Thursday, June 4, 2015

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival 2015 - Saturday & Sunday: Review

Saturday added another day to the combination of fine weather and beautiful music. With weather radar predicting strong thunder storms and lots of rain, it was worth watching as line after line of thunder storms passed just north of Strawberry Park while our little world remained dry. 

Bingo in the Morning by the Pools

Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters

Amy Gallatin and Stillwaters brings Amy's rich and varied experience from her years as a singer at a dude ranch in Montana, to singing and performing widely in New England and nearly annually in Europe, to renewed warmth and dynamism with an increasingly tight band. Gallatin's musical and life partner Roger Williams is a master of the Dobro, recognized widely by Dobro players as one of the greats. It's a joy to watch Roger's son J.D. Williams, a recent graduate of Berklee College of Music, grow in confidence and skill, adding to the band. Eric Levenson, a long-time New England bassist brings a strong, insistent bass to the mix. It's worth getting to the stage early to catch this band's performances. 

Amy Gallatin

Roger Williams

J.D. Williams

Eric Levenson

Roger & Amy Singing

Roger & Amy Clowning for the Camera

Just a note about the photography. I can no longer tell the difference between my own pictures and Irene's work with her camera without looking at the properties, which tell all. Her fine work from her seat in the audience or various merchandise tables, where she can often be found, has become increasingly high quality as she has added patience and skill to an already good eye. Her contributions to this blog have become incalculable and so has my gratitude. 

The Boxcar Lillies

The Boxcar Lillies are three singer/songwriters who come from the Pioneer Valley in western Massachusetts. They specialize in close, warm harmonies combined with three very different yet compatible writing styles. Since their appearance at Strawberry Park last year, they have become increasingly comfortable on stage. Perhaps more suited to folk or Americana festivals, they nevertheless added seasoning to the mix of styles that has become a signature of this festival,  still remaining focused on bluegrass in many of its varieties. 

Katie Clarke

 Stephanie Marshall

Jenny Goodspeed

Family Time at the Pools

Gail Wade & Turning Point

Gail Wade has, over the years, put together a delightfully diverse band, expert at providing a strong showcase for her unique and plaintive songs as well as able to demonstrate their own versatility in music from bluegrass to jazz and Americana. Gail Wade & Turning Point can be counted on to fill the space with melody, good fellowship, and musicianship. We've seen Gail at places as diverse as WDVX-FM in Knoxville through a coffee house show at Bristol Rhythm & Roots to regular performances at festivals in New England. They always come prepared to play and entertain.

Gail Wade

Tim St. Jean

Peggy Ann Harvey

Rob Rainwater

Dan Menzone

Frisbee Golf

Could Be a Hole-in-One

Claire Lynch 

Claire Lynch has announced a cut-back in her touring schedule to take place over the next few years. The Claire Lynch Band has been a mainstay of melody, innovation, and thoughtful provoking song for years while Claire has garnered three IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards over the past sixteen years and shared the 2014 Song of the Year award with co-writer Louisa Branscomb for "Dear Sister." Her interpretation of  "Wabash Cannonball" has become iconic for turning a country/bluegrass standard into a fusion piece of intensity and and jamming virtuosity. The addition of young Jarrod Walker, fresh off a couple of years touring with Missy Raines, has added one of the finest young mandolin players around to a band renowned for its instrumental strength. Bryan McDowell can add to a song on any instrument found in a bluegrass band, while Mark Schatz has been named Bass Player of the Year by IBMA twice.

Claire Lynch

Mark Schatz

 Bryan McDowell

Jarrod Walker

Claire Lynch & Mark Schatz

Kelley Gibson & Claire Lynch

Making a Pitch for IBMA

Raffle Guitar to Benefit
IBMA Trust Fund

The Kruger Brothers

The Kruger Brothers bring a special quality to any festival they play. Their music, informed by their Swiss/German heritage and classical training as well as years of touring in Europe, has been enriched and expanded by their move to North Carolina to be near Doc Watson and their immersion in Appalachian roots music, bluegrass, and blues. Put it all together with a three of the greatest virtuosos on their instruments that can be found and magic emerges. Typically, a Kruger Brothers audience sits back to listen, then moves forward to the edge of its seats before leaping up to cheer at the end of a performance. The group is electric. Jens Kruger won the Steve Martin prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2013. Brother Uwe, blessed with a powerful baritone voice and one of the best guitar players around, blends in perfect unison with his brother, while Joel Landsberg, for twenty-six years the third Kruger Brother reads what's going on and leads simultaneously. Watching the instant communication between the three is part of the fun. Their music urges thoughtfulness as it inspires and entertains. 

