Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Meet Dr. Tom Bibey

According to the “About Me” section of his weblog, Dr. Tom Bibey is a retired physician and semi-professional bluegrass musician. I’ve never heard him play the mandolin, but I can tell you he’s a heckuva writer. He tells stories about his adventures in bluegrass music with his band Neuse River and the assorted characters he picks with at The Bomb Shelter, a well hidden retreat for pickers. He also writes about his medical practice, exploring the ways in which his experiences impact both his life and music. Strangely, most of his medical posts can be found in the archive as “Philosophy.” I suppose Hippocrates was a philosopher, too, although he’s credited with turning medicine from philosophy into a profession. Maybe we’d be better off if more physicians were more philosophical. Anyway, Dr. Bibey is both and that’s part of what makes his weblog both fun and enticing. The other part is his cast of characters, including himself. Dr. B casts an affectionate and appraising eye on his fellow musicians, who include Moose Dooley, Darrell, and the Warbler. The story of Neuse River’s first trip to Merlefest, very early in the history of that great festival is a classic. It’s also a road trip I wish I’d been on. Another great story explores what happens when a newcomer to The Bomb Shelter isn’t well attuned to the nuances of this particular jam. How many of us have found ourselves in trouble by not having our ear open to local etiquette?

Early in the history of his blog, Dr. Bibey makes this invitation: “If you know any bluegrass stories I need to document for posterity, please comment. Now that I am retired, I view the documentation of the people’s music, and the exploits of memorable characters in bluegrass as one of my final missions on this earth.” I’ve taken his invitation up and sent him a couple of stories. I have no idea how he’ll use them. You can contact him through the comments section of his blog at the end of each entry.

The world of bluegrass is a small, welcoming, and wonderous community of people from a variety of backgrounds and abilities. Dr, Bibey brings sharp eyes and ears to his efforts as well as a warm humane world view leavened with humor. His writing is unusual in today’s literary world because it is almost without a hint of sarcasm or irony, just gentle humor. No known picture of Dr. Bibey can be found on the net or in my picture files.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Autographed Banjo Heads

Here’s a little Thanksgiving gift. I started getting signatures on my banjo heads when I bought the Earl Scruggs head at Merlefest. Later I decided that I wanted to have a couple of different kinds of heads. I reserved the Scruggs head for banjo players I considered to have made substantial contributions to the way the banjo is played. You may disagree with the choices I’ve made, but I think the list there is pretty good. I invite you to suggest a few more names for me to add to this head before I have it framed. The second head is full, so I had to start a third one. You may or may not be able to identify all the signatures. I know I can’t. The names on the other two heads, including a few duplicates from the Scruggs head, are not necessarily great players. They include some very good local players who I like or who have impressed me, as well as some of the real greats. There are some notable banjo players missing, either because I haven’t had the chance to see them or because they don’t tour much along the eastern seaboard. I’m still working on adding new names. I hope you enjoy my banjo heads.

The Scruggs Head

The Completed HeadThe Third Head

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen has the wonderful ability to tell a rip roaring, page turner of a story that makes readers laugh while at the same time urging them to think about an underlying issue. Basket Case provides a prime example of this Hiaasen quality. I couldn’t finish the last Hiaasen book I started (Lucky You, 1997), perhaps because it lacked verisimilitude or maybe even because I tried to read my next Hiaasen without leaving sufficient time between them. There’s a good reason writers put time between their books. When I discover a new, to me, author, I tend to want to devour their books. Sometimes this is effective for me, other times not. Anyway, having left this author alone for six months, I was really ready for Basket Case when I cracked it open.

Jack Tagger has been a newspaper man all his working life. After a promising start to his career, he has been relegated to the obituary pages as punishment for having spoken up at a stockholder’s meeting and embarrassed the publisher. His editor, the lovely but inexperienced Emma, is his nemesis as the book opens. Since having been sent to newspaper purgatory, Tagger has become obsessed with the age at which people die and obsessively dwells on their death age as he contemplates his own mortality. When he is assigned to write an obituary for deceased rocker Jimmy Stomarti, he embarks on an odyssey that may change his life and fortunes. The plot revolves around some lost Stomarti songs, a cast of unlikely characters on both sides of the fence, and Tagger’s efforts to make sense of his own disintegrating world. The plot draws the reader along quickly and enjoyably, providing a nice balance between suspense and laughs.

