Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sabal Palms Bluegrass Festival - Review

Gate to Sabal Palm RV Resort & Campground
Palmdale, Florida
The Main Road

Dry Camping Area
The ideal festival offers some combination of bluegrass music performance, jamming, workshops, socializing, interesting vendors, a long weekend of camping, and opportunities to rub shoulders with performers in a pleasant, usually quite rural, setting.  A good formula for a festival lineup features several nationally known bands, some recognizable regional bands, and a few local bands.  The music should satisfy the preferences of a festival's audience while also introducing it to new bands and expanding its vision of the genre.  The Sabal Palm Bluegrass Festival, held at the Sabal Palm RV Resort in isolated Palmdale, FL, only in its second year, and operating on what appears to be a pretty restricted budget, achieved many of these goals despite some glitches which proved, for us, to be distracting. The days of a promoter's being able to attract a quality lineup to a four day festival for an entrance fee of $50.00 are long gone, and festival goers need to get used to this fact.  Florida, in particular, presents problems because of the long travel distances required to bring quality mid-south bands to events in this state.  That being said, and despite a few glitches, the Sabal Palm Bluegrass Festival had a successful run last weekend.

Highway 41 South

Highway 41, also called "The Tamiami Trail" is a major north/south road running down Florida's west coast from Tampa south and then across the Everglades to Miami.  It's a fitting name for a new bluegrass band, all of whose members hail, roughly, from that large and crowded part of the state.  The band features strong vocals from lead singers Marc Hunt and J.R. Davis as well as fine flat picking guitar from Robert Feathers.  Their music is mostly covers of classic bluegrass and some classic country.  While four sets in two days stretches their repertoire, they give a satisfying performance.

J.R. Davis

Marc Hunt

Robert Feathers

Donnie Harvey

Jack Woodrough

Sabal Palm proved itself to be a first rate event for people who come to jam.  For many years we were mystified by the number of people who came to bluegrass festivals, but rarely, if ever, were in the audience to see performances.  Well, they're out in the field making music, often at a level near that being heard on the stage.  Bands have been known to form as jamming bands and then become hits on the touring trail as they refine their chops and develop a distinctive sound and style.  


Up the Creek

Ed Wybranowski, who plays banjo and fronts Up the Creek, is an important figure in Florida bluegrass music, because he writes a periodic newsletter detailing, as comprehensively as possible, bluegrass shows and jams across the stage. To subscribe to his newsletter, The Florida Bluegrass News, send him an e-mail here.

Ed Wybranowski
Pam Curtis & Lance Ohl

Chris Wybranowski

The James King Band

James King has been named SPBGMA Male Vocalist of the Year (traditional) so many times most people have lost count.  He and his band closed Thursday and opened Friday, making it possible for him to make a quick exit for a show in Arizona and, probably because of weather and timing, depriving many of those attending an opportunity to hear his characteristic performance.  The addition of Ron Spears to his band on mandolin has yielded a significant improvement. Greg Moore on fiddle has shown steady improvement and is making a real contribution to the band.

Ron Spears

Greg Moore

Tony Mabe

Cole Spears

James King

Smoking at Festivals

Readers of this blog know that one of my constant concerns is the amount of smoking in and around the performance areas at festivals.  Many festivals have improved their encouragement to get attendees to keep their smoke away from both festival goers and performers, but at Sabal Palm there seemed to be an unusual number of smokers and amount of smoke.  I would have been amused, had it not been so obvious, the number of people who try to hide their smoke by putting lit cigarettes into their pockets or cupping them in their hands.  They seem to be oblivious to the way the smoke spreads and the effect it has on those around them.  It might be interesting to require all smokers to congregate under a small tent to share the air together.  Adding cigar and pipe smoke to the cigarette odor only makes it worse.  

Tony Holt & The Wildwood Valley Boys

The Wildwood Valley Boys have been recently re-built. They have a deep connection to the early days of bluegrass through Tony Holt's father Aubrey, a veteran of the Boys from Indiana.  Their lineup appears to be rather fluid, as several of the pickers on this trip to Florida are not featured on the band's web site, but their music was a solid mix of traditional bluegrass music.  Aubrey Holt, who must be nearing eighty, has a fine tenor voice to complement Tony's good lead.  Brandon Godman on fiddle and the mandolin player, Jake Brown, added excellent instrumental work. Their performances feature many songs written by members of the Holt family.

