The Greencards arrived from Australia a few years ago as a bluegrass band searching for a unique identity and sound. They've found is for sure as they've moved from Nashville to the rich musical environment in Austin, Texas and become a staple of bluesy, jazzy, bands who astound with their versatility. Hardly a bluegrass band any longer, they remain favorites at Strawberry Park. Kym Warner, who has no need to prove anything, showed his bluegrass chops in a guest appearance with the Gibson Brothers on Friday night. Brittany Haas is a delightful addition to the band, while Carl Minor continues as a guitar virtuoso. Bassist and lead singer Carol Young, chose her material well as opening act on Saturday by selecting music ideally suited for that second cup of coffee.
Mike Cleveland has proven himself to have remarkable staying power in a world populated with lots of outstanding fiddle players. A musician of remarkable versatility, he powers his way through the great fiddle repertoire while adding his own touch. With his current band, he's surrounded himself with musicians who can stand on their own and work to complement his fiddle repertoire. Always willing to play more, Mike is a true wonder. This weekend, the band took a backseat to Mike's guest appearance in the Kruger Brother's second set, which is too bad, because they themselves are a worthy band. Singer Josh Richards has added a solid voice and good guitar work, and we hope he'll stay for a while. Nathan Livers and Glenn Gibson have settled in well and make a very nice fit with Michael's style. Flamekeeper has rebuilt itself as a solid backup band for the most highly awarded fiddle player yet.
The Kruger Brothers moved to Wilkesboro, NC to further develop their Europe nurtured sound through proximity to Doc Watson and the rich musical heritage of Wilkes County. They bring a classical sensibility and a sensitivity to the sounds of the mountain environment to their music, which reaches from plaintive country ballads to orchestral suites now performed with major symphony orchestras. Jens (pronounced "Yens") Kruger is probably the greatest banjo virtuoso on the planet, his only possible rival being Bela Fleck. He reaches out to his audiences with lightning fast glissandi along with touching them with the most tender melodies imaginable. Uwe Kruger on guitar is a wonderfully inventive guitar player as well as bringing a deep, resonant baritone voice that can wring hearts. Joel Landsburg, often called the third Kruger Brother, on bass turns the instrument into a solo vehicle which also blends to help create more power than you could imagine a trio developing. Don't ever miss an opportunity to see this wonderful group, as much at home at bluegrass festivals as on concert stages.
The Kruger Brothers second set featured Michael Cleveland as a guest. Whenever this combination happens at a festival, there's real magic. The contrast between the cerebral, soul stirring work of the Kruger Brothers and the hard-driving, in-your-face bluegrass when Michael plays with them is remarkable. Watching the joy on Michael and Jens' faces as they speak musically to each other in call and response fashion, each challenging and appreciating the other's greatness provides a signal moment wherever they appear.
Jens & Michael
Seldom Scene created a revolution in bluegrass music. By bringing folk and rock influences into the already well-established amalgam of mountain music, blues, western swing, and country music of which bluegrass was composed, Seldom Scene established forever the versatility of the bluegrass format as well as its ability to adapt to and incorporate new influences in music. It's interesting that Dudley Connell, lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Seldom Scene, in his day job is an archivist and cataloger for the National Folk Archive of the Smithsonian Institution, since, in his musical work, he has served to celebrate and conserve so much traditional music with two iconic bands. Dudley commented that the role of The Seldom Scene in continuing to produce a sound that affected so many in the 1970's and 1980's is a similar role to that he played in the Johnson Mountain Boys of preserving and re-popularizing the music of the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Flatt & Scruggs in the eighties. Other, newer, bands are continuing the same function in bluegrass today of bringing new forms and experiences under the bluegrass umbrella and making it accessible to older, more staid audiences. Ben Eldridge, the original banjo player with The Scene, continues to tour with them after more than forty years. Composed of standout musicians at every position, The Seldom Scene continues to entertain and please audiences of all ages.
Ron Thomason's unique take on American life and his gospel singing and speaking have been a feature of Sunday morning at Strawberry Park for over thirty years. This year, because Junior Sisk was late due to a late night flat tire somewhere along the Jersey Turnpike. Like the trooper he is, Thomason treated the audience to nearly an extra hour of singing and patter.
This Cambridge-based band Three Tall Pines won last year's Podunk band contest and justly deserves a main stage appearance. Their rough-edged traditional sound and contemporary outlook leads to some musical surprises. Mandolinist Joe Lurgio is leaving to assume a staff position at IBMA in Nashville, but I expect to hear more from this band.
After a grueling weekend that took his band to four states on four days as far west as Tennessee and Ohio, he unfortunately arrived late at Strawberry Park due to a flat tire. Sadly, many fans wishing to see him could wait no longer and missed his performance. Junior is a very solid performer with a top notch band which won both IBMA Aong of the Year and Record of the Year in 2012. Junior's great strength is finding newly written songs that sound like they stepped right out of the forties or fifties, filled with rawness and a sly humor. There are few bands that successfully pull this off, many preferring warmed over covers. When Sisk plays covers, they sparkle as if he were the originator, particularly with his strong work taken from the Stanley Brothers. His genuine humility combines with an exceptional voice and being one of the top rhythm guitar players around to make him well-deserving of Friday and Saturday featured gigs at festivals like Strawberry Park.