But Hiaasen is after bigger game than merely telling a story and here is where the skill of his writing becomes truly evident. He is a lifelong newspaper writer, having gone to work at the Miami Herald upon his graduation from college and still writing a regular column for that newspaper. Hiaasen’s books are all set in Florida, an environment with which he is intimately familiar and with which he continues a lifelong love-hate relationship. (You can find a selection of his columns here.) I just read a couple of his columns, which are filled with the sensibility that informs his novels as well as the anger underlying it. In the novels, Hiaasen uses unlikely situations and quirky characters to shed light on situations he addresses much more directly in the column format. Basket Case takes on the changes in the newspaper industry which have resulted in much diminished local coverage. The purchase of local papers by newspaper chains divorced from local and regional issues by distance and corporate greed have substantially diminished the ability of newspapers to do what they do best, keep local politicians and other officials honest by shedding light on their misdeeds. He also takes on the music publishing business and funeral homes while he’s at it. In another novel (Double Whammy, 1987) he satirizes television fishing shows, televangelists, and the hypocrisy of the South Florida developers. That’s a lot of hypocrisy to challenge in one very funny novel. Hiaasen knows how to pick his targets and hits them with remarkable consistency.

Basket Case is available at bookstores everywhere at $13.99 for the trade paperback edition from Grand Central Publishing. It was originally published by Knopf in 2002.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Del McCoury and Crooked Still at Lebanon, NH

The Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival at the Opera House in Lebanon, NH held this past weekend differentiated itself from being merely a pair of very good concerts by offering an afternoon of workshops at the nearby AVA Gallery and Art Center just around the corner from the Lebanon Opera House where the concerts were performed. By offering workshops in this delightful, light and airy space, Opera House Executive Director C. Partridge (Buzz) Boswell, has created an event that should prove to be an ongoing success. In the evening Crooked Still opened with a fine set and the Del McCoury Band concluded the festival with nearly two hours of some of their best work.

The three announced workshops featured local bluegrass folk making presentations about the nature of bluegrass music. Ford Daley, a bluegrass veteran dating back to the days when bluegrass penetrated Harvard Square, discussed the genesis of classic bluegrass music, playing recordings of classic first and second generation greats and then placing them in a context of developments in the music to the present. Steve Hennig chatted with banjo partisans about his approach to the banjo. Both workshops were satisfying and interesting. Unfortunately, I didn’t attend the jamming workshop led by Rich Heepe, because I was otherwise engaged.

Apparently, earlier in the week Buzz Boswell had called Ronnie McCoury to ask whether a member of the band, perhaps bassist Alan Bartram, could present a brief workshop. Ronnie assured him it would happen. Shortly after 2:00 PM, as Ford Daley was winding up his workshop, the entire Del McCoury Band came into the room, tuned up, and offered to take any questions the thirty or so people assembled there might have. For the next 90 minutes or so, Del, his sons Ronnie on mandolin and Robbie on banjo, and Bartram on bass sang, talked, and laughed along with the delighted people lucky enough to have come to the workshops.

I suppose this is the place for me to make a confession. We first saw the Del McCoury Band at Merlefest in 2003, and I hated them. I watched this vain man with the perfectly combed and sprayed white hair dominate his compliant sons as he sang in his piercingly high voice and I thought, “There he is, that tough old guy forcing his poor kids to perform, and they really don’t want to be there.” Was I ever wrong! I really didn’t get the whole thing. Not the single microphone. Not the intricate choreography required by that mic. Not the wonderful high tenor of McCoury’s voice. Not the stage character he has so successfully created. And certainly not the great skill of his two sons nor the loving interaction between them. At the McCoury workshop, all the positives were in plain view. Del came on in jeans and maybe a couple of hairs were out of place. The boys were informal and relaxed. They answered questions about how they get songs, how they work them up, their instruments, and whatever else people asked. And they sang some of their biggest hits, including “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” which has to be hard on Del’s voice. They only stopped when they were told that the folks at the auditorium were ready for them to do a sound check. What an opportunity to see a storied band with its hair down in a fully informal setting.

