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)