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
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
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?
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.
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)
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.
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.