Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Today marks the beginning of the tenth year of this blog. When blogging came around, I was intrigued by the concept, and thought I'd like to write a blog, but wasn't certain I had anything to say that would be interesting to anyone else but me. I had done some previous writing on the web, building a site and then telling about our adventures as I learned to to use this new resource as well follow my own inclinations. If you're interested in this earlier effort you can find it here. It begins in 2000 and continued until 2003, with our first visit to Merlefest and some other major changes in our life. For some years I had thought it lost, but there it is, an interesting, for me at least, look backward.
Anyway, after some thought and no little agonizing, I posted my first blog entry on December 22, 2006, thinking mostly of it as something to do and a chance to keep our families, friends, and acquaintances in touch with what we were doing. But the audience grew, largely, I think, because of an accident. When I started writing about bands at festivals, I decided to take and label pictures of sidemen as well as band leaders. And, of course, the sidemen liked being recognized, and my blog benefited from it. Since December 2006, I've posted 1257 blog entries, about 80% being devoted to bluegrass music with most of the rest being book reviews. That's 139.66 blog entries a year or 2.5 a week. This year the blog itself has declined in number, but it's a bit more complicated than that.
Last March, I received an email from Kim Ruehl, the editor on No Depression, an online magazine that has flourished after going down the tubes as a print journal of alternative music several years ago, asking me to write a weekly bluegrass column. I leaped at the chance, realizing that such a column would give me a wider, more eclectic audience to write towards. Since then, with the exception of a couple of months when I was cut back to every other week, I have written a column called Bluegrass Rambles of about 1000 words with photos and videos about anything I want to write that I could relate to bluegrass music for No Depression. I have written thirty-eight columns there, which would bring my productivity up to my previous years' standards. I'm proud to have been asked to join the staff of this fine journal. This year they also published a beautiful hard copy annual, which is still available.
As the Internet has developed, so have opportunities to integrate my blog with other platforms to write about and publicize events, festivals, and bands that interest me, as well as to write about books I've read and, mostly, enjoyed. This year I added 95 new videos to my YouTube channel. During this time, there gave been 689,274 views of our (Irene often serves as videographer) videos, with the Josh Williams “Bird Video” still leading the way with nearly 150,000 views. Here's a screen shot of this year's top 10 videos:
Notice Erin Gibson LaClaire sitting there in sixth place with her “Lifeboat” recorded in 2011. I have great hopes for her version of “The Little Drummer Boy” recorded at this year's Gibson Family Christmas show. It has already been viewed more than 2700 times. We actually wore out a video camera this year, and had to purchase a new one, thereby improving the quality of the videos I post. Over the lifetime of the channel, it has received 4.7 million plays, with the “Bird Video” accounting for more than half the total.
We have a FaceBook Page called Ted & Irene's Most Excellent Bluegrass Adventure that's supposed to be a “business” page. It hasn't produced the kind of interest I had hoped, and I refuse to utilize the Boost feature, which, I suppose, would have it sent to a greater number of people, but which costs money. I post only bluegrass related material there, most of it my videos, but I also have had good response to fine videos from other sources that I find. I use my own Facebook page to post bluegrass related material, pointers to my blogs, as well as political, social science, and science material I find interesting. Since my interests are pretty broad, so is the coverage on my FB page. Apparently, Twitter appeals to a different audience. I posts tweets to advertise my writing and videos, but it's also the place I go for a good portion of my news, so I follow news sources I trust there. I haven't yet figured out how to use Pinterest, but I'm certain I could find an audience there if I took more time and learned. Same with Instagram, which I vow to work on this coming winter. I view social media as a fine tool for contributing to and learning about the world. Google+ seems to miss the point a lot of the time, but is calmer, more quiet with less bluster, than FaceBook, at least in my little corner.