Crooked Still at Sound Check

Oh, there was a concert, too, a complete sell out. Crooked Still opened with a one hour set greeted with high enthusiasm and a standing ovation brought them back for a rousing encore. Befitting the next to last appearance of Rushad Eggleston with this band, he was particularly warmly applauded and took his recognition with rare good humor and humility. It’s a little hard to write about this band because next time you see them Crooked Still won’t be the same. Eggleston, the first string student admitted to Berklee College of Music on a full scholarship, has forged much of Crooked Still’s sound through his unique cello play which provides both a melodic and percussive base. It’s up to each viewer to decide whether his carefully chosen flashy, over-the-top dress and constant mugging add or detract from the overall effect of Crooked Still. I guess my own answer to this question is implicit in the language I’ve used to describe Eggleston. Nevertheless, his outrageousness was well-received by a vocal portion of the audience. Perhaps his exceptionalism is generational, creating new and enthusiastic consumers for acoustic music, and the contrast between Crooked Still and the Del McCoury Band was clear.

Nevertheless, Crooked Still contributed mightily to this festival. They are an acoustic band; no electric instruments here. Corey DiMario on bass provided strong support for the band’s work. Unfortunately, bad mixing made it difficult to fully appreciate Greg Liszt’s contribution on banjo. Liszt, who holds a PhD in biology from MIT (how many dr. banjoes are there?) has contributed to the development of banjo technique by inventing a way to make it a four finger instrument. I don’t quite understand what he does, and he’s promised to explain it to me, but adding the fourth finger certainly permits him to achieve new sounds on this quirky and difficult instrument. He toured with the Bruce Springsteen Seeger Sessions.

Aoife O’Donovan, however, remains the key to this group. The choices of music, they interpretations they give to them, and her own delightful song stylings all contribute to what makes Crooked Still work. Selecting from a wide variety of gospel, blues, and mountain music, Crooked Still relies on the flexibility of her voice, which ranges from a breathy sexy cry to a raucous bluesiness to achieve her desired effects. Often Crooked Still picks up the tempo on songs that other groups play slowly or slows the tempo for pieces often played fast. They take songs that are familiar regular offerings by The Stanley Brothers, Dry Branch Fire Squad, or Robert Johnson and turn them into their own. In the hands of Crooked Still, these songs aren’t covers, but new creations. O’Donovan makes little pretense at being an instrumentalist, giving in to bluegrass convention on only one song in this set, but she needn’t even do that, as her instrument is her voice, and she uses it better than most. It is her unique creation and contribution to the music. Crooked Still was brought back to the stage with a standing ovation and made an appropriate farewell to Rushad Eggleston.

The Del McCoury Band came onto a nearly bare stage. Their single microphone is complemented by two instrument mics, but their approach is still the traditional single microphone used by bluegrass musicians since the genre’s earliest days. They rely on Del’s high tenor voice, a tight vocal trio, and superb ensemble musicianship. At first glance, you’d be likely to label this group as a traditional bluegrass band. But are they? One of their biggest recent hits, 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, was written by Richard Thompson, a widely acclaimed British folk rocker. Shawn Camp, whose country songs have been widely recorded, contributed to their catalog as has Verlon Thompson, another country legend. Of course they play Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and, of course, compositions from both Ronnie and Del McCoury. He has appeared with String Cheese Incident, Phish, and Steve Earle, to suggest the breadth of his appeal. He has been appearing with his two sons, Ronnie and Robbie for many years. Rob McCoury has been recognized as IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year eight times, and the band has been named Instrumental Group of the Year twice and Entertainer of the Year nine times.

At the opening of their set, the McCoury Band played six or seven songs and then opened up the rest of the show to requests from the audience. This was a knowledgeable crowd and requests came from all eras of the McCoury band. Only once did Del say he wouldn’t sing a song, because he wasn’t sure he could remember it well enough for a good performance. Since McCoury’s performing career goes back to the early sixties, when he played guitar and sang lead vocals as one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, the requests covered a vast catalog of numbers and experience. It is unusual for a band to take so many requests, as most prefer to work from a set list and to push work from their latest CD. McCoury eschewed this approach, taking requests and building them into a varied and comprehensive program by varying key and tempo between songs on the fly.

