Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Carolina Road Homecoming Festival - Review

Lorraine Jordan
Wow! What a weekend of music, jamming, getting together with old friends, and making new ones. Usually, we prefer to take our bluegrass music outdoors, come rain or shine. The festival scene works great when RVers pull in from all parts of the country to congregate for a few days before returning home or moving on to the next event. On this, the last weekend in March, however, North Carolina is an unlikely place for an outdoor festival. While it was quite warm on Friday, Saturday turned chilly and wet; even a pretty tough and committed festival goer would have been challenged to stay outdoors for the music. Inside the Burlington, NC Ramada Inn, however, it was warm and toasty, the bands ran from quite good to outstanding, the jamming reached heights I hadn’t heard at many other festivals, and Lorraine Jordan, one of the hardest working people in bluegrass, aided by her very competent staff and a herd of committed volunteers, kept things running smoothly and people involved and having fun.

Deeper Shade of Blue

Jim Fraley (Deeper Shade of Blue)

Troy Polk (Deeper Shade of Blue)
This event served a number of purposes. It provided Lorraine with an opportunity to bring together a lot of bands from her home state of North Carolina as well as others from neighboring Virginia, and Tennessee which were mostly bands well-known regionally, but without broad national reputations. She had invited festival promoters from the region to come to hear these bands, and you could see them meeting with band leaders to arrange future dates. Another goal of the festival was to highlight members of the Carolina Road Fan Club, recognize them for their work to support the band, and give them a chance to spend some time together. Finally, the area is a hotbed of interest in bluegrass music, and this well-organized festival served up plenty of traditional bluegrass for people starved for good music after a long, chilly North Carolina winter.

Remington Ryde
Anita Fisher

Ray Deaton (Anita Fisher Band)

The Carolina Road Homecoming presented seventeen different bands over two days. That’s a very heavy duty program for a festival to carry. Eight of these bands played at least two sets, while some played three sets over two days, a crowded and busy schedule. Music ran from 11:30 AM until after 11:00 PM with a supper hour abbreviated by bands running over. (One North Carolina band once considered calling itself Supper Hour so it could be on the bill at every festival in the country. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.) The lineup in Burlington was quite strong, but I’ll try to highlight bands that made special impressions during the two day period. Deeper Shade of Blue, a mixed content band heavy in gospel, continues to improve as Troy Pope becomes increasingly comfortable on stage. Jim Fraley, the senior member of this band plays fine banjo. After their performance he could be found in the merchandise room contributing to the jams for hour after hour. His son, Jason, has also continued to grow on mandolin. Remington Ryde, travelling down from Pennsylvania, offered two enjoyable sets with lively music worth hearing. Look for them at festivals in New York and New England this summer. The Anita Fisher Band featuring Ray Deaton has come a long way since we saw them in October. They’ve become tighter, more comfortable, and livelier. Shane Blackwell on guitar is a standout as a flat picker.

Al Batten and the Bluegrass Reunion

David Turnage

Johnny Ridge

Could This be Dr. Tommy Bibey?

Al Batten and the Bluegrass Reunion mixes the entertaining byplay that five men who’ve played together for over thirty-five years can generate along with a strong, driving sound. Batten is a funny and warm tale spinner and a first rate picker. Johnny Ridge, a classic fiddler whose style is based on the first generation bluegrass fiddlers like Jimmie Hicks, is a huge man who curls himself around his fiddle, stomps his foot to provide a beat, and shows an audience what Drive means. He’s truly one of the best and performed with both Batten and James King this weekend.

For me the highlight performance on Friday came from David Davis and the Warrior River Boys. Davis has a remarkable voice, seemingly simple and straightforward, but communicating deep and authentic emotion using vocal dynamics and shadings in many of his songs. He chooses songs that highlight the plight of the poor and the simple in the face of power. His Civil War ballads, particularly Chancellorsville, are powerful and filled with conviction while not raising the specter of the Lost Cause too rabidly. He plays a clear and strong Monroe-style mandolin, using the microphone with particular skill. Glenn Harrell substituted for Owen Saunders on fiddle this weekend and did a creditable job. He’s forming his own band, and it will be worth looking for. Paul Priest, is a fine flat picker and contributed good harmony work as well as a couple of solos. Marty Hayes on bass offers strong tenor work. Robert Montgomery on banjo has worked into the band, which he had just joined when we saw them a couple of months ago, and makes significant musical and personality contributions. This band is always reliable and often rises to real heights.

David Davis and the Warrior River Boys

David Davis

Marty Hayes, Robert Montgomery, Paul Priest

Carolina Sonshine is primarily a bluegrass gospel group with a twist. The versatile Danny Stanley leaves the stage in each set an returns as Hobo Joe or newly created Ferd the Nerd. These characters continue an old bluegrass tradition of having a clown as comic relief and a foil in the band. Stanley’s characters scratch, snort, speak in silly falsetto voices, and then join the rest of the band for a series of vocal impersonations of country and bluegrass greats like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Mac Wiseman, and Elvis Presley. Stanley has a remarkable baritone voice and his impersonations are usually spot on. When he’s singing straight, his voice sounds much like the young Charley Waller, and their version of Matterhorn is startling. Their gospel music reflects deep faith and is lovingly and rousingly presented.

