Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Snobird & Cracker BGF - Saturday - Review

On Saturday morning the generators coughed to life at 7:00 AM sharp and camp life began slowly to emerge from motorhomes, trailers, and tents. The mobile bluegrass community was preparing for the last day. The sky was clear and nearly cloudless with a rather dense ground fog that would soon burn off. We ran errands, found a campground to stay in next month for a week or so, and posted a blog entry for the last two days. Concern for our sick, elderly cat Frank took first place in our focus. He hadn’t slept well so neither did Irene.

Mike Robinson

Our friend, bluegrass gospel preacher Mike Robinson, would be handling emcee duties. Mike, in addition to meeting the spiritual needs of the community and conducting a Sunday morning bluegrass gospel jam, always does an excellent job as emcee. He prepares carefully, keeps the focus on the music and the musicians, calls attention to the vendors, and manages to keep the festival on schedule with rare good humor and by calling almost not attention to himself, a rare attribute in festival emcees.

In the morning there were several workshops conducted by band members. Workshops are a very worthwhile feature at many bluegrass festivals. Band members meet with attendees to help them understand their instrument better, talk about music, and demonstrate specific skills. Some musicians are particularly good at this. They demonstrate techniques, answer questions, and sometimes play requested solos. Sometimes there are song writing workshops and even events designed to help groups build band skills, a special knowledge area many jammers never master.

The music began at noon with both host bands presenting creditable sets as people, responding to the fine weather, began filling the day parking area. Many people coming in wore Cadillac Sky or Chapmans t-shirts demonstrating their loyalty to favorite groups and swelling the camping audience. Friday night, despite being quite warm and comfortable, had ended with many fans deserting their seats soon after Cadillac Sky took the stage. Many hard core traditional bluegrass fans object to the use of electrified instruments, with the possible exception of the bass. All of Cadillac Sky’s instruments are miked and their sound, although played on acoustic instruments has an electronic edge to it. This, coupled with rather high volume, sent many home early. The fact that many of these traditional fans are getting up in age and often go to bed early also contributed the shrinking of the audience.

Ernie Evans, co-promoter of the event along with Alan Colpits, is committed to maintaining musical diversity at bluegrass festivals. He knows that unless bluegrass bands featuring younger pickers who grew up in rock, punk, and even hip-hop are integrated into the bluegrass scene, the music will be further relegated to a niche music that will eventually be more interesting to music historians than to living fans. Cadillac Sky is one of the bands at the forefront of this progressive movement, and their personnel is almost all quite young and filled with brash confidence. Ernie and Mike Robinson have worked carefully with the members of the band and Daniell Rice, their very competent sound man who is also running the board for the festival. I’ve chatted a good deal about this whole situation with Robert Wilson, himself a very traditional picker, who recognizes the charisma and musical quality of Cadillac Sky and wishes them well. He, too, sees volume and audience awareness as being important issues for them to master.

Tyler Williams and the East Tennessee State University bluegrass band kick off the featured bands for the day. Tyler Williams, physically limited by cerebral palsy and blindness, is a student majoring in broadcasting and bluegrass music at ETSU. Supported by fellow college students Chris Wade on banjo and Alex Tibbets on mandolin, Williams has a nearly perfect bluegrass voice and a pleasant, self-deprecating stage manner. He must be nearly carried to his seat behind the microphone. He adjusts the microphone so he knows exactly where it is, and his band kicks off the first song. His voice quickly makes the audience forget his disabilities and leads them to focus instead on his very great strengths. It would be doing this fine young man a grave disservice to focus on his conditions. Tyler Williams is no bluegrass novelty. Rather, he performs with confidence and grace, quickly helping audiences transcend his disability and appreciate his gifts. Ernie Evans, surprising strong on his flat picking breaks fills in on guitar. Clint Wilson, on bass, has now played every bluegrass instrument at this festival with skill and confidence. Not yet eighteen and headed for college next year, this young man should be watched as his bluegrass instrumental, singing, and composing skills develop. All this being said, the spotlight shone on Tyler Williams through both his sets.

The Chapmans are a family band with a twist. Three men in their late twenties and early thirties supported by their father Bill on banjo. Bill Chapman is a taciturn man of few words. He plays marvelous banjo on stage and says very little, leaving the byplay and humor to his talented sons. John Chapman, on mandolin, plays the part of emcee for the band. Brother Jeremy on guitar, who is an able picker and rhythm guitar player, sings lead. John plays bass and sings harmony parts. On their web site the Chapmans bill themselves as “America’s Favorite Dysfunctional Bluegrass Family.” Based on the obvious good vibes emanating from this group, the claim is hard to support. Their banter emphasizes mild brother bashing and friendly banter. They also suggest their tone and tunes act as an audience depressant which can only be eliminated by their sponsor, the drug company Pfizer. Irony and mild sarcasm is their humorous tool, which they use with skill and wit. Their singing and play can easily get lost in the wit of their presentation. The Chapmans are a very tight band. Their instrumentals are skillful and their vocal harmonies superb. Their music shows an unusual amount of diversity for a bluegrass band. Ranging from a kind of western swing, through jazzy interpretations to solid blues to complement their very good traditional and modern bluegrass work, this band should be treasured and encouraged.

The Wilson Family Band led off the evening session with their only set of the day. Beginning before everyone had returned from dinner break, the audience built as the set moved along. Katie Wilson, still just twelve years old an only having played fiddle for about a year and a half, brought the crowd to its feet with her rendition of “Five Pound Possum.” The band also featured a new song called “Family Ties” which spoke volumes about them as a band and had great appeal to the audience. Although this band performs mostly in Georgia and Florida so their kids can be in school, they are worth traveling to hear. Promoters of larger festivals in the mid-South and the Northeast will find them equally appealing outside their home area and should give serious consideration to booking them. Clint, Katie, and bassist Drew Jones are hugely appealing and the warmth of this close knit family is easy to see and inspires people to reach for a higher standard.
Brian Simpson (Cadillac Sky)
Cadillac Sky had the last afternoon slot before dinner break and would later close out the evening as the festival’s major headliner. After going through their too lengthy changeover of microphones, hookups, and sound checks, they kicked off their performance and won back the audience. They played with a little less volume and showed a more genuine feeling for and appreciation of their audience. This resulted in a much more listenable set which held a significantly larger portion of the crowd in their seats. I’ve heard Cadillac Sky at least two other times. This set was the first one they offered in which I could truly understand the lyrics of their songs. Since their lyrics are powerful and their voices, especially Mike Jump’s, very good, this stood as a significant improvement for me. Apparently the audience agreed, because they were greeted with great enthusiasm. Their evening set, beginning shortly after 9:00 PM held a slightly smaller, but highly enthusiastic crowd. While somewhat more amped up than earlier, Cadillac Sky showed a continued awareness of their audience, suggesting a new maturity. This band has a great future bluegrass, Americana, and indie rock festivals and can build their reputation by proving themselves flexible enough to appeal to all audiences. They made a big step up at Snobird & Cracker.

Snobird & Cracker is a small festival with larger ambitions. Evans and Colpits forged a lineup with something to offer almost any bluegrass fan. The venue, while not offering hookups of any kind, is comfortable and enjoyable. When whether permits, there is usually very good jamming available, and the bands jam with fans. If you missed this one last year, consider it as a pleasant stop next year.

Matt Menafee (Cadillac Sky)

Mike Jump (Cadillack Sky)

Robert Wilson (Wilson Family Band)

Katie Wilson (Wilson Family)