While McCoury’s high tenor voice is often remarked upon, he is also a wonderful rhythm guitar player, contributing strongly to the instrumental as well as vocal sound of his band. Rob McCoury is a fine banjo player who plays superb backup banjo, too. Many people who hear the banjo played are aware of the pyrotechnics of which the instrument is capable. Fewer focus on the importance of tasteful banjo backup to a bluegrass band. Rob McCoury is particularly masterful in his backup work. Jason Carter, on fiddle, has been with the band for nearly fifteen years. A three time fiddler of the year, Carter plays inventive and thoughtful breaks and contributes a fine voice to the vocal trios. As he has aged, Ronnie McCoury’s voice has come to sound increasingly like his father’s. He has forged a career away from the band as a record producer and has recently released a children’s album, too. The McCoury Band has recently initiated its own label for production and distribution of its music as well long-time favorite Larry Sparks, also a multiple IBMA award winner, and the recently released Merle Haggard Bluegrass Sessions. In short, Del McCoury lives in the very center of the bluegrass world, affecting those around him with his voice, music, and personality.

At the end of their set, the band returned in response to a long standing ovation and offered a four number encore to the very appreciative crowd. Buzz Boswell has forged an interesting and compelling first effort for the Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival. He found ways to appeal to a broad spectrum of bluegrass fans, offering something for the range of traditional to progressive bands. Already booked for next year is Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. The Lebanon Opera House shares facilities with City Hall on a picturesque town square that also features two good restaurants. Our dinner at Salt hill was entirely satisfactory. By seeking to merge the standard concert format into a more ambitious indoor festival, Boswell appears to have hit on a fine format, which he will improve upon as time passes. This event offered a terrific beginning to the coming holidays and long North Country winter.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Too Tired

If you're here looking for my blog on Crooked Still and the Del McCoury Band, I'm sorry, but we got in late last night, and I really don't think I can write well when I'm this bushed. I'll probably have my blog for Saturday night up sometime tomorrow morning. Both shows were great and the McCoury band did an afternoon workshop that I have good pics from as well as something to say about. As many of you know, Crooked Still is going through big changes. Last night was Rashad Eggleston's next to last show. I'll be taking a look at the two new people joining this group, too. My opinion of Del and his band only gets better the more I see them.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival - Review - Friday

So you think a bluegrass band doesn’t have a drum kit raised above the band at the back of the stage. Or maybe it doesn’t use electrified instruments other than a bass. Or that an electric banjo synthesizer isn’t really a bluegrass instrument. Well, think again. From the moment The Sam Bush Band hit the first notes of Bill Monroe’s classic Uncle Pen, a tribute to Momroe’s uncle Pen Vandiver, a legendary fiddler, until he invited The Greencards on stage for their encore song “Sitting on Top of the World,” Bush proved that bluegrass music is more a state of mind than a specific sound. Bush’s brilliant play and superb showmanship had me wondering why I never listened to Jimi Hendrix when I had the chance.

The First Annual Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival kicked off its first night at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, NH on Friday night with two bands performing an evening concert. The Greencards opened the evening. This young band, two of whose members come from Australia and one from England, came to the U.S. about five years ago as a quite traditional cover band playing Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. When they moved to Austin, TX they were exposed to the range of musical influences that enrich the musical experience there, and their music has become a bluegrass and roots music influenced sound retaining the acoustic instruments while ranging far and wide through contemporary music. The bands heart and sound is dominated by Carol Young whose vocal range is from low down gutsy to lyrically sexy while he

electric bass contributes background strength. Kym Warner on mandolin is engaging and skillful. Playing an amplified A model mandolin, he picks clean, fast, and exciting. Eamon McLoughlin’s fiddle playing is wonderful. He ranges from lyrical depths to fast and exciting highs. This weekend the group was joined by seventeen year old Jake Stargell on guitar. We had last seen Stargell playing with the Lovell sisters and had not appreciated this young Georgian’s skill and versatility. He had plenty of chance to demonstrate both in Lebanon. Keep an eye on this young guitarist. The Greencards’ set was highly satisfactory, and the audience rewarded them with a standing ovation, calling for an encore, which they didn’t get.

