Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Palatka Bluegrass Festival - Preview

The fourth annual Palatka Bluegrass Festival kicks off on Thursday, February 7th at the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch about ten miles south of Palatka on Highway 19 . Promoters Norman Adams and Tony Anderson ramrod this fine festival for the folks at Rodeheaver, who use it as one of their major fund raisers. Rodeheaver Boys Ranch is a 700 acre working ranch where about 45 boys whose parents are, for one reason or another, unable to care for them live. The ranch staff, a group of dedicated educators and house parents, have created a loving and challenging environment to turn unhappy boys into productive citizens. During the festival, which always has one of the strongest lineups in the Florida circuit, bluegrass fans get an opportunity to encounter these kids and those who care for them directly, as they serve as staff and volunteers for the event. The festival runs for three days.

On Thursday, Paul Williams and the Victory Trio lead of at noon. Williams is an old-timer in bluegrass who has written hundreds of bluegrass gospel classics. He does a limited touring schedule these days, and it will be a treat to see him. A characteristic of Adams and Anderson promoted festivals is their fealty to early bluegrassers. At the other end of the spectrum, the brand new band Dailey & Vincent will be performing. Jamie Dailey spent the last several years singing lead and doing comedy for Doyle Lawson while Darrin Vincent (Rhonda’s brother) has been with Ricky Skaggs’ group Kentucky Thunder. These two very accomplished sidemen have joined together to form one of the two new bands creating a great deal of buzz this season. Other bands on Thursday are James King, Gary Waldrep, The Grascals, and Blue Highway. I’m told that Blue Highway is releasing a new album with several great new songs by Tim Stafford.

Danny Roberts and Terry Eldridge (The Grascals)

Friday opens with Carolina Sonshine, a mostly gospel group which has stepped up in the last couple of seasons. Danny Stanley has a fine baritone voice and does comedy bits and voice impressions. Steep Canyon Rangers can be relied on for a first rate performance. We’ve never seen the Isaacs Family, but have heard their work and expect them to be excellent. The Gibson Brothers, one of the finest bands on the bluegrass circuit today will offer songs from their new album Iron and Diamonds which will be released in a couple of months. Their work is always of the highest quality, featuring the tight harmonies of Eric and Leigh Gibson and unique musical quality that catches the ear and the spirit. Doyle Lawson, featuring several new band members, is always reliable. Goldwing Express will be there, too.

Eric and Leigh Gibson

Doyle Lawson

Dr. Ralph Stanley

As this festival began with one of the first generation bluegrassers, it will end with one also. Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys will close the festival with one long set on Saturday evening. Leading up to this closer will be Nothin’ Fancy, a mainstay at this festival, and Marty Raybon & Full Circle, who we have also never seen before, but whose work as we’ve heard it on XM radio is first rate. The Lewis Family, hobbled in recent years by the illness of one of their members, still features one of bluegrass gospel’s prime attractions, banjo player and clown extrordinaire Little Roy Lewis. One of the highlights of the weekend will be Country Current, the U.S. Navy’s touring bluegrass band. Because this band is on active duty in the Navy, they are precluded from making commercial recordings. This means that much of their very high quality repertoire is not as well known as it should be. Lead singer Wayne Taylor is exceptional. Frank Sollivan II is one of the finest mandolin players in the business. Keith Arneson’s work on banjo is elegant and thoughtful and his direction of the band light. This band is not to be missed. Rhonda Vincent, one of the most reliable, hardest touring, and highest quality performers in bluegrass music. One of her great qualities is the amount off-stage time she gives the rabid fans and new converts who flock to her merchandise table. While she is a known quantity, she never disappoints. I’m eager to hear what Darrell Webb, who has replaced Josh Williams at guitar will add to the mix. He was excellent with Wildfire, and he will surely change the mix as well as continue the excellence.

Rhonda Vincent
The Palatka Bluegrass Festival’s lineup is loaded with first-rate performers. In the past five years, the folks at Rodeheaver Boys Ranch have created a fine performing venue featuring over 500 RV sites with water and electric, a pole barn music shed with gas heat for the chilly nights often found in northern Florida in winter, and a fine set of very good vendors. The staff serves tasty hot breakfasts each morning in the ranch dining hall as well as dinners in the evening. Keep your eyes open for the wonderful local navel oranges sold by the festival and transported to your rig if you wish. This is a first class operation with fine performers presented in a prime setting. If you can fit it into your schedule, get yourself there.

