Sunday, January 13, 2008

YeeHaw Junction Bluegrass Festival - Preview

The 2008 Florida bluegrass season kicks off at YeeHaw Junction from January 24 – 27 with a full schedule of national and regional bands, plenty of field jamming, and first rate vendors. Located on the grounds of the “Historic Desert Inn,”in YeeHaw Junction, FL and promoted by Steve Dittman, YeeHaw Junction provides few amenities, sits in an isolated location, and offers just about everything a bluegrass fan could want. The area is cattle country, and the fields on which the festival takes place show ample evidence of recent use by large animals. Although the junction referred to in its name was a stop on the Florida East Coast Railway, today the nearest transportation is an exit on the Florida Turnpike where US route 441 crosses it. The Desert Inn, once servicing cowboys as the local brothel, has now become respectable. YeeHaw junction is about 30 miles west of Vero Beach on the east coast of the state. You can find a map here.

The festival features a fine selection of bands, mostly leaning towards the traditional side. The Gibson Brothers, making a rare sojourn into the Florida scene, will headline on Saturday. With their new CD, Iron and Diamonds, due out in a month or two, they will surely preview many of the songs on this long anticipated album. I heard the title song as well as another new tune called “Angry Man” at their sister Erin’s Christmas concert. Both are very strong pieces. Seven of the twelve entries on the new disk are written by the Gibson’s, so count on hearing some of their greats from the past as well as the new material.

The Gibson Brothers BandBlue Moon RisingBlue Moon Rising will perform on Friday and Saturday. Their new CD is being released this month and should be available at YeeHaw. This group was nominated for Emerging Artist of the Year in 2006 and has toured and gained popularity since, emerging as a first rate group. Chris West, a talented singer/songwriter contributes much of their original work. Keith Garret on mandolin adds a high quality voice. This band has a fine sound and fans will recognize a number of their songs, which have had extensive play on XM radio as well as other bluegrass radio stations. Unfortunately their web site and MySpace entries provide too little up-to-date information to help in writing a serious preview.

Two festival mainstays who never fail to please fans and newcomers will be at YeeHaw Junction, each for two days of performances. The James King Band will perform on Saturday and Sunday, offering their blend of “sad and mournful” songs filled with death, loss, and misery while always entertaining fans who request many of these tunes from their own list of favorites. James King has one of the finest and most interesting voices in bluegrass music. When he’s on his game, he’s one of the very best. The band has undergone some recent changes with Adam Haynes on fiddle leaving to join the new Dailey-Vincent Band. Adam Poindexter has been back with King for about a year and John Wade is rock solid on bass. Kevin Prater’s Monroe style mandolin and high tenor singing blends wonderfully with King’s baritone. Nothin’ Fancy is scheduled for performances on Friday and Saturday with their unique combination of fine singing and humor. This band never fails to please. They owe much in style and content to The Country Gentlemen, often acknowledging this debt, but they have their own unique sound, led by Mike Andes singing many of his own compositions and providing strong mandolin. The instrumental standout in this group is Chris Sexton on fiddle. Trained in classical violin at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music, Chris blends perfect bluegrass pitch with humorous musical references to a much broader repertory. He becomes the butt and the source of much of the group’s humor. Mitch Davis provides understated and solid banjo work. Gary Farris singing high tenor and playing rhythm guitar, is a mainstay of solid performance. Tony Shorter on bass has had a varied career including stints in jazz and rock which help to inform his bass playing. He sings tenor harmonies as well. Nothin’ Fancy keeps its show fresh and lively. New fans are in for a very pleasant surprise and those familiar with this band will be pleased to hear old favorites as well as new musical and comedic material.

Nothin' Fancy

The Martin Family Band will perform on Thursday and Friday. Based in Jefferson City, MO, this band of young pickers fronted by older family members is self taught and, based on cuts on their MySpace page have a solid, traditional sound. The Martins have been SPBGMA Midwest Instrumental Group of the Year for several years and this year are nominated for awards in seven SPBGMA categories. They tour widely and can be heard from coast to coast. While they claim influences from a range of bands from traditional to more progressive, their sound on the cuts they offer is pretty traditional and presents a solid sound. They do not yet appear to have a record label or to have produced a CD. Readers of this blog know my concerns about family bands. I’m open to hearing and seeing this band, but really can’t provide too much information about what to expect from their performance.

