Monday, October 26, 2009

Art of Sound - Shelby, NC - Review

Shelby,NC is a small town (pop. 19,477) located in south-central North Carolina along the western edge of the Piedmont region.  The regional economy has apparently been devastated by the loss of the textile industry as well as a large nearby trucking company and farming.  Nevertheless, Shelby is a pleasant town with an attractive downtown centered around the old courthouse which is being renovated to provide a home for a museum dedicated to legendary banjo player Earl Scruggs, a native of Shelby.  Art of Sound held its seventh annual festival from October 22 - 24, sponsored by the Cleveland County Arts Council.  Featuring 31 bands with over 100 individual musicians in three locations around the town square, Art of Sound offered an eclectic selection of music ranging from old time and bluegrass through blues to rock and jazz.  As fans of bluegrass and Americana music, we found plenty to entertain us.  It was also a busy weekend, as we had the opportunity to attend the opening of a new medical building in town and go to a delightful family birthday party on Saturday evening, leading us to attend fewer musical events than we otherwise might have.

The schedule of Art of Sound provides music in two venues on Thursday and Friday evening.  Both the First National Bank and the Arts Council building itself offer good spaces for musical performance, although sound in the Arts Council building left something to be desired.  Particularly when offering acoustic music, it's quite useful to have sound technicians oriented to the sounds and volumes of acoustic instruments. Acoustic Instruments at the Arts Center tended to squeal escessively, distracting both musicians and listeners.  Sound at the First National Bank, a quieter and more intimate venue was fine for the performances we attended there.

Performers at Art of Sound tended to be people with roots in Cleveland County and environs, some of whom have forged national and international reputations, while others have chosen to stay closer to their roots. Performers included a healthy dose of Nashville alt-country music and what looked like other interesting and arresting performers.  As with any music festival, there were too many performers for anyone to be able to see them all, but there were plenty of choices available, with the full-day schedule on Saturday offering very good value for the $20.00 advance pass.  A three day advance pass at $35.00 represented a true bargain for people living close enough to make all three days.  On Saturday, the music was supplemented by the annual Livermush Expo. An acquired taste, livermush is closely related to scrapple, a delicacy those of us hailing from Pennsylvania either love or disdain. It is concocted of pork by products and corn meal, seasoned to the distributers taste, and served best fried to a crisp.  Several vendors offered livermush delicacies prepared in a variety of tempting ways. 

We focused on several bluegrass performances as well a a delightful Americana presentation and some of the best blues we've heard.

On Thursday evening, Al Dunkleman, a sociology instructor at Cleveland Community College led off with his easy to listen to singing of a combination of standards and songs he had written focusing on local events.  Accompanied by his wife Kathy on vocals and Dr. Bobby Jones on mandolin, the performance was enjoyably tuneful.  Dunkleman plays guitar, open-back banjo, and fiddle to accompnay his own singing, while Kathy's harmonies are good. 

Al Dunkleman Trio
Al Dunkleman
Karen Dunkleman
Dr. Bobby Jones

Flint Hill

Flint Hill has been performing in and around Cleveland County for about twenty-five years.  A bluegrass band comprising five able pickers, they sing traditional bluegrass as well as material composed by members of the band.  Michael Burgess, lead singer, has written many of the songs performed by Flint Hill.  He has a very good bluegrass voice.  Guitarist Wayne Parish is an able flat picker who has also written music for the band.  Dean Jenkins on banjo provides a strong and powerful roll that keeps the band's driving sound moving forward.  Adam Seale, who we've seen performing with several national bands, including Kenny and Amanda Smith, sings well and is solid on bass.  Bobby Jones on mandolin shares the emceeing with Seale, plays mandolin, and sings the often under-rated but important baritone parts.  The band is entertaining and enjoyable.