Carolina Sonshine

Frank Sollivan II (Country Current)

Hunter Berry (Rhonda Vincent)

Jamie Johnson (The Grascals)

Jimmy Mattingly (The Grascals)

Kenny Ingram (Rhonda Vincent)

Kevin Prater (James King)

Mike Andes and Tony Shorter (Nothin' Fancy)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

YeeHaw Junction - Saturday and Sunday - Review

Saturday at a bluegrass festival usually builds throughout the day to a rousing climax in the next to last act of the evening. YeeHaw Junction is a well-organized, carefully thought through event which works well from start to finish. Steve Dittman’s attention to detail, selection of bands, provision for vendors and other amenities, and eagerness to provide a first-rate experience show throughout the event. The day opened warm and partly cloudy, a little humid. It stayed that way almost all day until a slight shower in the early evening, which didn’t seem to faze anyone. Over the day, well over a thousand people would show up to swell the crowds.

The Doerfel Family opened Saturday. I’ve expressed my concerns about family bands, especially those tour hard. When we saw them last year, the Doerfels seemed to me to be a parent created and parent driven group even to the extent of bribing the younger kids to perform. A year later the parents have left the stage to their talented and enthusiastic kids, and their music has become more complex, sophisticated, and interesting. Their instrumentation has become very good. The boys have picked up instrument endorsements for good reason – they’re becoming very good and manufacturers want to be associated with young, dynamic musicians. Daughter Kim, at eighteen a blooming beauty with a voice that ranges from gravelly blues to crooning bluegrass provides leadership and drive with her expert fiddling. Each of the kids has continued to improve. TK (17) playing his sponsored Nechville banjo plays post clear and tastefully. Eddie (14) on mandolin, Joey (13) on bass, and Ben (12) on guitar each contribute in major ways. The younger children are off and on stage, playing games or coming on to sing or play for a song. I don’t particularly like their paying the younger children a dollar to perform, but it isn’t as obvious as it seemed to me last year. As with all family bands, it remains to be seen what happens to these kids as puberty approaches and other interests rise up, but just now they’re filled with enthusiasm and energy. Really worth a look and a listen.

I wrote of Friday’s performance by Valerie Smith & Liberty Park that she seemed off her game. Turns out she worked too hard on the cruise and hit dry land tired and sick. She had complained on stage that the earth was still rocking. By a few minutes into Saturday’s performance the audience was rocking and Valerie Smith was rock solid. She had her energy and voice back in full form. Her interaction with Becky Buller was nuanced and interesting. The band was in full voice. At one point near the end of her first set, the electricity failed so she couldn’t be heard. Quickly she decided to lead the band out into the audience, clogging up and down the aisles, never missing a beat and bringing the audience alive. The audience responded with enthusiasm and encouragement to this display of guts and showmanship. Wisely, she asked Kevin Prater, the solid and able mandolinist for the James King band, to join her on stage for both sets, where he ably complemented the rest of the band. By the end of her second set, Valerie was tired, but visibly excited by the reaction and her own performance.

Dustin Jenkins and Keith Garret (Blue Moon Rising)

Blue Moon Rising contributed two more excellent sets. Their low key presentation and high quality traditional sound coupled with a unique sound make for first class entertainment.

Eugene Crabtree and Josh Greene (James King Band)

James King has replaced two members of his band and, apparently, achieved some new balance in his life. Both these changes have energized him and his band. James has always been a hard living, hard driving performer. In our conversation yesterday, he seemed to have achieved a new level of happiness. His performance reflected that, showing a verve and liveliness we have not recently seen. Eugene Crabtree has joined his band on banjo and Josh Green on fiddle. Both have added variety of depth to his performance. It can only be hoped this current state of affairs will continue and James will add to the record of great songs and stories he has contributed to bluegrass music. I don’t have much more to say about Nothin’ Fancy. They played two additional sets of their very reliable and solid work. It’s always a pleasure to see and hear them. They played a lot of requests, repeated a number of songs, and somehow manage to remain fresh and amusing, perhaps because it is so clear how much they enjoy each other and the audiences for whom they perform.

The highlight for us, as well as for many others here at YeeHaw Junction, was the return of the Gibson Brothers to Florida. They have not performed at this festival for about ten years. Eric, Leigh, and their band brought their wonderful songwriting, singing and picking to Florida and the crowd appeared to love them. The Gibsons sang many of the songs from their well-loved catalog including The Mountain Song, Callie’s Reel, Red Letter Day, Railroad Line, and Ragged Man. Whether they’re performing their own compositions or the work of others, they bring unique interpretations, tight harmonies, and driving instrumentals to them. Eric and Leigh offer close harmony and fine musicianship. Leigh’s voice and strong rhythm guitar fit perfectly with Eric’s banjo and voice. Eric deserves more recognition, too, for his thoughtful and creative work on the banjo. Rick Hayes on mandolin contributes very good play as well as his smiling demeanor and obvious joy in the play. Clayton Campbell plays soaring fiddle solos. His quiet presence belied by the assertive play and lilting backup. Mike Barber, as always rock solid on bass, also added a fine bass riff. It would take a truly hard-hearted person to be immune to the engaging performance of this stellar group. Their new album from Sugar Hill called Iron and Diamonds will be out in a couple of months. Gibson Brothers fans will already be on the lookout for it. Others will be introduced to them through their appearance with Kyle Cantrell on XM radio to premier the disk.

