As dawn broke at Stawberry Park on Friday morning it was raining...hard. A stream of water cascaded off the end or our awning. By noon, just in time for Kenny & Amanda Smith to take the stage, the rain had stopped and an audience was assembling to take the tarps of their chairs and settle in for a day of great music. They weren't disappointed.
The Kenny & Amanda Smith Band brings a great deal of musical talent to the table. As they tell the story, they picked together on their first date, and that was it. They've been together ever since, making beautiful music with a strong leaning toward affirmation of their deep faith through gospel music. Kenny has twice been named IBMA guitar player of the year, and the band was Emerging Artist of the Year in 2003. He is one of the top flat picking stylists in bluegrass music. He began his career with a six year stint with the Lonesome River Band, who will appear at Strawberry Park on Saturday and Sunday. Amanda's voice has a lovely melodic tone with a deep timbre that's immediately arresting. Other members of the band are young, hot pickers who show the two leaders off very well in addition to contributing their own style and licks. Sixteen year old Aaron Williams was one of the youngest winners of the Merlefest mandolin contest a couple of years ago, and has continued to grow. Zach McLamb, on bass, is solid and strong. Trent Callicutt is the newest member of the band on banjo. He fits in well and provides support for the core, which is Kenny's guitar and the duo's singing. It's always a treat to hear this band. Kenny also did a successful guitar workshop in the newly re-located Workshop tent.
The relationship between The Gibson Brothers and the crowd at Strawberry Park is close and unique. Never before in the memory of emcees Jim Beaver or Glen Huffer has a band received such a strong response from an audience that it required two encores. In their second set early Friday evening, the Gibson's brought down the house. In fact, Eric and Leigh's close harmony and delightful brotherly banter have created a close and lasting bond with audiences throughout New England and New York that is now rapidly spreading across the country. Their new CD "Ring the Bell" looks like a rising hit with their new label Compass Records to follow their four previous number one recordings. They do have a problem, though. Audiences are so familiar with their large catalog that it's difficult for them to get in songs from their latest work, considering the time available in two regular sets, because fan requests for long-time favorites are so strong and heartfelt. The band has become increasingly tight and disciplined without ever losing the sense of sponteneity that playing without a full set list gives them. Joe Walsh on mandolin has now become fully integrated into the band, and his contribution is significant. Mike Barber, an original member of the Gibson Brothers to the extent that they call him the third brother, has become stronger and increasingly inventive on bass. His work on new song "I Know Whose Tears" by Joe Newberry was particularly strong, but he's always solid throughout. Clayton Campbell on fiddle is another mainstay, but the band is so together it's truly difficult to break out any individual's contributions.
You can tell a lot about a band by who chooses to watch them perform. In the picture below, Kym Warner and Carol Young of the Greencards sit with Roger Moss, promoter of Podunk (coming up in late July) to enjoy the Gibson Brothers' set.
Rhonda Vincent & the Rage remain one of the hardest working and most popular bands on the bluegrass circuit. Recent changes in her band elicited a good deal of comment earlier in the year. The band has weathered the questions and emerged with a somewhat new sound without losing any of their energy or giving up their tried and true entertaining approach. The addition of Aaron McDaris on banjo and Ben Helson on guitar have moved the band toward a younger look, while Mickey Harris on bass and Hunter Berry on fiddle maintain the solid anchor. The centerpiece, of course, is Vincent herself. Still attractive and always vivacious and welcoming, Rhonda Vincent is the show. Somehow, she manages to be sexy without being sexual, friendly, and outgoing, making herself attractive to fans of every gender and age. Young girls idolize her, wives enjoy her, and husbands want to have their picture taken with her. No one spends as much time meeting and greeting fans as she does. Used to having her picture taken, she smiles with ease and poses with seemingly endless patience. This weekend she even had a few minutes to sit in the audience with her new camera and lens to point the camera in the other direction.
Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters, Danny Paisley & Southern Grass, and The Farewell Drifters all had a chance to reprise their very good sets from Thursday evening, giving them an opportunity to perform before the larger Friday audience. A couple of notable points: Bob Lundy, of the Danny Paisley Band, looked much more comfortable playing from a seated position to rest his back. The Farewell Drifters offered a song, by request, called "Dark Charlie" by Joshua Britt that adds a wonderful twist to bluegrass songs. Look for it. This band is ready to be picked up by a major label and get the broader distribution and the support that comes from having a recording contract. Amy Gallatin continued her run of strong performances. Her band deserves more recognition.
The Greencards elicit strong and positive responses from audiences in a variety of venue. Not a bluegrass band any longer, their roots run deep in bluegrass music. In fact, they came to America as a bluegrass band with two Australian members and a British one. Not exactly an Americana band, they're all immigrants. Not pop or jazz either, they take from all these genres and present a unique and pleasing musical sound supported by excellent musicianship and Carol Young's seductive yet wholesome voice. They're the whole package. Young, on bass and lead vocals, caresses her large electric bass and belts or croons the lyrics. Eamon McClaughlin on fiddle and viola is a versatile virtuoso. Kym Warner plays a variety of mandolin type instruments (mandolin, mandola, bouzouki) and moves like a sprite across the stage. Jake Stargell, from Georgia (the one in the southern U.S.) although still less than twenty years old, continues to develop as a powerful and true flat picker. The band's new CD, Fascination, their first release with Sugar Hill Records, is a dynamite addition to their growing catalog. In the next-to-closing spot on Friday night, they drew cheers and an enthusiastic encore.
It's Saturday morning and the sun is bright and clear. Today's lineup includes The Kruger Brothers, Josh Williams, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Dry Branch Fire Squad, and The Lonesome River Band as well as the Boston Boys. Looks like a great day!