Sam Bush won the IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year for the third time this year, kicking off something of a furor in the forums, where the question arose concerning whether Sam plays bluegrass. The question isn’t truly relevant, as his roots are deep in bluegrass music, his contributions to the genre unquestionable, and his questing musical intelligence undeniable. I was tempted to say that the current group is Bush’s best band yet, until I looked back at who has recorded with him through the years: Bela Fleck, J.D. Crowe, Jon Randall, John Cowan, Larry Atamanuik, Darell Scott – the list is long and distinguished. There isn’t a hole in the current band, and many of the men playing with him now have been with him for some time. (I need to be careful not to overuse the word brilliant here.) Scott Vestal, on banjo, is one of the most innovative and creative of young banjo players. He achieves a somewhat plunky sound on his banjo that is quite unusual. His use of the banjo synthesizer is almost unearthly as it sometimes sound nearly like an organ. Stephen Mougin, a native of Massachusetts and quite welcome to this almost home town audience, plays an always solid rhythm guitar as well as startlingly fast and clear guitar breaks. Chris Brown on drums provides the necessary beat as well as a range of interesting and sometimes surprising sounds. His drum is always there, never intrusive, always tasteful – just the right combination for a bluegrass band. Finally, there’s little new to be said about Byron House, the master of the bass. His elastic face clearly shows the deep pleasure he takes in his own versatility on the bass as well as in making music with Bush. Put them together and the band spells magic as well as casting a magic spell.

Concluding their last song, the Bush band left the stage to a five minute standing ovation which brought them back with The Greencards. Together the two bands jammed to “Sitting on Top of the World,” an old bluegrass single. Each member of both bands had ample opportunity to show his licks. Towards the end Kym Warner and Bush stood face to face, trading licks at an ever increasing rate and volume, moving back and forth in the sort of friendly competition that created great music as the concert came to a thunderous climax. A great evening.

While my pictures leave a good deal to be desired, I’ve decided to include some on this blog. Before the evening began, an event staffer told me both bands had asked for a “no flash” policy, a request I later learned from one of the bands was a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless, I hope my photos convey a sense of the excitement and life of this delightful event.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Upper Valley BGF, Lebanon, NH - Preview

On November 16th and 17th the Lebanon Opera House will be hosting the First Annual Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival in the Lebanon Opera House, Lebanon, NH. Looking more like two evenings of very high quality concerts rather than like a festival, this event still promises to offer plenty of musical satisfaction ranging from the traditional bluegrass style and presentation of the Del McCoury Band through Sam Bush, the originator of what became known as Newgrass based on his founding of The Newgrass Revival in the early seventies, through two cutting edge progressive bands who are fairly new to the scene but have created quite a stir in their short histories, The Greencards and Crooked Still. Acoustic music fans open to a variety of musical experiences all falling under the broad rubric of Bluegrass will find much to satisfy them over these two days.

The Lebanon Opera house is an 800 seat facility, which first opened in 1924 and through its history has presented vaudeville, theatricals, and community events. It is the largest proscenium theater in the Upper Connecticut River Valley. After becoming the town movie theater in 1951, the Opera House fell into disrepair. Its resurrection into its current state began in 1975 and has continued under new leadership as a major cultural center for the region. The Opera House presents a broad range of cultural events. Take a look at their schedule.

On Friday, The Greencards will lead off. This band has recently undergone a change, as lead guitarist Andy Falco has moved on to the Infamous Stringdusters. Nevertheless, the three originators of the band remain and will surely have added another talented person at guitar. Carol Young on bass and lead vocals, Eamon McLaughlin on Fiddle, and Kym Warner on mandolin form the core of this group, aptly named as all are from abroad, two from Australia and one from England. They arrived in the US several years ago as a pretty traditional bluegrass band, revering the first generation masters of the genre. After spending some time in Austin, TX they found themselves broadening and deepening the scope of their music until today, while it still hints at the traditional it ranges quite far afield. Read more about their genesis and development here.

