Monday, July 19, 2010

Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival - E. Hartford, CT - Preview

The Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival will open for its fifteenth season on August 5 at 5:00 P.M. in Martin Park, located at 307 Burnside Avenue in East Hartford, CT and runs through August 8. Podunk has emerged as one of the premier New England bluegrass festivals and deserves the attention of every bluegrass fan in New England, New York, and beyond.  Perhaps it would be best to deal with the Elephant in the bathtub first.  I've heard people say they avoid attending Podunk, because it's located in an urban setting, and they're concerned about their security.  This bad rap has traditionally hurt attendance, but there is no reason to avoid attending this delightful setting.  After visiting E. Hartford for bluegrass events sponsored by the city's recreation department for several years, we can say that we've enjoyed our stays there, had pleasant experiences with local residents, enjoyed several fine ethnic restaurants in the city, and had a great time at the festival.  The festival grounds are well-covered by the E. Hartford police department and there have been no incidents reported during the fourteen previous years of the festival.

The Lineup

Ricky Skaggs

Carol Young - The Greencards

Promoter Roger Moss each year assembles a range of bluegrass and acoustic music ranging from the most traditional bands to cutting edge acoustic music that defies categorization.  Old favorites mix with new and unexpected sounds to create a musical mixed salad of unusual depth and variety.  In 2010, this means that more traditional bands like Rickey Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeepers, and Rhonda Vincent appear on the same lineup as the jazzy, bluesy, alternative sounds of groups like The Greencards and Hot Buttered Rum. Fans of rootsy string band music and old time can enjoy The Earl Brothers and the Freight Hoppers. The Gibson Brothers always draw huge and enthusiastic crowds when they appear, a once regional band now achieving broad national recognition.  Regional bands like James Reams & the Barnstormers, Southern Rail, and Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters add familiar spice to the mix. Roger is a master of programming to allow attendees to choose the music they wish to hear. When I attend Podunk, I expect to be pleased and surprised by some band I never heard before as well as happily entertained by bands that have long been familiar to me.  I'm never disappointed in either expectation.  Here's a link to the schedule. And below is the lineup in alphabetical order:

David Davis of David Davis and the Warrior River Boys - Opener

Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters - Amy and Roger Williams - Closer
For connoisseurs of particular bands, this year's Podunk will offer some interesting answers to questions arising from changes in band personnel.   Alex Hibbets has replaced Bobby Clark, creating the need for a name change in Kimberly Williams band to The Expedition Show.  Her husband, one time Blue Grass Boy Blake Williams on banjo brings humorous story-telling to this enjoyable band.  The Greencards have added Tyler Andal on fiddle and guitarist Carl Miner.  These are major changes, with each adding new capabilities while remaining true to the established Greencards vibe.  Justin Moses has replaced long-time Kentucky Thunder banjo player Jim Mills in Ricky Skaggs band.  These are all major changes and bear watching.  

Current IBMA Instrumental Award Winners
Josh Williams

Michael Cleveland

Jesse Brock

The Setting
Martin Park is located in the middle of E. Hartford, yet the surrounding trees and quiet belie the bustle just outside the grounds.  The main stage is set in dead center field on the park baseball field.   Along the right field line are the festival's official vending booths while other vendors are located just behind the first base line outside the fence.  Behind the field is a delightful swimming pool restricted to festival goers throughout the festival, where there are also hot showers and flush toilets.  A large bank of porta-potties is nearby and kept quite clean.  The very pretty workshop stage is located just behind the pool and in front of the campground, which is pleasant, and always crowded.  The grounds open for camping on Wednesday at 1:00 PM at an additional charge.  For complete camping information check here.  

The Swimming Pool
The Camping Area

Family & Workshop Stage

The Family & Workshop Stage, hosted this year by Amy Orlomoski of WHUS- FM 91.7 at the University of Connecticut, will offer what is essentially three different kinds of program (check the right column). The first will be an interesting and varied series of workshops for jamming, individual instruments, band workshops, and song writing events. Included in these workshops will be Pete Kelly's jamming workshops, Instrument workshops by Michael Cleveland, Josh Williams, Kym Warner and others, and song-writing workshops by The Gibson Brothers and The Earl Brothers.   Band workshops will be conducted by several bands, including some of the bands entered in the band competition.

Amy Orlomoski - Workshop Hostess

Second will be a continuation of the highly inventive bluegrass business sessions first offered off site last year.  These professional workshops include: "Working with Media" by former Bluegrass Now publisher Wayne Bledsoe; "Booking at Venues" by Arnie Fleisher, Promoter at the Emelin Theater; "Working with Record Companies" by Ken Irwin, President of Rounder Records; and "Working with an Agent" by Herb Sandker, Upper Management, Rhonda Vincent's manager.  These professional or pre-professional workshop provide bands and aspiring professional performers with an educational experience they'd pay hundred of dollars to attend at a professional development seminar.  There's probably no place short of attending IBMA that such experiences can be had.  This series demonstrates a seriousness of purpose at Podunk rare at any sort of festival.

Banjo Workshop - 2008
You Name the Banjo Greats on This Workshop 

The third thread at the Family & Workshop stage is a series of family oriented films and activities designed to appeal to young people attending the festival.  These activities offer a good supplement to the Kid's Academy directed by Tim St. Jean and Vicky Baker, who also direct the Kid's Academy at Strawberry Park.  Check out the qualifications of the staff for Kid's Academy here and get a registration form here (pdf). The Kid's Academy will perform from the main stage on Sunday, and provides enjoyable and valuable learning experiences for kids getting into bluegrass.

The Band Competition

The Packway Handle Band
 Press Photo from Band Web Site

Podunk is serious about the band competition.  The Packway Handle Band, winner of the 2009 Band Competition will perform two sets from  the main stage Saturday.  Hailing from Athens, GA, they describe themselves as an Alt Bluegrass band.  Audio samples on their web site suggest a lively band combining contemporary topics with a more traditional instrumental brew.  This year's band competition will be held on Sunday afternooon featuring five new England bands.  For details about each one, click here.  The five bands selected to perform will each perform for half an hour on Sunday afternoon.  The  winning band will receive a cash award and a contract to perform at the 2011 edition of Podunk.  The bands range from traditional bluegrass, through folk and western swing, to progressive Berkeley College of Music sounds.  It should be an enjoyable afternoon.  

Stan Zdonik - Emcee

Wayne Bledsoe - Emcee
Podunk is an ambitious festival presenting an extended range of festival activities as well as an excellent and varied program.  Not relying on headliners and national bands to achieve and excellent lineup, Podunk takes some risks and manages to score more often than it misses.  Information about tickets can be found here.  A variety of food and craft vendors will once again provide a range of food choices, which must be paid for with Podunk bucks bought at the convenient kiosk (bank).  Unused bucks may be returned before the end of the festival.  Podunk has emerged as the premier New England bluegrass festival.  It is within convenient driving distance of about 30,000,000 people.  This is a festival worth your time and money to attend.  


Bluegrass Photographers at Podunk

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson