We drove northwestward across New Hampshire, crossing into Vermont from Lebanon and continued north on I-89, through the Green Mountains, past Burlington now heading north towards the Canadian border. At Swanton we headed west through chill, grey farmland and small towns, many with empty store fronts. Lake Champlain, declared by Senator Patrick Leahy to be not a Great Lake, but a very good one, looked cold and the boats in their cradles in the village of Rouses Point were all covered in blue shrink wrap. As we continued west through Mooers and Ellenburg Depot, the sun was trying to break through. As we pulled into the parking lot of Northern Adirondack Central School, the wind increased and the snow started to fall more heavily. This is the fourth year we’ve journeyed to Ellenburg to hear Erin Gibson LaClair, accompanied by her brothers Eric and Leigh and members of the Gibson Brothers band present their Christmas show as a benefit sponsored by the local Kiwanis Club. In three of those four years, getting home has posed something of a problem. For us, this delightful, informal event signals the beginning of the Holiday season in ways that huge sales and Christmas hype simply cannot manage.
The Gibson Brothers have become an acclaimed national act on the bluegrass circuit. Their last four CDs have reached first place on the bluegrass charts while showing constantly increasing maturity and thoughtfulness. Their tight brother harmonies and fine instrumental work showcase the many songs Eric and Leigh have written themselves as well as their good taste in selecting music from other song writers. They also have, throughout their career, carefully selected classic songs from bluegrass and country music and seasoned them with selections turned bluegrass from their origination in early rock and roll. Sometimes bending the bluegrass format with unusual keys and rhythms, they never break the bounds of either taste or tone. Anchored in the brothers’ singing with Mike Barber’s fine bass playing, they have undergone changes on the margin, but never at the core of their sound.
Erin Gibson LaClair has chosen to stay home and be a wife, mother, and teacher. Nevertheless, she possesses a clear, pure voice that blends perfectly with her brothers and a warm, pleasant personality. In recent years, in addition to this annual event, she has appeared with her brothers at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival in Vermont. For their performance with Erin, the Gibsons expand their almost patented and always light and humorous sibling rivalry to include gentle needling of their sister. The audience, having watched all three grow up, laughed with appreciation and affection as they watched the interplay. The program, in addition to few Christmas standbys, included a range of country and bluegrass music. Erin sang songs by Merle Hagard, Steve Earle, John Fogarty, John Prine, Don Gibson, and others. The selection effectively showcased her lovely voice and provided a varied and interesting program. Backed by a superb band, Erin Gibson LaClair’s program always pleases. Their rendition of The Lighthouse, a contemporary gospel tune by Ronnie Hinson, was very effective, despite Eric’s assertion they had “messed it up.”
During the intermission, Eric appeared on stage with his twelve year old son Kelly to play several songs featuring Kelly on mandolin. The crowd encouraged the duo with great enthusiasm. Kelly has shown remarkable improvement and has grown in poise since his debut last year. His rendition of the classic fiddle tune Soldier’s Joy was particularly effective.
Time moves on and circumstances change in the world of bluegrass bands. Rick Hayes, whose smile endeared him to Gibson Brothers fans for the past four years, has left the band to pursue his other interests more intensely without the strain of touring. He has been replaced on mandolin by Joe Walsh, a young mandolinist from Maine. Walsh, a graduate of Boston’s famed Berklee School of Music, plays a liquid and fluid style of mandolin with verve and inventiveness. Despite this being only his second appearance with the Gibsons, he fit in seamlessly. A slight, sometimes dreamy looking young man, Walsh showed great taste and lovely tone as he joined the group. We look forward with great anticipation to hearing this new version of the Gibson Brothers band, with Clayton Campbell on fiddle, at festivals and other events during the years to come.
We emerged from the school into a blowing and increasingly cold early winter storm. We headed home, but the driving was difficult and slow. Stopping at MacDonald’s for a quick burger, Irene received a phone call from our son, Alex, in southern Vermont, telling us the weather was bad at his home. When she hung up (funny terminology to continue using in this world of cell phones. What’s a word for ending a cell phone conversation?) a young man sitting near us said, “Did I hear you say you’d just been to a Gibson Brothers concert. I’m Eric’s brother-in-law, Jim. We’ve just driven from Maine and the road conditions south and west of Burlington are terrible. The road’s littered with cars and trucks.” He was returning to his U.S. Customs job in Montreal and had already been on the road for many hours with his wife and young child. We decided to stop for the night in a motel near Burlington. Sometimes such seeming coincidences give you real pause for thought, especially coming at this beginning of the season precious to so many as a new dawn for mankind.