Located just south of Brandon, Vt up a narrow country lane that turns into a dirt road soon after turning off Rt 7, the major north-south road in western, Vt, we drove onto the festival grounds to find RV rigs and tents of all kinds spread across the grounds in tight formation. The stage was conveniently set more or less in the middle, with three large shade/rain tents and a large vending area. An extensive range of food and craft vendors surrounded the area providing plenty of diversion. We wandered through the campping area until we found Mike and Mary Robinson, whose bluegrass ministry and Sunday Gospel Jam are a fixture at any number of festivals in both New England and Florida. Mike is also an able emcee, who keeps the festivities moving along.
As we enjoyed our chat with Mike and Mary, the mellow sounds of Smokey Greene found their way into the Robinson RV so we wandered over to spend a little time listening to Smokey and his small band deliver his special combination of classic country and novelty songs so well known and like by people up and down the east coast. Smokey, well into his seventies, delivers a reliable performance. Accompanied on Saturday by his son Scott on bass and Chad Darou on resonator guitar, Smokey presented his usual reliable performance with a special bow to his venerable guitar, Ben A. Martin.
Cabin Fever is based in Norwich, NY where they also host an annual bluegrass festival of their own. The band provides melodic covers of familiar and not so well-known tunes and features an able group of musicians. Mike Tirella has a resonant baritone voice and Brian Jiguerre, a long-time fixture in regional bluegrass, provides the high lonesome tenor. Their rendition of the Chris Kristofferson song "Darby's Castle" was particularly effective as was their very strong gospel acapella quartet. Harry Ralph plays a very sweet fiddle and Bill Lewis fills out the band on bass.
The Pine Hill Ramblers come from Massachusetts and New Hampshire and are well known throughout New England. Their sound is gentle and enthusiastic, reflecting the nature of the delightful people in the band. They play a pleasing mixture of lesser known covers and their own compositions. Their rendition of the late Bill Harrell's "Cold November Rain" was particularly touching, as Harrell died only a couple of weeks ago. Banjo player Doug Downey has contributed a number of songs to the group. Claudia Landell, playing bass and singing both lead and harmony vocals, is a standout. Her yodelling deserves special notice, especially since so many singers try in vain to manage a good yodel. Ben Silver and Larry Simonson are the founding members and provide solid leadership. They all can be found around the grounds in jams when not on stage or at their merchandise table.
Blistered Fingers performed two sets and provided the completely inadequate sound for the festival. Throughout the day, it was clear that the four small speakers, more appropriate for an indoor event, were creating a serious problem for the bands, who appeared to have to fight the sound system all day long. The mix was uneven, sometimes over emphasizing instrumentals to the detriment of sound and at other times boosting vocals to a level that made the lyrics difficult or impossible to understand. The space that needed to be reached forced the sound man to push the speakers way beyond their capacity. While it is conventional for bands to thank the sound man for providing first rate reproduction, in this case the gratitude was either unwarranted or unspoken.
Lorraine Jordan & The Carolina Road Band were the headliners for Basin. Carolina Road can always be counted on to give a strong and professional performance. My reaction when I see them, particularly at small festivals like this one, often is "here come the grown ups!" The full sound they create, along with their well-crafted sets featuring every member of the band assure that fans will get a strong and enthusiastic performance. When Mike Robinson asked how many people had never seen Carolina Road before, a majority of the audience raised their hands. By the end of their first set, they were captured and called the band back for a well-deserved encore. This band performs too infrequently in this part of the country, so many New Englanders have not had the opportunity to hear them play. Promoters in the region will strengthen their lineups and please their fans by remedying this oversight.
Acoustic Blue can be counted on to cut a tailored and neat look and provide equally tailored and smooth bluegrass music. Offering well honed covers as well as original compositions by Cory Zinc and Shaun Batho, this band's sound and demeanor hearken back to earlier bluegrass days while keeping their sound in the traditional groove with a contemporary lean to it. Their current CD is a solid piece of work, and they have a new one in the works.
We were disappointed to miss James Reams & the Barnstormers, who only appeared on Friday. Otherwise, we found the Basin Bluegrass Festival to be a friendly and satisfying festival, despite the disappointing sound. The festival features some of New England and nearby New York's better bands and provides a well-rounded experience for festival attendees.