Monday, September 7, 2009

North Branch BGF - Bridgewater Center, VT

The lovely grounds for the 2nd Annual North Branch Bluegrass Festival are located only a few miles up a country lane from Woodstock, that trendiest of trendy Vermont towns, yet is truly set in one of the most beautiful and isolated valleys in the Green Mountains.  The festival grounds are a long narrow meadow along the North branch of the Ottauquechee River.  Surrounded by low hills, the festival grounds themselves are flat and welcoming.  Promoters Randy and Heather Kennedy have begun to make some improvements and have plans in mind for further development as their small festival develops and matures.  While working with limited assets, everything they're doing suggests a wide open imagination about what can happen at a bluegrass festival.  They've invested in a good sound system, bought their own shade tents, and provided opportunities for kids, jammers, and workshops that bode well for the future.  Their lineup for this three day event was modest, but filled with excellent local and regional talent and displayed musical variety unusual and welcome for this small kind of event.

 Spacious Dry Camping Area
 Bored Games Tub

Examples of their foresight in offering variety were a stock tank tub full of board games for children to play, a campfire tent near the camping area as a designated jam site (hosted by bands during the day on Saturday and Sunday with a special band to entertain kids), and places around the grounds for variety of entertaining activities. They served a free spaghetti supper on Friday evening for early arrivees.  The pace of the day was leisurely and friendly, supporting the statement in their schedule, "We hope that North Branch will come to be know as a place where a person can "Stop and smell the roses," a place where ones inner child can come back out again and play...for the simple joy of playing."  Martha Sheperd, an inveterate chaser of jamming opportunities commented that there was "...high quality jamming with a high proportion of jammers to campers" on Friday night.  The site will require some minor adjustments to make entrance for large rigs easier, but all-in-all North Branch is off to a very promising start. Labor Day weekend in north/central Vermont seems like an ideal time to attract people to such a delightful sight for an easygoing bluegrass festival experience.  The Kennedy's have retained food vending, which offered a limited menu of quality food at reasonable prices.

The music was selected from a variety of local and regional bands of quite high quality.  Rather than bust the budget on national touring bands, the Kennedys chose to book local bands and to vary the musical choices away from just offering straight ahead traditional bluegrass bands.  Both choices show good judgement and created a musical range that both satisfied and delighted. The day was blessed with nearly perfect weather, an eventuality that has a pretty high probability of being repeated in maintaining an early September date. Since the festival at Thomas Point Beach has retired after a long and successful fun, North Branch is well-positioned to step up and offer excellence at the end of the New England festival season.  

The Bands
Snake Mountain Bluegrass
People familiar with this blog know I like to highlight a band that's new to me and that provides a pleasant surprise.  Snake Mountain Bluegrass opened Saturday with a bang, catching my attention in the midst of a  reunion  with our friends Jay and Martha Sheperd.  This band, based in the Middlebury, VT area, offers an unusual, and somewhat risky, blend of covers of more modern bands as well as their own originals.  They sing songs like "Hey, Mr. Spaceman" by Roger McGuin, "Rock Me Momma" by Old Crow Medicine Show (although I think this is Bob Dylan piece at some point), as well as classic bluegrass songs like "Fox on the Run."  Their song "Seldom Seen Band" manages to capture references to perhaps a dozen bluegrass songs while sounding a good deal like the band alluded to in the song title. Earl Provin on slide guitar as well as mandolin helps create the varied and slightly unusual sound. Gregg Humphries' voice is clear and pure.  Promoters would do well to give this band a careful look.
Gregg Humphrey
Mike Connor
Earl Provin
Mike Boise

The Bristol Boys
Dave Orlomoski and Dave Shaw show up on stage at various festivals in different configurations.  They bring a deep knowledge of bluegrass and classic country to their spare, yet deeply musical performances.  The addition of  Dave Aston on bass provided the beat and percussiveness, and Daryl Smith's guest stint on banjo turned them briefly into a full-fledged bluegrass band.  Both Shaw and Orlamoski has strong tenor voices and their harmonies are always fine.  Each of them plays the full range of bluegrass instruments, allowing them a good deal of variety.  They take pride in providing an historical twist to their sound with few songs they play having been created after, say, 1970.  Their placement in the lineup provided an interesting contrast to Snake Mountain.
Dave Orlomoski
Dave Shaw
Dave Aston
Crossing North
This Plattsburgh, NY based folk duo presents a varied set of sing/songwriter originals as well as a few more recognizable songs.  Their vocal presentation features two well-blended voices that are perfect for coffee house presentations or smaller, more intimate festival settings.  Bruce's baritone voice has plenty of depth to it, while Jen's alto voice fits comfortably together with his.  Her songs tend towards the melancholy, but are easy to listen to. Their two sets were deservedly well received.
Jen Carter-Kelly
Bruce Lawson

Big Spike Bluegrass
 Big Spike is one of the better traditional bluegrass bands in New England.  Based in Vermont, they appear throughout the region.  Their music features traditional covers as well as compositions by mandolinist Neil Rossi and instrumentals by Bill Gaston.  Their sound has plenty of drive, and their vocals are strong.  They can also be counted on for jamming around the fire late into the evening.
Neil Rossi
Pete Langdell
 Bill Gaston
Freeman Corey
 Mike Santosusson
Junior Barber & Beartracks
Also based in Plattsburgh, NY, this bluegrass trio features brother/sister duo Tom Venne and Julie Hogan along with Dobro master Junior Barber.  They sing a very pleasing range of classic country, bluegrass, and country pop that reaches out to all audiences.  Hogans good looks and sprightly presence compliment her good voice.  Tom sings lead and plays good rhythm guitar.  The jocular sibling rivalry between the two supplies good humored fun.  Junior Barber is always tasteful and exceptional on the Dobro.  He's an acknowledged master of the instrument who brings depth to this group.
Junior Barber
 Julie Hogan
 Tom Venne

Dave Nichols & Spare Change
 Dave Nichols & Spare Change is a reliabele bluegrass band that also comes from northern New York.  With Brian Jiguerre, a veteran of numerous NY bluegrass bands singing lead in his pure tenor voice, and Nadine's Nichols very solid harmonies, this band was quite strong in this configuration.  
Dave Nichols
 Brian Jiguerre
 Nadine Nichols
 Gary Greenland
 Jim DiSabito
The 2nd Annual North Branch Bluegrass Festival was an artistic success on all levels.  One can only hope its audience will continue to build and it will become a successful event helping encourage bluegrass music in New England.