Monday, April 14, 2014

Big Lick Bluegrass Festival:Oakboro, NC - Review

 Promoter Jeff Branch can look back on the 2014 edition of the Big Lick Bluegrass Festival with a smile of satisfaction. He and his wife Tammy put on a first rate festival filled with strong bands, mostly from North Carolina and nearby Virginia clearly showing that people will come out for quality. The site, located in a small park south of Oakboro has few amenities...some electric hookup and some water, but plenty of space and a good environment for bluegrass music. 

Tammy and Jeff Branch
The festival, like many, concentrated its efforts on having a successful Friday and Saturday with the Saturday lineup designed to draw a strong day crowd, weather permitting. The weather permitted. Spring has been a long time coming, but it arrived in full for this weekend, and people came out to celebrate it and the bluegrass music. Here's a look at it:

The Renaissance Bluegrass Band
Bethel University, located in McKenzie, TN is a small, church related college located about 130 miles west of Nashville. It's Renaissance program supports the performing arts at a level similar to how athletics are supported elsewhere. Students with talent in the performing arts are eligible for scholarships that do not require them to major in music or theater. Students are attracted from all over the country to this unique environment. The Renaissance Bluegrass Band, coached for this performance by Stephen Mougin of the Sam Bush Band and directed by Ben Helsen, are a group of eight fresh-faced, enthusiastic, and talented youngsters who perform bluegrass music in churches and at festivals. Two of the current members were recruited to Bethel from last year's Big Lick Festival, and live in the area. The band is available for performances.

James Hathcock

Tori Huntley

Katie Springer, Corey Kirkland, Nicole Brand

Corey Kirkland & James Hathcock

Chelsea Rhodes

 Tori Huntley & Bryan Hollifield

Tori Huntley & Nicole Brand

Nicole Brand & Sydni York

Sydni York

 Coach - Stephen Mougin

Vendors Row

Nothin' Fancy

 Nothin' Fancy is plenty fancy enough. They can be relied on for  polished, varied, amusing, and musical performances which cover the bluegrass lot from early pioneers through the ground-breaking music of The Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, to contemporary songs, including Mike Andes often either touching or downright funny songs. Chris Sexton, of fiddle, provides strong performances with a touch of classical reference in them. Young Jesse Smathers, only three weeks with the band, solves the long search for a tenor to replace long-time member Gary Ferris, who was one of the founding members. Smathers' pure tenor voice blends wonderfully with Andes and bassist Tony Shorter in trios. He sang the best version of "Kentucky Waltz" I've heard recently. This band keeps its repertoire and its routines fresh, while continuing to play and sing long-time fan favorites.

 Chris Sexton & Mitchel Davis

Chris Sexton

Tony Shorter

Mike Andes

Jesse Smathers

Mitchel Davis

Emcee - Bobby Franklin

A Deeper Shade of Blue

A Deeper Shade of Blue is a regional band, based in nearby Monroe, NC, which should have a broader profile than it does.  In our travels, we often hear from local fans that a band is as good as many national touring bands. This often turns out to be more local boosterism than credible information. A Deeper Shade of Blue, however, deserves to be more widely heard. Offering a pleasing mixture of classic and more contemporary covers plus the fine Dobro material created by veteran Frank Pointdexter, there's lots of fine, hard-driving bluegrass for all fans. Jason Fraley is more than fine on the mandolin, while his Dad Jim, on banjo, is one of the best known non-touring five stringers around.

 Troy Pope

Brian Hinson

Frank Pointdexter

Jim Fraley

 Jason Fraley

 Frank Pointdexter & Jason Fraley

The Darrell Webb Band

It's hard to believe Darrell Webb is celebrating his twentieth year as a professional musician. He manages to maintain an eternally youthful look, while his music matures and develops through the years. The current edition of the Darrell Webb Band is the best yet, and well-worth serious attention for its fine blend of traditional bluegrass music and rip-roaring contemporary, deeply personal music. Darrell manages to communicate deep emotion and the joy of making music simultaneously.  With young, hot pickers at every position, this band has become increasingly tight on the road and is an exciting band to watch and hear. Their new CD contains lots of songs that are at once catchy and meaningful. 

