Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival 2014 - Saturday & Sunday: Review

After Friday night's chilly rain and thunderstorms, not unusual for Strawberry Park in late May but annoying anyway, the world and the festival looked much brighter on Saturday morning, and kept improving for the next two days. Kids came out, rain gear and cold weather clothing came off, while a lighter and more sunny disposition arrived.

The South Carolina Broadcasters

Ordinarily I don't repeat a band that appears over two (or in this case...three) days at a festival. The exception comes because of the surprise The South Carolina Broadcasters presented in terms of both excellence and enthusiasm. The trio manages to recreate what must have been the genuineness and fervor of the early radio programs combined with the vintage instruments they play. They're an extraordinary treat. Their performances fit into folk, Americana, and bluegrass with equal facility. In a bluegrass setting, their old-time sound and repertoire help remind contemporary bluegrass aficionados of the shoulders the founders of the genre stood on as they searched for a new approach to deliver their heritage and tradition.

Ivy Sheppard

David Sheppard

Sarah Osborne

Emcee - Jim Beaver

Emcee - Kim Ford

Hot Mustard

Hot Mustard grew from a Vermont arts grant allowing banjo master Bruce Stockwell and his student Bill Jubett to work together on double banjo materials. Soon they were joined by their wives, Kelly Stockwell and April Jubett, to form a band featuring the work they had developed. April Jubett has been singing and playing traditional bluegrass since she was a child, while Kelly, though new to bluegrass, has taken to the bass with enthusiasm and become an accomplished player in only a few years, proving to me that math/science and bluegrass are naturals together. April's voice seems to have both mellowed and strengthened during the past year. The band has expanded its repertoire, bringing the results of Bruce's years of intense study to their work. While little known outside New England, they have become favorites here. Audiences in a much wider area deserve to hear them. Bruce is a banjo player's banjo player, well-known to other musicians, a wonder of inventive playing and thoughtful improvisation.

Bruce Stockwell

April Jubett

Kelly Stockwell

Bill Jubett

Ted Lehmann & Bruce Stockwell

Sierra Hull

Sierra Hull is no longer the little girl who wowed people with her skill and speed. She's grown into a young woman whose work is well regarded as innovative, and creative, forging new ground while never getting too far away from her roots in bluegrass music. She has surrounded herself with a young band which is filled with individual virtuoso's who also support and help lift her music to new heights. She's become a force of nature on stage and an astute manager off. 

Jacob Eller

Justin Moses

Jake Stargell

Mike Barnett

The Tennesse Mafia Jug Band

The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band has just suffered the grievous loss of Lester Armistead, a founding member, on the ceramic jug. His upbeat good humor was always a delight. Leroy Troy, the heart of the band's comedy was absent due to double billing. Nevertheless, the band gave its all to provide uplifting good humor and enthusiasm. You've got to hand it to them.

Dan Kelly

Mike Armistead & John Tomlin

Cousin Pogie

Stray Birds

Writing in, Kim Ruehl described The Stray Birds as the best new folk band of 2013, after performances at Folk Alliance and The World of Bluegrass. They certainly are arresting and entertaining. Their singer/songwriter performance speaks to the heart and the mind with songs both touching and topical. They performed to too few in the Strawberry Park audience, because their name is unfamiliar to bluegrass. Coming from the area around Lancaster, PA, they were impressive to those who saw them.

Oliver Craven

Maya de Vitry

Charles Muench

Mike from Ace Audio

Steve from Ace Audio

Sound from Ace Audio was consistently good. They are a sound company which knows how to vary from bluegrass to cajun/zydaco or rock with equal facility.

The Boxcars

Look across the stage at The Boxcars personnel and you won't find a finer set of musicians anywhere. Adam Steffey and Ron Stewart may have won more individual awards and played on more recordings as sidemen than any other two people in bluegrass. Harold Nixon always provides a great bass beat and some of the best bass solos to be heard anywhere. Keith Garrett has been well known as a song writer and performer for over a decade. The day after this performance, John Bowman announced his departure from The Boxcars to pursue his preaching and solo performing career. He'll be missed. On this late Saturday afternoon set, The Boxcars were as relaxed and affable as I've ever seen them on the stage, with Stewart mugging for me (and the audience) and continuing his fine play. Steffey is perhaps the most emulated mandolin player picking today.

