the great banjo players that the music has produced. His movement into and away from the microphone as well as around the stage in support of each of his players is sinuous and liquid. It is almost a dance form of its own. His timing and tone are impeccable. The current edition of the Lonesome River Band has been together as a unit for about six months and has become tighter and more exciting that they were when we first saw them in March. Andy Ball on mandolin has steadily improved. His picking is fine and his voice singing lead or harmony fits very well. Brandon Rickman, who only broke one string this day, sings bluesy-rocky style of country sound that works wonderfully with this band. Mike Anglin’s bass always provides a solid beat and more. Matt Leadbetter on Dobro picks virtuoso solos as well as providing the backup fill that only a fine Dobro can. In the end, Sammy Shelor is the show. In a long encore, The Lonesome River Band simply brought down the house.

Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road closed both the afternoon and evening sessions. This fine touring band deserves better placement on the bill, as following LRB late in the evening Lorraine Jordan has melded together her best band ever. They’ve now been together for nearly a year and their hard work and enjoyment of each other shows clearly. The current band has no members that were in it when we first saw them four years ago. Each new addition has added instrumental and vocal strength yielding a band is gaining increasing recognition for its quality. Two young players, Todd Meade on bass and Josh Goforth on fiddle make strong contributions. Each is a supremely flexible multiple-instrumentalist who can provide the sound the band needs for particular songs. Their double fiddle work is very fine. Goforth is one of the best fiddlers in the business, in demand with many other bands. His voice is pleasant, and his drop thumb guitar picking good enough to support David Holt, who often works with Doc Watson. Benny Greene on banjo is solid on his solos and his backup is wonderful. He is quiet and unobtrusive with his presence and lack of flash, but he’s just what this band needs. The addition of Jerry Butler to the band has been a revelation. Jerry brings a very good lead voice and rhythm guitar, but more importantly, his relaxed demeanor, delightful smile, and warm delivery lighten the tone of Carolina Road. Lorraine herself, relieved of some of the emceeing responsibility as well as some of the lead singing has emerged in both her fine mandolin play and singing tenor harmonies. Her interplay with the rest of the band shows clearly her increased confidence in them and in herself.

White Oak Shores has established a good record over the past three years. Emcee Al Cotter kept the program moving on time and showed that despite the fact he is a radio and television personality in his own right, he can keep the focus on the bands and not on himself. Such self-effacing presentation helps to keep the emphasis where it should be – on the music. Sammy Shelor commented on the fine venue and noted that this festival is ready to step up to another level and can do so by adding a couple more headline bands. He’s right about both the setting and the management.