Sam Bush has been at the center of bluegrass music for over 35 years. He attended the first bluegrass festival in Virginia in 1965 and has been active in the music ever since, a leader since the emergence of the New Grass Revival in 1971. New Grass Revival blended the sounds and rhythms of Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass music, with those of rock music. In this synthesis and through the work of the great musicians associated with the band, NGR opened the way for a new fan base to learn about the music. Both from stage and in his delightful workshops, Sam Bush honors the memory of Bill Monroe and adds his own energy, enthusiasm, and drive to it. His current band, featuring the great Scott Vestal on banjo, New England’s Stephen Mougin on guitar, Byron House, whose unparalleled excellence on bass sets a standard for all other bass players, and Chris Brown on drums. Drums are not standard issue for bluegrass bands these days, but the Sam Bush Band is not your standard issue bluegrass band. Strongly influenced by rock music and jazz, the band offers an exciting and stimulating move into a new musical world. Nevertheless, the International Bluegrass Music Association, this year recognized Sam Bush as Mandolin Player of the Year for the fourth time. Vestal was named banjo player of the year in 1996. The Sam Bush band provides a never to be forgotten musical experience regardless of what you call the music.

Crooked Still is a band which often takes traditional folk and bluegrass songs and then applies its own magic to them, coming up with unique and haunting sounds. I first heard Crooked Still at Springfest in Live Oak, Florida and was not immediately taken by them. I’ve learned, however, not to trust my initial judgment so I was pleased to get another chance to hear them at Merlefest this year. The second time around proved to be the key, as their magic captured me. This is a really good and interesting band, using acoustic instruments in unusual configurations to take mountain and bluegrass music into the world of rock and alternative. Lead singer Aiofe O’Donovan has a somewhat misty, light voice perfectly attuned to the kind of music Crooked Still offers. As a co-founder of the band with bassist Corey DiMario, O’Donovan sets the tone and takes the lead. DiMario on bass, both bowed and plucked, provides an interesting counterpoint with cellist Rashad Eggleston. How many bands feature a cello?

Fans of Crooked Still cellist Rashad Eggleston will be able to see one of his final performances with the band before he leaves for other pastures. He will make his final performance the next day in Northampton, MA and will be replaced by Tristan Clarridge on bass and Brittany Haas on fiddle. I think these additions signal a significant change in the sound of this band, but time will tell. Meanwhile, Eggleston’s quirky stage personality and interesting cello inventions are worth seeing. You can learn more about these changes at the Crooked Still site or at the Bluegrass Blog. Banjo master Dr. Gregory Liszt (yes, it’s a real doctorate, a PhD from MIT), has developed a unique four finger style of banjo play, adding another voice to the banjo rolls of Earl Scruggs and his followers. He recently toured with Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band. This band, even though it will be going through significant changes in the next few weeks, is still worth watching and listening to. Enjoy them as they are and the look for them as they develop along new lines.

Let’s get the superlatives about the Del McCoury Band out of the way right off the bat.

IBMA Awards

Entertainer of the Year – 9 times

Instrumental Group of the Year – 2 times

Male Vocalist of the Year – 4 times

Song of the Year – 1 time

Album of the Year – 2 times

Instrumental Album of the Year (Ronnie and Rob McCoury) – 1 time

Instrumental Performer of the Year (Ronnie McCoury – Mandolin) – 8 times

Instrumental Performer of the Year (Jason Carter – Fiddle) – 3 times

McCoury has also been nominated for two Grammy awards and won one. Simply put, this is one of the most recognized and lauded of all bluegrass bands, ever. And after you see his performance, you’ll understand why.

The McCoury Band is very traditional. They dress in suits, sing into one microphone, and play the traditional bluegrass instruments superlatively. While best known as a singer, Del McCoury is a fine rhythm guitar player and once played a pretty good banjo. Son Ronnie is justly recognized for his mandolin play as well as for producing any number of great records for other. He has recently produced a children’s record which is doing quite well. Brother Rob is a fine banjo picker who has had insufficient recognition. The Del McCoury character affects a slightly rakish leer accompanied by a smile that lets the audience know it’s all part of the show. The choreography of working a single mic is always interesting and sometimes I wonder why Jason Carter’s bow doesn’t put somebody’s eye out. All told, the McCoury band is an experience not to be missed. If this is your first bluegrass festival, the four bands presented at the Lebanon Opera House will give you an opportunity to see a good bit of the spectrum of contemporary bluegrass. Enjoy!

Workshops are often a feature of bluegrass festivals. The Upper Valley Festival will feature a series of three workshops held in the AVA Gallery & Art Center, 11 Bank Street in Lebanon on Saturday afternoon from 1:00 PM until 4:00. There will be three workshops: What is this bluegrass anyway?, Banjofication with Steve Henig, and A Bit of Festival with Rich Heepe. All three seem oriented to explaining bluegrass and the bluegrass scene to the novice while providing interesting material for the already initiated. This festival is a first effort for the people at the Lebanon Opera House. The lineup is very solid, although Monroe purists won’t find much to suit their tastes. Otherwise, I can hardly think of a better way to spend a late autumn weekend in New England.

Tickets are still available for this event. They cost $30 for each day or $50.00 for the weekend. The Lebanon Opera House can be found here. You can contact the Opera House here.

Scott Vestal

Sam Bush Workshop

Del McCoury and Sam Bush

Monday, November 5, 2007

Grasstowne and Nothin' Fancy at Berryville - Review

Frank Jurney promotes the Berryville bluegrass series at Johnson Williams Middle School in Berryville, VA. Each month during the fall, winter, and spring he brings a couple of very good national or regional bands to this quite pleasant auditorium seating 450 people. We had met Frank and his wife Cindy at Bluegrass on the Waccamaw in Conway, SC last May and determined to attend the November concert as a fitting finish for our six week autumn bluegrass sojourn. It helped that two very good bands were appearing and that one of the, Grasstowne, has three of our favorite musicians in it as well having become one of the finest bands on tour. We had spent the day driving across the lovely fall countryside of central Virginia. The Blue Ridge looked striking with fall colors standing out against the clear, blue sky. After a rest, we arrived, too early as usual, at the Johnson-Williams to find the usual skateboarders practicing their art, the volunteers setting up, and the bands doing sound checks. Frank greeted us, showed us our seats, and graciously gave us access to all parts of the stage.

Saturday’s concert featured two vastly different bands making it even more interesting than some other events. Grasstowne is a newly formed band featuring three veteran musicians, each widely respected and admired for his skill, and two very fine up and comers. Phil Leadbetter is one of only three Dobro players to have won the IBMA Dobro player of the year award, placing him, deservedly, in the company of Jerry Douglas and Rob Ickes. Never flashy in appearance or manner, Phil lets his picking speak for him. Here he excels in understated but wonderful Dobro breaks and provides the fill that only a fine Dobro can. His backup is impeccable, never overwhelming but filled with good taste. It is easy for Dobro players to turn their instrument into something like the wailing sound of peddle steel electric guitars. Leadbetter never does this, but never fades away either. Just great Dobro picking.

Steve Gulley, after a stint with Doyle Lawson and nine years as a founding member of Mountain Heart, has returned to his real love for traditional bluegrass and classic country. His voice is clear and soulful, at its best on gospel songs of longing and lost love. He doesn’t have the nasal twang of high lonesome tenors and doesn’t try to achieve it. He often seems to close his eyes and go inside himself, experiencing the anguish and soul the music he chooses needs in order to express itself. His rhythm guitar playing is solid and unpretentious.

Alan Bibey, recognized last year as SPGMA mandolin player of the year, is so elegant and understated in his play that, I think, many people who hear him pick don’t recognize the true genius of his music. Ask another mandolin player about him, however, and eyes light up and true admiration is expressed. He is a mandolin player’s mandolinist. He is capable of blazing speed which is often expressed by the triplets that are his signature licks. Every note he hits is true and the sound coming from his 1923 Loar is mellow. One of these days IBMA will recognize him, and it can’t come too soon.

Jason Davis on banjo, nineteen, has just released his own solo album. It is appropriately titled “Steppin’ Out,” because with this fine offering Davis comes into his own on the banjo. Despite his age, he has seen service with Michelle Nixon and Drive as well as the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band and Blueridge. The album allows him to strut his stuff with a great variety of songs. In Saturday’s performance he was featured in each set with an instrumental as well as offering his fine banjo breaks on nearly every piece. Jason is only coming into his own now, but his apprenticeship is nearly over as he grows into the in fine band he has joined. His contributions are significant and will only continue to improve.

