An air of anticipation dominates a festival site as the pace begins to accelerate towards the opening. Despite threatening weather and a slight chill in the air, Strawberry Park was no different as Thursday went along. Around noon we headed up to the entrance booth to pick up our wrist bands and photo/blog passes. The folks here have been quite kind to us, making it easier to report and to take pictures. As we walked back to our campsite, we detoured through the rough camping area, seeing people who, over the years have become our friends. We stopped for a few minutes to chat with Phil and Marcia Zimmerman. Phil's very fine book "Bluegrass Time" evokes in stunning black and white photographs the festival scene of the late 70's and early 80's.
We took the afternoon easy, rested, and tried to get ourselves ready for a chilly evening. Somehow, the trailer seemed chill and dark, and we layered up enough so Amy Gallatin said, from the stage, I looked like a snowman. By six people were gathering and emcee Glenn Hall introduced the first band, Amy Gallatin and Stillwaters. Despite the absence of Dobro master Roger Williams, the band Amy brought to Strawberry Park, where she is a regular performer, was one of the strongest I've seen her with. Jesse Brock (regularly playing with Mike Cleveland, who will appear here on Saturday) filled in on mandolin. Mike Barnett, who tourged with Tony Trischka when he had not yet graduated from high school, provided perfect fiddle support, light but authoratative. Dave Shaw on banjo provided his clear tenor voice and solid banjo back-up. His harmonies fit perfectly with Amy's bright and resonant voice. John Urbanek on bass brought his unobtrusive, solid bass beat to the band's efforts. Amy Gallatin is a much under-rated singer and performer. Her voice is strong. She's always in tune and well-grounded. Her song selections include classic country, bluegrass, swing, and pop in a pleasing mix. Songs like "I Heard a Bluebird Sing," "Baby We're Really in Love," and the Louvin Brothers' What a Change One Day Can Make," blend together into a fine, well-designed program. Archie Warnock, a well regarded reviewer for Bluegrass Unlimited recently wrote, "In the mountain of sound-alike CDs from indistinguishable, look-alike bands that Pris got at IBMA last fall, we got two from Amy Gallatin - including the one with Roger - that were absolutely outstanding and memorable. Fabulous stuff. "
The Farewell Drifters are a hot young group making their Strawberry Park debut this weekend. They came together a few years ago at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, KY and moved to Nashville after college. Band front man Joshua Britt has amusing tales to tell about how they came together and the hard early days. They've released one very good CD called "Sweet Summer Breeze" and have been causing quite a stir. Their sound is distinctly eclectic, although still pretty thoroughly bluegrass. Like many young bands today, their backgrounds and interests come from a variety of musical influences that come together to create an interesting and compelling blend of musical styles while staying well within the bluegrass genre. Citing influences including Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, J.D. Crowe, John Fogarty, Jerry Garcia, and many more, the band has developed outside the close confines of traditional bluegrass. Nevertheless, their music runs from hard driving bluegrass to mellow Americana. Their bluegrass version of the Beatles "Ticket to Ride" is a hard driving bluegrass song that sits comfortably beside John Hartford's reflective "Tall Buildings." "The Death of Jesse McVille" is a first rate murder song. Their performance is often mellow and very easy to listen to while exhibiting fine musicianship and song writing. Joshua Britt is an amusing story teller in his role as emcee, despite his tentative manner and nervous giggle. His mandolin playing and harmony vocals are absolutely first rate. Zach Bevill is a fine lead singer whose pleasant personality and leadership are right there. Clayton Britt, Joshua's brother, has developed as a fine bluegrass flat picker with a background that goes back into his days playing rock and roll. Trevor Brandt is a fine banjo picker. His seemingly throwaway arpeggio runs used in backup show the depth of his picking. Dean Marold, on bass, brings a similarly eclectic musical background from Colorado to this band. He provides a strong beat along with solid bowing and first rate solos, adding an important dimension to the band's peformance. The Farewell Drifters finished their long Friday night set with a delightful version of "Freeborn Man," taking the risk of playing this Jimmy Martin chestnut and pulling off an original and thoughtful version that added new meaning to the song. Their vocal harmony at one point in the song was simply stunning. Keep your eyes on this band.
Last year Danny Paisley & Southern Grass had a breakthrough CD with their hit "The Room Over Mine." It seems strange to talk about a breakthrough for a band that's been touring for more than thirty years, but coming to Rounder Records and finding its own sound and footing after the death of Bob Paisley has taken a while. It's been worth the wait. While not taking home any awards at IBMA last year, the band was nominated for several and its touring schedule has become national in scope. The band, composed of two pairs of brothers who've played together for years, has recently added Travers Chandler on mandolin. We saw them in late March, when Travers was still new to the mix. After a couple of months of hard touring, he has found his place in the band. Musically, his lively, hard driving mandolin play is first rate. The playful bickering between him and Danny Paisley works well, too. Travers makes the smart-ass remarks, and Danny responds like the weary and wise old hand he is. It's funny and true to form. Paisley's high lonesome, plaintive voice with its characteristic Jimmy Martin style whoops, can be grating, but with high quality sound, like that provided here, it works very well. His brother, Michael, on bass is one of the most energetic players around, giving his instrument a solid pounding every time out while always being as steady as a metronome. T.J. Lundy on fiddle is one of the best, elegant and seemingly somewhat removed, his tone is wonderful. Bob Lundy, on banjo, was in obvious pain from a herniated disk. One can only watch and hope he can figure out some way to get relief...soon. When called on to do so, he was able to step up to the mic to play and sing his parts. He provides a great example of "the show must go on" professionalism, while in obvious agony. Nevertheless, Danny Paisley & Southern Grass put on a first rate performance to close the chilly evening.
Today, Kenny & Amanda Smith, The Gibson Brothers, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters, Danny Paisley & Southern Grass, and The Fairwell Drifters. Weather permitting, it promises to be a great day.