Clayton Campbell and Rick Hayes (The Gibson Brothers)

Sunday at YeeHaw Junction opened with Mike and Mary Robinson’s Bluegrass Gospel Jam, well attended by over thirty jammers and perhaps a hundred others. Bits of Grass and the Cunning-Hams contributed strong gospel performances. The annual fiddle championship was appreciatively received by an enthusiastic audience. Goldwing Express was there, too. Palms Bluegrass Band, and the Doerfel Family wrapped up this very successful and enjoyable festival, as the sky cleared, the sun came out, and the weekend ended.

James King

Kevin Prater (James King Band)

Eric and Leigh Gibson

Nothin' Fancy

Becky Buller, Valerie Smith, Kevin Prater

Saturday, January 26, 2008

YeeHaw Junction - Friday: Review

Friday dawned bright and clear with a cool breeze from the northwest. It promised to be a lovely day filled with great music even if the evening would be cool to downright chilly. Predictions panned out pretty well. Monroe Crossing opened the day, continuing their high quality performance from Thursday. This band, little known outside the Midwest, deserves a national audience and reputation. Their eclectic mix of classic bluegrass and more contemporary sounds combined with high energy and first-rate musicianship should be pleasing to just about any bluegrass aficionado except the most intransigent, hard core traditional bluegrass fan. At one point they began with commenting that Bill Monroe is a member of five separate music halls of fame, including both bluegrass and rock and roll, and then used “The Road is Rocky, but it Won’t be Rocky Long” to morph through the original to rock-a-billy, a polka, to the blues. This clearly demonstrated the flexibility and versatility of Monroe’s music for today as well as having something to say about Monroe himself. Benji Flaming on banjo picked Bela Fleck’s “Whitewater” as well as an incredibly sweet and melodious banjo solo in their second set. Despite his very unusual way of holding his banjo, Flaming is a young banjo player very much worth watching. This band is extremely entertaining, engaging the audience with humor, gentle ribbing and banter. Monroe Crossing does honor to their namesake, dressing in forties era slacks and the awful painted ties your father used to wear (add a generation or two if you wish), but their music reflects trends and tastes from the thirties until today without seeming forced or mannered. Look for this band and request your local promoter to book them.

The Martin Family
The Martin Family had two sets today, more appearances than their repertoire supports. They will continue to tour and to improve if they don’t rest on their laurels. Son Dale has a pleasant voice and is becoming a competent flat picker. All three girls are developing their instrumental abilities as well as their singing. Family harmonies are close and solid. The package isn’t yet complete, but there’s reason to believe this band has the potential for a breakout success. Seventeen year old Lurita, on Dobro, shows real promise.

Valerie Smith & Liberty Park
Valerie Smith appeared tired and somewhat ill from their recent cruise. Her voice has pretty well recovered from last year’s surgery, but she didn’t seem at the top of her game on Friday. Since she has two sets on Saturday, I’m going to reserve further comment for tomorrow morning. Meanwhile, Becky Buller continues to provide musical and personal warmth and strength. Chad Graves has come into his own on Dobro with this band. Thomas Wywrot, a fine flatpicker, filling in on guitar was very good. Bobby Daniels provides the bass beat well and unobstrusively.

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys offered their usual very high quality two sets. Hailing from Alabama, Davis plays straight up Monroe style mandolin. His clear, fast picking is nearly flawless, and he complements it with a fine mid-range tenor voice that easily slips into falsetto when necessary. Robert Montgomery, a neighbor of Davis’s has joined the band on banjo. He plays very good breaks and backup, serving as a good addition to the band. Long-time bassist Marty Hayes’ voice blends very well with Davis’s as they showed so ably on a Louvin Brothers duet in their second set. Paul Priest on guitar sings very well, plays strong rhythm, and offers quality flat picking. Owen Saunders on fiddle is one of the best. His laconic style belies powerful playing and tasteful backup. One of Davis’ strongest songs is a recounting of the death by friendly fire of Stonewall Jackson at “Chancellorsville.” This is an essential work for fans of Civil War songs, much better musically than, say, the “Ballad of the Rebel Soldier.” Another strong song “Gold Watch and Chain” examines the small rewards for a life of hard work. Davis and his band are important parts of the bluegrass world and much deserve wider recognition and play.

