Monday, June 2, 2014

Strawberry Park 2014 - Thursday & Friday - Review

The Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival faced a daunting task as the thirty-seventh edition of the once premier New England bluegrass festival approached. It has survived bankruptcy proceedings through the economic crisis of the last several years as well as mismanagement and huge amounts of deferred maintenance under the previous ownership. The Park emerged from receivership this year under new management, whose expertise lies in buying and rehabilitating large campgrounds, mostly in Florida. Attendance at the festival had been trending down for the past four years, the weather looked like it might be worse than problematic, and the new management was unfamiliar with the unique sub-culture that the bluegrass community represents. Four days later, as the weather, the lineup, and the spirits of the audience who turned out all improved, it became evident that the Strawberry Park management team were clear-eyed about their problems, eager to learn, and committed to placing this lagging festival back in the ranks of the top festivals in New England, if not in the rest of the country as well. I'm convinced that they're sincere in this commitment, and have the smarts and the backing to pull it off. There's much that happened during the four days of Strawberry Park that showed their resilience in the face of difficulty and the promise of better days to come.  I'll have more to say about all this in my next entry, but let's take a look at the festival, first.

Warming Up Backstag

Grass Routes

Grass Routes is a Connecticut-based traditional bluegrass band with a history reaching back into the eighties. It plays bluegrass covers and other more folk-oriented music in a tuneful and pleasant way. They were a good band for opening this festival, providing familiar faces and sounds to a small audience just beginning to get the long winter's kinks out of its bluegrass sensibilities.

Joe Lemaris

Bill Reveley

Marilyn Toback-Reveley

Joe DeLillo

Tim St. Jean

The Trio

The Boxcar Lillies

The Boxcar Lillies specialize in performing their own singer/songwriter material in delightful close harmony. Their songs are deeply personal and often touching. Coming from very different musical traditions, they have joined together because the synergy of music and personality works effectively for them. Primarily an Americana/Folk trio, they were a fans choice to return this year to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. Their base is in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts.

Stephanie Marshall

Jenny Goodspeed

Katie Clarke

Jim Henry

Rick Moran

Gail Wade & Turning Point

Gail Wade & Turning Point is a bluegrass band with an emphasis on singer/songwriter Gail Wade's blues and traditional bluegrass. They have performed not only in New England, but more widely in the U.S. and abroad. Gail's warm personality and deep love for the role of horses in her life pervades her music. She has a lovely singing voice well supported by the rest of her talented and experienced band. Playing on Thursday without their injured banjo player Dan Menzone, they were, nevertheless, resiliant and strong. Sadly, between Thursday and their performance on Sunday, Peggy Ann Harvey managed to fall and injure her shoulder, making it impossible for her to present her fine multi-instrumental additions to the band, which again acquitted itself well, a testimony to their excellence and resilience. Kristin Scott Benson, highly regarded banjo player for the Grascals, had lots of good things to say about Gail's music and and Tim's mandolin playing when she heard them for the first time on Sunday.

Gail Wade

Tim St. Jean

Peggy Ann Harvey

Rob Rainwater

Emcee Jim Beaver

 The South Carolina Broadcasters

The South Carolina Broadcasters are an old-time band, originating in Charleston, SC and now from Mt. Airy, North Carolina. We first heard them, perhaps in a slightly different configuration at the RenoFest band contest about four years ago, where they failed to place. Now they've developed as a striking and important link to the traditions from which much today's bluegrass music has emerged from the days of Bill Monroe. Specializing in the sounds, even the ancient tones, of traditional mountain music and folk music of Appalachia, their unique combination of gospel and secular music dips easily back to the 1920's and even reflects songs from the nineteenth century. Their sound reflects the tone of the past while benefiting from the quality of sound reproduction and vocal technique unknown to past contributors to the music. Appearing on the Main Stage on Thursday and Saturday and the Americana/Workshop Stage on Friday, they are my pick for the suprise band of the festival. They perform with high skill, enormous commitment, and real fervor in a genre that stands as a pre-cursor to much of today's best bluegrass music. They would represent a refreshing change of pace at any bluegrass festival without every jarring the sensibilities of traditional bluegrass fans, the South Carolina Broadcasters energize and enthrall fans of all American music. 

