Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival 2014 - Saturday and Sunday: Review

On Saturday morning, our son Rick and I took a walk through the campground as people were starting to stir and prepare for another day of music. The Benton Sugar Shack campground provides a magnificent site with enormous potential as a commercial campground as well as a venue for commercial events. Because it spreads out, providing several distinct camping areas and environments, the Sugar Shack can accommodate those who wish solitude, shade, sunny meadows, riverfront camping, a quiet nook, or to construct a compound of circled rigs wishing to be together for jamming or socialization. At present there are a number of sites were electric hookups are available. Presently, there is no water on the site. For environmental and cost reasons, it's unlikely there will ever be sewer sights. Nevertheless, we're told a leach field with an associated shower facility is in the planning stage. Should provisions be made to provide even a few standpipes at convenient locations, the Sugar Shack would prove attractive to a large range of both self contained and primitive camping situations.

The policy of this blog continues to be that we will cover a band once during a festival. Bands which appear several times over a couple of days will be placed on the blog in a way which contributes to balance and makes it possible for individual posts to be a reasonable size. Thus, if you compare the review to the schedule, you will inevitably find what you might consider to be holes. We try to cover every band appearing on the main stage plus activities at subsidiary venues, and usually manage it.

Crunchy Western Boys

Cruncy Western Boys call themselves "New Hampshire's own folk and bluegrass band," which seems to be a pretty good self-description. They provide festivals, bars, Farmer's Markets, and other events with light, enjoyable, well-performed bluegrass and folky standards as well as band originals. They recently returned from an extended western tour during which they opened for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and played a variety of venues. There's lots of humor and liveliness in their delivery.
Sam Demers

Jacob Stern

Morris Manning

Steve McBrian

Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing

Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing continue to impress and grow on me with each time I get a chance to see them. Amos, for a dozen years or so ending about a decade ago, was the lead singer, guitarist, arranger, and song writer for the Colorado-based, internationally known band Front Range. They disbanded after the death of their mandolin player and Amos returned to his native St. Johnsbury, Vermont, where he has established a studio. He's now established a new band composed of his daughter Sarah, whose wonderful voice provides family harmonies and wonderful lead singing, and three local players, each of whom plays at the top of his game with Catamount Crossing. Bob Dick on bass is also a Front Range alumnus and a very good bass player. Freeman Cory has been a well-known fiddler with several regional bands. I've never seen Steve Wright before this, but he a commanding presence on stage, possessing a pleasing voice and quality rhythm and lead guitar. Gary Darling has never sung nor played the mandolin so well before. His performance suggests he's been doing plenty of wood-shedding. His bass harmonies on gospel quartets are fine. Promoters beyond the immediate New England and nearby New York region should listen carefully to his new CD Borrowed Time. 

Bob Amos

Sarah Amos

Bob Dick

Steve Wright

Freeman Cory

Gary Darling

Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing - Mr. Beford's Barn - Video

The Performer's Tent

This year, Steve Abdu and Craig Engle, who've assumed promotion of Pemi Valley this year after years of apprenticeship under Sue Marsden, decided to replace the traditional "workshop" tent with a more aptly named Performer's Tent emphasizing the opportunity for bands to meet and greet with groups of fans, respond to questions, and perhaps play a few songs without amplification. This new model seems to have been quite a success.

Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing 
Meet & Greet

Sarah Amos

Sarah & Bob Amos

The Bluegrass University

Tony Watt's Bluegrass University has become an increasing success, as it is now present at five important festivals in the region. The faculty is chosen from some of New England's best known teachers, workshoppers, and performers. The curriculum now emphasizes teaching aimed at the beginner level, but there's a good deal of flexibility in the designs to meet the needs of students who show up. At Pemi Valley a free slow jam experience was added, that was quite well attended. Classes at the University are two hours long and cost a very reasonable $35.00 with class sizes limited to seven. If you want to begin playing a bluegrass instrument or improve your skills, consider this opportunity.

The Lonesome River Band

There are a few bands well known enough to be called by their initials rather than their whole name, LRB is one of them.  The Lonesome River Band brings excitement and energy with it to every venue they visit. Their distinctive sound and contemporary vibe, honed and sharpened through three decades of hard touring, have not lost any of their luster. With Sammy Shelor continuing to gain recognition as both a band leader and a distinctive banjo master, the band is at the top of its game, populated with a fine ensemble which works well together with little or no ego interfering with their performances. Barry Reed on bass deserves much more recognition than he has received. The band is excellent in every slot.

Sammy Shelor

Barry Reed

Mark Hartgrove

Brandon Rickman

Randy Jones

Sammy Shelor & Brandon Rickman


Sunday continued the wonderful weather we experienced for the entire four days of Pemi Valley. Early August in the North Country usually means pretty reliable weather, and these four days, while the forecasts called for some rain, managed to drop it somewhere else. 

Bluegrass Gospel Sing and Jam

Preacher Mike Robinson and his wife Mary conduct a missionary ministry to the bluegrass community through song and counseling at bluegrass festivals. Mike also often serves as emcee at many of those events. His Sunday morning sing and jam sessions offer pickers a chance to sing the old gospel music many of them grew up with, Mike preaches a brief, non-denominational Bible centered message, and places a punctuation on the weekend. 

The Pemi Valley Kids Academy

Kids Academy, under the direction of the very experienced Ellen Carlson, included a well-balanced group of young people with a range of experience. She capitalized on this by using the group creatively and included the audience by making a tribute to a recently deceased and much loved square dance caller. The Kids Academy performance was well structured and enjoyable. 

Below is a link to additional pictures of the Kids Academy stored as a Google Album. Please feel free to download any of the pictures in it and use them for your own purposes. They should be printable at sizes up to about 8x10.

Portfolio of the Pemi Valley 2014 - Kids Academy

Pemi Valley Kids Academy - Long Journey Home - Video

Smokey Greene

Smokey Greene is an institution at bluegrass festivals in eastern upstate New York, New England, and Florida. Years ago he hosted his own bluegrass festival and toured with a band. More recently he has performed as a single or with his son Scott in support on bass and/or guitar. He specializes in a pleasing combination of old country songs and humorous novelty numbers that are both familiar and nostalgic for his audience. He's announced this year as his final tour, but I wouldn't count on that.
Scott Greene

Smokey Greene

Nothin' Fancy

Nothin' Fancy has toured with essentially the same band for about twenty years now. They drew the largest Sunday afternoon crowd we've seen in quite a while to close the very successful Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival. Over the years we've heard their music become more varied, reflecting particularly the skills and personality of each performer. Chris Sexton on fiddle brings fine fiddle play into conjunction with trained violin to present an added dimension. Mitchell Davis on banjo is an understated humorist, an excellent straight man. Tony Shorter on bass is crucial to the trio as well as offering a certain hygienic sex appeal to the band. The addition of Jesse Smathers supplies better flat picking than the band has ever had, a strong rhythm guitar, and excellent tenor harmony. He's stretched the band and challenged them to continue growing. Mike Andes, who refuses to call himself the leader of the essentially democratic organization, nevertheless serves as emcee, while writing and singing much of their repertoire. Nothin' Fancy has a significant fan base almost everywhere, which shows up regularly for their performances.

Mike Andes

Chris Sexton

Mitchell Davis

Jesse Smathers

The Trio
Jesse Smathers, Tony Shorter, Mike Andes

Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival has upped its game to very good results. Steve Abdu and Craig Engle have attracted a strong staff to work in a varied and challenging environment to offer a strongly customer centered event. They pulled it all off with great success in good spirits. We look forward to watching their next steps as they further develop this wonderful festival.