All in all, it's been a good year, and we're looking forward to getting back on the road after a couple of restful months at home. We'll leave in early January before, we hope, the New England snows come, but, in truth, the Fall has been too warm, and we wish the region plenty of cold weather and snow. The farmers, ski areas, and tourist industry all need it. Meanwhile, I want to thank some people. Kim Ruehl has offered my a wonderful opportunity at No Depression, which has helped me find a new and more varied audience. There's a quiet, invisible to all but me, but large group of people (you know who you are) that have served through the years as my Editorial Board. They're the ones who've cared enough to correct my errors of writing and fact, without trying to make me change the opinions that I express. You've made my blog, as Harry Chapin said in one of his great story songs, a better place to be. I especially want to thank readers who ordered their merchandise at Amazon.com through the portal on my blog or clicked on an advertisement there. It helps provide much needed financial support for the blog without costing you any more or compromising your privacy. Thanks so much! Finally, I want to thank my long suffering (coming up on 52 years) wife, Irene. She's the best line editor in the world, and often saves me from myself, when I want to say things that may be thoughtless or hurtful. She's simply the best!
If we cross paths during the coming year, please stop me to say “Hello.” Maybe we're already social media friends, but I value making face-to-face contact with people who've read and appreciated what we're trying to do. See you down the Trail.
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Each December for the past few years, Eric and Leigh Gibson have hosted a Gibson Family Christmas show at Northern Adirondack Central School in Ellenburg Depot, their home town in the northernmost reaches of New York State, almost to the Canadian border. On Saturday morning we headed north through Vermont and across Lake Champlain at Rouses Point. Looking right, we could see the border, which, until after 9/11 we could cross, and re-cross with only our driver's licenses. Now, what was once the world's longest un-guarded international border needs a passport to cross. We headed west on U.S. route 11 through marginal farmland and small, quiet villages. Our GPS took us onto Davison Road and in a few miles we crossed Canaan's Road, reminding us of Canaan's Hill where Sam Smith, a Civil War veteran and the central character in one of Leigh's songs, is buried. A few more miles took us to the small, comfortable home of Shannon Gibson, Leigh and Eric's mother. We were welcomed with some of her famous pie and a hot cup of coffee. We dropped our passenger and headed to our motel.
Northern Adirondack Central School
The Gibson Family Christmas Show is not a Gibson Brothers Band show. Northern Adirondack Central School is only a few miles from the dairy farm the boys grew up on, the high school they graduated from. It's just down the road from Dick's Country Store, Gun City & Music Oasis where they bought their first instruments. Northern Adirondack Central School has a K-12 population of 812, in a thinly populated rural area. Its auditorium seats 588 people. The show was sold out way before this performance where the district's most heralded graduates never forget who they are or where they came from. This show was for the benefit of Future Farmers of America (FFA), one of the school's clubs. Their sister, Erin Gibson LaClair teaches second grade there. Half the students here come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This year there are 62 students in the senior class. Some people at the concert came from away, but, for the most part, this is a home town crowd who come out to spend an evening with old friends whose success they revel in.
Leigh Gibson - Song for a Winter Evening - Video
Leigh and Eric have achieved acclaim with their award winning band, which has moved from performing in church, where they began, to playing before thousands of people in major venues and headlining at bluegrass festivals across the country and on a few trips to Europe. They currently record for Rounder Records, the gold standard for bluegrass and roots recording. But this isn't a Gibson Brothers show, it's a family gathering. Son Kelley, who's a budding singer/songwriter has begun attending college at his father and uncle's alma mater, SUNY at Plattburgh, thirty miles down the road, played and sang on several songs.
Mike Barber has played for the Gibson Brothers since they turned professional twenty-two years ago. His bass play is superb, driving the band with unpretentious yet challenging drive. He lives a little south of Ellenburg in a place called Jericho that isn't even on the map. Near as we can tell, it's near Altona. When not on tour, he puts a small canoe on the roof of his car and heads into the woods for some trout fishing.
Julie Hogan and Tom Venne, brother and sister whose band Beartracks is popular at festivals as well as a variety of music venues in upstate New York and nearby New England. They're a solid country and bluegrass band. They also play in a classic country band called the Clem Hawkins Revival band which gathers occasionally when Eric Gibson is available to play telecaster with them. They're versatile and enjoyable. Tom and Julie are also Mike Barber's first cousins. Julie's an elementary school guidance counselor, while the recently married Tom is retired from the U.S Border Patrol.
