Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Rockahock Bluegrass Festival: Fall 2013 - Review & Assessment

Saturday dawned cloudy and overcast with a more than a little hint of rain in the air. It was comfortably cool and, after the great Friday night we had had, the Saturday crowd was ready for more. We arrived at the Rockadome as the opening band was getting started, prepared for a good day.

Highway 249

Highway 249 plays a high energy bluegrass including contempotary material covering other bands as well as their own songs.  All the members of the band had originated in New Kent County, the county in which Lanexa lies, although they had all moved away with most members now living in the Richmond area.  According to their schedule, they perform irregularly in the region. They sounded pretty good to me during much of their first set, but seemed not to have enough material two sustain and pace two full sets.

Joey Spence

Scott Deffenbaugh

Doug Mitchell

Chris Wickers

Michael Bowles

Sweet Brenda Lawson and Rhonda Vincent
Join Highway 249 for a Chorus of
Wagon Wheel

Hunter Berry of The Rage & Fan

 It's always a treat to see an accomplished musician take time to chat seriously about a question raised by a rising young musician.  This sort of interaction is typical of what sets bluegrass apart from other forms of music.

The Grass Cats

The Grass Cats originate in and around Raleigh, NC, in the deep pocket of one of bluegrass music's home states. While Bill Monroe came for Kentucky, a good argument could (and frequently is) be made for North Carolina's being the home to more bluegrass than any other place. The Grass Cats, under the leadership of tenor singer/mandolinist Russell Johnson have been around for twenty years or so, but recently have been making a greater push to widen their area of influence. They play originals, many written by Johnson, as well as well-known and more obscure covers of classic bluegrass. They deliver their material with skill and enliven their show with plenty of good humor and obvious enjoyment of each other. They're and enjoyable and high quality band to see and hear.

Russell Johnson

Chris Hill

Tim Woodall

Rick Lafleur

Allen Mullen

Tim Woodall & Chris Hill

Russell Johnson

Him - Co-Promoter Calvin Lawson

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers

 Joe Mullins is the son of legendary bluegrass musician and radio performer "Moon" Mullins"  as well as being a radio broadcaster and station owner himself. He's a member of the legendary super-group Longview, and has been touring with his own group for about seven years. In 2012, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers were named IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year, for their fine work with traditional bluegrass and traditional sounding newer music as well as a lot of fine original gospel music. The addition of Shane Sparks several months ago singing lead and playing guitar and the more recent addition of Randy Barnes to the band have served to greatly improve its already good quality performances.  

Joe Mullins

Evan McGregor

Mike Terry

Randy Brown

Shane Sparks

Mike Terry & Joe Mullins

Randy Barnes & Joe Mullins

Rhonda Vincent & the Rage

As often happens when Rhonda Vincent & the Rage appear at a festival, the Martha White Express appeared some time during the night, as if by magic.  The night before, they had appeared at the Renfro Valley Entertainment Center (551 miles to the West) and would appear the next day at a Kroger's Grocery Store opening in Carolton, GA (604 miles to the Southwest). Despite the rigors of this kind of marathon travel schedule, Rhonda Vincent appeared fresh and filled with energy for two sets, appeared briefly singing a chorus of Wagon Wheel with the opening band, signed until the last fan left between sets, took time to help care for a musician who suddenly was stricken by a panic attack, and took time to host Irene and me inside the bus for a fifteen minute or so conversation (interview). It's not rare to hear people speak of her as "the hardest working person in bluegrass," and this is true. It's also true that she's one of the most talented, able, and effective business people touring anywhere. She keeps her eye on the ball, is clear-sighted and realistic about her talent and appeal, and seems genuinely to enjoy the time she spends with her many fans. Watch her work at the Martha White Boutique some time. She never seems hurried as she smiles, signs, and poses with fans of all ages, sizes, and genders, always giving her full attention to the person she's with, so that person leaves with the sense that they've had a genuine moment with her. She smiles and seemingly recognizes individuals whom she's met before. It's a remarkable, and genuine, performance that accomplishes the neat trick of appealing to many men because of her appearance while still enjoying women, and attracting legions of young girls to her as a role model. Each Rhonda Vincent & the Rage performance is at least slightly different, as the band does not work from a set list. Rhonda gauges the audience and selects the next song as she moves through her time.

