Monday, July 18, 2011

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

The Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival begins its sixteenth season on August 4 and runs through August 7 at Martin Park in E. Hartford, CT.  Martin Park is nearly an ideal setting for a bluegrass festival. Convenient to I-84 and I-91 as well as a range of hotels and restaurants associated with a city, it still feels like a place in the country.  The Park offers plenty of room for camping, a well-guarded swimming pool, hot showers and flush toilets, and a nearby driving range. The festival has shown steady growth and always offers a varied musical lineup and one of the most thoughtfully designed programs of any bluegrass festival.

The Podunk Stage

In 2010 Podunk was awarded the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Event of the Year, a much deserved recognition for a festival that has shown itself to be innovative, thoughtful, and flexible.  This year's lineup and offerings continue in the mold that previous years have shown, offering features that larger and more expensive events continue to eschew. The generous and capable support of the Town of East Hartford has helped to put the festival and the city on the map of places to go for bluegrass.


 Seven bands will be making their first appearance at Podunk this year.  From Mac McHale and the Radio Gang, a storied New England band to Chris Jones and the Night Drivers and Fitzmaurice, the bands constitute the full  range of traditional through cutting edge modern bands.  

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers
Chris Jones

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers
Aaron Til, Jon Weisberger, Ned Luberecki with Chris

Darin & Brooke Aldridge

Brooke Aldridge & Rachel Renee Johnson

Donna Ulisse

Mac MacHale

The Dixie Bee Liners
Buddy Woodward & Brandi Hart


The Travelin' McCourys

Returning Favorites
 Dan Paisley & Southern Grass

As a matter of general practice, Podunk does not have bands returning year after year.  Rather, the bands returning to the festival may not have been there for several years and are always avidly anticipated.   

The Steep Canyon Rangers
Woody Platt
Nicky Sanders

Mountain Heart
Barry Abernathy & Aaron Ramsey

The Kruger Brothers

 Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

Jens Kruger & Michael Cleveland

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

Band Contest
Katie Wilson & the Two Time String Band

The Podunk Band Contest, now entering its fifth year, has attracted its strongest field yet, with bands from Russia and four states.  Last year's winner, Katie Wilson &  the Two Time String Band won a contract to play this year's festival, as did previous winners The Packway Handle Band and Gold Heart.  This year's contestants, each of whom will play a half hour set on Sunday, will compete for a similar place in the lineup next year. Stay on Sunday to hear these emerging bands compete.

 Grass Pistols - Russia

Reunion Hill - Maine
Travers Chandler & Avery County - Virginia

Grace Adele & The Great Band - Tennessee

Jim Gaudett & the Railroad Boys

An interesting and innovative feature of the band contest is that each contestant is sent a copy of the winning song from the Songwriting Competition to arrange for performance in their set on Sunday.  This demands that competing bands show their ability as arrangers as well as their flexibility in presenting new and unfamiliar material they can adapt to their own style.

The Songwriter's Competition
Gail Wade - 2010 Winner

The second annual Songwriter's Competition promises to be bigger and more important than it was last year. The rules for the contest can be found here, but all songs have already been submitted, the winner chosen by a committee of Connecticut Songwriter's Association members, professional writers, and bluegrass industry professionals in order to permit sending the song to competition bands for them to include in their own presentations. 

Louisa Branscomb

In addition to the Songwriter's Competition, a special opportunity to participate in Song Writer Master Seminar facilitated by Louisa Branscomb and involving Donna Ulisse in helping with the final group song on Sunday.  This extra charge event ($25.00) offers aspiring song writers the opportunity to work together with two major professional singer/songwriters to enhance their own song writing skills in a group setting as well as to develop a group song that will be performed by Donna Ulisse from the main stage on Sunday.