Michael Burgess
Wayne Parrish
Dean Jenkins
Adam Seale
Bobby Jones

Darin and Brooke Aldridge Quintet

Recently returned from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) World of Bluegrass conference in Nashville, the Darin and Brooke Aldridge Quintet performed twice at Art of Sound.  I'll only deal briefly with them here, because our other activity during this weekend was to spend time with them traveling to two other venues, visiting in their home, and getting to know them better.  I'll be posting a separate blog entry about that experience within the next few days. 

Darin and Brooke with Chris Bryant
Eddie Biggerstaff
Perry Woodie
Rick Bowles and Phoenix Mendoza
Rick Bowles is a Shelby native who has had some success as a Nashville song writer, composing songs for Alabama, Reba McIntyre, and Lorrie Morgan, among others.  He has a strong singing voice and a funny, somewhat cynical approach to himself as well as his music.  Phoenix Mendoza is a younger singer/songwriter who brings passion and enthusiasm to his Nashville Pop sound. As nearly as I can tell from his MySpace page, Mendoza has yet to sell his first song. We had a fine supper at Joe's Cafe just of the square.

Rick Bowles
Phoenix Mendoza
A day in late October couldn't have been much better than the Saturday of Art of Sound.  It was a clear, crisp day with hardly a cloud in the sky and enough breeze to keep the day from becoming hot. There was a good crowd milling about the square with a line at Mike's Livermush tent.  The pop...pop...pop of a John Deere engine driving a churn advertised fresh, home made ice cream, and other vendors were serving up food and fun. An open air stage featuring a loud and competent rock band attracted an attentive crowd.


Balsam Range

We had previously seen Balsam Range in a showcase performance a year ago and this year at Fan Fest during IBMA as well as hearing them get frequent air play on Sirius/XM radio.  In all three cases they had sounded good, but failed to make the strong impression that makes a listener sit up and take notice.  With their appearance at Art of Sound they broke through for us and the the rest of the audience in the Art Center. Their power, speed, tightness, combined with their instrumental and vocal versatility make for a lively and highly entertaining performance.  At first they sound quite traditional, but as their set continues a realization sets in that this band is cloaking a quite contemporary sound and sensibility within a mantle of traditional form and instrumentation.  Balsam Range has long been the go-to band for public and private events in western North Carolina, where there so many opportunities to perform present themselves a band doesn't need to travel.  Nevertheless, this band is so good, audiences beyond their region deserve to hear them and their recent CD should be a good candidate for awards in the coming year.  Lead singer Buddy Melton on fiddle is a very good tenor.  The test of a tenor's voice is in his ability to sing high quietly.  Melton excels at reaching the height of his register without straining.  Tim Surrett on bass not only offers the expected rock solid beat, but adds interesting a varied licks to his bass play.  He's a first rate singer, too.  Mark Pruett on banjo is the senior member of the band.  Deeply experienced and a veteran of stints with many top notch bands, his banjo underlies much of the band's quality.  Caleb Smith is the junior member of the band, a very solid flat picker, he also writes songs for the band.  Darren Nicholson on mandolin plays with skill and enthusiasm and sings well.  The band has four able singers and all the musicians are first class instrumentalists.  This is a sit-up-and-look band. 

Buddy Melton

Marc Pruett

Caleb Smith
Darren Nicholson
Tim Surrett

The Harris Brothers with Darin Aldridge

We had heard about the charm, musicality, and versatility of the Harris Brothers, but had never experienced their terrific musical performance before.  With music ranging from old-time to jazz and blues, this brother duo, augmented by Darin Aldridge on mandolin on this night, were simply superb. Reggie is a wizard on guitar, both regular acoutic and the National slide.  Ryan on bass and, especially, blues vocals is wonderful.  The Harris Brothers don't travel far from their home in Lenoir, NC, but if you get the chance to hear them, don't miss it.
Reggie Harris
Ryan Harris
Darin Aldridge

Art of Sound in Shelby, NC is a small gem of a music festival.  There's both diversity and quality. Give it a try next year.