A Visit to the Martha White Express

 The Show
Rhonda Vincent & the Rage
Mickey Harris

Mickey Harris has stood at Rhonda's left shoulder for eleven years, providing the solid, reliable beat a great band requires, as well as singing harmony and solos in every show. He has been in bluegrass as a member of a family band, Sally Jones & the Sidewinders, The Larry Stephenson Band, and now Rhonda's fine organization. While an unassuming presence, he represents a crucial cog contributing to the band's excellence.  

Jay Kaczor

Kaczor did an excellent job filling in for Josh Williams, who left the road for a few days for the birth of his daughter. Kaczor,  known mostly as a southern gospel performer, had played briefly with Vincent before, and fit comfortably into what cannot be an easy position. Good job!

Jenny & Josh Williams
Whitley & Weldon

 Hunter Berry

Hunter Berry has been with Rhonda for about nine years and is married to her daughter Sally. The couple both teach at East Tennessee State University, which goes to some length to employ top level performers as adjunct professors in its bluegrass and traditional music degree programs. Hunter has also become increasingly central in a role of comic foil for Rhonda. His good nature and sense of humor shine through, while his supple fiddle play is always excellent.

Rhonda Vincent & Hunter Berry

 Aaron McDaris

Aaron McDaris first attracted national attention when the band he was playing in won the SPBGMA band competition. He subsequently toured with New Tradition before joining the Larry Stephenson Band and later touring with the Grascals. He joined Rhonda Vincent about four years ago, where he has become a mainstay because of his fine banjo play as well as his versatility. In addition to playing guitar on songs not well suited to even his subtle banjo play, Aaron has been heard singing harmony more frequently these days.

Rhonda Vincent & Aaron McDaris

 Brent Burke

Brent Burke is the newest member of The Rage, adding his very precise Dobro work and excellent good taste to the band, which has added the resonator guitar for the first time, as far as I know. Another graduate of the ETSU bluegrass program, Brent toured the The Next Best Thing, a band featuring Rhonda's two daughters, Tensel and Sally. He's also recently joined the family, as the second son-in-law in Rhonda's band. His quiet good looks and shy demeanor don't hurt a bit.


Rhonda Enjoys a Quiet Moment with Her Mandolin

At the Martha White Boutique

Large crowds wait patiently as Rhonda poses and signs between every performance until the last fan is leaves. It takes enormous vitality and commitment to do this. Since the revenue from CD, t-shirt, and other memorabilia sales are a crucial part of the Rhonda Vincent revenue stream, it's important, but Rhonda's commitment to her fans is also clear in every appearance.

Rhonda Vincent

Whiskey Hill Barbecue 

 I don't often highlight specific vendors at festivals, but Whiskey Hill Barbecue deserves a special mention. During the three days, I tried Whiskey Hill's pulled port, its ribs, and, best of all, it's smoked beef brisket. Each was different, tender, juicy, and flavorful. If you see them at a festival or other event, be sure to give them a try. If you're a festival looking for an excellent vendor with a varied and interesting menu, give them a call.

Rockahock Bluegrass Festival - Assessment

The Rockahock Campground is an ambitious camping resort located on the scenic Chickahominy River in the Virginia Tidelands between the James and York Rivers. Conveniently located between Richmond and Colonial Williamsburg, it provides an excellent camping venue for use as a destination resort or for touring in this historic region. They are in the midst of rapidly upgrading all their facilities from what I understand was once a pretty run down camping facility to a first class camping resort with extensive activities for young people, well-equipped campsites, and a huge performance facility dubbed the Rockadome, which provides a home for the twice annual Rockahock Bluegrass Festival, as well a a southern gospel event, and other concerts, as well as a church. Experienced bluegrass promoters Calvin and Brenda Lawson have worked to provide a strong lineup which has attracted sell-out crowds to the campground, and will continue to do so. 

The Rockadome
Convenient to a large population area stretching from the Baltimore-Washington metroplex to Petersburg, VA, this campground and its associated bluegrass festivals represent an fine opportunity for having a good time.

Sweet Brenda