Barry Scott & Second Wind
Barry Scott, who is a member of the Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver alumni association, opened the day with a pleasant, but unexceptional bluegrass set. His band is young and solid. Scott’s voice would have blended well with Jamie Dailey’s when they were together with Doyle, and he has found a high tenor to sing above him. The band’s performance emphasizes a significant proportion of bluegrass gospel music in a mix the audience at Palatka appears to appreciate. I found it a bit off-putting to be asked, by show of hands, how many in the audience were Christians. Furthermore, Scott’s bringing an electric keyboard on stage for part of his second set was not entirely in keeping with the ethos of bluegrass. Nevertheless, his performance was pretty solid.
The Primitive Quartet
The Bluegrass Brothers
The Dowdy family received a very strong reception from the crowd and responded in kind with the strongest performance I’ve seen them give. Victor commented that he had learned from Marty Raybon a way to signal the crowd about the kind of response he wanted – huge applause, left, right, diminishing, or standing ovation. He took delight throughout both sets in directing the responses and we enjoyed his enthusiasm in kind. Brother Robert’s facial contortions, Donny’s upside down left-handed play on three instruments, Steve’s intense flatpicking, and Victor Dowdy’s dynamic slap bass style combine with Billy Hurt’s fine fiddling to create a forceful musical experience. Hurt, who had only recently joined the band when we saw them in South Carolina in early January has jelled with this band to complement their performance with his lyrical fiddle style. Providing a marked contrast to some of the other more polished show bands at Palatka, The Bluegrass Brothers keep their rough country roots while offering highly satisfying performances. For an encore to their second set, Victor chose to embed David Alan Coe’s “You Don’t Have to Call Me Darlin’, Darlin” in Ruby for a rousing finale.
Rhonda Vincent & The Rage
Rhonda Vincent’s band has undergone significant change in the past couple of months, and I was eager to see and hear the effect those changes would have on the performance of this hard working and much recognized group. Rhonda has been a super star in bluegrass music for some years. At the same time, she has been generous with her band in providing members with opportunities to showcase their own talents. In adding Aaron McDaris (formerly of the Grascals) and Ben Helson (from Ricky Skaggs) to The Rage, she has increased flexibility while not suffering any loss of musical ability. McDaris, who, in addition to being a first rate banjo player, can also contribute on bass, guitar and harmony vocals, has moved the banjo more towards the center of this group. Ben Helson is a tremendous flatpicker while also offering good harmony vocals. A touching moment of their second set happened when three of Helsen’s former band mates and his successor with Kentucky Thunder (Cody Kilby, Andy Leftwich, Paul Brewster, and Eddie Faris) sat in the first row and gave Ben a standing ovation after he sang his first solo.
The changes to be seen in this week’s performance of Rhonda Vincent & The Rage were subtle, but real. The sound veers a little toward the country side, without ever giving up its essential bluegrass sound and feel. My having Mickey Harris play resonator guitar on one piece, the band managed quite a different sound. In “Missouri Moon,” Helson picked mandolin, Rhonda guitar, and Hunter Berry was able to keep to his fiddle. The band will have a new CD out later in the spring featuring this new lineup. I look for continued development without radical changes in their sound. Rhonda Vincent continues to put it all out on stage while responding with both time and what appears to be genuine interest to her fans. A performance of Rhonda Vincent & The Rage is never a disappointment.
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder
While we’ve seen Ricky Skaggs before in larger venues, we’ve never been able to be as close or see him be as responsive to the audience as he was at Palatka. Skaggs’ story is well known – he appeared on stage with Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley when he was still a child and has been a standout performer his whole life. He left bluegrass music for a successful and lucrative career in country music, where he won a number of Grammy awards as well as many CMA awards. His return to bluegrass music a few years ago has yielded attention to a genre that needs all the star power it can get. A seven man band is large. Kentucky Thunder is not only large, it is filled with first rate musicians playing in support of a star with an electric personality. Andy Leftwich on fiddle and Cody Kilby on guitar are at the absolute top of their games. Kilby was nominated for IBMA guitar player of the year for 2008 and Leftwich was nominated on fiddle. Though neither won, they are both at or near the top. Jim Mills on banjo has been named banjo player of the year six times, more than any other individual player. His banjo play is merely spectacular. Eddie Faris, from the Kansas-based Faris family band, has joined Skaggs. Paul Brewster’s solid rhythm guitar and very good tenor voice complements Skaggs’ voice very well, contributing the Monroe-like upper register Ricky can’t reach. Mark Fain on bass is strong, providing a solid beat in the background. Skaggs himself is an engaging emcee, talking about the history and background of bluegrass music as well as his own place in it. His religious faith is deep, but never too intrusive. His voice and mandolin playing are still strong. His allegiance to the Fathers of Bluegrass as well as his openness to newer sounds shows through in his entire performance. A huge crowd stayed underneath the Rodeheaver Ranch music shed until the last note and left tired and satisfied.
An Adams & Anderson festival is always well-produced. Much of the credit goes to their very high quality staff. Sherry Boyd is one of the most experienced and effective emcees in the business. A good emcee keeps the focus on the music while highlighting the vendors and the cause. Sherry always does this. Her focus is always on what’s important, and it’s never about her, a failing with many others. By staying in the background and being unobtrusive, she highlights what’s important and shows herself at her very best. Similarly, when the sound is good it’s hardly noticed, but when it’s bad, it’s awful. Gene Daniell, along with his wife Johnnie and the very professional Madison Gibson, is superb at making sure the music is heard and the vocals are understood. The music is loud enough while never being over-powering. The squeal of feedback is almost never heard. At Palatka, Daniell was working with a very long and rather narrow shed. From every point in the shed and on its fringes, the sound was excellent. The fifth annual Palatka Bluegrass Festival was a huge success. There will be a second fall festival in 2009, and the sixth annual festival will be a week later in the calendar next year.
Emcee Sherry Boyd