Sunday, April 29, 2007
There's lots to say about Merlefest. It isn't perfect - the crowds are huge, the lines for food and relief are long, but people are friendly and good natured, and the music is without compare. More later. Meanwhile, enjoy the pictures and let me know how you like them.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
I hope you enjoy these. More tomorrow and a full length review by Tuesday or Wednesday.
Friday, April 27, 2007
There’s also the Jam Camp Opry. Each of the jam groups we were put into on Wednesday is responsible for singing one song it has prepared for the rest of the camp. We’ve been working on “In the Pines,” a slow and doleful piece for which we can manage the chord changes and tempo. We’ve practiced it some already, and today we’ll get the honor of having Pete work with us intensively. First, we go over the logistics of getting to the Wilkes Community College Campus and getting out of camp. We practice harmony some more as well as Pete giving us a few more stories. We’re all eager to get to our groups, so there’s some restiveness.
We sit down with Pete, who has us run through a couple of songs and builds on the principles of announcing and describing songs for the rest of the group. We work on the problems that plague members of our group: timing, chord changes, knowing the words. Pete is supportive and helpful and we relax under his instruction. We then turn to our performance song. Group members who did their parts well yesterday flub when sitting with Pete and we work through the issues again. Irene continues to provide leadership through encouragement and example. We improve slowly, and by the lunch break, we’re relatively ready to go.
We eat a pretty quick lunch and assemble on the front porch for a group picture. Bill’s wife Anne uses each of our cameras to snap us for posterity. These pictures will ciculate through the Jam Camp mailing list so that anyone who wants pictures will have plenty. We return for a few more announcements and then the Opry. In turn, Pete introduces each group, which comes to the microphones, introduces its song, and plays. As the weakest group in camp, we kick off the Opry. We’ve called ourselves Wonders Never Cease. I’m asked to act as group emcee. This goes quickly, Cleve kicks off the song, and we work through it with a minimum of flubs and with cheers for each solo. Other groups follow with increasing levels of competence. The last group does quite well and we all congratulate ourselves. After the Opry, Pete singles out several people for what he calls the Jam Camp Hero awards. They go to people who’ve contributed to camp through their skills and spirit. To our surprise, Irene, a first time camper, is singled out for the final award, much to the approval of all.
Now it’s time to practice some more for our Cabin Stage appearance. A little harmony and a few run-throughs and we’re into the cars headed for Blue Lot D. This is a remote lot where, we’re told, vans will be waiting for us to convey us to the stage. And here is where it all threatens become a train wreck, a term we though was limited to use for songs that fall apart. We arrive at the lot and the volunteer staff has not idea we’re coming, isn’t prepared for twenty cars and thirty-six people carrying instruments, doesn’t know where to park us, and no vans are anywhere in evidence. Our performance is scheduled for and it . We try to explain to the volunteers who we are and where we’re supposed to be. They don’t seem to get it. Performers are supposed to go to performer check-in. Here we are, a bunch of mostly middle-aged folks, some used to high powered professional positions where others listen to them. And we’re stuck a couple of miles from where we’re supposed to be.
We mill around. Some people pull out cell phones. We plead our case with bus drivers, who are willing to take us to the main entrance but not to alter their route to take us back stage, something they should not do anyway. The group’s biggest concern is for Pete, who, they think, will be frantic worrying that we’re not there Finally, a bunch of vans arrive, as 4:30 approaches. We stuff ourselves and our instruments into the vans and are whisked to the Cabin Stage, where Pete, Joan, and Scott are on stage performing. He is blissfully unaware of our problem. Quickly we grab our instruments, tune, and rush on stage where each person goes to a mike, introduces her/himself, and tells where they’re from and what they did. We group ourselves and Charlie Apple kicks off the first song, “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.” We play through it to the cheers of the assembled multitude, Pete says a few words about camp and us, and
Jam Camp provides great opportunities for aspiring bluegrass jammers to move from the closet, develop some jamming skills, begin to actually do it, and have a lot of fun. I realize that in the year since last year’s camp I’ve improved and the improvement will continue because my wife has soaked up the same material with me this year and we’ll be able to reinforce each other and practice skills we’ve learned as well as enjoy pickin’ together even more. Pete Wernick is a thoughtful and practiced teacher who prepares us for the experience and brings us along at just the right rate. The campus at Herring Ridge is a fine place for a workshop, but Jam Camp is held all over the country. Information about camps can be found at Pete Wernick’s web site dr.banjo.com. The price is fair and the experience is fulfilling.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
On Wednesday morning there seems to be more energy than there was yesterday. We certainly are more relaxed about getting there and still get there in plenty of time. Pete calls us together for announcements. One of our number is giving away some banjo gear, having wisely switched allegiance to the mandolin. Another banjo player bites the dust, the joy of many. Pete begins to deal with the logistics of tomorrow’s trip to Merlefest for our first and last performance as a jam orchestra. Pete is now in the position of having a number of balls in the air and he must keep on juggling. He uses this problem as an opportunity to discuss the history of Merlefest and the importance of director B. Townes in its development.
