Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Strawberry Park 2009 - Sunday and Assessment

Sundays for bluegrass festivals are problematic days. Attendees are often eager to return home to attend church or to prepare for the coming week of work and school. Holding an audience through into the mid-afternoon is a daunting task. In our years of attending Merlefest, the only performer who's been able to pack the main stage for the closing performance has been Alison Kraus, who drew an estimated 20,000 people to the Watson Stage late on Sunday afternoon. Many major festivals have given up their Sunday program to become three day events or have always run for only three days. Others seek to schedule special events that might attract drive-in customers for the day. Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival offers a combination of attractive and novel performers on Sunday designed to provide a mellow Sunday morning and end with a bang-up headliner to close the show.

Dry Branch Fire Squad
It is a tradition at Strawberry Park for Dry Branch Fire Squad to open the morning with their own brand of a Sunday Gospel show. It's a favorite of many regulars and a revelation to many newcomers, always well-attended despite Saturday night's late into the night partying. Ron Thomason has a corner on combining topical commentary in a context of musical history surrounded by gospel music whose roots lie deep in the mountains of Appalachia. His raw, almost primitive voice combined into a vocal quartet with his band cannot fail to move any more than his monologues can escape amusing. While there are favorite bits the audience wants, Thomason manages to continue adding new material to keep it fresh and alive. His "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" and "Hide You in the Blood" successfully evoke the old time religion. "He's Coming to Us Dead" continues to remind us that we're involved in a war abroad, no matter how little we're aware of it here at home.

Ron Thomason

Brian Aldridge

Danny Russell

Tom Boyd


Dale Ann Bradley

Dale Ann Bradley brought her great voice and a fine band newly augmented by the addition of Terry Baucom on banjo to Strawberry Park for a Sunday appearance. Dale Ann has been awarded the IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year title for the past two years, capping a career in which she has consistently been recognized for the purity and quality of her voice. Her new CD, Don't Turn Back, has been recently released by Compass Records and contains some of her best work ever. The CD is solidly thematic without ever seeming to knock a listener over the head with its ideas about persistance and showing up to live life. Songs from the new album like "Rusty Old Halo," "I Won't Back Down," and "Don't Turn Your Back" were mixed with older favorites like "Run, Rufus Run," "I'm Gonna Live Forever," and the beautiful "Pass Me Not." Dale Ann is performing at an energy level that I haven't seen before and joined by a very solid band led by Terry Baucom on banjo. Tim Laughlin on mandolin remains providing a solid chop and fine mandolin solos. He's a quiet, yet effective presence in the band. Roscoe Morgan on bass and Brandon Godman on fiddle fill out the ensemble. The centerpiece of all is Dale Ann Bradley and her magnificent voice. The warm an unassuming person behind the voice help create a connection to an audience that draws people into Dale Ann's sunny and hopeful world.

Dale Ann Bradley

Terry Baucom

Tim Laughlin

Roscoe Morgan

Brandon Godman

Dale Ann

Kids Academy 2009

Strawberry Park is a leader in providing solid opportunities for young people to learn more about their instruments, come to know other young musicians, and perform from the stage. Beginning on Friday evening, the Kids Academy meets each day to give kids a chance to grow together and come to know other young musicians in a supevised and healthy musical environment. Their annual appearance on the stage on Sunday morning provides evidence that the world of bluegrass music has a bright future. Ram rodded by Tim St. Jean and Vicki Baker, the Kids Academy is supported by a large and enthusiastic volunteer staff who give up seeing and hearing much of the music they love to help propogate bluegrass. I'll post a few more pictures here on my blog. People interested in viewing a more comprehensive set of photos can follow the link below:

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The Parade to the Stage

Jonathan Edwards

I have to confess to not being familiar with Jonathan Edwards or his music. A look at his extensive web site reveals a busy and active musical career with a strong leaning towards the folk side extending back into the late 1960's. His song "Sunshine" was immediately familiar to me and a favorite of the audience, many of whom seem to have come to Strawberry Park on Sunday afternoon just to see and hear this local and regional favorite. Edwards' music hearkens back to the 1970's period with plenty of references to chemically induced joy as well as peace and love. His vibe on stage is such that it encourages other musicians to join him on stage, and his set provided a good change of pace between to of the top bluegrass acts available. Carrying echoes of Bob Dylan and James Taylor, his performance was well-received.

Jonathan Edwards

The Lonesome River Band

Few bands in bluegrass are so well known that their initials suffice to identify them. Along with AKUS, LRB is one. Founded over twenty years ago, The Lonesome River Band, under the benevolent leadership of four time IBMA banjo player of the the year Sammy Shelor, has forged an unparalleled record of excellence. The list of LRB graduates includes Ronnie Bowman, Kenny Smith, Dan Tyminski, Jeff Parker, Don Rigsby, founder Tim Austin, and more. Their latest CD, No Turning Back, contains several fine new songs by Brandon Rickman and has topped the Bluegrass Unlimted album chart for two months along with a couple of hit singles. The current band features singer/songwriter Brandon Rickman on lead vocals and guitar and Andy Ball on mandolin and lead vocal. This one/two combination offers variety and high quality. Mike Anglin on electric bass anchors the band with his strong beat and sometimes almost otherworldly vibe. Mike Hartgrove on fiddle has returned to LRB after several years absence. His broad experience and subtle fiddle play add depth and strength to this band. Leader Sammy Shelor is one of those distinctive players whose style is so distinctive and influential it is named after him. LRB presents bluegrass with a rock and roll sensibility that light up crowds while offering familiar and interesting music.

Sammy Shelor

Brandon Rickman

Mike Hartgrove

Andy Ball

Mike Anglin

Banjo Masters - Baucom & Shelor

This year, despite threatening weather early and rain all night Thursday, not a drop of rain fell on the music at Strawberry Park while Saturday and Sunday were just about perfect days. Attendance on Saturday appeared to be a great as any we've seen. Under the leadership of park owner Buck Bieber and his very capable staff, the festival ran smoothly and on time. Most of the emcees were first rate with particular kudos to Kim Cyr and Jim Beaver. Sound, by Cobra Sound was clear, bright, and highly listenable. The volume never became overwhelming and the words, so important in bluegrass, were always intelligible. The stage could use some professional stage lighting. Moving the workshop stage and providing for a dance/folk venue were inspired additions and will grow in popularity as the festival continues them. It is welcome and helpful that all night jamming is restricted to the field area, providing quiet camping in the main campground. Strawberry Park is as good a way to kick off the annual outdoor festival season in New England. Give it a try next year. Spring in Connecticut is a pretty as it gets.

Field Camping

The Amphitheater

Chilli Bros. Cajun Food - Yummm!

Last weekend several people pointed out to me that they've noticed the camera in Irene's hands. Indeed they have, and her photographic work as well as her editorial assistance is crucial to the success of this blog. Her own work, with our second camera, will be increasingly in evidence as she becomes more comfortable with the camera. Her voice can often be found in my opinions, and for that I want to thank her, as unreasonable as my resistance may continue to be.