Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival 2015: Thursday and Friday - Review

A renewed Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival completed a four day run on Sunday after presenting a variety of bluegrass and bluegrass derived music as well as some interesting and high quality Americana bands. The park, for several years in decline, has recovered from the receivership it fell into and been bought by the Florida-based Elite Resorts. They have addressed many deferred maintenance issues, strengthened elements that make Strawberry Park a desirable destination resort, and evidenced renewed commitment to holding a vital, varied bluegrass music festival on the weekend after Memorial Day. They have bought into many of the elements which make bluegrass festivals unique: providing space for the jamming community and waving quiet hours there, assuring a family friendly environment, running continual music from around noon to their own curfew of 11;00 P.M. and more. The reward for this renewed commitment came in the form of better attendance for the strengthened lineup and improved relations with those attending. While the festival has further ground to regain, it's clear to those who attended that problems are being addressed, management listens to and cares about the concerns of fans, and much progress has been made.

My discussion of the bands will proceed more or less in order, while I'll use pictures of  bands that appear on two separate days only once with pictures from either or both days.

Corn Fed Dogs

Corn Fed Dogs opened the festival with verve and enthusiasm. Consisting of a flexible cast of available musicians, the band plays classic bluegrass covers with skill. This week they brought James' King's fiddler Merle Johnson from Virginia to augment the already strong band.

Nick Novia

Joe DiLillo

Ben Fraker

Merle Johnson

Pete Kelly

Dan Bureau

Dan Bureau's Roving Workshop-Home 

Lonely Heartstring Band Warming Up

Emcee Brian Burness

The Lonely Heartstring Band

The Lonely Heartstring Band becomes more impressive each time we see them. The band has assembled a remarkable program of music consisting of, approximately, a quarter classic bluegrass covers showing their skill and respect for their bluegrass roots, half singer/songwriter material written from within the band, and a quarter covers of rock and roll material bluegrassed to perfection. Their rendition of Paul Simon's "Graceland" simply took my breath away. This band showcased at IBMA last year, where they received strong acclaim. They will be touring widely this summer, so look for them in California, North Carolina, Kentucky, and other places. You won't be sorry.

George Clements

Patrick McGonigle

Matt Witler

Gabe Hershfeld

Charles Clements

Patrick & George

Our Campsite - Back to Normal Next Year

Phil Zimmerman

Marcia Goodman

The Zolla Boys

The Zolla Boys, consisting of two brothers, Ben on guitar and Sam on mandolin, supported by their father Larry on bass, have shown a consistent pattern of improvement. I'm always reluctant to comment on young boys' singing before their voices change, but they have worked hard at achieving good harmony together. I gather the band will soon be adding a banjo to become a full bluegrass band. 

Sam Zolla

Ben Zolla

Larry Zolla

Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing

Bob Amos, with his Colorado-based band Front Range achieved significant success in the nineties before disbanding after the death of member Mike Lantz. Since, having moved to his family farm in northern Vermont, Amos has kept busy in the studio and working on other projects. Over the past couple of years he has assembled a quite capable band, written some fine music, and begun to tour again as Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing. With daughter Sarah, just graduated from New College in Sarasota, FL, taking on a large vocal role, the band has developed a New England following and deserves much wider attention. 

Bob Amos

Sarah Amos

Freeman Corey

Steve Wright

Bob Dick

Gary Darling

Sarah Amos

Monica Rizzio & Old Kings Highway

Last year at Strawberry Park, Monica Rizzio appeared with a five piece band. This year, focusing on her singing and songwriting, she worked accompanied by very strong musicians on bass and  guitar, and came through as more focused and entertaining. Featuring country tinged songs from her Texas days and more nuanced and soulful songs written since she has moved to New England, she's appealing and much stronger. This trio will have particular resonance in small and intimate venues. 

