Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival – Lebanon, NH

The second annual Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival will be held at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, New Hampshire on November 21 and 22. Friday night’s bands will be Rhonda Vincent & the Rage and The Jerry Douglas Band. Saturday night’s program presents The Grascals and Seldom Scene. Executive Director Heather Clow has pulled together a lineup to rival the very successful first run of this early winter festival from last year. A series of workshops will held on Saturday afternoon at the nearby AVA Gallery, just a few steps from the front door of the Opera House. Tickets can be obtained here and cost $33.00 for each performance or $55.00 for a festival pass, including the Saturday workshops. For those attending the workshops or wishing to enjoy a meal in Lebanon, several very nice restaurants are located on the town square where the Opera House can be found. Information about food, lodging, and finding the Opera House is available here. The Lebanon Opera House, which has an interesting history, has comfortable, although not lavish, seating with excellent sight lines and very good sound. Parking on the square is pretty sparse, but there’s a large lot in the back.

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage

Rhonda Vincent


Mickey Harris and Darrell Webb

Kenny Ingram

Hunter Berry

This year’s lineup at the Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival is a little more conventional than the first outing of this event, but it provides plenty for all tastes across the bluegrass spectrum. Friday’s program opens with Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Since Lebanon Valley will be one of their last three appearances in 2008, I’m told the current band will perform there, affording New Englanders a last chance to see the current edition of this very popular high quality band. One of the most popular and hardest touring bands in the business, Rhonda Vincent always appears with her A game. She has a fine voice and a winning stage personality, moving the show along with good humor and high professionalism. Oh, she looks good, too. Vincent is one of the most generous band leaders in bluegrass. This serves two purposes: it showcases the very fine musicians who tour with her, and it saves her voice from too much strain. Departing members Kenny Ingram and Darrell Webb have brought great strengths to the band, but replacing them will not be as difficult as you might think. Ingram is one of the great banjo players, and has been performing with top bands for many years, although he spent a good deal of time off the road. The much travelled Webb has a fine voice, is a good song writer, and picks the guitar well. Mickey Harris, on bass, brings a very solid beat and fine singing, particularly of Gospel music, to the band. Hunter Berry on fiddle is not only a fine stylist, but his stage presence adds plenty of humor to a Rhonda Vincent performance. Rhonda and the band have won eight IBMA awards. Members of the band have won any number of SPBGMA awards, an organization more fan-based than IBMA, the major professional organization of bluegrass music. Because they appear frequently in New England, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage will be familiar to many, but they always deliver.

The Jerry Douglas Band

Jerry Douglas

Todd Parks


Luke Bulla

Guthrie Trapp

Chad Melton
The Jerry Douglas Band will perform second on Friday. Douglas is currently touring in support of his new CD Glide, which has been attracting lots of attention, including an appearance on the XM radio Studio Special series with Kyle Cantrell. His appearance behind the Vincent band will allow those who won’t countenance drums with their bluegrass to leave early, while fans of more progressive music will be able to get their fill and Douglas can run over. For many fans, Jerry Douglas has defined the sound of contemporary Dobro play. It’s hard to document, or even conceive, Jerry Douglas’ influence on the Dobro and a much wider aspect of music. The database of his discography contains over 750 titles, but he has appeared on approximately 1600 recorded projects. A biographical essay by Daniel Menaker can be found here. Menaker refers to influences from bluegrass, jazz, Indian ragas, Celtic tunes, New Orleans jazz, gospel, blues and more. Douglas has won the IBMA Dobro player of the year award eight times, but recently his music has moved beyond the confines of traditional bluegrass. Other members of the Douglas band are Chad Melton on drums, Todd Parks on bass, Luke Bulla on violin, and Guthrie Trapp on mandolin and guitar. It’s particularly interesting that Bulla is listed as playing the “violin,” because this signals a departure from the “fiddle” of traditional bluegrass music. This band has the power and skill to extend any listener’s concept of what music sounds like. To the same extent that Bill Monroe took the musical genres of his own age and synthesized them into a new and thrilling sound, Douglas’ band brings together a range of influences to create sounds, often unfamiliar, that expand the horizons of his listeners.