Darrell Webb

Jim VanCleve

Jared Hornsby

Jake Joines

Jeremy Arrowood

Brandon Green

Master Sound Man John Holder & New Technology

 The James King Band

James King wears his heart on his sleeve. This has often proven to be both a huge asset to his performance and something of a problem in his life. He's a bigger than life person who comes on stage and gives often riveting performances that capture an audience. Known as "the bluegrass storyteller," his story "sad and pitiful" story songs can often evoke as much emotion from James himself as they do from his loyal fans and new found admirers. In recent years, he surrounded himself with an able and supportive band and lost about seventy-five pounds. The weight loss and associated better care of himself have resulted in his recapturing some of the best of his voice while performing with even more subtlety and nuance his great songs. He tours hard, and you're likely to find him just about everywhere. Thank goodness for that.....

 James King

John Marquess

Merle Johnson

Mitch Walker

Rodney Worley

James King

 Emcee Sherry Boyd - The Pro

Feller & Hill and The Bluegrass Buckaroos

Tom Feller and Chris Hill, both veteran performers, have come together, forming their own band and finding a unique sound they can call their own. With deep roots in southwest Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana (Tom is the Boys From Indiana Aubrey Holt's nephew), they combine solid bluegrass sounds with the classic country music that Hee Haw fans, the Buck Owens crowd, have loved and missed for so long.

 Tom Feller

 Chris Hill & Glen Inman

 Mark Poe

Glen Inman

Balsam Range

Balsam Range has emerged as one of the most exciting and able bluegrass bands on tour today. Originating in rural Haywood County in westernmost North Carolina, mandolinist Darren Nicholson quips, "We have to go toward town to go hunting." Founded only seven years ago, the band still has to tour much more widely to reach its huge potential as an audience pleaser. Meanwhile, in the past four years they have garnered two IBMA awards won (Song of the Year, Album of the Year) and three more nominations. The band communicates enormous emotional content while producing a huge wall of sound. Seven of their songs, including "Last Train to Kitty Hawk," "How Many Times Must I Cross the Caney Fork River," and the very moving "Any Old Road," have reached number one in the charts. Buddy Melton, on fiddle, a soulful and emotionally charged singer, while Caleb Smith's bluesy, rock informed singing and first rate flat picking on guitars he builds himself, help create unique band vibes. Grammy winner Marc Pruett's banjo is always a driving force. Tim Surrett brings years of touring in southern gospel to the bluegrass stage with humor and skill. Don't miss this band or (Promoters) fail to book them.

Buddy Melton

Marc Pruett

Darren Nicholson

Caleb Smith

Tim Surrett

The Busy Balsam Range Merch Table

Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice

 Junior Sisk was named IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year in 2013, finally achieving the recognition his long record has deserved as one of the finest traditional bluegrass singers currently on tour if not ever.  His band Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice is composed of fine traditional instrumentalists who perform with equal ease the standards this band loves and the traditional sounding contemporary songs it embraces and performs with zest and taste. Jason Davis, quietly occupying stage right, plays a blazing banjo in a precise Scruggs style banjo few on the circuit today can match. Billy Hawks, on fiddle, is another quiet, yet effective bandsman. Jason (Sweet Tater) Tomlin is bobble-head active, and effective on bass and harmony. Newly added mandolinist Jonathan Dillon brings fine work and good harmony singing to the mix. Junior Sisk himself, is not only a fine singer, but widely recognized as one of the better rhythm guitarists. What's new in this band's shows is Juniors newfound confidence and the added zest he brings to the role of band emcee. Once painfully shy, he really seemed to be enjoying himself on stage this Saturday night.

Junior Sisk

 Jonathan Dillon

Jason Davis

Billy Hawks

 Jason Tomlin

Jonathan Dillon & Billy Hawks

The Trio
Jonathan Dillon, Jason Tomlin, Junior Sisk 

Big Lick Bluegrass Festival was something of a very pleasant surprise to us. The sound, by John Holder's Blue Ridge Sound provides perhaps the best festival sound found in the east today. The environment at Big Lick is laid back, with lots of jamming going on and good crowds coming to the stage to appreciate and encourage the music. Promoter Jeff Branch has patiently developed the festival through the years and is now poised to move into a higher rank in the very competitive North Carolina festival environment.

 Tammy & Jeff Branch