Friday, June 26, 2009
About twenty years ago Pillars of the Earth, a long and very readable historical novel by Ken Follett detailing the building of the first Gothic cathedral in England in the context of a huge and enticing cast of characters that kept readers involved and enthralled. It established Follett, who had previously been best known as a writer of thriller fiction, as a master of the historical novel. Located in a typical market town that Follett called, Kingsbridge, the book has been hugely popular. Now, twenty years later Follett has published a sequel called World Without End, I’m tempted to call it "Book Without End" because this is a very long and quite involved book filled with much more sex and a good deal less history than I remember from its predecessor. Nevertheless, memory is not reliable and World Without End is a readable page turner, just right for those looking for a good pot boiler beach book.
The novel follows the lives of Merthin, his brother Ralph, Caris, and her friend Gwenda through the period 1327 – 1361 as they encounter the problems and opportunities offered by the late middle-ages and the early dawning of the Renaissance. Forward thinking merchants and clerics battle the forces of the nobility and the church, which represent the most conservative impulses in a conservative society. The four children watch an attack upon Sir Thomas Langley by disguised knights. With the aid of Ralph, Langley is saved despite a grave injury and swears Merthin and Caris to secrecy as he hides something beneath a tree in the woods. This incident will haunt the lives of all five as the novel progresses. Over arching the entire plot is the devastation brought upon England (and all Europe) by the great plague as Merthin becomes a master builder, Caris a nurse/nun, Ralph a knight and then an Earl, and Gwenda a peasant woman. Their lives and loves become the center of the plot. Follett is a master of the quick turn of events, which serve to keep the story fast paced and interesting despite its length.
Ken Follett has written a long, blustery, involving, and seemingly evocative novel of fourteenth century England. It’s filled with action, many characters, a complex plot, and lots of lubricious sex. It’s also filled with colloquial English phrases that risk breaking the deal between reader and author by evoking contemporary life just when he should be reaching deepest into the heart and mind of the willing suspender of disbelief. Particularly irritating is the feminist sensibility of the nun Caris, whose on again off again romance with Merthin is the center of the book. The use of anachronistic contemporary language and slang shows a sloppiness that 1000 page books and too little editing can allow.
World Without End by Ken Follett is published in hard cover by Dutton and is available at your local independent book store, chair store, or on line in print or as a recorded book. It’s a fun read, just light enough for long summer afternoons. For me, perhaps the biggest problem, having read it in hard cover, is that it weighs a lot. These old hands don’t manage such a weighty tome as easily as they once did.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
The Jenny Brook Family Bluegrass Festival closed its ninth edition in a new venue, but with the same warmth and enthusiasm that has always characterized it. Fine weather continued with sun and clouds alternating to create a warm, but not excessively hot day in the beautiful valley formed by the First Branch of the White River. Cows dotted a hillside across route 110 as well as a lovely small cemetary. The spire of the First Congregational Church rises above the fairgrounds. On the other side of the rive, a beautiful red barn looks down on the rustic fairgrounds. The ground fog generated by the river quickly dissipated as the sun warmed the ground and people assembled for the traditional gospel sing and jam, this year hosted by Ben Silver from the Pine Hill Ramblers and emcee Clyde Prach.
The Gospel Jam always emphasizes the good fellowship of singing and playing long familiar hyms together usually accompanied by a few words. A good group showed up and the singing was sprited and enthusiastic. Interest was increased by the case of the mysterious misplaced bass.
The Pine Hill Ramblers followed with a mostly gospel set characterized by a somewhat more ecumenical selection of songs than one sometimes finds at these affairs. The singing was melodious and appropriate to the time and place.
The Jenny Brook Kids followed with their brief set, creating a transition to a more grassy afternoon. Tony Watt, with the assistance of several other musicians, brought a small group of musicians to the stage, includng more vocalists than instrumentalsts. With the support of the more mature adults on stage, the kids sang and played with several bluegrass standards.
The Katahadin Valley Boys brought a change of pace with their good mix of bluegrass covers. Banjo player Jeff Folger has a pure and clear high tenor which sets the band's sound off. The band performed ably through four sets at Jenny Brook, a lot for any band.
Dave Shaw and Dave Orlamoski are Bear Minimum. As band members, each has been around the new England Scene for years and is a talented multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. Together, they perform a mix of classic country, Americana, folk, and bluegrass material that entertains and pleases in a quiet yet solid fashion. They provide a perfect interlude for a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon.
Sunday afternoon poses a difficult problem for promoters. People who attend bluegrass festivals are ready, by Sunday, to get home and prepare for their regular lives. They have jobs, family obligations, the lawn to mow. It's hard to keep an audience at a festival well into Sunday afternoon, especially if it's any distance away from home for many people. Many promoters use the time to showcase lesser known bands. Others seek to entice attendees by bringing in a first rate band to hold the audience. Audie Blaylock & Redline fit this criterion and the ploy worked moderately well. A significant audience stayed to check out Blaylock's show and were glad they did. Audie Blaylock & Redline with a new CD out and in the midst of a national tour hit the stage with greater energy, drive, and commitment than I have ever seen of them. The band, which has been touring together for a couple of years now, shows that it has developed road savvy and the ability to energize its audience. Working a single microphone with nimble assurance, the band sounded and looked good. Blaylock is a veteran performer who has done extended stints with Jimmy Martin and Rhonda Vincent & the Rage. Fronting his own band, he has matured in the role and the band has grown, too.
