Thursday, November 19, 2009

McCoury, Stringdusters, Steeldrivers, & King Wilke at Upper Valley, NH

The third annual Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival was held Friday and Saturday evening at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, NH.  Featuring four fine bands over two nights, the event was presented in a concert format and seems to have pulled in its horns a bit as it did not feature the very pleasant workshops that had been held the previous two years. They also neglected to serve the cookies and punch that had been sold previously in the lobby. Despite these rather small changes, the music was strong and enthusiastically welcomed by the audiences.  Friday's audience, perhaps two thirds of a full house, greeted a re-configured and newly re-emerging King Wilkie with curiosity that changed to enthusiasm as their performance continued.  They were followed by the Infamous Stringdusters who only get better and better with each passing month of road experience.  The audience, many already familiar with their music, greeted many of their new songs as well as older, more familiar ones with cheering and a standing ovation at the end.  On Saturday, The Steeldrivers, absent Mike Hendrickson on mandolin, responded to the nearly full house with one of their best performances I've seen and were duly awarded. Finally, the Del McCoury Band closed the weekend with a performance that evoked appreciation for Del McCoury's long career and enjoyment of his continued creativity in presenting new work.

King Wilkie

King Wilke was recognized  five years ago as IBMA's Emerging Artist of the Year.  At that time the band, recently out of college, was seeking to recreate the sound of Monroe, Flatt, and Scruggs from the late forties and early fifties.  After creating quite a stir, they seemed to pretty much disappear from the scene.  With the release of their last two CD's, they have re-created themselves as an Americana band whose music blends elements of bluegrass, cajun, blues, and jazz into an entertaining and lively melange of melody and song, mostly of the band's own creating.  Founder Reid Burgess on mandolin and piano demonstrates a level of energy I didn't sense last time I saw the band. Their performance at Upper Valley featured humorous, and sometimes satirical, viewpoints on the world, with perhaps too much emphasis on north/south differences. Nevertheless, their energy, musicality, and humor provided a lively and enjoyable performance.  
Reid Burgess

Steve Lewis

  Phillips Saylor

Dennis Lichtman

Ian Riggs

Reid Burgess and Dennis Lichtman

The Infamous Stringdusters

The Infamous Stringdusters have compiled a remarkable record since they came onto the scene in 2007 and took honors at IBMA for Emerging Artist of the Year, Song of the Year, and Album of the Year.  Originally a group of acclaimed Nashville session musicians who jammed together on Tuesday evenings at the Station Inn in Nashville, they hit the road and found almost instant aclaim.  Since then, they've only improved.  This is a bluegrass band with a difference.  While they may be seen as a progressive jam band, there's no question about their bluegrass chops.  Each member of the band is an acknowledged master of his instrument.  Andy Hall has been nominated as Dobro player of the year.  Chris Pandolfi is the first banjo graduate of Berklee School of Music.  Jeremy Garrett comes from a more traditional bluegrass family in Montana and has recorded with his father Glen.  Travis Book, a master bassman whose vocals are merely superb (check out their hit song Poor Boys Delight) comes from Colorado, and his sound reflects the scene in that mountain state. Jesse Cobb was working in a salmon factory in Alaska when his brother Shadd (of the John Cowan Band) called and suggested he come to Nashville.  Andy Falco's background is in rock and acoustic music. Andy Hall, who has reached the top ranks of Dobro players, is another graduate of Berklee School of Music.  In short, while their backgrounds may seem somewhat unusual for a bluegrass band in traditional terms, this band fits precisely the contours of what one might exptect a contempoary band to look and sound like.

Andy Hall

Jesse Cobb

Jeremy Garrett

Travis Book

Chris Pandolfi

Andy Falco

Perhaps the most interesting and characteristic vision of this band is their intense concentration on each other as they work together on stage.  What follows are several pictures in which I've tried to capture the sense of unity and support one sees in a Stringdusters performance.


The Steeldrivers

Even before The Steeldrivers came out of the box in with their self titled album on Rounder records in 2008, they were creating lots of buzz.  Word came from a variety of sources, "You've got to hear this band!"  Central to their appeal was the non-traditional voice of singer/songwriter Chris Stapleton, already a hot song writer on the Nashville scene in country and Americana music.  His voice, bluesy and soulful with some gravel in it, was not what one expects from bluegrass singers.  The songs he and co-writer Mike Henderson wrote for the band were crafted for his voice in combination with fiddler Tammy Rogers raw harmonies.  The band they brought together to perform consisted of Nashville veterans of session work and country music who also had deep roots in bluegrass.  The combination was rewarded at the IBMA awards show with the Emerging Artist  of the year award in October.  While many of their songs sound very much alike and they tend to play within a rather limited tonal range, the band still offers affecting songs and an exciting performance.

Chris Stapleton

Tammy Rogers and Mike Fleming

Richard Bailey

Mike Fleming

Brent Truitt on Mandolin with Rogers and Fleming

Tammy Rogers in the Green Room

Chris Stapleton in the Green Room

The Del McCoury Band

There's not much left to be said about Del McCoury.  After fifty years of touring at age seventy, he's put out two new albums in the past two years as well as a five CD collection of the body of his work over the past five decades.  Del seems to be having a little trouble remembering the lyrics of some of his songs, yet he still takes requests and responds with grace and humor when he loses a few words.  His characteristic high tenor voice singing lead remains an instantly recognizable and reliable instrument, and he's one of the best rhythm guitar players ever...still.  Son Ronnie, one of the most recognized mandolin players around, is taking more vocals, with a voice remarkably similar to his Dad's.  Rob McCoury on banjo and Jason Carter on fiddle are always superb, and Alan Bartram on bass plays fine bass breaks as well as taking a couple of vocal solos.  The Del McCoury Band, as familiar as an old shoe, still fits every time you put him on.  No bluegrass fan should pass up an opportunity to see this band whenever they can!

Del McCoury

Rob McCoury with Jason Carter and Alan Bartram

Ron and Del McCoury

Jason Carter

Ronnie McCoury with his 1923 Lloyd Loar Gibson

Del in the Green Room

The Del McCoury Band

The Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, NH, although somewhat diminished in scope, remains an ambitious and forward looking event that takes a few risks with its bookings and provides good value for attendees.  It's well worth the support of bluegrass fans.