Donna Ulisse

Other Workshop Opportunities

Podunk is filled with opportunities for musicians of every level of accomplishment to advance their skills, work with professional teachers at a reasonable price, and interact with main stage performers in a more informal setting. Furthermore, a separate strand in the workshop lineup offers emerging bands, performers, and other interested people a chance to participate in professional seminars designed to encourage entry and advancement into the bluegrass industry.  Here's the entire workshop schedule.  For early arrivals, there will be a series of workshops (at varying fees) for singers, Dobro players, fiddlers and guitarists.  These intensive workshops run on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning.  Jim Hurst, twice IBMA Guitar Player of the Year, will be offering a couple workshops on Thursday and Friday, an excellent opportunity to learn from a master at no extra charge.

Jim Hurst

Workshop Stage
For the past couple of years, Podunk has been offering a day-long series of professional workshops held off the site at an added fee.  This year, these sessions are integrated into the schedule at the workshop stage.  Brian Smith, manager of Mountain Heart,  will offer a workshop on "Managing the Band" on Friday afternoon, while Ken Irwin, Rounder Records, will hold a session on Saturday.  A Podunk Town Hall on Saturday will give attendees an opportunity to give Roger Moss and the Podunk Board feedback on their performance.  A full range of workshops conducted by various bands will be held during the entire weekend at the Pratt & Whitney stage above the pool. 

For the Kids

Podunk is truly a kid and family friendly festival. From three different participatory music activities for children and teenagers to structured activities, the swimming pool, and family films in the evening, Podunk offers a huge variety of fun-filled activities for children.  The Podunk main stage is located in dead center field of a baseball facility.  In the dugout on the third base side of home plate a number of supervised creative and playful children's activities are available all day long.  The grounds are spacious enough to permit families to set up low sun protection for their children to the rear on the sides which protect children from too much sun. The swimming pool provides a cool respite for all.

The Pool

Kids Academy, under the direction of Tim St. Jean & Vickie Baker begins activities on Friday morning and culminates with a main stage performance on Sunday.  Staffed by a group of musical professionals who are also fine teachers of young musicians, Kids Academy is always a hit and provides parents with the knowledge their kids are learning and under adult supervision.
Kids Academy

This year, a new wrinkle designed, perhaps, for young people who have graduated from Kids Academy or who want to play and learn at the next level is being offered.  Called The Podunk Bluegrass Academy and under the direction on Tony Watt,  it is designed as an inter-generational musical learning experience for those ages fifteen and older.   Divided into two groups, Group A is focused on beginning jammers who can change chords between G, C, D and A.  Group B aims at somewhat more accomplished musicians who can already jam and, perhaps, play simple solos on their instruments.  This new offering represents a fine chance for people who have always wanted to learn to jam to pick up some skills.  The Bluegrass Academy is open for free to all Podunk attendees with a staff of professional musicians.


Podunk has consistently shown a preference for craft vendors offering attractive and interesting crafts along with a t-shirt vendor making silk screen shirts to order that are among the most attractive to be found at any festival.  Food vendors lean towards the more healthy side with fewer deep fried offerings than many other festivals.  The Podunk system requires people purchasing from the food vendors to buy scrip money from the Podunk Bank. Unspent Podunk Del'ars can be redeemed until 1:00 PM Sunday afternoon, and in past years have been usable the next year.  There are also commercial vendors as well as Todd's Musical Petting Zoo, which provides instruments for people to try out.

Food Vendors

Getting to Podunk
 Click the link below that says "View Larger Map" to input your location
and get precise directions to Martin Park

The Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival offers a fine lineup of new to Podunk and returning performers who are back by popular demand.  The Schedule is packed with opportunities to listen, learn, and participate at a number of different levels beginning on Wednesday afternoon and continuing until around 4:30 on Sunday. People leaving without attending the band competition and Donna Ulisse's closing performance on Sunday afternoon will be missing a solid day of music in a laid back atmosphere.  Podunk deserved its recognition as IBMA "Event of the Year" last year, and has risen to become the top bluegrass festival in New England. Don't miss this year's event.

Roger Moss - Festival Director