On Saturday afternoon Upper Valley will offer a series of workshops in the AVA Gallery, a few steps around the town square in Lebanon from the Opera House. Four workshops about bluegrass music and its culture with a regional spin will run concurrently from 1:00 until 2:30 in the afternoon. Ford Daley will talk about the history of bluegrass while playing cuts from early first and second generation bands and introducing attendees to bluegrass culture. Steve Hennig, well-known local banjo player, will come out of the woods to examine the banjo world as only he can do it, with humor and sight but no curriculum. Rich Heepe will reproduce the festival scene while hosting a jam and discussion of whatever comes up. Rich Hamilton will conduct a fiddle workshop. From 3:00 until 4:00, The Grascals will be doing a lecture/demonstration, leaving time enough for their sound check. Last year’s visit with the Del McCoury Band set a high standard, which I’m sure The Grascals can at least approach.

The Grascals


Jamie Johnson

Terry Smith & Terry Eldridge

Danny Roberts

Kristin Scott Benson, Wayne Benson & Hogan

Kristin Scott Benson Accepts
IBMA Banjo Player of the Year
The evening opens with a performance by The Grascals. This relatively new group emerged from a group appearing at the fabled Station Inn in Nashville on Tuesday nights. Known as the Sidemen, this group consisted of Terry Eldridge, Jamie Johnson, Jimmy Mattingly, and Dave Talbot who later asked Terry Smith and Danny Roberts to join them. Some of the band had had experience with Bobby Osborne or with Dolly Parton, while Roberts had fronted his own bluegrass band. Their big break came when Dolly Parton asked the band to open for her on tour and to be her stage band. Their background explains a good deal about their music, which is often a fusion of bluegrass and country with an occasional rock beat to it. When Parton decided to let the band go, they re-emerged as The Grascals, cut a CD and were on their way. The band in less than four years has been recognized by both IBMA and SPBGMA as entertainer of the year as well as winning a number of other awards. Recently they have made a number of successful television appearances on late night and morning programs, and they appear regularly at the Grand Old Opry. Jeremy Abshire has replaced Mattingly on fiddle. Aaron McDaris has come and gone on banjo, after a successful run. The good news is that the Grascals have added Kristin Scott Benson to the band. Kristin won the 2008 Banjo Player of the Year award at IBMA, the second woman to achieve this distinction. She comes to The Grascals after several years with the Larry Stephenson Band. About her coming to the band, she says, “I'm extremely excited to be a part of The Grascals. I look forward to working with these guys and appreciate the opportunity. I've been in the business long enough to realize how rare it is to be in such a successful band and I feel blessed that they offered me a chance to be a part of what they've already established." The Grascals will certainly change with this addition. Her appearance with them at Lebanon will be her first, so it’s a great opportunity to view the newest version of this very fine band.

The Seldom Scene
Dudley Connell
Ben Eldridge

Lou Reid

Ronnie Simpkins

Fred Travers

The Seldom Scene is one of the storied bands of bluegrass music’s second generation. The present group comprising The Seldom Scene contains only one of the founding group who so revolutionized bluegrass music when they first appeared – Ben Eldridge on banjo. Nevertheless, since the untimely death of the magnificent John Duffey in 1996, they have coalesced around Dudley Connell and Lou Reid to continue the band’s traditions. From their earliest work to the present, Seldom Scene has used contemporary music with bluegrass instruments and phrasing to add content and relevance to the music. They took music from James Taylor, The Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan, gave it a bluegrass twist and opened bluegrass to a new sensibility. Seldom Scene earned its name in the early days when, at the behest of Duffy and John Starling, the band established a policy of traveling rarely and not far from their Washington, D.C. home, recording frequently, and maintaining the members’ day jobs. While we’ve seen the other three bands in the Upper Valley lineup frequently, this will be only the second time we’ve seen the Seldom Scene. Perhaps, because of this proclivity, their appearance in Lebanon is to be much anticipated. Other members of the current Seldom Scene are Fred Travers on Dobro and Ronnie Simpkins on bass. Along with The Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene established what has become known at Washington style bluegrass. They are the house band at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA and have recently appeared several times at the White House. Their current CD, Scenechronized, typically contains songs by Steve Earle, John Fogerty, and Bob Dylan as well as more traditional fare as they keep to their habit of bringing new music into bluegrass.

The 2nd Annual Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival should offer plenty of music carefully selected from a range of styles and approaches. Heather Clow, Executive Director of the Lebanon Opera House tells me that the remaining seats are all reserved and are good ones, too. Lebanon is just over two hours from Boston, and less than that from Burlington VT, and Concord, NH. The setting is first rate, the town square picturesque, and nearby shopping gives the advantage of New Hampshire’s absence of a sales tax. The music will be great.