Saturday, February 2, 2008

Snobird & Cracker at Craig's - Review - ThF

Craig’s RV Park, about seven miles north of Arcadia, FL is an interesting combination of a couple of different RV and music venues. Its major front section is a typical, although somewhat nicer than, central Florida place for snowbirds to spend the winter. It is paved, has full hookups (for you non-RVers, that means electricity, water, and sewer as well as, sometimes, cable TV), an active program of activities, and mostly retired people from pretty far north as seasonal residents. The rear portion is a bluegrass music park. Music parks are a strange species of venue. Some provide limited hookups (water and electric only. Sewer systems are expensive and complex to install and maintain.) Many of them are only open a few weekends a year to host festivals. Others encourage bluegrassers to stop and camp, but aren’t listed as campgrounds in the major campground guides. Craig’s insures a continuing income from its seasonal residences and year-round usage by hosting small festivals and monthly drive-in jams for the Southwest Florida Bluegrass Association, which sponsors a very active schedule. Since we were first here two years ago, Alan Wickey, owner of the park, has added a cinder block snack bar with attached bathrooms featuring hot showers to the performance section of the park. This reduces weekend pressure on the bath facilities of his seasonal section, increases income through the food concession, and makes the whole place snazzier and more welcoming. This facility is added to the already high quality stage and performance shed, which gives good sight lines and cover from inclement weather.

The camping field is grass covered, gently sloping and spacious. There’s room for hundreds of RVs, but no hookups except for a water and electric reserved for the performers and a few people whose handicaps are significant enough to require electricity. This weekend the campground doesn’t appear overly crowded. The only complaint I would have about the whole camping setup is that there’s a shortage of sufficient porta-johns in the field area. Not all campers, even those with self-contained units wish to use the facilities they have with them, particularly if they’re on site for even a slightly extended period. Half a dozen more portable toilets would relieve congestion in the facilities and make the entire experience more comfortable.

The annual Snobird & Cracker Reunion Bluegrass Reunion held at Craig’s this weekend began on Thursday at 6:00 PM with an evening of local and pickup bands. Craig’s is well known as a venue friendly to jammers and makes sure that time is provided for jam groups to take the stage during the hour before the scheduled music session begins. Many local semi-professional bands first came together as jammers at festivals. Here it is common to find members of professional bands jamming around the field with the fans, and this is a quality setting bluegrass apart from other musics. Imagine Garth Brooks or Toby Keith out in the field or parking lot after one of their shows, let alone Celine Dion. But Bela Fleck, Danny Paisley, the Infamous Stringdusters, Little Roy Lewis, and many other headliners do just that.

Three local groups featuring members of other bands to be performing later played on Thursday evening. Harbor Drive, Generations Band, as well as Roger Bass and the Hillbillies all played sets to the enjoyment of early arrivers. With the exception of Roger Bass, who’s a regionally well-known country and bluegrass singer, you won’t find these groups on the Internet or on MySpace, but they sing together and enjoy performing. The music is traditional bluegrass and the enjoyment is genuine as old friends gather to make music and listen to it together. Everyone has a good time and goes home happy.

Friday, a started as a bright sunny day, became cloudy and blustery as a Florida cold front rushed through, and finished clear and slightly chilly. Smokey Greene opened the day and then took the set immediately after the dinner break. Smokey is an old campaigner, a man in his late seventies who has been playing and singing country and bluegrass music for probably fifty years or more. He plays his ancient Martin guitar well, has an easy to listen to, mellow baritone voice, and sings classic country, bluegrass, and a variety of funny novelty songs, many of which he wrote himself. His music is very familiar to the senior crowd who make up a large part of bluegrass festival audiences in Florida. Listening to him is like putting on a comfortable pair of old shoes. The crowd makes many requests, and Smokey is happy to oblige. Smokey is followed by Swinging Bridge and then Ernie Evans & Southern Lite, the bands of the two promoters of this event. Alan Colpits as promoter takes on the major effort of organizing, providing for facilities, selling tickets, and making sure the necessary details of bringing off a bluegrass festival are taken care of. His band, Swinging Bridge, is pleasant listening. Ernie Evans takes on the job of booking bands and organizing the entertainment. Building a bluegrass festival’s schedule requires the promoter to balance many often conflicting factors. The cost of bands, the tastes of the audience, variety of offerings, and more all need to be considered. The audience here is generally older and prefers its bluegrass traditional and all acoustic. Ernie Evans has a deep commitment to showcasing young and upcoming musicians as well as expanding the tastes of those who attend, attracting a younger fan base, and broadening the audience. The crucial issue is to keep enough people happy that they stay for the shows, support the vendors, and return next year.

The Wilson Family Band

For Friday evening there are two featured bands that seek to provide exactly the sort of balance Evans likes to schedule. The Wilson Family band comes from Folkston, GA, features two talented children playing with their parents, and plays a delightful mixture of traditional bluegrass, gospel music, and tunes written by all of the family members. A friend, Drew Jones fills out the band on bass. Son Clint is a high school senior who is an accomplished banjo player with rapidly improving skills on guitar and mandolin. He writes songs, too, and this weekend debuted a delightful song titled “My Old Kentucky Home,” which he co-wrote on-line with an acquaintance he may never have met face-to-face. He’s a real comer and will make a solid contribution. Daughter Katie, a twelve year old sprite filled with energy and charisma, plays fiddle, sings solos and contributes very good harmony vocals. Her rendition of “Five Pound Possum” always brings down the house. To watch father Robert Wilson, whose very strong voice and rhythm guitar provide very solid undergirding for this band, is a real joy as he beams on his kids’ accomplishments. Robert Wilson, and his wife Melissa on mandolin, stand as models for those who wish to be on the road with a family band. Always keeping church, home, and family above performance and success, they have managed to provide real pleasure to their audience while never putting their kids or family in jeopardy.

Brian Simpson and Mike Jump (Cadillac Sky)

Cadillac Sky is a progressive bluegrass band coming out of Texas. All their instruments are miked and their presentation is strongly rock influenced. The five men in the band are each accomplished musicians and fine singers. Their performance is strong and well-choreographed. This band is part of the Ricky Skaggs stable of performers and recording artists and have received considerable attention over the past two or three years. They are currently working on their third CD. The audience for a festival like Snobird & Cracker vastly prefers listening to traditional bluegrass. The challenge facing a band like Cadillac Sky when they appear before such a crowd is to win the crowd over before moving into their preferred mode. This can be done by taking the stage and opening with several pieces of hard-driving bluegrass music from the Monroe/Flatt & Scruggs era to show both respect for the founders and then the ability to reproduce this music. After such a showing, the band can move towards its preferred music and probably keep the audience in its seats. By taking this posture, Cadillac Sky could broaden their appeal and remain true to their preferred tone, pace, and sound. Cadillac Sky chose not to take this route and early lost much of the audience to volume, electrified instruments, and their brashness. Many people left before they gave this excellent young band sufficient chance to show its stuff. In the middle of their set, for instance, they produced a very fine version of “How Mountain Girls Can Love” which, had they chosen to open with it, might have done the trick. To ignore or disdain the audience is self defeating for Cadillac Sky and deprives them of a part of the audience they could capture by showing them greater respect. Individual musicianship and singing in this group is of the highest quality and they deserve widespread recognition. At present, they have chosen to go for a younger, more hip audience. Those people were present on Friday night and very much enjoyed the show. It’s a little sad they weren’t joined by the older contingent who went home.