It’s easy to underestimate the importance of the bass in any band. Jayme Booher, in line with this band’s overall approach, plays an unobtrusive yet rock solid bass. He provides a solid beat that fills in wonderfully, helping create the overall high quality of this group.

Grasstowne takes the stage and begins to play without much fanfare. They enter and they play. Their appeal is to the ear, the mind, and the soul. They don’t clown; they don’t talk much. They play great music. Their humor is understated, but it is clear they deeply enjoy playing together. Part of their strength is the intense attention they pay to each other as their solo and ensemble work intertwines around the themes of each song. Steve’s subtle harmony to Alan’s great song “Side by Side” provides a perfect counterpoint to the plaintiveness of Alan’s piece about the lifelong love of his grandparents. Another lovely moment comes with Steve’s song about faith, “Patchin’ it Up.” Steve’s eyes close and his voice caresses the tune as Alan plays a haunting single note mandolin line behind him. Many of Grasstowne’s pleasures come from these moments of superb musicianship combined with meaningful and thought provoking lyrics. They play a number of instrumental tunes that give each member a chance to be seen at his best. This is a don’t miss band for lovers of great bluegrass music rendered with attention to the music’s roots as well as its future.

There could hardly be a greater contrast to Grasstowne’s approach and sound than Nothin’ Fancy provided in their two sets. This fine band, who’s three principle members have been together for the entire thirteen year history of the group, offers rollicking humor, front man Mike Andes’ first rate high baritone voice, solid instrumental work, and Chris Sexton’s superb fiddle playing, around which much of the byplay is centered. Andes has very pleasing voice which sounds enough like Charlie Waller’s to permit the band to play lots of Country Gentlemen covers without ever trying to sound like a tribute band or to ape them. Their work on “Two Little Boys” and “Seeing Nellie Home” is wonderful. Their voices and the songs they choose emphasize a more melodic sound that fits very well with their personalities.

Mitchell Davis on banjo uses his expressive face and a variety of postures and gestures to add notes of humor. His banjo is solid, mostly in backup, but he can split a lick on his breaks just fine. Tony Shorter, on bass, has several opportunities to show his versatility as a bass player, most notably in a second set duet with Sexton. He plays rock and blues influenced bass as well as the standard bluegrass beat so necessary to a good band. His high harmonies with Andes blend very well. Sometimes his mugging bothered me, but I think the audience generally appreciated the humor and lightness he brings to a Nothin’ Fancy performance. Gary Farris provides solid rhythm guitar, a first rate tenor voice, and a little bit of an anchor.

Each Nothin’ Fancy set concludes with a piece featuring Chris Sexton’s marvelously varied fiddling. In “Lover’s Concerto” Sexton leads off with his violin solo, which of course is much too difficult for the other members of the band, who each then show how their instrument can pick up the classic sounds first provided by Sexton. This set piece allows Chris to showcase his violin talents as well as showcasing Andes and Davis skills on mandolin and banjo. Sexton is a classically trained violinist, having graduated from Shenandoah University’s music conservatory as first chair in their orchestra. In “Pass Me By If You’re Only Passing Through” the band freezes on the word STOP as Farris looks on with surprise and then removes himself from the tableau and walks out into the audience. This never ceases to please audience. The sweetness of Sexton’s fiddle playing may seem a little out of context for bluegrass, but in Nothin’ Fancy it works perfectly. He tosses in little flourishes, for instance a brief line from Rhapsody in Blue, that complement the music and provide opportunities for humor. Sexton’s Orange Blossom Special, concluding their second set, is a marvel of inventiveness while again providing lots of opportunities for humor.

These two bands provided a sell-out audience with the best of contemporary traditional bluegrass. The evening was filled with great music, good humor, and a warm feeling. The audience was knowledgeable and appreciative, the setting comfortable, and Frank Jurney a good host. If you live in northern Virginia or nearby, take some time to drive over to Berryville for one or more of these concerts. For the rest of the 2007 - 2008 schedule, look here. For ticket and contact information, check here.

Frank Jurney - Promoter