The Gibson Family Christmas Show - Rockin' Around the Christmass Tree - Video
Sam Zucchini serves as percussionist when Leigh and Eric perform in other settings than as the Gibson Brothers Band. We've seen him for a couple of years playing on the Family Christmas Show and appreciated his tasteful play and seamless blend with them. Ordinarily, he's a member of the highly acclaimed and very interesting Zucchini Brothers, who specialize in entertaining and educational materials aimed primarily at children. The Zucchini Brothers have a radio show heard around the world, as well as a program that they take to schools, libraries, and other venues. Check out some of their wonderful videos on YouTube. Also, pay attention to his work in the videos on this post. You won't be sorry.
Erin Gibson LaClair, the younger sister of the Gibson brothers, has survived the ordeal with good graces far exceeding any reasonable semblance of whatever might be called for from a younger sister. Many of you have seen what Eric and Leigh good naturedly heap on each other. Her ordeal has probably turned her into one of the premier second grade teachers in America. She's also possessed of a superb singing voice that blends sublimely with her elder brothers. Their rendition of The Lighthouse is one of the most played songs on my YouTube channel, having been played well over 20,000 times. Here she sings "The Little Drummer Boy" and you'll enjoy the interactions and her spirited response.
Erin Gibson LaClair
Photo by Amy Lee
Gibson Family Christmas Show - The Little Drummer Boy - Video
The Gibson brothers wear their fame lightly, yet always feel responsible for keeping any show they're associated with at a high level. As Saturday's show drew to a close, the merch table was crowded with old friends, each wanting so share a memory with "the boys" or to just be near old friends for a few moments. The whole evening was a great success, so much so that there's talk of doing two nights next year.
FFA Serving Snacks During Intermission
At the Merch Table
In the Hallway
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
John Irving has written an elegy to a writer's life, perhaps his own, in Avenue of Mysteries (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 480 pages, $28.00/11.99) which revisits many of the themes and concerns that have dominated his work since I first encountered him in The World According to Garp. Issues of the search for a parent, sex and sexuality, sexual ambiguity, as well as religion and faith dominate this wandering novel that follows Juan Diego Guerrero's life from his earliest memories as a child in the burning dump of Oaxaca, Mexico thorough an elegiac literary trip to the Philippines, where he seeks to visit the remains of a dead friend's father. The book's action takes place almost entirely within Juan Diego's mind as memory and imagination merge and twist within him. I wanted to like this book more than I did, as I followed what I will presume to be Irving's most recent and final exploration of his own life and thought in the novel format.
Images of the burning, stinking dump and the Virgin of Guadalupe dominate this reflective meditation on writing and writers, faith and belief, and loss. Juan Diego and his sister Lupe are each damaged, he because his (maybe) father Rivera drives over his foot in childhood, leaving him a limping cripple for life. Meanwhile, he becomes a voracious reader as he salvages books from the dump's burn pile in both English and Spanish. He also becomes the interpreter for Lupe, who, while she cannot produce speech comprehensible to anyone but Juan Diego, can read minds and, perhaps, see the future. She discovers that she must sacrifice her life to make it possible for Juan Diego to develop his own, as he eventually makes his way to the University of Iowa, where he embarks on the life of a writer. The story is told in a series of flashbacks while Juan Diego makes his trip, accompanied at times by the mysterious Dorothy and Miriam, both sexually demanding, controlling, and knowledgeable about his life and writings. The plot is as convoluted as my paragraph, but eventually works itself out without ever losing its mysterious sense of Juan Diego's success and sense of loss.
The book is filled with aphorisms and meditations on the writer's life, perhaps a writerly quirk aging authors must fall into. Juan Diego cannot escape the fussily oppressive ministration of his former student Clark French. He's eternally grateful to Edward Bonshaw and his eventual partner Flo (the sexually ambiguous transvestite). He encounters the life of the circus (or is it the circus of life?), where he learns and grows, but never forsakes his limp. The range of characters will either grab readers or leave them gasping for breath, or both. Each one has a symbolic quality which becomes a ghost in Juan Diego's life until reality and imagination become inseparable. The iconography and symbolism of the book can be confusing, but become increasingly clear as it moves towards its relatively satisfactory conclusion. At one point, Juan Diego comments, “Dreams edit themselves, are ruthless with details. Common sense does not dictate what remains, or is not included in a dream.” Later, Juan Diego considers himself, “Yes, his novels come from his childhood – that's where his fears came from, and his imagination came from everything that he feared. That didn't mean that he wrote about himself.” Oh no?
