Later in the afternoon we headed to the conference center to see if there was any jamming going on. In one of the rooms we found the Mark Newton band, augmented with guest mandolinist Alan Bibey, practicing for Thursday’s performance. The practice session, which we watched for perhaps 45 minutes, proved to be quite interesting. Under Mark’s direction, but with lots of give and take, the band members worked through the songs in their set, deciding who would sing which parts in the trios, the tempos and keys they wanted for each song, how the pattern of solos would work, and other details. They’d break off a tune in the middle to chat with bass player Beth Lawrence playing a crucial role. Alan, who doesn’t play with this band, is a very quick study and worked out solos as well as back-up licks that fit in perfectly. The band would begin where it had left off and work through the song until Mark was satisfied they were ready. The seeming ease with which each person fit into the familiar bluegrass patterns and blended together into a working ensemble speaks to the high quality of their musicianship as well as providing an example of one of the wonders of watching a playing bluegrass. Bluegrass musicians, particularly in a jam situation, can use the conventions of the music and their familiarity with its patterns to create a sound giving the appearance of years of playing together. As they ended we went off to find the ice rink and get a seat for the ice show.
“Ice show?” you might ask. That’s right, there’s a small ice rink located at the bottom of the ship near the center, presumably a place where the ship’s movement is minimized. We sit down just behind Phil Leadbetter and his wife Lisa. The show, a mélange of familiar tunes, many coming from show music but based on classical repertoire (Carmen, Kismet, Viva Las Vegas) used the music as a forum for the skaters to twirl and jump, lift and spin with surprising speed considering the size of the surface. The skaters, many from Russia, gave an excellent account of themselves. The highlight was a young Russian skater doing a solo routine which began with her twirling a single hula hoop and became increasingly complex and amazing as she added hoops. By the end of her routine she was keeping at least a dozen hoops going while she moved and spun. The rousing finale featured the entire cast skating to a rousing rock medley and bringing the crowd to its feet. The show ended with the crowd on its feet as we headed for the exit to change for formal dinner.
Ten minutes later we walked into the dining room to find our seats taken. Lorraine Jordan had seen us at the ice show, noticed we were still in shorts, and assumed there was no way for us to get to dinner. Fooled her! After some readjustments, we had our seats back with Josh Goforth, Todd Meade, and Susannah, Lorraine’s delightful fifteen year old daughter. Ben Greene, Carolina Road’s very able banjo player, joined us, too. Dinner featured lobster tails, a delicacy which often involves a contest to see who can eat the most of them. We abstained, but there was plenty of lobster eaten. Dinner over, we headed for the music portion of the evening. What had started as a leisurely day ended in a rush to get it all in.
Grasstowne opened the evening with another great set. Jason Davis on banjo seems to have improved his already fine picking over the past few months. Davis is a man of few words who shows almost no emotion as he plays wickedly clean and accurate banjo at speed. Because there is no pretense or showiness in his play, listeners might miss the extremely high quality he achieves. In fact, Grasstowne as a whole is business-like and straightforward in its play. They banter back and forth some and clearly enjoy making music together, but the excitement they generate lies more in their music than in their show. Alan Bibey plays mandolin with such authority and grace he seems to be making hardly any effort at all as the complex fingerings and marvelous triplets leap from his instrument. It almost seems too easy, but make no mistake, Bibey has paid his dues in sweat and toil to achieve this seeming ease. No one plays the mandolin any better. Similarly, Phil Leadbetter on Dobro seems to be a chatty friendly guy at the left end of the band. His sound soars and dives in and around the melody, helping create what has become the unique Grasstowne sound. Steve Gulley, on the other hand, lets it all hang out as his voice curls around the tunes, showing pain, love, and loss in each note. Together, this band, with Jayme Booher providing the ever solid beat on bass, has forged a sound honoring traditional bluegrass while reflecting contemporary sounds and sensibility. They’re truly a marvelous group.
Tim Graves and Cherokee faced a challenge as the middle group sandwiched between a new super-group that has risen to prominence in a little over a year and a family group that has taken the bluegrass world by storm during the past four or five years. Graves, whose Uncle Josh played Dobro with Flatt & Scruggs for many years, plays his uncle’s more traditional style and sings in a very fine high baritone voice. Supported by Daniel Grindstaff on banjo and Joe Benning on guitar, Graves’ presents a very solid show which should please any fan of traditional bluegrass. Bennie Bolling on bass remains in the background, but is quite evident both for his solid beat and his huge smile. Planted squarely behind the rest of the band, he presents an elfin presence filled with the joy of the music. Tim Graves and Cherokee do a fine job.
Sandy Leigh and Jere Cherryholmes
As the evening ended, a number of fans and musicians retired to one of the shipboard bars for some impromptu music making while we headed for bed. Haiti and the private beach at Labadee tomorrow.