Tony Holt

Aubrey Holt

Pure & Simple Bluegrass
Pure & Simple comes from Dothan, AL and has largely been heard only regionally.  This is a shame, as the band is lively, instrumentally very sound, and quite amusing.  Their eclectic combination of bluegrass songs and grassed versions of music from a variety of other genres provides a lively breath of new sounds to their essentially traditional blend.  The host their own festival, The Great American Bluegrass Festival, in Dothan in late April.  We get to see this engaging bluegrass band all too infrequently.  When we cross paths with them, it's always a musical and personal pleasure.  Beware of the awful puns of this fine band!

Tavis Perry
Steve Kirkland

John Corbin

Greg Whigham

Mike Hutto

Ronnie Rutherford

In addition to his chores as mandolin picker with Pure & Simple, Ronnie Rutherford has also begun building cigar box guitars.  Built with a plug-in for a small amplifier, this four string, two-note guitar is a novelty that can be used for practically nothing, but has a pleasant bluesy sound for someone willing to give it a try.

Phil Leadbetter & Richard Bennett
Having recently left Grasstowne, Phil Leadbetter has combined with Richard Bennett and Don Rigsby to form a band which will begin touring this spring and is available to accept dates.  Uncle Phil and Bennett were on a limited tour of concerts and workshops in Florida last week, and showed up at Sabal Palms for a concert along with three members of the Bluegrass Parlor Band, leading to a very pleasant surprise for all who braved the chill Friday night air to stay to hear them.  Bennett, whose look and sound is reminiscent of Tony Rice, worked with Phil when they were both with J.D. Crowe & the New South.  The band appearing at Sabal Palm included banjo virtuoso Cory Walker and his emerging brother Jarrod on mandolin as well as Parlor Band mate Jimmy White, always more than competant on bass.  The band played a mix of Tony Rice classics like "Gingseng Sullivan" and "Freeborn Man" as well as the David Grisman piece "E.M.D." from Phil's solo project Philibuster.  The work of the Walker brothers on the Grisman piece was particularly strong and showcased an element of their ability seldom seen on the bluegrass trail, but much welcomed.

Phil Leadbetter

Richard Bennett

Cory Walker

Jarrod Walker

Jimmy White

Promoter and sound man Charlie Basford provided for a series of well-attended and very well taught workshops on Saturday.  Members of Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike as well as banjoist Bobby Martin held workshops. 
Becky Buller Working with Kids

Rebekah Long Workshop

Val Smith Workshop

Vallerie Smith & Liberty Pike

Valerie Smith  & Liberty Pike become stronger with each performance.  Despite being plagued by a combination of allergies (including cigarette smoke drifting onto the stage), Val maintained her always high level of energy and enthusiasm through three sets and two vocal workshops held over two days.  She and members of her band were always available to their fans and provided the always lively combination of bluegrass, gospel, and Americana that characterize their programs. The band is releasing a new all bluegrass album this spring.  Meanwhile, their carefully choreographed performance has a drive beyond that of the songs themselves.  Smith, always animated and lively, combines with the multi-talented Becky Buller to weave vocal and instrumental combinations that always sound good.  Rebekah Long, growing into this band with each performance, brings an interesting visual contrast and a delightful, but restrained, personality to the band. Ernie Evans, playing three instruments and singing strong harmonie, contributes intelligently on each piece.  The band's deep commitment to bluegrass in the schools, and Ernie's current campaign to seek to raise funds for the International Bluegrass Music Museum, place the band into a larger and more important context.

Valerie Smith

Becky Buller

Ernie Evans

Rebekah Long

All in all the Sabal Palms Bluegrass Festival was a successful second effort.  A couple of bands were asked to perform beyond their catalog, and some of the performances stretched the definition of bluegrass beyond recognition.  The sound was quite good, once it got settled in after Thursday evening.  The new ownership of Sabal Palms Campground & RV Resort is struggling successfully to overcome a good deal of deferred maintenance, which showed up mostly in the campground's losing electricity on both Thursday and Friday nights.  
Bluegrass Gospel Sing and Jam

Mary and Mike Robinson

The Scene

Joe Huckaby

Roger Bass