Friday, January 25, 2008

YeeHaw Junction - Thursday: Review

Thursday at many festivals can be a time of surprise as promoters introduce generally unfamiliar local bands and lesser known national ones. Promoter Steve Dittman has taken advantage of the fact that Valerie Smith’s Bell Buckle cruise was returning from the a Caribbean cruise to book several bands that might not have traveled all the way to Florida just for this event. I like to feature bands that we either haven’t heard or who we’re hearing for the first time that turn out to surprise us. Thursday featured two bands either new to us or so improved as to be worth of special mention. Festivals often reserve their best bands for Friday and Saturday. Thursday turned into a really happy afternoon and evening despite a cool front coming in with chilly rain and winds shortly after dark, because of the high quality of two bands.

Bill and Maggie Anderson

Bill and Maggie Anderson opened the afternoon with their pleasant blend of mellow ballads and gospel songs. Bill lays down a strong rhythm guitar (the current one being his own design) while Maggie’s Dobro gives their performance greater complexity and depth. One of their strong songs is “Touch of the Master’s Hand,” and allegory about a fiddle auction in which the master fiddler steps forward to play a worn out looking fiddle, turning it into a virtuoso instrument. Their work provides a good example of the nexus between folk music and bluegrass. They have recently relocated from upstate New York to the Galax area of Virginia and are taking advantage of sending deep roots into their rural locale.

Bluegrass Stagecoach Band

The Bluegrass Stagecoach Band is recently formed and still working to find its sound and stage personality. Their repertoire consists mostly of bluegrass standards and a few tunes written by the banjo player and the guitarist. The banjo player has a solid high lonesome tenor voice. YeeHaw Junction provided them with a good opportunity to sharpen their presence and increase their comfort before an audience. Shirley Simes, formerly a member of the Gary Waldrep Band, joined them and added her very fine fiddle playing to their mix. Like many bands, the Stagecoach Band met as jammers at a festival and formed a band. They’re based in Milledgeville, GA.
Larry Gillis Band
Larry Gillis has been a performer I’ve had a hard time warming to. He plays a very hard driving, fast, aggressive banjo style and, in the past, has not seemed to me to represent himself very well. What a change! Gillis has been joined by three members of the Rose family (Lonesome Whistle Band) as well as Shirley Simes. The addition of these personable and able sidemen (and women) has allowed Larry Gillis to relax on stage and to let his personality emerge. Russell Rose as on guitar and singing either lead or harmony brings maturity to complement Gillis’s energy and intensity. Evan Rose, now seventeen, has only improved since we last saw him two years ago. This young man easily joins the group of virtuoso young mandolin pickers who are finding new directions to take the mandolin. His harmony with his father on “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” reached to high tenor notes out many singers’ range and perfectly on target. Shy looking Shirley Simes doesn’t play a retiring fiddle at all. Her vigorous breaks and tasteful backup play add depth and charm to this band. Rebecca Rose on bass gives her instrument a full workout, maintains a rock steady beat, and exudes warmth and humor. All this allows Larry Gillis to show his strengths – intensity, speed, power, enthusiasm, and a good baritone voice. This is a band that has taken several steps upward and has earned an enthusiastic reappraisal.
Martin Family Band
The Martin Family comes from Missouri. Featuring three sisters and a brother backed by their father on bass, The Martins show promise and have been recognized for their instrumental play by winning several regional SPBGMA awards. They drove in from Blythe, California for this performance and then encountered rain and wind during their second set. I want to take a closer look at them on Saturday before I write much more. Their voices will continue to mature, reaching to the already competent level of their instrumentation.
Monroe Crossing
Monroe Crossing provided the real surprise of the evening. This band has been together with mostly the same personnel for eight years and presents a well organized, high energy program of both breadth and depth. Honoring their namesake, the play at least one Bill Monroe song in each set. After that they head in interesting and creative directions. They’ll be presenting two more sets on Saturday, after which I’ll have a good deal more to say. At each position in the band they show strength and versatility. Banjoist Benji Flaming has a very unusual style of playing, bobbing up and down while holding his instrument in an almost vertical position. He developed this style while playing lots of solo banjo, finding he could reach chords and notes more easily from it. Mark Anderson plays an inventive and highly figured bass style while selling his enthusiasm with a broad, beaming smile and frequent mugging for the camera. He involves the audience, bringing them in with his personality. Matt Thompson on mandolin serves as emcee while Art Blackburn on guitar contributes lead singing and strong instrumentals. Lisa Fuglie playing fiddle and often singing lead does a fine job. Her rendition of the Dolly Parton standard Jolene really stood out. The singer in this version isn’t the weak passive soul Parton and Vincent portray. Rather, she’s angry and will do nearly anything to stop this more beautiful and vibrant person who wants to steal her man. It was truly a bravura performance.

Friday and Saturday’s lineup is really strong. I’ll be posting both days.

Shirley Simes

Russell Rose

Evan Rose and Larry Gillis

Larry Dancing

Matt Thompson (Monroe Crossing)

Linda Fuglia (Monroe Crossing)

Art Blackburn (Monroe Crossing)

Martin Family Band