David Sheppard

Sarah Osborne

Ivy Sheppard

Cold Chocolate

By the time Cold Chocolate took the Thursday evening stage at 9:00 o'clock, the weather had taken a turn towards their name. The remaining audience was pretty well chilled to the bone, as the temperature plummeted. Cold Chocolate describes themselves, in a humorous menu on their web site, as part bluegrass with infusions of funk, Americana, roots, and folk music. Emerging from Oberlin College in Ohio they are now part of the red hot Boston music scene. Their singing and instrumental work are inventive and arresting. Kirstin Lamb's haunting voice and virtuoso bass playing were a standout in a very good band. Ariel Bernstein's percussion work was light handed and appropriate. I would have like to have heard and seen (the night lighting on the stage was terrible) more, but the chill sent me back to our trailer before the end of their set.

Ethan Robbins

James McIver

Kirstin Lamb

Ariel Bernstein


Flatt Rabbit is a lively traditional bluegrass band from the Boston area. Their music is familiar to most bluegrass fans and well presented enough to please discriminating tastes.

Frank Drake

Andy Katz

Grace Van't Hof

Tom Fitzgerald

Dan Africk

Strawberry Park Staff

Nora Jane Strothers & Party Line

Nora Jane Strothers & Party Line seems like a band still trying to find its niche. One performer commented to me that the last time he'd seen Nora Jane, she was fronting a string band. Her music moves from cajun to what she describes as "honky tonk" sounding a lot like country rock to me, to more reflective story songs. She has a solid and flexible voice and is backed by some strong musicians, but features way too much drum, despite the manifest skills of her drummer. Perhaps Strawberry Park was the wrong venue for her, but that's not her fault. Nora Jane has talent and personallity which earned her an encore.

Joe Overton

Nick diSebastion

Jack Devereaux

Drew Lawhorn

 Nora Jane Struthers

Cricket Tell the Weather

Cricket Tells the Weather sings and plays what might be called "Urban Bluegrass." In a genre which celibrates rural life - the farm, the mountains, the primitive churches - a life and a world which increasingly fewer young Americans have actually encountered other than in song, it makes sense that lead singer Andrea Asperelli along with guitarist Jason Borisoff won the Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival's song writing contest with a song about the Remington Arms Company in Bridgeport, CT. Asperelli has a light, but pleasant voice, and the band sings and plays well. They have appeared at both bluegrass festivals and folk festivals, where they would seem to be equally comfortable. 

Andrea Asperelli

Jason Borisoff

Doug Goldstein

Jeff Picker

Festival Director Carl Landi & Monica Rizzio

Monica Rizzio & Old Kings Highway

Monica Rizzio & Old Kings Highway is a new band just finding its way into the world of bluegrass, roots, Americana music. Based on Cape Cod, Monica Rizzio draws on her roots in East Texas to combine roots, Americana, and country music into a pleasing acoustic mix. Her ten years as a singer with Tripping Liily stand her in good stead as both a singer and a song writer. Her drummer is restrained and thoughtful, while the rest of the band provides strong support. Bronwyn Keith-Hynes is terrific on fiddle.

Monica Rizzio

Bronwyn Keith-Hynes

Matthias Bossi

 Ben Kushigian

Jon Evans

Monica Rizzio

Kym Warner - The Greencards

The Greencards

While they are no longer a bluegrass band, The Greencards are a much loved band at Strawberry Park, where their development as they've morphed into a very modern Americana band has been watched and nurtured.  The band has grown and changed through time, with each iteration becoming more interesting. They seem to a found a new and interesting pocket for the moment right in the middle of a raft of ear catching melodies. Their new fiddler, Kristin Weber, is a delight on stage and her voice in harmony with Carol Young's is perfect. Kym Warner on mandolin and Carl Miner on guitar provide plenty of fireworks. Sadly, the Greencards were only booked for one show. 

Carol Young

Kristin Weber

Kym Warner

Carl Miner

Kristin Weber & Carol Young

As the weather deteriorated into a chilly rainstorm, the show was moved to the Americana/Workshop stage. I'll write about Claire Lynch's performance on Sunday afternoon, tomorrow. Suffice it say that performing serious music near a bustling snack bar proved less than ideal. 

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