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.
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.
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.
The Trio (Johnson, Smith, Eldredge)
Lonesome River Band
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.