Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival - Preston, CT - May 28 - 31: Preview

The Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival marks the beginning of the summer New England bluegrass season. While we've followed Spring festivals as we amble north from the winter in Florida, the snow has been melting and summer is just about upon us. Running from May 28 - May 31, 2015 at Strawberry Park Resort Campground in Preston, CT, the far eastern corner of the state, just a few miles from mighty Rhode Island, the festival will mark its 38th annual gathering of bluegrass fans for a weekend of music, jamming, and relaxing in this full-service resort campground which is making a strong comeback as new management has come to understand and appreciate the bluegrass culture. With old favorites returning after several years' absence, and cutting edge new bands continuing to be a feature of Strawberry Park, this festival returns to the elite status it has long held among New England festivals. 

The Lineup
Lonely Heartstring Band

The Lonely Heartstring Band made it's musical debut as a Beatles cover band and morphed into one of the most creative and interesting bands around, bringing new ears and fine shadings to bluegrass. They scored major hits at the 2015 World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, and will prove themselves to be popular to traditionalists and progressives alike. With coast to coast appeal, this is a band to watch and savor.

The Zolla Boys

The Zolla Boys are a family band, consisting of Ben and Sam, two young tyros, and their father Larry, has been impressive in outings in New England, and appears ready to start spreading their wings. 

Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing

It doesn't take a very long memory to recall Front Range, an important award winning national band active from 1988 - 2004 when they disbanded due to the death of one of their members, Mike Lantz. Thankfully, after a decade when he wasn't much heard from, but busy, Bob Amos has returned with a new band, Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing, featuring many of his own songs and the delightful and talented presence of his daughter, Sarah. After a couple of years and a new recording, this band has attracted a good deal of attention in the region, and is poised to make a splash nationally. Each time I've heard them, their thoughtful, tuneful stylings and dynamic presence have captivated me. So far, I've been unable to get enough of them. Bob Amos and his band will appear again on Friday, but don't miss this Thursday show.

Monica Rissio Old Kings Highway

Last year's performance at Strawberry Park was, I believe, Monica Rizzio's first performance as a band. She returns this year as Monica Rizzio and Old Kings Highway with more experience and broader recognition. Based in Massachusetts, she is widening her repertoire with a combination of Americana, bluegrass, indie sounds and a pleasant stage personality. 

South Carolina Broadcasters

Back by popular demand, The South Carolina Broadcasters are no longer from South Carolina, although Ivy Sheppard is, indeed, a radio broadcaster with WPAQ in Mount Airy, NC. The band specializes in a raw, old-time gospel sound with plenty of intense drive. Since last year, they've added Andy Edmonds on Fiddle. David Sheppard has a unique voice and style. He's also a top luthier working out of Lowe's Vintage Instruments in Burlington, NC. This band will captivate you with their intriguing old-time gospel which maintains a contemporary roots vibe. 

Della Mae

Della Mae has become an international sensation with its hard driving style and strong music, much of it written and performed by lead singer Celia Woodsmith. Formed in 2009 under the leadership of Kimber Ludiker, a west coast fiddler whose musical credentials reach back several generations, the band has bi-coastal roots and a strong Berklee School of Music Connection. They've participated in two major State Department world tours and appeared at important festivals from Grey Fox to Telluride and Rocky Grass. The core band has been together for several years, and a new bass player has been added. This is a don't miss band on any musical stage!

Box Car Lillies

The three women forming The Boxcar Lillies are all singer/songwriters, each distinctive in style. Based in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, the band has been widening its range into New York. They made a tuneful impression last year, and a year's seasoning will certainly show at Strawberry Park this year. 

Sierra Hull

Sierra Hull ain't the cute little girl from Byrdstown, Tennessee any more! She's emerged as a full-fledged musical force who has taken her very deep bluegrass roots and strong, Adam Steffey influenced mandolin style, and merged them with the seasoning that comes from hard touring and a couple of years spent at Berklee College of Music. At present, she's touring with a small band featuring her own songs and instrumental musings with the incredible bass backing of Ethan Jodziewicz as well as Justin Moses on both banjo and guitar. Her work is both refreshing and challenging. 

The SteelDrivers

The Steel Drivers debuted in 2008 with a new sound and a groundbreaking style. The band is comprised of an exceptionally strong crew of Nashville-based session musicians, each of whom has a stellar reputation outside this band. Through the years, their bluegrass sound, with a powerful blues influence, now driven by singer Gary Nichols, and rock influenced music has captivated fans across the country. If there's an outlaw band in bluegrass, this is it. I was skeptical of this band at first, but have become a real fan, looking forward to every chance I get to see and hear them. The Steel Drivers are one of the exceptional closing bands in bluegrass music.

Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters

Amy Gallatin, performing with her partner Roger Williams, and Roger's son, Berklee student JD, is a New England favorite with vast experience, from singing at dude ranches in the West to her regular well-regarded European tours. She selects her music from a huge repertoire of bluegrass, western swing, and Americana standards. Roger is one of the most widely respected Dobro players, a musician's musician. 
Roger Williams

Gail Wade & Turning Point

While primarily a Connecticut-based band, Gale Wade & Turning Point bring experience and tunefulness. We've seen Gale, as a solo act in Knoxville, TN at famed radio station WDVX as well as performing at Bristol Rhythm and Roots. She always presents an engaging program of bluegrass and her own well-conceived and delivered songs. 

Claire Lynch

Three time IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year and last year's Songwriter of the Year (with Louisa Branscomb) for their song Dear Sister, Claire Lynch is a consummate stylist. She has surrounded herself with a crew of instrumentalists who are virtuosos in their own right, as well as committed to supporting her fine performances. Mark Schatz is a two-time IBMA Bass Player of the Year, while Bryan McDowell won the banjo, fiddle, and mandolin contests at Winfield in the same year. Jarrod Walker, who's both young and deeply experienced, has joined Claire's band on mandolin and guitar. Claire Lynch is one of the most sought after and appreciated of all bluegrass singers. 

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Dry Branch Fire Squad has appeared at every Strawberry Park save one. Characterized by combining a uniquely primitive bluegrass style of gospel and secular music with Ron Thomason's thought-provoking, humorous monologues, Dry Branch Fire Squad is a welcome change of pace everywhere they play. Their gospel hour on Sunday mornings at festivals is looked forward to everywhere. 

Ron Thomason

The Kruger Brothers

Born in Switzerland and nurtured through busking on the streets of European cities, The Kruger Brothers eventually moved the the U.S. and settled in Wilkesboro, NC where they came to know and love Doc Watson and participate in the rich roots environment of Appalachia. Jens Kruger, without question one of the finest banjo players in the world was the 2013 winner of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo. Uwe's rich baritone voice and virtuoso guitar playing perfectly complements his brother, while the third Kruger brother, Joel Landsberg, quietly provides the steady beat along with a gentle smile for all. Jens Kruger has recently written a number of pieces designed for bluegrass band and Orchestra, and the Kruger Brothers regularly perform with the Kontras Quartet. The Kruger Brothers music contains so many strands and colors it's impossible to chart them all. Just sit back and enjoy every hour you get to spend with them.

Jens Kruger

The Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers are probably the highest profile bluegrass band ever to originate in the Northeast. During the past five years the haul of IBMA awards they've won reaches catalog proportions: Song of the Year (2), Record of the Year, Vocal Group of the Year (2), Album of the Year, Gospel Recorded Event of the Year (2), Emerging Artist of the Year, Bluegrass Song Writer of the Year, Entertainer of the Year (2). This record of achievement across categories within the IBMA awards is nearly unprecedented. Their latest recording, a tribute to brother duos of the past called Brotherhood continues to rise on the charts. Whether you see them at their high school at Christmas time, in a small club, or at the huge Red Hat Amphitheater at World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, what communicates most thoroughly is the humility, humor, and intelligence of this most lyrical of bluegrass bands. 


Sundays at Strawberry Park, as at many other events, offer a pretty laid back day to allow for easy getaways or lingering days of bluegrass in the sun. The day opens with Dry Branch Fire Squad's traditional gospel music along with Ron Thomason's spiritual/inspirational and humorous message. Gale Wade & Turning Point and Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters each contribute Sunday sets. One previously unheard band, also appears for two sets.

Cold Chocolate

So far, in their brief history, Cold Chocolate, whose core originated at Ohio's Oberlin College, is mostly a New England phenomenon nurtured in the red hot musical environment of the Boston area. Their bluegrass/Amercana/funk vibe and youthful enthusiasm will surprise and delight many in the Strawberry Park audience, who should plan on staying to hear their Sunday sets. Last year they performed at least one set late on a chilly night, so they deserve a place on the bill which will encourage more people to hear them.

Dry Branch Fire Squad
Gail Wade
Amy Gallatin

A schedule of workshops has been posted, with, I suspect, more to come on the workshop stage, which has been repositioned to eliminate sound bleed-over between it and the main stage, a major improvement.

Overall, the lineup looks like a significant improvement over last year's, bringing traditional favorites and cutting edge bands, including several bands that fall easily into the characterization of Americana, while not being out of place at a bluegrass festival. Also, there are, perhaps, more bands fronted by women and containing women as side-musicians than we have ever seen at a festival. This inclusion signals a possible trend that should be applauded, but not overemphasized, as the bands are notable for their quality much more than for any gender consideration.

The Details

Tickets: Information about buying tickets to Strawberry Park can be found here. There are a range of options to suit your pocketbook and your taste. Sale of advanced price tickets continues until May 20. 

Accomodations: Camping in the rough (no hookups) is available for free with the purchase of a ticket to the festival. Check out the rules here. Reservations can be made through the camp office at  (860)-886-1944.  The campground map will help you make a choice that suits your needs. You can augment this information by referring to a catalog of individual site pictures here and here. If camping is not your thing, Strawberry Park has rental units available within the campground and provides a list of local hotels. The Park is located in south-eastern Connecticut near Mystic Seaport, New London, and several casinos. It's an interesting and varied area for tourism, if you wish to arrive early to enjoy an extended stay.

Strawberry Park management has made significant efforts to adjust its quiet time policies and available locations to meet the needs of the unique bluegrass sub-culture of jammers. I'd suggest that this is still a work in progress and that providing park management with reasonable feedback would continue to help improve services for jammers while still making quiet time available for those who actually wish to sleep at night.

How To Get To Strawberry Park

We're both looking forward to getting home to New England and seeing so many old friends at Strawberry Park. See you there!