Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Florida State Bluegrass Festival - Review

The Florida State Bluegrass Festival held on the grounds of the Forest Capital State Park in Perry, Florida last weekend ended the winter season in Florida for us.  This event, while still relatively small, has emerged as the most comprehensive bluegrass festival in Florida.  It has it all: a diverse and eclectic lineup designed to appeal to a broad range of bluegrass music fans, a comfortable setting with plenty of shade, many electric and water hookups, very good vendors including healthy food, workshops, instrument and band contests, and a chili cook-off.  This year Perry was favored with the best weather that could be imagined.  It was warm and sunny during the day; clear and cool at night.  Headliners already released for next year suggest that both Floridians and Snowbirds on their way home should schedule this event and support it enthusiastically.  The five regional bluegrass associations in Florida should build their seasons around contributing contestants and bands to Perry, which is the state's official bluegrass festival, an important statewide event.

High Cotton
High Cotton, winner of last year's band competition was also the highlight of this year's local bands performing at Perry.  Singer Amanda Cook has a pleasant voice which blends well with the band.  Other local bands included the Andrews Family Band featuring Michael and Ryan Andrews, both improving and impressive instrumentalists, as well as Blue Shades of Grass, and the Bottom Dollar Boys, older and more established bands from northwest Florida.  The Tallahassee Fiddlers, an outgrowth of the Tallahassee Youth Orchestra presented a quite different face than we had seen several years ago, with a sound more attuned to a funky, jazzy world music with  a more informal look and feel, which was quite welcome.  More rising bands in Florida's lively bluegrass scene should seek out Perry as a performing venue.

The Andrews Family Band

Blue Shades of Grass

Tallahassee Fiddlers

 Pure & Simple

A regional band from Dothan, Alabama, Pure & Simple offers an entertaining and amusing blend of traditional bluegrass covers along with grassed versions of songs by Bob Dylan, Lynard Skynard, and other more contemporary performers.  Their singing is solid and the fun they're having on stage is clearly communicated to the audience.  Dobro player Travis Perry also provided the sound for this festival.

Travis Perry
Steve Kirkland

John Corbin

Greg Whigham

Mike Hutto

Michael Andrews (substitute for Ronnie Retherford)

The Wilson Family Band

The Wilson Family Band was seen by too few people this weekend due to their unfortunate scheduling as opening and closing act on Friday.  Based in Folkston, GA, this band features an effective mix of deeply committed gospel music and excellent bluegrass music, with increasing amounts of the material written by family members.  Clint Wilson, on guitar and vocals is beginning to achieve recognition as a song writer whose work will soon be appearing on CD's by major bands.  Meanwhile, his impressive instrumental work on banjo and improving vocal performance stand out.  Daughter Katie, at fourteen reaching into adolescence, has a maturing singing voice and continues to develop into an excellent fiddler.  Robert Wilson, who chose home and family over a career as a touring musician, has one of the finest bluegrass baritones anywhere.  Melissa Wilson's work on mandolin has shown huge improvement as her onstage confidence improves while Bruce Sheridan, the fifth Wilson, is solid on bass.  

Clint Wilson

Katie Wilson

Melissa Wilson

Bruce Sheridan

Robert Wilson

Judging Band and Instrument Contests

Marty Raybon & Full Circle
Marty Raybon appeared on Friday with a show comprised of his early bluegrass material as well as familiar hits from his days in country music, thus the band name: Full Circle.  His voice remains strong and impressive.  Sidemen Daniel Grindstaff on banjo and Chris Davis on mandolin and fiddle add significant quality.  By conflating the moving and heartfelt tribute song he's written about his son's choice to serve in the armed services in Afghanistan with a performance of Dixie and Merle Haggard's jingoistic "Fightin' Side of Me," Raybon cheapens, regionalizes, and politicizes what should stand as a broader and more universally applicable statement. Otherwise, his performance was solid and crowd pleasing.

Daniel Grindstaff

Chris Davis

Harold Asher - Ramrod

Erbie Brown - Emcee

Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike

We've seen Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike several times in Florida this winter, and despite the fact that each appearance has been a multiple day event requiring the band to perform as many as five times during a festival, they don't lose their interest.  The band is lively, dynamic, highly entertaining.  Performing a mixture of original music, much of it selected to highlight Val Smith's energetic, Broadway show style, the band is always fun to watch.  Becky Buller, one of the top young songwriters in the business as well as a talented multi-instrumentalist continues to develop as an engaging performer.  Rebekah Long's addition to the band is a sure winner.  When the three women combine on a triple fiddle piece, they really hit it.  Ernie Evans on guitar, banjo, and mandolin as well as vocals gives the band needed additional range.  

Ernie Evans

Rebekah Long

Becky Buller
Val Smith

Miss Moonpie Princesses

Cadillac Sky

I think it was John Lawless of The Bluegrass Blog who first dubbed Cadillac Sky as the "alt bluegrass bad-boys."  The name fits, and the band seems to glory in this image.  The addition of the talented and unpredictable David Mayfield to the band has unleashed them from any remaining traditional ties and encouraged them to break loose still further.  By adding a full drum kit and keyboards, hardly used at all and adding little to their performance, to the mix, Cadillac Sky is making a statement more than improving or adding to its music.  Having said all that, they remain musically sound and highly entertaining.  All the members of the band are masters of their instruments.  Ross Holmes, sporting a new fiddle obtained from Aubrey Haynie, is a master of the instrument, which takes on new dimensions under his ministrations. Matt Menefee on banjo is somewhat reminiscent of Bela Fleck and Scott Vestal while demonstrating an emerging style of his own.  Andy "Panda" Mortiz is simple a master of the bass.  The instrument takes on new dimensions under his hands.  Mayfield's singing is clear and lucid despite his manic demeanor, while his virtuoso guitar playing and unusual gyrations generate interest and surprise.  Brian Simpson, lead singer and mandolinist, brings spiritual fervor and intensity to his work, which is the glue that holds this band together.  While much of the audience chose to head for bed, complaining of the volume and the musical content, those who stayed remained enthusiastic and involved throughout Cadillac Sky's performance. One way to gauge a band's quality is by watching other musicians' reaction to them.  By this measure, Cadillac Sky is musically engaging and vastly entertaining.

Brian Simpson

Ross Holmes

Matt Menefee

Andy Moritz

David Mayfield

Simpson and Mayfield

 Kenny & Amanda Smith

The Kenny and Amanda Smith band combines one of the finest female voices in bluegrass with one of the very best flat pickers and a first rate set of side men to provide a bluegrass performance at the highest level.  This band has always been musically very good, but recently they seem to have achieved a new level of comfort and ease in performance that lifts them to a new level.  The warm banter between this couple, whose first date became a huge success when they started to pick together, has become natural and engaging, drawing the audience into their music through the authenticity of their relationship.  Zach McLamb is one of the best bass men in the business and contributes strong baritone harmonies.  Trent Callicut on banjo and Spencer Strickland on mandolin are both young and skilled.  The total effect of the band is first rate. 

Zachary McLamb

Trent Callicut

Spencer Strickland

Kenny Smith

Amanda Smith

The Florida State Bluegrass Festival was a huge success and will continue to draw a diverse audience interested in hearing a range of bluegrass.  Promoter Dawn Taylor should be complimented on her vision as should be the Perry-Taylor County Chamber of Commerce for continuing to support this event.