Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Stockwell Brothers on the Newfane Common

 Windham County Courthouse, Newfane, Vermont
Sunday of Labor Day weekend was one of those clear crisp late summer days that serve as a harbinger for the impending arrival of New England's beautiful autumn and a whisper of the long winter to come.  Warm and sunny in the sunlight turns to chilly as soon as one gets into the shade since there's almost no humidity.  In New Hampshire and Vermont, days like this are deeply appreciated in the brief break between the time the summer people head home and the leaf peepers arrive.  We got into our Tacoma truck and, by habit, headed north on route12, soon realizing we were not taking the most direct path to Newfane.  We asked the GPS for the shortest route and then I cheerfully ignored its ideas until I found one I liked.  We headed up a likely road past the Putney School, but the road turned into a winding, narrow dirt road over Putney Mountain.  Irene sat in the driver's seat muttering, "This is completely ridiculous!" as I persisted across the mountain along a mostly single lane, seasonal road that in a few months will be covered with snow for the duration.  Up was nervous making; Down was truly scary.  I hid my concerns as Irene approached hysteria. (Do be kind to my slight use of hyperbole. After all, I'm in the midst of reading a biography of Mark Twain.) The woods were "lovely, dark, and deep" and we still had several miles to go in order to get to Newfane on time. (Frost always gets it right.) We came down the mountain, crossed the West River and finally knew more-or-less where we were.

Union Soldier Guards the Common
Folks Gather on the Common 
The tiny village of Newfane offers a classic picture of a New England town.  Composed of three or four lovely, white clapboard buildings around a town common with red brick stores and a country inn nearby, Newfane provides a perfect site for a Sunday afternoon barbecue and free bluegrass concert.  In other parts of the country, a common might be called the town square. In colonial times the common provided common grazing ground for local farmers, a practice looking back many hundreds of years to old England.  This afternoon, attendees were claiming spaces on the ground or at tables set up on the lawn, a charcoal grill was producing large numbers of hand formed hamburgers as well as hot dogs, while children and dogs romped on the grass.  After a while, three slender balding men took their place behind a sound system on the porch of the Town Hall and the music began.

The Stockwell Brothers
Bruce Stockwell
Barry Stockwell

Al Stockwell
Bruce Stockwell is a shy, almost reclusive man, who grew up near Putney, VT with his two brothers Barry and Al playing bluegrass music.  He went off to Yale where he seems to have successfully resisted Ivy League cool and irony.  I'm told he majored in English, but insofar as I know him, it's pretty clear he majored in banjo and minored in rock and roll, both of which he has played throughout New England for more than thirty years.  (Department of full disclosure: Bruce has been my banjo teacher off and on for five years. He always seems glad to see me, even though I'm at best an indifferent student.)  The Stockwell Brothers play events like the barbecue on the village common in Newfane or the crafts fair in Troy, NH, and are well-known an welcome throughout the region.  Their sound is bluegrass/folk leavened by a delightful funky sound on Bruce's banjo.  Bruce, who won the prestigious Merlefest banjo contest in 2005, professes to be a pure Scruggs style guy, and that's what he teaches, but his play is inventively jazz and rock informed and his work along the entire neck of his new Neat banjo is expressive, fast, accurate, and inventive.  Brother Barry, on guitar,  has a fine folk voice. Brother Al, on electric bass and bluegrass mandolin, provides musical variety and strong harmonies.  An afternoon with the Stockwell Brothers is always an enjoyable musical experience.

Wading Pool on a Chilly Afternoon
Recently, Bruce has joined with Phil Rosenthal, Phil Zimmerman, Stacy Phillip, Dave Howard, and his wife Kelly Stockwell to form a band calling itself North by Northeast, as Yankee a name as a bunch of New Englanders could possibly conjure up.  So far, they have had few bookings, but the personnel is strong and they should be a welcome addition to the thriving New England bluegrass scene as a hard core traditional band.  Samples of their sound can be found on their MySpace page.

Bruce Stockwell
As the sun sank behind the hill, a cool chill settled on the common.  Despite the warm spirit generated by the Stockwell Brothers, we headed for home, this time managing to miss the Putney Mountain Road, but crossing the covered bridge and taking the East-West road through Dummerston Center and the Middle Road to Brattleboro and then home to Keene. (New Englanders, famous for their thrift with words as well as money,  don't waste complex naming on minor roads.)  It was a really nice afternoon and evening.  The Stockwell Brothers are worth your effort to hear.  Bruce performed on a couple of records (they had records then) back in the seventies.  I have no idea where you might find one of them, but they'd be worth the effort.