After handling, or at least delaying, the concerns about tomorrow, we get to group singing. Fran leads us in singing “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music.” She has a strong voice and does a good job, particularly since she’s at a mike and singing in front of the whole group. We sing a couple of other songs and then Pete moves to the importance of learning lyrics and singing harmony. He emphasizes learning lyrics by listening, repeating, and practicing. While song leaders at Jam Camp can us texts to help them, the other jammers are strongly encouraged to learn the choruses by ear. He and Joan assert that recent brain studies suggest singing and ear learning.
At the end of the morning class, we are reassigned to the jam groups in which we’ll stay until the end of camp. It’s in these jam groups that we’ll be asked to perform in Thursday’s closing camp event, The Jam Camp Opry. Pete reads the names of each of the group members and they find each other, clustering around the floor.
Our group has three banjo players, all of whom are tentative in some aspect of playing, and none of whom is comfortable at taking breaks, the signature of banjo play. Angie Sumpter is the owner of Angie’s Banjos.com, a web site particularly focused for people who started playing the banjo after age fifty. Her web site publishes a magazine called Silver Strings, which is filled with articles about starting late. She also sells banjos and gear. Frank is at his third Jam Camp and has progressed since last year, but is still uncertain of himself. I tend to fall apart every time I’m asked to solo, but my vamping has improved. Cleve loves the music and has the same problems with tentativeness as the rest of us. Connie has been playing the acoustic bass guitar for just over a year. Irene is an accomplished singer and a vastly improving mandolin player who believes she’s still a beginner. She provides us with leadership through her strong voice and sense of timing.
This morning our group is supported by Scott, whose relaxed attitude is complemented by accurate feedback and helpful suggestions. We take turns calling songs and leading them, each of us uncertain in the roll and coached by Scott. A growing sense of mutual support begins to emerge as we hear something that sounds like bluegrass music. At Scott’s urging, Connie turns up her amp, providing us with an increasingly strong bass beat that we need desperately. Each person solos to cries of “good job” and applause. We’re beginning to find our feet. We also need to come up with a name for our group to use as a band. By lunch we’ve begun to think of ourselves as a band.
Lunch is graced by the appearance of top Merlefest staff who eat, chat with Pete, and check out the scene while they hardly interact with us campers. I get a brief chance to chat with Ted Hagaman, the new festival director, who has given me a thumbs up sign. I learn that I’ve been given access to the photo stands as a photographer and will be able to pick up the badge at check-in. We’re much more relaxed as a large group. We linger over lunch. Joan Wernick creates a women’s luncheon group and then has to fend off my teasing about discrimination despite the fact I’ve had a perfectly satisfactory lunch with a compatible bunch of guys. Pete has some difficulty dragging us back to the task at hand as he begins the afternoon session.
We practice more harmony singing using a couple of songs he is considering for tomorrow’s performance on the Cabin Stage, a traditional event during the opening hours of the festival. He’s eager that this be a good performance both because he wants us to have a positive experience and because our performance functions as a recruiting tool for his jam camps. Lots of us struggle with the idea and practice of harmony singing, something we’ve now been working on for three days.
In the afternoon Joan rejoins our jam group, but we need to understand that we’ll be on our own when we perform tomorrow. We try out a few names and a few songs. After a while “In the Pines” emerges as the song and “Wonders Never Cease” as our band name. We try out breaks and singing combinations and slowly a performance emerges. It still needs lots of practice, but we’re headed in the right direction as the afternoon ends.