Carolina Sonshine

Danny Stanley as Hobo Joe (Carolina Sonshine)

Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice

Junior Sisk

We’ve been fans of Junior Sisk since we first heard him singing lead with Blueridge six years ago. His high lonesome tenor voice is flexible and responsive in both ballads and fast bluegrass songs. His “Rounder at 21” shows both the dissolute nature of the character and the tragedy of his early death. We were, therefore, disappointed when we first heard his new band at Roxboro in the fall. I should have waited to hear him this weekend before writing anything. Singing with his cousin Tim Massey on bass, and the very talented Chris Harris on mando and singing tenor harmony, Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice have come into their own and are a band to keep a close eye on. Massey, whose songwriting skills are well-known, has a voice that fits closely with Sisk’s and approximates the genetic combination of brother duos. Chris Harris on mandolin sings high tenor harmonies and just plain wails on the mandolin. His playing is clear, fast, accurate and sharp. This weekend he could be seen jamming all over the hotel as well as on stage, always distinguishing himself. The real revelation, however, was the emergence of Junior Sisk as the spokesman for his band. He showed humor and poise. We’ve never before seen him enjoy himself on the stage with such verve, and in doing so he lifts his band to new heights. The Saturday evening crowd was ready for some excitement, and Junior Sisk led the way. The newest edition of Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice is a band worth looking for.

Could this be Ms. Marfar and Dr. Tommy Bibey?

Chris Harris

Tim Massey

Grass Cats

The Grass Cats had the misfortune to be sandwiched between two high energy, highly entertaining bands on Saturday evening during their single set of the weekend. Unfortunate, because this very fine band deserves to be heard on its own terms and not in comparison to those on either side of it. The band features first rate instrumentalists and strong vocals. The three members of their vocal trio have fairly high voices, so, for instance, their version of “Fox on the Run” was played in C, a key much higher than usual. Their repertoire includes bluegrass classics as well as more contemporary sounds and their own compositions.


Lorraine Gets a Rest with Ruth Bruno

James King Band

James King

The James King Band played one long set on Saturday night to everyone’s satisfaction. King can be uneven in his performances, but this time out he was at the top of his game, playing in front of an audience that knew and liked him. He played a number of his fan’s favorites and was clearly enjoying himself. There was one poignant moment when he bade farewell to bassist John Wade, who is at least temporarily leaving the road to care for his ailing parents. No sad moment, however, could long suppress the exuberant King, and his set was joyfully rewarded by the crowd.

John Wade (James King)

Kevin Prater (James King)

Glenda Sandy, Ruth Bruno, Janice Jordan

Jerry Butler and Paul Priest

Lorrain Jordan and the Carolina Road Band
The Carolina Road Homecoming is Lorraine Jordan’s festival played in her own backyard, so it’s no surprise that this talented singer and band dominated the event. On stage and off Lorraine and members of her band, her family, and her fan club were ever present, facilitating the festival. Lorraine was everywhere, meeting and greeting, organizing, and making herself available. Her father, Royce, at 78 a slender, attractive, and energetic man, functioned as co-promoter and helped keep everything smooth and moving along. Janice Jordan, Lorraine’s mother, was everywhere in evidence, her friendly smile always welcoming. Tami Butler, Jerry’s spouse, worked the merchandise table while bustling about taking care of the necessary details of operating a festival. Josh Goforth, a roots music force in his own right, jammed and gave informal lessons while playing in several bands needing a fiddler or guitar backup. Jerry Butler and Benny Greene were constantly in evidence. Along with bassist Todd Meade, all members of the band conducted workshops on Saturday morning. Fan Club members and volunteers staffed the hospitality room, the doors, the gate, and were in ever helpful. Fan Club President Glenda Sandy and Vice President Ruth Bruno were busy and helpful as were their husbands, the two Pauls. Another feature of this festival was the enthusiastic and skillful jamming. Perhaps because this event was held in a rather small convention center in the Burlington Ramada Inn, musicians and fans were even more closely thrown together than usual. There was no back stage area. Jam sessions contained lots of professional musicians and talented amateurs picking together, and the sounds coming from these groups were exciting and entertaining.

Josh Goforth Gives Wayne Murphy a Lesson

Sheila and Joan (The Nurses) with Benny Greene

Carolina Road State Preferences

Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road on stage were their usual mix of good music and interesting traditional diversity. The easy camaraderie that has developed between Lorraine and Jerry Butler is a delight to see. Furthermore, their voices blend wonderfully and, depending on the song, either Josh Goforth or Benny Greene mix very well with them. When the four together sing gospel quartets, they sound just fine. Similarly, while being a traditional bluegrass band, they demonstrate a variety of styles and sounds ranging from mountain to Monroe, Scruggs and Crowe styles. Carolina Road is there to present a rousing good show and that’s what they reliably achieve. The appreciation of their fans is clear and loud.

Todd Meade

Benny Greene

Josh Goforth
Jerry Butler

The Carolina Road Homecoming was a good festival. Many people there acted as if they hadn’t been off the reservation since fall shut down festivals in the mid-south. They were glad to see each other and enthusiastic in their response to the music. Burlington is located in north-central North Carolina, making it easily reachable for people from a wide radius. While not luxurious, the Ramada Inn is comfortable and welcoming. It’s breakfast buffet is excellent, and the staff helpful and accommodating. Think about attending this festival to open your 2009 spring season.

Lorraine Jordan

Special Thanks to the Dripolator Coffeehouse in Black Mountain, NC for their patience in letting us sit for nearly four hours to post this.