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