Craig’s RV Park & Resort is one of the most pleasant venues in Florida for holding a small to medium sized bluegrass festival. Over the years they have built an excellent covered shed to house the music and a well-designed snack bar and bathroom complex a few yards behind the rear of the shed. The snack bar sells reasonably priced and tasty, but cholesterol-filled, fair food. The rest rooms are kept clean. Rough camping facilities are spacious and flat, making for easy parking and good access to the performance area. There’s ample space for day parking. Since building the rest room-snack bar facility, the owners have stopped providing porta-potties in the camping area, which is a real inconvenience for those whose holding tanks have limited space. Nevertheless, Craig’s is an excellent place to attend a small festival.
The Larry Gillis Band, this weekend with the very talented Evan Rose on mandolin, provided their usual mix of hard driving bluegrass along with some music written by Gillis himself. Recently married, Larry seems settled and happy, which is reflected in his band’s performance. Gillis plays hard and fast, and his band matches his style and speed. Alex Leach on lead vocals and guitar is also a good flat picker. Evan Rose, who played with his family’s band until recently, stands out as an instrumentalist and contributes solid vocals. The Gillis band is a crowd pleaser because of Larry’s fine work on Scruggs style as well as clawhammer banjo. Many fans are awed by his speed and power.
The Faris Family
Goldwing Express, as host band, presented their usual canned performance. While it is polished and competent, their show is so predictable as to become quickly tiresome. Despite being larded with fulsome bad taste, they have a large following, which became completely obvious when roughly two thirds of the audience left after their too long afternoon set. The sets of all other bands had been cut to 35 minutes for Saturday, while Goldwing persisted in doing their full hour. This habit annoys other bands who must follow them when they stay on stage well into the next band’s time and persist in throwing the schedule off.
Mystery Karoake Band
Worse still, however, was their inviting an unscheduled guest band to perform. This quartet appeared using a canned music track. The fine bass voice of their lead singer drew us back to the music shed from our truck, where we were resting. Our hearts fell as we saw them on the stage with no instruments performing impressions of classic country groups. Most surprising, however, was the positive response they garnered from at least a portion of the audience. We didn’t come to Craig’s in order to hear or see a karaoke program. A major feature of acoustic music events remains live performance using instruments in the hands of the performers. This group, whose name I conveniently neglected to get, also aggressively pitched its CD. Combining the karaoke band with the length of the host’s set threw the schedule off by about an hour, a major sin in the festival world.
The Wilson Family
We first saw The Wilson Family Band at the late, lamented Spirit of Suwannee Bluegrass Festival three years ago. At that time, the then ten year old Katie had been playing fiddle for about six months. Her skills were negligible and her voice young and unformed. Clint, on banjo, showed real promise, though still quite young. The band received a huge positive response. In the ensuing three years, the kids have matured and improved. The band has gone from being an entertaining novelty to being a high quality regional band that still garners the enthusiasm they evoked when they were just out of the gate. Father Robert Wilson on guitar and lead vocals has always insisted on keeping the band well grounded in their family values: church, family, school, music. This band just does not lose its grounding. Nevertheless, the kids have grown and show remarkable improvement. Now eighteen and in his first year of college, Clint Wilson is a talented multi-instrumentalist who also writes first rate bluegrass songs. On banjo, his primary instrument, he has studied the masters carefully with particular attention to Scruggs, Crowe, and Shelor. Not bad mentors. His work on guitar and mandolin are also featured on stage. We even had the pleasure to hear him on upright bass back in their motor home during rehearsal. Watch for him to continue to improve. Katie, too, continues to add luster to her early promise. She had early on caught the attention of Becky Buller, and her influence on Katie’s work is clear. Her improvement on fiddle comes as no surprise. The increasing maturity of her voice adds significantly to the quality of the band’s performance. Melissa Wilson on mandolin has increased in confidence; her breaks are solid and her chop strong. Robert has had a long career in bluegrass, first touring with River Bluegrass back in the eighties. His strong voice and very good rhythm guitar provide guidance and strength to this band. This weekend, the Wilson Family were joined on bass by the winsome Kalyn Hall, replacing an ill Wilson cousin. Kalyn, who normally sings in her family’s band, Tomorrow’s News, played and sang well. The Halls will be hosting a festival at Craig’s in March of 2010. The Wilson Family band performs in churches and at bluegrass festivals from Florida to South Carolina. As they are heard and seen, their fan base will grow. Their three CDs are available through their web site.
All in all, last weekend’s bluegrass festival at Craig’s was a success, despite the stumbles. If you’re in south-central Florida, check to see what’s going on there and give it a try. They feature some sort of bluegrass event almost every month.