Jens Kruger

Uwe Kruger

Joel Landsburg

Musicians Watching Musicians
Jarrod Walker

Promoter Carl Landi Looks On

 The Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers are as serious about their music as they are fun-loving in delivering it. At the top of their profession with important IBMA awards almost beyond counting, they have released a best-selling CD honoring the brother duos whose ranks they have joined and strengthen with their membership. Brotherhood reaches back to the earliest days of recording, before bluegrass had a name. Yet Eric and Leigh Gibson, with their pure vocals and the best band they've ever had supporting them are poised to continue delivering repackaging of old sounds while crafting the finest new songs being written today - topical, nostalgic, longing, and melodic.

Mike Barber

Clayton Campbell

Jesse Brock

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

A Technical Note: Strawberry Park's amphitheater has one of the best physical settings of any festival we attend. The stage nestles at the foot of a gently sloping hill with plenty of shade, except at the very front, where, for a few hours each day, the sun is unrelentingly hot. The stage itself is well shaped and large enough to hold bands of almost any size. The problem lies in the band of afternoon sunlight coming across the stage that makes photography nearly impossible and vision difficult. This is exacerbated by the inadequate lighting the destroys any chance of taking better pictures of the same bands later in the evening or seeing to the back of the stage. I have no idea how to take care of the direct sunlight, but the addition of a reasonably inexpensive stage lighting system should easily solve the problem of night lighting, making attending shows there fully accessible visually as well as to the ear, which the shape of the amphitheater and the high quality of the sound provided by Ace Audio.

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Dry Branch Fire Squad has played at all the iterations of the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival except one. Their Sunday morning gospel set is eagerly awaited by a coterie of their fans and those wishing some spiritual nurture early each Sunday morning of the festival. Ron Thomason, the droll narrator/raconteur of the band, tells stories of both historical interest and topical importance, while providing context and nuance to the primitive bluegrass and old-time style of the band. It's all fun, with more than a hint of serious social analysis thrown in to encourage listeners to scratch their heads a little more than just a bit. This Sunday they offered two sets, each with a different tone, but equally as satisfying, as they played plenty of requests.

Ron Thomason

Dan Russell

Tom Boyd

Brian Aldridge

At the Sound Booth

Cold Chocolate

Boasting two great music schools and more colleges than one can count, Boston has become a magnet for fine young musicians and hot musical settings. As a center for bluegrass, roots, and Americana bands, there's more music coming from Boston than can possibly be imagined. Cold Chocolate is one of these young bands.  The band's material is a mixture of bluegrass and singer/songwriter Americana with a dash, as their web site indicates, of funk. It has undergone a couple of changes in personnel, with Catherine (Bibi) Bowness joining the band on banjo. Ariel Bernstein's subtle, yet persistant, percussion is just right in this band, adding texture without dominating. Ethan Robbins, a fine guitarist who writes interesting tuneful songs and selects some challenging covers as well as standard bluegrass fare, has developed a balanced and interesting program. Paul Chase more than ably stood in on bass this weekend, for superb singer bassist Kirsten Lamb. Cold Chocolate, while still in its formative stages, is worth keeping an eye on. They're spreading their wings, having performed in The Netherlands this spring. 

Ethan Robbins

Ariel Bernstein

Bibi Bowness

Paul Chase

On the whole, Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival has shown a remarkable willingness to come back from the depths it had sunk to over the past few years. Under new management and with the leadership of Carl Landi on the music as well as the construction side of the improvements there has been seismic improvement. Carl, a musician himself, has made it a point to become educated in the quirks of the bluegrass community and has moved forthrightly to adjust the elements emerging at Strawberry Park that seemed averse to them. As a result, jamming has been restored and the lineup strengthened, while remaining varied and contemporary, honoring bluegrass traditions. Contemporary bands at the Strawberry Park gave much more than a perfunctory nod toward the founders of bluegrass. I'm very optimistic about the directions of the festival and am already looking forward to next year's edition.  At five in the afternoon the sky finally let loose and the deluge arrived.