Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival - Sunday and Assessment

Sundays at festivals are always problematic, leading many to forsake Sunday in order to end on a high note Saturday evening.  This makes a good deal of financial sense while leaving me more than a little sad as Sunday at a good festival often turns into a relaxed, mellow celebration of good music in a laid back atmosphere.  Nevertheless, there always has to be a last band, and that band almost always performs to a much diminished yet often very appreciative group.  Larry Stephenson, a seasoned campaigner who serves up very high quality bluegrass featuring his own luminous tenor voice and Kenny Ingram's justly celebrated Scruggs style banjo.  The small group remaining as Larry closed out the show gave him a rousing ovation to bring him back for one last encore.

The End

But before I allow myself to become too maudlin about the end of another enjoyable bluegrass weekend, there was lots of fine entertainment during the sunny, warm Sunday.  In fact, during this Strawberry Park weekend, there wasn't a drop of rain during the four days. 

Dry Branch Fire Squad

For over three decades Dry Branch Fire Squad has been presenting the gospel program on Sunday morning at Strawberry Park.  For many attendees it has become and remains one of the highlights of the weekend.  Ron Thomason has long been known for the quality of his traditional singing and mandolin play, the rib tickling and thought provoking nature of his satirical commentary, and the strength of his moral commitment to justice and fair play.  The gospel program (I hesitate to call it a show) combines these three qualities in a most satisfying fashion.  The ability of his three very able sidement, Brian Aldridge on mandolin, Dan Russell on bass, and Tom Boyd, who is the current cover boy on Banjo Newsletter, on banjo and Dobro, to appear engaged, amused, and interested in material they must have heard dozens of times always amazes me.  So many of Thomason's bits have become favorites of the audience there seldom seems to be a need to update his material, but he continues to do so, always, like Will Rogers, finding something current in the world situation to spark both outrage and humor.
Brian Aldridge

Tom Boyd

Dan Russell

 Ron Thomason

Lisa Husted - Emcee

 David Nowakowski - Strawberry Park Mgmt.

Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Darin & Brooke increasingly demonstrate to enthusiastic audiences their increasing range as a vocal and instrumental group.  Starting as primarily a gospel band, they have broadened their repertoire to include hard driving bluegrass, many ballads appropriate to a young couple in love, some country tinged songs, and their continuing commitment to their mission of spreading the gospel through their music. Don't look for lyin', cheatin', and killin' songs from this band, but if you want fine music professionally and enthusiastically delivered, listen to them seriously.  Lots of miles on the road and continuing practice have made this band increasingly tight. New members Rachel Renee Johnson (sporting a beautiful new ring on her left hand) and Dwayne Anderson, a student at ETSU, have added strength.  Ask your local promoter to seek this band out.

Chris Bryant

Rachel Renee Johnson 
Check out the Left Hand

Brooke Aldridge

Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Larry Stephenson & Darin Aldridge

Irene During a Quiet Moment at the Merch Tables

Barry Ford and Kim Cyr
Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters

This band always provides melodic and enjoyable music when they appear.  I wrote about Amy and Roger on Thursday. I want to focus on two sidemen in this band. Eric Levinson, on bass, is always solid and reliable.  A New England veteran, his contributions are always able and strong.  J.D. Williams, Roger's son, has become increasingly sure of his mandolin, guitar, and vocal work, moving into being an integral part of this band.  He'll be enrolling at Berklee College of Music in the fall where he'll continue to grow and develop.  Congratulations to J.D.

 J.D. Williams

Roger Williams

Amy Gallatin

Roger & Amy

Hot Mustard

This unusual double banjo group has been making waves in New England for about a year.  Bruce Stockwell, deeply experienced and instrumentally gifted with an unusual vision, provides the core ideas.  Bill Jubett, once his student and now his band mate brings solid banjo and a rough, mountain style voice.  Kelly Stockwell has become a fine bass player.  April Hobart, who will become Mrs. Jubett in August, has a fine bluegrass voice and plays high level rhythm guitar.  This is a quite satisfying band.
Bill Jubett & Kelly Stockwell
April Hobart

Bruce Stockwell & April Hobart

Kim Cyr

The Larry Stephenson Band

After more than twenty years on the road with his own band, Larry Stephenson continues to sing with his wonderful tenor voice and strong band. Last year his song "Give This Message to Your Heart" with Dailey & Vincent as guests won Recorded Performance of the Year at the IBMA Awards Show, but his twentieth  anniversary CD is filled with wonderful performances featuring delightful guest appearances.  Meanwhile, his traveling band is strong, personable, and highly skilled.  In addition to Kenny Ingram, mentioned earlier in this piece, Kevin Richardson is a fine flat picker and Danny Stewart, Jr., just graduated from ETSU is an excellent bass player.  The Larry Stephenson Band always provides high value when it performs.

Larry Stephenson

Kenny Ingram

Danny Stewart, Jr.

Kevin Richardson

Overall Assessment

Attendance at this year's Strawberry Park was only slightly down after fears of the Park's falling into receivership and the price of fuel would severely hurt.  Those who came were entertained from the opening at 6:00 PM on Thursday to closing around 4:00 on Sunday.  The festival was well organized. Sound by Cobra Sound from Berwick, PA was superb largely because they combine high technology with a thoroughgoing knowledge of how bluegrass should sound.  Emceeing was solidly professional from Glenn Huffer, Jim Beaver, Kim Cyr, and Lisa Husted.  And the weather was nothing short of perfect.  This year, sites may be reserved with a $20.00 deposit for next year's event.  I'd suggest getting your name in early.  This festival doesn't seem to be going away.

My pick for Happy Surprise band at Strawberry Park is Della Mae, which continues to grow and develop as an exciting and delightful group. Here's a video from their Friday performance.

Della Mae - "Look Down the River"

Denise and Ron Dance 'til the End