Monday, October 15, 2007

Willow Oak BGF in Roxboro, NC - Review


We moved north on Wednesday from Myrtle Beach to Roxboro, NC, taking US 501 almost the entire distance. The road leads through and around small towns, bypassing most of the larger cities and avoiding the Interstate Highway system, which has become increasingly rough and rutted while the speeds have steadily risen. Our trip along the bypass routes and small section of I-85 through Chapel Hill and Durham was uneventful and countryside quickly reasserted itself as we drove north towards Roxboro. We found Willow Oak Music Park a little way off hiway 158 deep in the woods a few miles below the Virginia border. We were disappointed to learn that the water and electric hookups we had thought we were going to have were not available. After filling our water tank at a standpipe, we found a very pretty campsite under the trees a short walk from the stage. The grounds are spacious, sloping, and do not contain carefully marked off campsites, allowing campers to use the available land to group and spread out. There’s been a severe drought here in North Carolina, so it’s quite dusty, but the owners thoughtfully water the roads a couple of times a day to reduce the dustiness in the air.

The Bluegrass Brothers kicked off the festivities at 3:00 PM with a set of their hard driving, traditional bluegrass. Fronted by father Victor Dowdy, beyond capable on the bass as he pounds out the rhythms and takes more frequent and skillful breaks than many bass players as well as singing lead on many songs, the band also includes his brother Robert on banjo, and two sons on Guitar. Younger son Don plays left handed and upside down making his chords look strange, but he plays a solid rhythm guitar along with hitting occasional breaks. Brother Steve is a pretty fair flat picker. Travers Chandler on mandolin catches my attention as he is a frequent contributer on both Mandolin CafĂ© and Bluegrass Rules. It’s always a pleasure for me to meet people I encounter on the Internet. Travers has caught my eye before because of his thoughtful, trenchant comments. His picking is excellent and his stage demeanor and movement add bounce to this already very high energy group. Travers is also interesting to talk to as he has very clear ideas about what would encourage the future of bluegrass music and spread it to a younger audience brought up on various forms of rock.

Here are two interrelated questions for you. Would the Anita Fisher band be better without Anita Fisher and Ray Deaton? Is IIIrd Tyme Out a better band now that Ray Deaton has left? My answer to both questions is yes. Fisher has assembled some quite good musicians at guitar, fiddle, and banjo. Her own singing is reasonably effective, but she breaks with bluegrass tradition in that she plays no instrument. Deaton, whose deep bass voice has been a mainstay of IIIrd Tyme Out since its inception relies too heavily on it in this group, apparently believing that his voice and over-amped electric bass are essential for this band to sound good. Meanwhile, fiddler Ken Passmore brings lively playing, reminiscent of Jimmy Mattingly, as well as some of his own songs and the voice to sell them. Nick Powell, on mandolin, adds high quality playing and a pleasant voice. On banjo, Jim Redden is fast and accurate. Shane Blackwell, who I think is Mindy Rakestraw,s brother, bears watching as a first rate flatpicker.

Meanwhile, IIIrd Tyme Out sounds and looks more like a team as it has filled the hole left by Deaton with a couple of changes. Of course, any band blessed with a voice like Russell Moore’s is already in a good place. Moore is nearly the perfect bluegrass lead singer. His voice is clear and he sings in an unornamented style while selling his songs with conviction and emotion. Hard to beat. His interaction with long-time band mate Steve Dilling on banjo is humorous and relaxed. Dilling, although suffering from distonia affecting his left index finger can still pick better with two and a half fingers than many with three. He may have altered his style slightly, but not so most folks can notice. Edgar Loudermilk on bass does a very good job and sings tenor in the trio. He’s only been with the band a few weeks, but shows promise. Wayne Benson, one of the great mandolin pickers who is comfortable in a variety of styles, has returned to IIIrd Tyme Out and strengthened the band, even though Alan Perdue was more than competent. To fill the need for a bass singer on gospel quartets, the band has gone to a surprising place and, surprisingly, it works. For years, Doug Driscoll has driven the bus and learned from Ray Deaton. He has a rich bass voice and an unassuming manner. He’s still learning to be comfortable performing, but he had the support of the crowd and did a good job. The band is filled out by Justin Haynes on fiddle. All in all, this version of IIIrd Tyme Out seems more like a team than the band I’ve seen before and should be able to keep its fans and gain
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The crowd here at Willow Oak knows James King and his band and loves him. He reciprocated with a lively and responsive performance. Despite the cold weather, a welcome but radical change from recent weather here, James put on a terrific show. His traditional, dusky singing voice is perfect for the catalog he sings. His humor and good nature combine with his “pitiful sad” songs to create a wonderful stage persona, the slightly bad little boy who can tug at your heart and reach out to your soul at the same time. King almost never fails to bring truly enjoyable entertainment to the bluegrass stage. One of the vendors, a Jamaican, commented to me that he had tears in his eyes listening to “The Bed By the Window,” He felt better when I told him this was a common response to King, topped only by those times when James himself cries at his own singing.

