Monday, February 11, 2008

Palatka BGF - Review and Saturday Pictures

The 4th Annual Palatka Bluegrass Festival ended successfully on Saturday night with a 90 minute set by Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Ralph, at age 81, no longer plays three finger style banjo and only played two songs using his more traditional clawhammer style. Nevertheless, the many people who remained to hear his set, despite the relatively late hour, got their money’s worth, as Ralph sang with gusto, led the Clinch Mountain Boys through a set of solid Ralph Stanley standards, and gave his son Ralph II and grandson Nathan platforms to seek to establish their own bluegrass credentials. Characteristic of many of Promoter Norman Adams’ festivals, Palatka began and ended with performances by two of the old timers, men whose careers extend back to the very beginnings of what we now know as bluegrass music. Paul Williams and the Victory Trio opened the weekend with their all gospel set. Williams’ wonderful tenor voice is perfect for this format.

The Palatka Festival is experiencing growing pains, but both the bluegrass promoters, Norman Adams and Tony Anderson, and the folks from Rodeheaver Boys Ranch are working hard to alleviate them by next year. The cooperative good cheer of Jeff King, ranch director of development, and his large and helpful staff, did much to forestall problems. Rodeheaver boys ranch is a 790 acre cattle ranch located about 15 miles south of Palatka, Florida in the northeastern part of the state, about 25 miles west of St. Augustine. It houses a little over 50 boys who have been sent there, usually by the courts, because their parents, for a variety of reasons, cannot properly care for them. At Rodeheaver, they receive kindly but firm discipline, live in family-style cottages, attend the local public schools, and work on the ranch. During the festival the boys are very much in evidence, when not in school, and they help provide the volunteer staff with huge support around the large campus. The ranch has built a very efficient concession stand and country store building just behind the main performance area, making fast food readily available. While Norman Adams was unwilling, or unable, to estimate the crowd, it was clearly much larger than in the past two years, perhaps approaching 5000 on Saturday, by my estimate. A projection TV system, set up about two thirds of the way back in the performance shed, helped those far away from the stage to see better, and Gene Daniel’s always very fine sound made it possible for everyone to hear. He was ably assisted by his wife Johnny and Madison Gibson. Adams’ plan to organize seating next year on a first come, first seated plan based on arrival at the gate with only one seat allowed for each wrist band may help alleviate the crush to put down seats. This year there was something of a controversy when early arrivers were allowed to place their seats before the published hour.

Nothin' Fancy Warming Up

Because this festival’s lineup was jam-packed with headliners, I’ll only comment on bands and events that really stood out for me in one way or another. The new Dailey & Vincent Band has been very hot on the bluegrass circuit this winter and didn’t fail to impress. Jamie Dailey’s high tenor and his solid wit kept the crowd entertained, while Darrin Vincent’s harmony and lead singing was terrific as was his role as straight man for Dailey. This band delivers very good singing and picking combined with a delightful stage patter. They were very well received by the audience with their mix of secular and strong gospel music. They provide no surprises in their performance, and there isn’t anything new, progressive, or innovative about their presentation. This will satisfy the majority of people who attend their shows. Jokes at the expense of Doyle Lawson will pall pretty quickly. On the same day, Blue Highway, a long established band came out and proved once again why they are an enduring band. Their musicianship was impeccable. Tim Stafford’s songs and picking were excellent. Blue Highway remains one of the finest bluegrass bands around. Rob Ickes, on Dobro, was a particular standout.

Keith Arnessen (Country Current)

On Friday, Doyle Lawson proved once again that no one in his band is irreplaceable as his newly reconstituted group came out and gave the kind of polished, professional performance his fans expect. I had never heard the Isaacs before and was looking forward to my first experience. They didn’t disappoint with their combination of great singing, high energy, and first rate instrumentals. I had never thought to see a group on a Norman Adams stage with a drum, but Norman assured me the percussion instrument was a box, not a drum. I took him at his word. The Isaacs music has a very high emotional content that grabs listeners. Essentially, their music makes their very strong gospel content acceptable to some audiences that might not be looking for it while their message makes their progressive sounds acceptable to others who might not relish it coming from a different group. Sonia Isaacs concluded their evening performance with one of the most beautiful renditions of the national anthem I’ve ever heard. The Gibson Brothers’ two performances were a revelation to people who had never heard them before or who thought that great bluegrass could only be performed by those hailing from south of the Mason Dixon line. Their tight harmonies, which challenge many people to know which brother is singing, combine with interesting and creative songs they themselves have written. They go to some unusual sources to rearrange songs into bluegrass formats that Wow an audience. A good example is their version of The Band’s Ophelia. The Gibsons will be seen at three other Adams and Anderson festivals this year.

Wayne Taylor (Country Current)

Little Roy Lewis

Marty Raybon

Matt Leadbetter (Marty Raybon)
When I first heard the Lewis Family, I didn’t like them much, finding them to be rather corny and their gospel music uninspiring. Over the years I’ve come to like and admire Little Roy Lewis and his sisters. Now, with his sisters ill and no longer performing anywhere near their top, it’s time for him consider letting them stay home. On Saturday their performances lacked spark and life. It’s truly sad to see this legendary group fall to this state. Marty Raybon performed with verve and energy. Another singer I’ve not heard before, I enjoyed his show. Matt Leadbetter has been given greater latitude to play his own distinctive brand of Dobro and performed with distinction. The U.S. Navy Band Country Current gave its usual very high quality performance. Wayne Taylor, their distinguished lead singer and guitarist will be retiring from the service within a couple of months. He will be greatly missed by this band, but I’m told a replacement is already waiting in the wings. Banjoist Keith Arnesson and mando picker Frank Sollivan II are both truly fine. Arnesson’s banjo playing is elegant – clean and fast with glistening arpeggios. Sollivan plays fast and accurate mandolin as well as contributing on double fiddle numbers. Rhonda Vincent and the Rage have only been improved by the addition of Darrell Webb on guitar. He brings fast flat picking and versatile singing to this most popular and hard touring group. I particularly admire Rhonda’s willingness, after her hard working performances to stay and talk to fans and submit to endless photos and chats with marvelous graciousness. She never fails to come on stage radiating high energy and to perform at the top of her game.
Rhonda Vincent and the Rage

Kenny Ingram (Rhonda Vincent)

Rhonda with Darrell Webb
The Palatka Bluegrass Festival maintains a high standard of music, the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch insists on being good hosts, while fans and field pickers can be sure of finding plenty of what they want at a festival. Norman Adams takes very few risks with the groups he books. He knows his audience prefers their bluegrass to be mostly traditional and laced with plenty of gospel music, and that’s what he provides. If you’re looking to be surprised by new bands or progressive bands, look elsewhere. But if you want to be sure of high quality, a strong regard for tradition, and fine music, these festivals are for you.

Frank Sollivan II (Country Current)

Is this Dr. Tom Bibey?

Lewis Phillips (The Lewis Family)

Miggie, Janice, and Polly Lewis

Hunter Berry (Rhonda Vincent)

Mickey Harris (Rhonda Vincent)

Rhonda Vincent

Dr. Ralph Stanley