The 2nd Annual Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival opened at the Lebanon Opera House on Friday night with performances by Rhonda Vincent & the Rage and The Jerry Douglas Band. The bitter cold did nothing to keep the near sell-out crowd of about 800 people from filling the large, yet intimate, auditorium. Lebanon Opera House is located in City Hall on the pleasant and picturesque town square of Lebanon, NH. People who only know Lebanon from the congested shopping area along the Connecticut River across from Vermont are in for a pleasant surprise. The stately brick City Hall dominates a park with convenient restaurants, and a nearby art gallery. Seats in the Opera House itself are comfortable, the plain proscenium stage shows off a band well, the lighting offered good, bright light for watching bluegrass bands as well as hearing them, and the sound was very good.
Rhonda Vincent & the Rage gave another one of their first rate performances, although seeming a little tired and dispirited, perhaps partly because of the looming exit of longtime mainstay Kenny Ingram and fairly recent addition Darrell Webb, who are leaving the band. According to Ingram, the changes signal new, and as yet unspecified, directions for the band. Aaron McDaris, formerly of the Grascals will be replacing Ingram. Webb will join Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper in January and is being replaced by Ben Helson from Ricky Skaggs’ band Kentucky Thunder. Last night’s performance was very warmly received by the audience. Hunter Berry supported the band with his fine fiddling and patented brand of humor based on his almost being a member of the family. Mickey Harris is always solid on bass and vocals. Rhonda, as she always does, stayed at her merchandise table until the last fan left, greeting the faithful with warmth and enthusiasm.
The Jerry http://www.jerrydouglas.com/index.cfmDouglas Band gathered backstage for some quiet reminiscing as they, too, ended their 2008 tour. There was an aura of sadness that it was all over. Taking the stage to warm applause, the band played its unique mix of genres and sounds built around the genius of Jerry Douglas on the Dobro. While the Dobro was only invented in the 1920’s, it has found a home in bluegrass music, also an invented form. Douglas, with appearances on perhaps 1600 recordings in a variety of genres, has defined the sound of this unique and rather odd instrument without placing limits on its possibilities. Jerry is backed by a very strong band of players, all fine soloists in their own right. Luke Bulla on fiddle, as well as singing the only two vocals in the set, plays a soaring jazz informed fiddle that stands on its own while always complementing the lead. Alabamian Guthrie Trap excels on guitar, both acoustic and electric. His picking on the acoustic guitar is lighting fast, accurate and always tasteful. On the electric his Rock chops show clearly and effectively. He is a strong presence on the stage. Chad Melton on drums undergirds the band with a strong, but never obtrusive beat, leaving Todd Parks free to roam through a range of melodic and percussive moves on bass. Last night’s performance was strong in music informed by Celtic sounds, but included plenty of Douglas’ unique jazz/rock as well as several nods to bluegrass, including Bill Monroe and Uncle Josh Graves. This was an entirely satisfying performance. The band has been touring in support of Douglas new CD, Glide.
A few tickets remain for tonight’s appearance of The Grascals and The Seldom Scene. IBMA banjo player of the year, Kristin Scott Benson, will be making her first appearance as a Grascal. There will be a series of workshops this afternoon at the AVA Gallery around the corner from the Opera House, including an appearance by the Grascals. Ticket holders from either Friday or Saturday are welcome.