Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Strawberry Park - Sunday and Assessment

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival finished on Sunday with four very strong performances surrounding the delightful on-stage debut of this year’s Kids Academy. After a short rain delay and some mugginess on Saturday night, the day dawned misty and a little muggy but quickly cleared into a warm, dry, sunny day – perfect for bluegrass. The morning’s music opened with Dry Branch Fire Squad’s traditional gospel set. Now, considering that it’s Dry Branch Fire Squad and Strawberry Park is in New England, you might expect something quite different than you would find a bit further south. And different it was, although filled with respect at the same time. DBFS sang, Ron Thomason was funny, thought provoking, and an ardent advocate for personal faith, openness to individual differences in belief, and adherence to the precepts of love and forgiveness advocated in Christianity as well as other faiths. Dry Branch Fire Squad inspires while always reserving a little zinger which forces those who really listen to examine themselves and their world. Thomason manages to include the creatures of nature, particularly dogs and horses, as examples of those whose lives set examples for the rest of us.

Ron Thomason

Brian Aldridge

Dan Russell

Tom Boyd

Laurie Lewis

Nature and the power of God’s creation remained before the audience with Laurie Lewis’ very fine set. Lewis’ lovely voice blended with Tom Rozum or Scott Huffman in close harmony explores lost love, the beauty of the outdoors, lost friends, and more. Her song in memory of Charles Sawtelle “A Hand to Hold” if filled with the haunting sense of loss experienced when a crucial member of one’s support system is gone. In this week after the death of Utah Phillips, she also remembered him with some thoughtful remarks and one of his tunes. There’s a gentleness to Lewis’ spirit reinforced by the strengths of her band. Craig Smith, on banjo, ranges from hot and bluegrassy to cool, thoughtful and melodious. Tom Rozum emphasizes voice in his singing, tone and intonation in his mandolin play. The combination provides pleasing solo singing and fine harmony work. Scott Huffman on guitar brings a sonorous baritone voice and excellent flat picking. Bassman Todd Phillips, very solid, hides in the rear and provides the beat that informs the group.

Craig Smith

Tom Rozum

Todd Phillips

Scott Huffman

Strawberry Park Kids Academy

Shortly after noon, the Kids Academy trooped into the amphitheatre from the rear and paraded to the backstage area where they tuned and prepared. The children, ranging in age from perhaps six or seven to early teens played three songs, took instrumental breaks, and even sang harmony. They were warmly greeted by the audience. The staff is to be complimented for the progress the kids made during three days of intensive practice. The kids looked and sounded great and will all make their own contributions to bluegrass music.

Kim Cyr - Connecticut Bluegrass Association

Tim St. Jean (Academy Co-Director) Leads Kids In

Kids Warming Up in the Woods

Kids on Stage

The Grascals
The Grascals have been busy on the festival circuit and in the recording studio for about three years now. They have made a couple of personnel changes, first adding Aaron McDaris at banjo and recently replacing Jimmy Mattingly on fiddle with Jeremy Abshire. McDaris took over with barely a ripple. The fact that he doesn’t sing has added bassist Terry Smith to the trio, improving their vocal sound. McDaris is excellent on banjo and the band has manufactured a personality for him in performance, calling him “Boo” and encouraging audiences to boo him roundly. He encourages the booing with a huge smile, and the Strawberry Park audience gleefully participated in this fiction. Abshire’s joining the group posed a greater potential hazard, as Mattingly is a dynamic fiddler who brought life and enthusiasm to the group. Fortunately, he has been transitioning out of the group for some months, and even more important, Abshire is a fine fiddler with lots of life and enthusiasm to him. The Grascals present a lively and fast moving show that’s entertaining and musical at once. Danny Roberts on mandolin is one of the very best, smiling to himself as he rips off fast and accurate breaks. Jamie Johnson serves as emcee for the group, communicating sincerity and enthusiasm. He sings lead and tenor, both well. Terry Eldredge on guitar also contributes terrific vocals. His rendition of IBMA award winning song “Me and John and Paul” is always a winner. The Grascals have continued to build on their early success and should be around for quite a while, growing and changing as they need, but adhering to the formula that’s made them successful. Their 2006 and 2007 IBMA awards as Entertainers of the Year were well-deserved.
Danny Roberts

Terry Eldredge

Jeremy Abshire

Jamie Johnson

Aaron (Boo) McDaris
Terry Smith
The Trio (Johnson, Smith, Eldredge)
Lonesome River Band
How many festivals save one of the all-time great bluegrass bands for closing on Sunday afternoon? Not many, but Strawberry Park does. What’s left to say about the Lonesome River Band. Sammy Shelor, four time IBMA banjo player of the year, has established his own style as a standard for others to emulate. His rock informed indisputably bluegrass style looks backwards and forward simultaneously. He stalks the stage, working the microphone, encouraging his band mates, stepping in to sing, saying little else, and always, always enjoying himself and the music they make. Mike Anglin on electric bass closes his eyes while he rocks and bounces, lost in his own world while providing an always tasteful and powerful beat. Andy Ball on mandolin seems to sing more than his share of murder ballads and lost love songs, but he brings a strong voice and powerful mandolin picking to the job. Brandon Rickman is on his second tour with LRB. His dusky voice and impish look sell well. Because he picks so powerfully, he breaks a lot of strings. Watching him move his chaw, put his pick between his lips, and change a string on the fly while not missing a singing note is worth the price of admission. Mike Hartgrove, an experienced fiddler and original member of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, is also returning to LRB after an absence. His fiddling is strong and melodic, fitting right in with the band’s sound. The Lonesome River Band is not to be missed.
Sammy Shelor

Mike Hartgrove

Andy Ball

Mike Anglin

Brandon Rickman Changing String
This year, when we arrived at Strawberry Park, we were concerned to see the third new sound crew setting up. Cobra Sound of Berwick, PA provided the best sound we’ve heard in some time. I cannot remember a single squeal of feedback during the entire weekend. That’s pretty unusual stuff. Furthermore, the level of the sound was always appropriate. Each band was modulated to sound its very best. Never was the sound too loud, but everyone could always hear. Singing is crucial in bluegrass and every word was clear and crisp.
Strawberry Park is well laid out to permit all-night picking in a designated area while providing a large area where those who want a quieter setting can have quiet observed from midnight until 8:00 AM, or so the rules say. However, consideration for the concerns of others seems low on the priority list of those who want to jam late into the night and party on. Unfortunately, this places management in an awkward position, as challenging people to observe the rules can only irritate them. In the end, consideration for others is necessary for everyone to have a good time. One other point: How many ways do people have to see signs that say “NO SMOKING” before they get the idea it means them? Sadly, cupping a cigarette in your hand or hiding it under a seat doesn’t keep the smell from being irritating if not dangerous.

The staff and management of Strawberry Park are professional and friendly. The park offers a better than average snack to meal plate bar, so there is little need for additional food vendors, although the Chili Brothers offer delicious Cajun food and there was a vendor selling vegetarian wraps and plates that looked and smelled fine. With the exception of one craft vendor who made cutouts and jewelry on a foot peddle saw, the vendors were of little interest.

Overall, however, Strawberry Park provides a strong lineup throughout the weekend. The amphitheatre is wonderfully laid out, there’s lots of shade, and space is provided for people to dance without disturbing others or interfering with sight lines. Artist’s merchandise tents and tables are conveniently placed. Strawberry Park is one of the best run festivals we attend. Put it on your schedule for next year if you haven’t been there before.