Breakin' Strings, a very young band from Gardiner, ME, which had performed very creditably in the Jenny Brook band competition earning a gig this year, opened the show. While still young and in search of a distinctive sound, Breakin' Strings lead singer Cliff Gelina has a mature sound with just enough soul to work well in bluegrass. Jason Wescott is a promising flat picker. The band needs to continue to mature, but shows promise.
The Reunion Band is a veteran bluegrass group specializing in Monroe style bluegrass coming out of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Filled with talent and personality, they laid down two strong sets. Richie Brown is a well-known Monroe style mandolin player who sings well and ably represents the band. Vocal harmonies were tight and musicianship fine. Bruce Stockwell, winner of the 2007 Merlefest banjo contest, substituting at banjo, showed the stuff for which he is not nearly well enough known.
Beartracks is a trio from Plattsburgh, NY offering an enjoyable high energy mix of roots country, bluegrass, and Americana songs with enthusiasm and skill. Vocally, brother and sister team of Tom Venne and Julie Hogan blend very well. Instrumentally, they are led by Junior Barber, whose reputation as a Dobro player is deep and wide. Julie Hogan plays electric bass and is a constant swirl of energy and enthusiasm. Tom's voice is strong and his rhythm guitar solid. This band has much to offer festivals in the region, and has been expanding its geographic reach.
Seth Sawyer brought the best band he's ever shown to his and Candi's festival at Tunbridge. Filled with talent and energy, the band supported Seth's own fine songs as well as the mix of covers they did. Joe Singleton's distinctive tenor voice combined with his renditions of Joe Val songs and his ability to blend well with Seth's powerful voice, contributed significantly. Richard Underwood, the original banjo player for the Johnson Mountain Boys supported the band with his consistent and powerful rolling banjo. Freeman Corey on fiddle put in his usual solid performance, and Gary Darling on mandolin was the best I've ever heard him. Their set was just plain excellent.
Leroy Troy and the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band provided two excellent and entertaining sets. Leroy Troy often performs as a single, and that alone offers music in the tradition of Uncle Dave Macon along with song and banjo music galore. Performing with the band he's with on the Marty Stuart show on RFD-TV is an added pleasure. The father-son team of Lester and Mike Armistead is a true one-two punch. Mike's strong baritone voice as well as his rhythm guitar ably complements his Dad's work on the jug, guitar, lead, and harmony vocals. Lester's interplay with Leroy only adds to the fun. Pete Elegant on fiddle and Davy Gandin on bass are fine. The entire ensemble brought to my mind the sort of hillbilly comedy I might have experienced had I been around in the thirties and forties - good, clean, wholesome fun that doesn't take itself too seriously except to give the audience serious entertainment. Promoters will find this band putting people in the seats.
Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper arrived with an increasingly cohesive band strengthened by the addition of Darrell Webb learning to be a good emcee along with continually contributing his great voice and strong guitar to an already fine band. I wouldn't want to refer to Mike Cleveland's blindness as a handicap, but it keeps him from engaging in the sort of non-verbal communication that typifies great bands, even as it has helped him become the premier fiddler of his era. Webb, working in close coordination with the great Jesse Brock on mandolin, has served to help glue together a band that functions as a single unit producing marvelous sounds and incredible energy. Webb is at last free to demonstrate all his considerable talent. Meanwhile, Brock's own play and powerful chop complement him perfectly. Marshall Wilborn on bass brings his many years of experience and solid maturity to the mix, providing a perfect balance for Jesse Baker, who, while still only eighteen, is powerful and flexible. Mike Cleveland, after six IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year awards stands astride the bluegrass world on his instrument, only improves. While always powerful, he has added subtlety and warmth to his play, making this band an entire package. This is one of those "Don't Miss" bands if they happen to be anywhere near you.