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.