Adam Steffey

Ron Stewart

Keith Garrett

John Bowman

Harold Nixon

Ron Stewart

Adam Steffey

The Campground

Sunday dawned clear, warm,and calm, staying that way right through closing and into the evening. It was the kind of lazy, relaxed, warm, music filled day that make remaining through the end of a four day festival an enormous treat. Repeat bands Flatt Rabbit, Gale Wade & Turning Point and Hot Mustard, three regional bands covered earlier, were ideal for the day. The three national touring bands presented on Sunday were exceptionally strong for a Sunday afternoon. A smallish, but enthusiastic audience remained through most of the day. Sunday is always a problematic situation for festivals, because the audience is ready to head home to prepare for the coming week. Nevertheless, this was a fine day.

Dry Branch Fire Squad

I don't know how many festivals at which Dry Branch Fire Squad presents a Sunday Gospel performance, but Gettysburg and Strawberry Park are two where such is a great tradition of many years' duration. Dry Branch Fire Squad has a sound that reaches deep into the heart and soul, coming from the early days of recorded music. You can close your eyes listening and imagine yourself inside a small, white primitive church high in the Appalachians. Add to this Ron Thomason's musings on the current state of affairs in the world, offered with humor and grace, and you have a Sunday show that's secular and spiritual simultaneously. There's no other group like Dry Branch Fire Squad; their sound is uniquely their own, yet echoes through the ages.

Ron Thomason

Brian Aldridge

Dan Russell

Tom Boyd

A Shout-Out to James

 The Grascals

The Grascals have been around for about a decade, starting as a Nashville side-band at the Station Inn calling themselves The Sidemen. When they emerged as a band, they won quick recognition winning IBMA Entertainer of the Year in 2006 and 2007, Song of the Year in 2005 for "Me and John and Paul" by Harley Allen, as well as Emerging Artist of the Year that same year. Kristin Scott Benson has been named IBMA Banjo Player of the Year four times. This is an admirable record for a relatively new band. Recently they have been renewed by the addition of Adam Haynes on fiddle, returning a sense of fun missing since Jimmy Mattingly left. It's especially enjoyable to watch the interchanges between him and Danny Roberts on mandolin. Jamie Johnson was missing this weekend due to the illness of his father. Kristin filled in admirably singing tenor in addition to her always excellent work on banjo. This was an excellent Grascals performance seen by too few people.

Adam Haynes

Terry Smith

Terry Eldredge

Kristin Scott Benson

Danny Roberts

Adam Haynes & Danny Roberts

Sunday Afternoon at Strawberry Park

The Claire Lynch Band

Claire Lynch has been named IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year three times. She has a remarkably flexible voice she uses to good effect to interpret a variety of music from bluegrass through an assortment of songs with Cajun, country, blues, and western swing influences. She's a gifted song writer, too. Her band showcases two young performers almost without peer for their instrumental and vocal artistry. Brian McDowell has been a major contest winner on mandolin, fiddle, and guitar, accomplishing the remarkable feat of winning all three instrument competitions in Winfield, KS at Walnut Valley in the same year. He sings good, too. Matt Wingate has had a strong career as a competitive guitarist, having won the Merlefest guitar championship at age fifteen. He has toured as lead guitarist with Valerie Smith as well as the Greencards. Todd Phillips is currently standing in for Mark Schatz on bass while Schatz is on the Nickle Creek reunion tour. Phillips is a founding member of the David Grisman Quintet and has toured with The Tony Rice Unit. Few bands can boast of such credentials or deliver with such consistency. Tired from a round trip from Strawbery Park on Friday evening to the festival at Graves Mountain and the return trip for a Sunday afternoon show at Strawberry Park, Lynch put on a wonderful afternoon show in the sun, sublime for the audience.

Matt Wingate

Brian McDowell

Todd Phillips

Claire Lynch

Hot Mustard closed the festival to a standing ovation from the few remaining fans, earning a well-deserved encore.

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival was far from being a full success under new management and ownership. Nevertheless, there were signs that suggest a bright future for this venerable event. The most promising indications came after several hours of conversations with festival director Carl Landi and Ed Meyer, one of the new owners of the park. They both asserted their knowledge that this year's event had fallen short and their commitment to rebuilding it. Here's where you come in. A number of people who have attended Strawberry Park through the years know what made it successful as well as how it has deteriorated. The management team has already shown its sincerity by beginning to address the years of deferred maintenance the park suffers from. They also have recognized that they're into a venerable event where they have little experience. Let them benefit from your experience and knowledge by suggesting ways to advance the festival and make the park better for visitors. Send your thoughts to the Park at My recent experience suggests to me that your suggestions will fall on fertile ground. Think seriously about helping rather than blaming.  Now is the time to look forward. I look anticipate joining a full house at Strawberry Park next year. Renew your reservation NOW!