Sunday, May 31, 2009

Strawberry Park 2009 - Saturday

Saturday at Strawberry Park combined perfect weather with incredible musical experiences. The festival featured one of those absolutely special "ya' gotta be there" moments that can't be captured in words or pictures. At the end of their second set, The Kruger Brothers invited Michael Cleveland on stage with them for their encore. They settled on Sally Goodin as a piece to play and simply tore it up. The theme ran back and forth between Jens, Mike, and Uwe, each taking up the familiar song with intense variations and handing the lead back and forth, bringing the crowd screaming to its feet. By the end they were demanding an encore of the encore. As Jens and Mike stood together with the approbation washing over them, it was easy to understand why this music has such power to move and please its fans.

Each year, one of the features of Strawberry Park is the Kids Academy. Under the direction of Tim St. Jean and Vicky Baker, the Adademy provides children an opportunity to get together for instruction in picking bluegrass music beginning on Friday evening and culminating in a performance in the Amphitheater on Sunday. The kids work hard, have lots of fun, get solid instruction, and are well-supervised during this period.

Kids Academy

Tim St. Jean Getting Things Started

This year, Strawberry Park changed the location of the workshop sessions, extended the number of them, and provided a new and innovative venue with a different and welcome twist. The Upstairs Rec Room, formerly the location of workshops and occasionally used for indoor performances when the weather becomes truly impossible, was set aside on Saturday as a folk and dance venue. Performances and dance instruction were offered there. During the brief visit I made there, an small but enthusiastic group was getting dance instruction from Jim Christenson. There were performances by Girl Howdy, Red Molly, and others as well as instruction in clogging and dance. This is a great idea and should be publicized more and continued.

Workshops were offered on the first three days of the festival and drew enthusiastic support in the new venue. By moving the workshop area to home plate on the ball field, festival organizers have placed it right at the edge of the jamming center and in a good location for those who want to combine improving their own playing and understanding of their instruments with listening to great music in the amphitheater. From Danny Paisley's opening workshop on Thursday, through song writing with the Gibsons, guitar with either Kenny Smith or Josh Williams, to a band workshop with the Kruger Brothers, there was a wealth of experience and talent made available on a quite intimate basis for those who wished to avail themselves of the opportunity.

Josh Williams' Workshop

Red Molly - Vocal Arrangement

The Kruger Brothers
Since their arrival as permanent residents, and now citizens, from Switzerland, the Kruger Brothers have given a new meaning to acoustic music in general and the potential of the banjo in particular. Based in Wilkesboro, NC, a true hot bed of bluegrass and mountain music, where they have burrowed into the life and culture of the community, they bring to American folk, country, and mountain music a European sensibility grown from their home in Switzerland and enhanced by years of touring the continent. The result is a trio who astound with the beauty of their music as well as the virtuosity of their musicianship. Joel Landsburg, billed as the third Kruger brother but actually from Brooklyn, on electric bass sits quietly in the middle with a pixieish smile on his face providing not only a solid beat, but bass moves that capture an afficanado's attention without ever interfering with the main course. Uwe Kruger on guitar and lead vocals, is an exceptional flat picker with a deep baritone voice that complements and provides variety to the main attraction, which is this group's instrumental music. Jens Kruger, in my estimation the best banjo player in the world, uses every inch of the finger board along with rich glissandos and poignant moments of soulful solitude to create the most colorful moods available in this difficult and quirky instrument. "Beautiful Nothing" from their new CD Between the Notes captures the beauty of silence within the potential of the instruments. This new recording continues the group's exploration of their own and their instruments' potential.

Jens Kruger

Uwe Kruger

Joel Landsburg

About a minute into the encore, in which Michael Cleveland joined the Kruger Brothers for a screaming version of Sally Goodin', I remembered my camera could also take video, but I was too late. Later I mentioned this to Jens, who smiled and just pointed at his head. He's right, there was not capturing this moment, but those who were there will carry it with them forever as one of those special moments that only a bluegrass festival can provide.

