The evening’s performance featured two of bluegrass music’s most entertaining groups. One, The Grascals, relatively new to the bluegrass scene, while the other, The Seldom Scene, remains after more than 35 years, one of the genre’s most creative and storied groups. The Grascals led off the evening with one of their characteristically high energy programs featuring songs from their new CD Keep on Walkin’ as well as popular favorites from their other two CDs. Although they have only been together as a group for four years, the Grascals have been awarded IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year as well as two Entertainer of the Year awards. Kristin Scott Benson made her debut with The Grascals on Saturday night. During the stage performance, she was nearly flawless. She worked the mic well, played powerful breaks and wonderful backup with great tone and timing. She was the epitome of Earl Scruggs’ principles of tone, taste, and timing. Later she said she had felt challenged to keep up. Little wonder! The band played "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms" at breakneck speed. She played Earl's great break for this classic and to my ears had no difficulty keeping up. I sure couldn't see it. Meanwhile, I heard her do things I'd never seen or heard when she was with Larry Stephenson’s fine band. Picking for The Grascals should provide her with the scope to extend her already great reputation. A great debut! Meanwhile, Jeremy Abshire, who has been with the band for less than a year also shone. Forced to play more and longer breaks due to Danny Roberts unfortunate absence, he emerged as a fine virtuoso on the fiddle as well as demonstrating typical Grascals exuberance. The house responded with huge enthusiasm to The Grascals who fed on their energy to forge another fine performance.
Perhaps because The Seldom Scene lives up to its name, any appearance they make is eagerly anticipated by their legion of fans and newcomers who discover them. Since their formation in 1971, the group has maintained a policy of keeping close to their Washington, D.C base and travelling rarely while recording frequently. They have created a characteristic sound and led bluegrass music in adapting songs from other genres to bluegrass. They remain, after 37 years, on the cutting edge of bluegrass music. Many of their classic songs are covers of music transliterated from other genres. Songs like Bob Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather,” Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally,” “Nadine” by Chuck Berry, and the Grateful Dead’s “I Know You Rider,” take on a bluegrass sound when The Seldom Scene performs them. Meanwhile, they play a variety of music provided by their members through the years.
I wasn’t privileged to hear live the classic Seldom Scene band including the late John Duffey, John Starling, Mike Auldridge, Tom Gray, and Ben Eldridge, but I’ve listened to their recordings extensively. The new band stands up well to the older versions. Ben Eldridge, at seventy still an active and inventive dynamo on the banjo, not only provides a link to the past, but continues to be an anchor for the band’s music and mix of humor and musical strength. His backup banjo, particularly, puts him at the top of banjo players. Fred Travers on Dobro has a pure, clear tenor voice reminiscent of Duffey while never trying to imitate him. Ronnie Simpkins on bass is filled with good humor and a strong beat for the band, as well as having a strong bass voice for quartets. Lou Reid, who is with The Seldom Scene for a second go round, plays fine mandolin and contributes a flexible voice which is fine for both lead singing and adding to the band’s tight harmonies. Dudley Connell, on lead vocals and guitar, is simply superb. Connell’s history lies in very traditional bluegrass with the Johnson Mountain Boys, but in The Seldom Scene he has easily adapted to a more progressive sound. His genial personality, fu Manchu moustache, granny spectacles, and wonderful smile all remind fans of the band’s connection to the seventies while still placing it in a thoroughly contemporary vein. This band is no museum piece and remains a vital and creative force, a not to be missed musical delight.
With the 2nd Annual Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival, Lebanon Opera House Executive Director Heather Clow, has firmly established a format began last year under different management. The festival mixes staunchly traditional bluegrass with genre busting groups to create a mixture of styles and sounds with broad appeal. More like a two day concert than a traditional bluegrass festival, this event, nevertheless, has continued to offer a series of workshops on Saturday that have featured major bands in a personal and intimate setting. As winter approaches in the North Country, the Upper Valley Festival is an important addition to the New England scene.