Much of Friday repeated the performances of Thursday, with the Anita Fisher Band singing all the same songs, as far as I could tell. It was good to see Jr. Siske with his reconstituted Rambler’s Choice back singing bluegrass after the break-up of Blueridge. Jr. was in fine voice, and his mandolin player, Chris Harris bears watching as another young and gifted picker. Tim Massey on bass provided an anchor to the band as well as complementing Jr.’s voice. This band is still a little rough, has too small a catalog, and Jr. seems somewhat ill at ease in the role of band spokesman. I have to hope that he’ll bring it together. His singing and song writing need a forum that serves him well and gives him a chance to showcase his wonderful voice.

Grasstowne arrived for the first of four sets on Friday afternoon. They seemed to have recovered from their week at IBMA, and Roxboro was fairly close to home for most of the guys. Emcee Buddy Michaels, who has bluegrass programs on three radio stations, introduced the group with enthusiasm, speaking of learning about their formation, hearing them being played on XM radio, listening to their CD, and playing it for his listeners enthusiastically. I’ve written about Steve Gulley, Phil Leadbetter, and Alan Bibey, the three principal musicians in Grasstowne, each in the prime of his career as he reaches his mid-forties. Jason Davis on banjo and Jayme Booher on bass bring the same high quality of musicianship to the band as their more senior colleagues and are receiving advanced degrees in bandmanship from them. Davis, only nineteen years old, began touring with Michelle Nixon at age fourteen. He spent some time with the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band before joining Blueridge a few months before its breakup and was brought to Grasstowne by Alan Bibey. He appears on the Huber banjo project “Cuppa Joe.” Many young banjo players are all about blazing speed and showy performance. Jason has the speed and adds to it a mature versatility that many would envy. In addition, his picking demonstrates the elegance and restraint of the Grasstowne sound. Jayme, only a couple of years older than Jason, has played for years with the Booher family band from Johnson City, TN. His bass playing demonstrates not only the solid beat required of the instrument, but intricate and understated picking that adds depth to Grasstowne’s sound. He also doubles in technical support, helping the sound man make sure their head sets worked properly for them.

One of the interesting elements of the lineup at Willow Oak was the complex inter-relationships of great musicians appearing at the same festival. Sammy Shelor once used to pick up Alan Bibey to drive him to gigs, as Alan was too young to drive. Kenny Smith played for the Lonesome River Band, Alan and Terry Baucom played together in a couple of bands. Alan was one of the original members of IIIrd Tyme Out. Wayne Benson has returned to IIIrd Tyme Out. Terry Baucom has joined the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band where Jason Davis once played. I’m sure I’ve missed some of the connections, but imagine the wonderful jam that could have happened had all these great pickers hit the stage at once! It was also delightful to get a chance to chat with Cindy Baucom who was there on a sort of busman’s holiday with Terry and the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band. Cindy’s deep knowledge of the world of bluegrass helped me get a deeper understanding of the music and the people who play it.

Saturday’s lineup was so jam-packed that two bands were short changed. Lost and Found, an old and respected band that has recently suffered the tragic loss of Dempsey Young was lost in the shuffle of unfortunate time slots and higher profile bands. Michelle Nixon’s appearance was not advertised and she arrived for a 9:00 PM performance on a cold evening with many fans already having returned to their RVs or clustered around campfires for jamming. Despite the chill and small crowd, she put on your usual high energy, enthusiastic performance. Furthermore, local bands Constant Change and GrassStreet presented noteworthy performances and deserve more attention. Both bands were entertaining and engaging.

The Kenny and Amanda Smith Band has added Terry Baucom to its number. His addition solidifies this already wonderful band. Baucom’s unassuming yet powerful banjo style fits in perfectly with the two name players. Kenny Smith needs to take back seat to no one among flat pickers. It’s truly a delight to hear a guitar solo on every number, and Kenny’s wickedly fast and intricate breaks never lose sight of the tune he’s elaborating on. Also, having the guitar as a regular solo instrument takes some of the performance pressure off the mandolin and banjo while strengthening the overall sound of the band. Amanda’s sweet, pure voice and perfect enunciation make the content of every song foremost. Furthermore, unlike many female lead singers, Amanda plays a very solid rhythm guitar. Aaron Williams, winner of the 2007 mandolin contest at Merlefest, is only fifteen years old, but is already a mature picker who can only improve with seasoning. Zak McLamb is a seasoned performer on bass. Altogether, the Kenny and Amanda Smith band is exciting to listen to. Their gospel numbers clearly express their genuine faith, while the rest of their program shows their versatility.

The Lonesome River Band offered up two sets of their incomparable play. Brandon Rickman continues to wow the crowd by breaking a string on almost every set and managing to continue to sing lead while changing strings on the fly. This is really quite a feat. Andy Ball, since joining the band has continued to improve, and Mike Anglin plays a rockin’ electric bass. What more can I write about Sammy Shelor?

Promoter “Peaches” Solomon has put together an exceptionally strong lineup for this fall festival. The setting was nearly perfect. Parenthetically, there’s really something to be said for the promoter’s owning the porta-potti company, as these sometimes ignored necessaries were kept cleaned throughout the festival, making the camping in the rough much less rough. We look forward to returning to this venue in the future.