The Doerfel Family Band from northern New York will appear on Saturday and Sunday so as not to overlap the Martins. The Doerfels are a very attractive looking band who sell themselves as filled with self-motivating young pickers. The father Tom’s use of a dollar bill to bribe one of the younger family members to perform at a festival last year brings this description into question. Nevertheless, they seem to be wholesome and happy group. Watching the kids between sets spread out on the floor with coloring books scattered about and the older kids taking care of the younger ones strengthens this impression. The band maintains a kind of Amish/country plain look which fits well with their red headed, freckle-faced wholesomeness. They tour full time and the kids are home schooled. While the band retains a strong visual presence for me and their youthful enthusiasm for their play is clear, I can’t, for the life of me, recall a single musical highlight of their performance.

Monroe Crossing

Monroe Crossing is a Minnesota-based bluegrass band appearing at YeeHaw Junction at least partly because they happen to be returning from the Bell Buckle Cruise on the first day of the festival. The bios of band members on their web site suggest a wealth of experience leavened by a good dose of youth. They are a busy band, but probably not well known outside the Midwest, their usual touring grounds. The band was founded in 2000 when three other acoustic bands from Minnesota failed, allowing this band to form.

Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike appear on Friday and Saturday. The last time we saw this band, Valerie was recovering from throat surgery and couldn’t sing at all. By this time she should be back in fine voice, which is fine indeed. Becky Buller, the lovely singer/songwriter/fiddler adds immeasurably to the quality of Liberty Pike and supplements Smith’s very pleasant voice and songs with her own very high quality. Chad Graves on Dobro is quite good. The other two new additions we haven’t heard, but Valerie has high standards in the musicians who work for her.

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys can always be counted on for high energy Monroe style bluegrass with an Alabama twist to it. Fiddler Owen Saunders is especially good. This high energy band deserves more national recognition than it gets. They provide a first rate performance that will have fans yelping for more. The Larry Gillis Band, coming from Georgia, also offers speed but last time we saw them they seemed a little ragged. Since he and his brother split, the band has not generated the same level of enthusiasm as before. The addition of Russell Rose on Guitar and Evan Rose on mandolin (both formerly of the Lonesome Whistle Band) may presage a major uptick in the quality of this band. Russell is a very solid rhythm guitarist and singer. His son Evan, now about seventeen, was a true mandolin prodigy when we saw him last, and there’s no reason to think he hasn’t continued to improve.

Several other bands grace this festival. The Cunning-hams, Bits of Grass, and Palms Bluegrass will be featured on a Sunday that offers lots of bluegrass gospel. Mike and Mary Robinson will open the morning with their bluegrass gospel sing, always popular with folks who want to sing and pick the old songs as well. Mike will offer a brief and thoughtful message, too. Goldwing Express will also perform on Sunday. The charm of this Branson, MO based band continues to elude me, but I’m told by promoters that they bring folks in the gate, and visual evidence suggests there are people at many festivals primarily to see them perform. Their shtick is corny and highly manipulative with blatant appeals to motherhood, country, nation, and God all wrapped up in one concluding pastiche. I find their approach more insulting than inspiring, but apparently I’m not in a majority on this one. On the other hand, The Bluegrass Parlor Band will thrill people seeking to be on the front side in recognizing and applauding young talent. Featuring young pickers Cory, Jarrod, and Tyler Walker, this band follows in the long tradition of the Bluegrass Parlor in bringing young pickers of exceptional promise to fans.

The Bluegrass Parlor Band

YeeHaw Junction opens the season on a high note despite the question hanging in the air concerning how well attended such events will be. The price of gasoline and the general unsteadiness of the economy suggests that promoters will be taking a risk. They have sought to maintain low charges for those attending, while costs of getting to and staying at events have risen for both fans and bands. Steve Dittman has assembled a first rate lineup for YeeHaw Junction and one can only wish him success.