Bluegrass Parlor Band

Unfortunately, The Bluegrass Parlor Band was only scheduled for a single hour long set placed at what would be dinner time for most festival goers. Those who went home to eat missed an outstanding performance. Tom Henderson, founder of the band and former owner of the late Bluegrass Parlor in Tampa, attended despite being slowed by illness. His bright smile and friendly manner help promote this band in public, while he still has sharp and thoughtful advice to give his young protégées in private. Much is made of the development of the precocious Walker brothers in this band, and it’s easy to overlook the development of the other players. Seventeen year old Austin Wilder is quickly maturing into a wonderful bluegrass musician. His flat picking on guitar is fast, accurate, and interesting. His voice has matured in the last year and provides the solo quality this band demands. Heather Franks has continued to develop on fiddle, in taking on some of the emceeing responsibilities, and singing both lead and harmony. Jason Jones on bass never says a word on stage and keeps up a most reliable bass beat.

The Walker brothers – Cory and Jarrod – have moved beyond amazing because of how well they play “for their age” and have emerged as top notch pickers. Younger brother Tyler, still only twelve, has joined the parlor band on rhythm guitar, but showed his vast potential with a couple of breaks. Cory, who tours with Sierra Hull, has joined the ranks of the finest young pickers in a universe populated with very good banjo players. In the past year his stage presence and singing have grown to complement his great picking. He has taken over leadership of the band, keeping it integrated and moving all the time. Jarrod, age fifteen, the quieter and less expressive of the two, picks his mandolin with sure confidence and great skill. His breaks, often reminiscent of Alan Bibey’s work, are clear, precise, fast, and interesting. Both boys are outgoing and personable to boot.

Blue Moon Rising offered two sets. Initially, I was less than impressed by this group. They have emerged for me as one of the finest young bands. I think the reason for this lies more with me than with them. Blue Moon Rising comes on stage quietly and begins their set without fireworks or fanfare. As their sets continue, it becomes increasingly clear that they are just flat terrific. Irene saw this much before I did and has encouraged me to continue to listen to them and to allow myself to grow. Original members Chris West and Keith Garret both are superb writers, singers, and pickers. This is a pretty difficult combination to beat. Joined recently by Dustin Jenkins on banjo, they have continued to improve. Their new bassist, Harold Nixon, brings broad experience to the band at this often overlooked instrument. The band plays traditional bluegrass with a contemporary sensibility. Their songs have become a staple on satellite radio and their performances are polished and highly professional. Like the members of Grasstowne, this fine band will continue to impress those who recognize really good bluegrass music presented without relying on showiness or flash. Chris West and Keith Garret contribute many of the original songs for Blue Moon Rising. Songs like “Jeffrey’s Hell,” “When the Mountain Fell Down,” and “Papaw Taught Me” are wonderful songs and belong in the standard repertoire sung by other bands and by field pickers.

The Larry Gillis Band contributed another solid set, once again demonstrating this reconstituted band’s happy combination and quality.

Larry Gillis and Evan Rose

Nothin' Fancy
Nothin’ Fancy offered two sets of their crowd pleasing patented combination of music, humor, and tomfoolery. Their reliable sets can be counted on to bring attendees into the tent and to keep them interested and amused. Bandmaster and chief song writer Mike Andes keeps things moving along with his wit and humor. His reliable smooth baritone voice and impish look work for him. It was good to see Gary Farris back with Nothin’ Fancy after shoulder surgery this winter. We had last seen them at Berryville in November when Gary’s injury severely hobbled him. Since then, surgery and therapy have helped, but he still hurts. Mitchell Davis on banjo is reliable for both his humor and his play. Much is made of Chris Sexton’s classical violin background. Most interesting is his use of song motifs from both classical and pop music as small illustrations in his bluegrass fiddle. Such playful vignettes, for those who really listen and who know other music, stand as a form of musical joking that in many ways is at least as funny as his also effective physical humor. Tony Shorter on bass is unusual for bass players because he brings a range of experience and influences to his bass play. His plastic face and moony expressions advance the band’s goals. Nothin’ Fancy is truly an ensemble effort in all elements of its performance. These elements fit together into an effective whole which keeps audiences intrigued while never falling into the realm of bad taste.

Friday provided a fast paced and enjoyable day which will hard to top on Saturday.

Becky Buller and Valerie Smith

Keith Garet (Blue Moon Rising)

Dustin Jenkins (Blue Moon Rising)

Heather Franks (Bluegrass Parlor Band)

Jason Jones (Bluegrass Parlor Band)

Robert Montgomery (David Davis)

Rebecca Rose (Larry Gillis)