In moving to Tunbridge, the Sawyers took quite a risk. They moved from the comfortable confines of the town park in Weston, VT, which they had outgrown, but was a known quantity familiar to them and to festival goers, to a vastly larger and more elaborate and flexible site on the World’s Fair grounds in Tunbridge. While seeming somewhat to be remote, the site turns out to be much more convenient for people seeking to come from a broad radius. Southern New England, including Boston, Hartford, Providence, and more population centers are easily accessible via I-89 as are Burlington, Concord, NH and other places in northern New England. As people discover the convenience and beauty of the site, Jenny Brook should grow and, hopefully, prosper. It is important, though, that New England and nearby New York festivals meet to discuss seeking to eliminate conflicts over festival dates to insure that all can share in the available regional audience.
The Tunbridge World's Fair grounds are spacious and appealing. Provisions for water and electric, flush toilets, hot showers, and plenty of space for rough camping make it an almost ideal site to hold a festival. The fairgrounds itself charges for access to water and electric, which became something of an issue for some campers, however the charge seems reasonable and none of it goes to the Sawyers. The Fair staff and administration, however, provided tremendous support to Jenny Brook, keeping the grounds clean, the rest rooms nearly spotless, and providing significant help to a festival short of sufficient volunteers. Meanwhile, the buildings and grounds provided wonderful spaces for campers and jammers to congregate. A building used for the Shriner's to sponsor bingo during the weekend as well as for a pre-festival covered dish and barn dance was an added feature.
Sound by Harry Grant was up to his usual standard, although the size of the site may require additional power and subtlety to allow Harry's very good feel for how bluegrass instruments should sound. Clyde Proch did a fine job as emcee, keeping the focus on the bands and the festival.
Jenny Brook will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year in a new site with a new sense of its own potential. Each year, after the crowd has gone home on Sunday afternoon, the Sawyers host an informal barbecue where the tired staff gathers for some fellowship and a thoughtful assessment of the event just finished. There were plenty of good ideas about the nitty gritty details that effect the festival experience. People attending next year's festival in Tunbridge can expect the experienced staff to be able to meet their needs more easily. Meanwhile, the Jenny Brook tradition has made a successful transition to Tunbridge, Vermont, where it is poised to become one of the "Must Attend" events of the New England bluegrass season.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
The Next Best Thing features Sally and Tensel Sandker, students at East Tennessee State University along with a strong supporting group of three young, enthusiastic, and energetic musicians. Fresh out of the box and new on the festival circuit, these two young women are learning their trade and having a great time during their summer break from college. The band largely plays covers of traditional bluegrass songs, as befits a group learning its chops. The sisters are working hard on developing an amusing onstage sibling rivalry as part of their show as well learning how to motivate an audience and provide support and encouragement to their band mates. Brent Burke on Dobro, Colby Lanty on lead and rhythm guitar as well as harmony vocals, and Robert Trapp on banjo all provide strong, able support to the band's leaders. Sally Sandker plays rhythm guitar while Tensel plays bass. The two alternate lead and harmony vocals with quick and easy flow. While still developing as performers, they show promise and should continue to learn and grow.
Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show present a program that's bluegrass with a touch of western swing leavening in it. When the old fashioned radio microphone labelled KSBC is placed in center stage and Karl comes in his suit, spats, and derby hat, you know there's going to be interesting entertainment. He has surrounded himself with young, interesting musicians who support the band with enthusiasm and drive. His corny good humor and folksy manner recall the radio programs of the late forties and fifties, while his band's work on the single microphone shows an intricate choreography that keeps the show moving along and every instrument heard cleanly and with precision. Good family fun and music.
The Gibson Brothers have been on the road and recording together for about twenty years. During that time they have developed a highly amusing and never nasty sibling byplay that draws their fans in and which they obviously enjoy. This light, and often joyful, interchange complements the wonderful music they produce, much of it their own, the rest chosen very carefully from a range of sources. Their current CD "Ring the Bell" has proven itself to be popular with audiences, thus increasing the problem they encounter. How can they find enough time to introduce their new music while continuing to play the dozens of fan favorites in their song catalog? Wouldn't every band like to have this problem. Saturday's performance at Jenny Brook showed the band at its very best. Eric and Leigh were in fine form, as they ribbed long-time bass standout Mike Barber about his receding hair line. Clayton Campbell's fiddle becomes sweeter and more soaring at once. Joe Walsh is a real find with his fluid mandolin style. Can't say enough.