The Kruger Brothers & Mike Cleveland

Jens & Mike

The Josh Williams Band

Josh Williams was recognized with the 2008 IBMA Guitar Player of the Year trophy fresh on his own after a stint with Rhonda Vincent as well as having toured with Special Consensus. This award presented him with a challenge that he and his band will now have to live up to by developing into an outstanding touring group. At present, filled with young and talented musicians, they show promise of being able to live up to these expectations. Williams is, of course, one of the premier flat pickers in the business. He also is blessed with a resonant and powerful baritone voice, especially in the low and mid ranges. He is joined by the broadly experienced Randy Barnes on bass, who brings solid underpinnings and fine harmonies to the group. Jason McKindry on banjo plays well and contributes substantially to the vocal trio. Chase Johnson on mandolin is first rate. Greg Blaylock on resophonic guitar adds instrumental versatility to the group. For their performance at Strawbery Park, Clayton Campbell of the Gibson Brothers (a childhood friend of Josh's) joined the band to excellent effect.

Josh Williams

Randy Barnes

Chase Johner

Jason McKendry

Greg Blaylock

Clayton Campbell

Josh Williams

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper
Mike Cleveland is the six time IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year. He has surrounded himself with a strong and experienced band to create a dynamic group filled with talent to supplement and support his excellent fiddle. Cleveland has established himself as the supreme fiddler in bluegrass music. He is at his best in the rousing fiddle tunes best exemplified by his wonderful rendition of "Lee Highway Blues." The addition of Darrell Webb, recently having left Rhonda Vincent's band, has brought together the tightest and most dynamic band he's had and the responses from the fans are proof of his good choices. Webb's high bluegrass voice and driving style fit the band like a glove. Marshall Wilborn, a storied veteran of the Johnson Mountain Boys as well as The Lynn Morris Band, brings vast experience and maturity to his role on the bass. To balance this, the young and exciting Jesse Baker plays banjo. Jesse Brock, on mandolin, is, at age 29, now approaching middle age in terms of the world of mandolin players with so many great young pickers coming on behind him. His energy, strong chop, and wonderful mandolin breaks provide additional leadership. This band is filled with leadership and ability, but there is no evidence of competition, as they lay down great sets. Their performances are thoroughly enjoyable.

Michael Cleveland

Darrell Webb

Jesse Brock

Marshall Wilborn

Jesse Baker

Brock, Wilborn, Webb, Baker

Mike Cleveland

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Ron Thomason was at Carleton Haney's first bleugrass festival in 1965 and his band, Dry Branch Fire Squad, has had a storied career. For over thirty years they have entertained with their unique combination of traditional, raw mountain gospel music, fast paced songs, and Thomason's satirical patter. The band has been a staple at Strawberry Park for many years with a Saturday performance and their Sunday morning gospel show. Their new CD Echoes of the Mountains contains some new material and some new recordings of older work of theirs. Thomason's voice on "Echo Mountain" presents this heartbreaking story as a clear alternative to the better known James King version. Ron has long voiced his support for the superiority of animal life in his songs about horses and other animals. The complex relationship between dogs and humans in explored in this one. The satirical pseudo-gospel song "(You Got to Pray to the Lord) When You See Those Flying Saucers" is a gem.

Ron Thomason

Brian Aldridge

Tom Boyd

Dan Russell

Ron Thomason and his Loar

The Boston Boys

This group of Berklee College of Music students may be hard to classify, but if a band is recognized by the other musicians who come out to hear them play, this group will attract notice. They describe their sound as "contemporary roots rock, blending reverence for the beatles and the energy of the Avett brothers with hints of Appalachian string band music." Their content is irreverent with a strong social message. They are high energy and represented an enjoyable change of pace on a Saturday afternoon filled with great, but more traditional, bluegrass music.

Jens Kruger & Philip Zanon watch The Boston Boys

Carol Young

Eric Robertson

Nick Falk
Nate Leath

Stash Wyslouch

Josh Harris

Sammy Shelor - The Lonesome River Band

Some bands are known simply by their initials. LRB has achieved such a distinction. Having run through a number of iterations through its nineteen year history, The Lonesome River Band is currently enjoying two months at the top of the Bluegrass Unlimted charts with their newest CD No Turning Back. This new CD was completely recorded with the current and excellent touring band. More about them in my Sunday report and final assessment. Meanwhile, here's some pictures from Saturday.

Brandon Rickman

Andy Ball

Mike Anglin

Mike Hartgrove

The Greencards - Carol Young

Eamon McLaughlin, Kym Warner, Jake Stargell

Eamon McLaughlin

Kym Warner

Jake Stargel


Kim Cyr - Emcee