Weston, Vermont is a too precious by half Vermont tourist destination serving as home for the pricy and magnetic Vermont Country Store as well as other “quaint” shops and restaurants clustered along Route 100 in the central part of the state. A lovely town square borders the highway with a fetching gazebo in its center. The Weston Playhouse, boasts a storied history as Vermont’s oldest summer theater, looks like exactly what it is, a former Congregational church turned into a local theater and cultural center that hosts mostly “legitimate” theater. For the past twenty-eight years it has also been the location of a series of bluegrass shows promoted by Fernan Parker. On Saturday we attended what may be one of the last of these shows as the increasing price of renting the Weston Playhouse may have made such events too costly to produce. On this chilly mid-fall afternoon, almost all the leaves have fallen and the sought after color is mostly gone along with the tourist crowds. It’s a perfect day for bluegrass in the Green Mountains.
Fernan Parker - Promotor
We arrived in Weston a few minutes after the scheduled noon start amazed to see almost every parking space around the square taken by cars from most states in New England as well as New York. The Weston Playhouse, true to its heritage and location, is a handsome white, clapboard building. We entered through the front door, picked up our tickets, and walked into the former sanctuary, now a small and well-lit stage. The room itself was so dark we couldn’t easily find two seats in the nearly filled room.
We took our seats just as the first group, Beartracks, was introduced. This trio, consisting of brother-sister duo TomVenn and Julie Hogan along with legendary Dobro player Junior Barber offers an enjoyable mix of bluegrass, old time country music, and more recent songs. Barber is perhaps best known as the Dobro player in the early Gibson Brothers CDs and as father of their bass player Mike, but his experience is wide and deep, his playing both tasteful and vigorous. He’s really one of the best, even though he has chosen to remain off the road and out of major studio work for some years. Tom and Julie’s voices mix well and their personalities project enthusiasm and energy. Julie is particularly animated on stage and plays a solid bass, while Tom’s singing and rhythm guitar are very good. They have consistently proven themselves to be a quality opening act at festivals and small events in the region. They’ve recently released a new CD, “Together to the End” which I plan on reviewing soon. It’s available at the store on their web site here. This is an enjoyable band worthy of your attention.
The Seth Sawyer Band
The Seth Sawyer Band, in its newest configuration, followed. With long-time band mates Dave Shaw and Dave Orlomoski playing for Bear Bridge later in the day and facing scheduling problems, Sawyer has changed the makeup of his band. Seth’s bands always feature his strong tenor voice and fine rhythm guitar playing. Both as a songwriter and singer, Seth Sawyer deserves a much wider voice in bluegrass music. His songs have been recorded by the Gibson Brothers as well as other bands. Check out this version of his song “Long Forgotten Dream” here. His song “Green Mountain Girl” is a regional favorite written for his wife Candi that deserves wider recognition. His new configuration highlights the very able Freeman Cory on fiddle, often seen with Big Spike, a well-known Vermont band. Joe Singleton added his fine high tenor voice and very solid guitar to the mix. Rob Ravlin, new to the banjo but an experienced country guitar picker and singer, played creditable banjo both picking some breaks and providing strong back-up and fills. Gary Darling played mandolin with the group and Candi Sawyer sang and played bass. The Sawyer’s twelve year old son Adam contributed a song as well as some strong harmony. Seth and Candi Sawyer have lots of friends in New England who love to hear his songs and singing. The rest of the country deserves to be exposed to them.
Robert and Lillian Fraker are well-known throughout the region. Bear Bridge is one of the several manifestations their band takes, and they performed two enjoyable and musical sets on Saturday. Highlighting long-time friend and band-mate Dave Shaw on banjo, a good banjo player with a very nice tenor voice, and Dave Orlomoski on Guitar and vocals, Bear Bridge offers a mixture of Bill Monroe songs, other older pieces, and new work by Robert Fraker, who plays mandolin for the band. His new song about a walk through a grave yard was particularly evocative. Valerie Smith & Becky Buller have recently recorded Robert’s song “I Got a Letter” on their soon to be released CD “Here’s a Little Song.” Lillian Fraker is a fine bass player and sings strong harmonies in several different voices. Bear Bridge and the Fraker’s other manifestations as Old Time Bluegrass Band as well as Orlomoski and Shaw as Bear Minimum perform at festivals and events throughout New England. Watch for them.
It would truly be a shame of The Weston Playhouse has priced itself out of the bluegrass event business, because central Vermont supports bluegrass and reasonably priced, small, theater style events draw well here. While The Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, NH and the Flynn Theater will both be presenting major touring artists within the next few weeks or months, such events carry a price tag not reachable by all bluegrass fans. Events such as those sponsored by Fernan Parker in Weston or Dave Helman in the Hadley/.Northampton area in Massachusetts fill the need to maintain a visible presence for bluegrass music in the region. Watch the web site of the Boston Bluegrass Union for news of New England events. Meanwhile, New Englanders can point toward the coming short summer of superlative bluegrass events.
Mr. and Mrs. Fernan Parker
Brenda Mathews and Candi Sawyer