Monica Rizzio

Jon Evans

Ben Kushigian

The South Carolina Broadcasters

The South Carolina Broadcasters bring a primitive, pre-bluegrass mountain style of music that often sounds strange to the ears before it sinks below the skin and infiltrates the musical fibers of the human soul. They pluck a string within us that resonates long and hard. Focused on old gospel songs and old-time dance tunes, they provide nuance to a serious student of the sounds of Appalachia and their influence on more widespread and popular forms of country music. Ivy Sheppard, through her work as a DJ at WPAQ in Mount Airy, NC, has access to old tapes of never otherwise recorded music that enrich their program with unique and unfamiliar, but haunting, sounds. 

David Sheppard

Ivy Sheppard

Andy Edmonds

Emcee Jim Christensen

Della Mae

Della Mae continues to get better and better. The addition of Zoe Guigueno on bass adds an exclamation point to the previous sentence. The Canadian bass player brings virtuoso bass play and a bouncy, yet restrained beat to the band. Celia Woodsmith, a bluesy, rocky high energy singer and able song writer provides lively spark. Every other member of the band contributes strong instrumental and vocal support to make this internationally acclaimed band to the fore. The creation of fiddler Kimber Ludiker, Della Mae has morphed from a traditional bluegrass band into a nuanced, tuneful, energetic band with broad range and tight focus. 

Kimber Ludiker

Celia Woodsmith

Zoe Guigueno

Jenny Lynn Gardner

Courtney Hartman

Courtney Hartman & Celia Woodsmith

Lovely Landscaping at a Permanent Site

In One of the Pools

Part of Vendors Row

Sierra Hull Workshop

Sierra Hull, along with longtime musical partner Justin Moses presented a fine workshop at the Workshop stage before her performance on the main stage.  

Sierra Hull & Justin Moses

Sierra Hull

Justin Moses

Sierra Hull in Performance

Sierra Hull is currently touring with a musically interesting and innovative program of duets with Ethan Jodziewicz on bass. The remarkable contrasts between Hull's wonderful mandolin play on all forms of mandolin (conventional, mandola, octave mandolin) and her increasingly nuanced and thoughtful vocals and the bass play of recent Curtis School graduate Jodziewicz create a delightful duo. Hull, wisely, mines many of her songs from earlier days while adding to her distinguished career new, thoughtful, challenging work. It all suggests a maturity and continued development heading into the musical stratosphere. It's wonderful to see the growth and who knows where she's heading!

Sierra Hull

Ethan Jodziewicz

Songwriter Rick Lang & Bob Dick

New Addition - Water Fountain 

The Improved Restaurant

Steel Drivers

The SteelDrivers add a tone and remind listeners that a key element in bluegrass is the blues. While the original reference to bluegrass comes from Bill Monroe's home state of Kentucky, the blues have been a central part of bluegrass since its inception. With their latest CD recorded in the heart of the blues, Muscle Shoals Alabama, lead singer Gary Nichols both goes home and demonstrates the growth and development of this fine band. With strength at every position three remaining members of the original band, Tammy Rogers, Richard Bailey, Mike Fleming, are joined by Brent Truitt on Mandolin and Nichols, who, with this recording, cements his importance in this ground breaking band. The SteelDrivers are one of the very best closing bands in bluegrass, and worth staying up for.

Gary Nichols

Brent Truitt

Tammy Rogers

Richard Bailey

Mike Fleming

Tammy & Mike

The weather radar kept promising rain with thunderstorms, but the first two days of Strawberry Park were dry, sunny, and warm - perfect bluegrass weather. The emotional temperature there was right for the first time in several years. Deferred maintenance is being steadily and creatively addressed. Irene and I shared a fish dinner at what was once the snack bar, but which now deserves the name restaurant. The fish and chicken dishes are fresh, never frozen and breaded on site. New dishes, including salads have been added to the menu along with grilled food as an alternative to fried. As with some other changes, there were a few grumbles about service and waits, but I figure that sort of thing will be well ironed out by the time next year's bluegrass festival rolls around. So much right is happening at Strawberry Park, I hate to point out the flaws. Suffice it to say, I have confidence that the new management is spending energy and money to address all issues. 

More coming on Thursday.

Parents and Kids on the Dance Stage