John Irving, at age 73, has written fourteen novels, a screenplay for one of them (for which he won an Academy Award), won lots of acclaim, and wrestled, both literally and literarily, with life and literature throughout it all. Raised in the shelter of New Hampshire's Exeter Academy, he never met his biological father, who, nevertheless, attended many of his wrestling matches (what a wonderful image that is!). During his career as a writer, he has been on the short list for a Pulitzer Prize, but hasn't won one. Nevertheless several of his books have been huge commercial successes and/or have been turned into successful films. Several of his books have been best sellers, but none have achieved number one. Avenue of Mysteries was the first Irving novel I completed reading since Hotel New Hampshire some thirty-five years ago, although I took runs at both Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany, both best sellers. In other words, Irving is not always everyone's cup of tea, but is an important American writer and literary figure.
John Irving's Avenue of Mysteries (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 480 pages, $28.00/11.99) turns into an interesting, intriguing meditation on writing and the writer's life. It's tortuous plot demands careful attention. The characters are often mysterious, arresting, and intriguing. It should prove to be a rewarding read for many people who have followed Irving through the years, but I wouldn't recommend it as a first Irving book. This would seem to be more a summation of a career than an opening salvo, so begin somewhere else and then reach out for it when you have become familiar with Irving through his earlier work. I read the book as an e-galley supplied to me by the publisher through Edelweiss: Above the Treeline. I read it using my Kindle app.
Monday, December 7, 2015
On a warm Friday evening in December we drove the few miles up to Alstead, NH, a town that had been practically washed off the map in deadly floods ten years ago. The drive, up a hilly road rising over 1000 feet from our home in Keene, was dark and chilly. The GPS took us to an unlikely corner where a long industrial-looking building sat. We found one other car, with Vermont plates, parked in the rear, and walked into a small and magical performance venue called the Mole Hill Theater. A machine shop by day, Mole Hill Turns into a fine performance area on Friday and Saturday nights with its massive stamping machines and lathes contrast sharply with the warm stage and whistle clean building.
Dennis Molesky - General Manager
The Stockwell Brothers
The Stockwell Brothers have been playing as a trio, sometimes augmented, around New England for, literally, decades. They deliver a very pleasing combination of contemporary singer/songwriter material, traditional bluegrass and fiddle tunes, coupled with material from the Grateful Dead through much adapted from the varieties of music popular from the seventies through the beginning of the current century. The four traditional bluegrass instruments are ideal for presenting such music within the intimate confines of small venues, where they can most often be found.
Bruce Stockwell is perhaps the best known musician of the group. Winning the Merlefest banjo contest in 2005 helped establish his reputation among fans of fine banjo play, but the relatively insulated banjo community has know Bruce for teaching in banjo camps from New England to Nashville as well as mentoring up-and-coming banjo tyros privately. The band Hot Mustard, recently disbanded, was the outgrowth of a New Hampshire state arts grant for Bruce and his student Bill Jubett to explore the range of duel banjo play. Banjo players from Bill Evans to Tony Trischka are friends who frequently engage with Bruce. After his marriage to Kelly, Bruce became less reclusive as she joined the bands and brought him out. His mastery of the broad range of banjo styles and sounds is a wonder to banjo enthusiasts.
The Stockwell Brothers - Ain't It Something - Video
Barry Stockwell's melodious high baritone voice and pleasant stage personality shine out through every song the band performs. He functions as lead singer and band emcee. He's a solid rhythm guitar player, too. He brings breadth and depth to the band in the world of Americana, complementing well Bruce's strength in traditional and progressive bluegrass. Barry produces concerts and serves as theater manager at the Hooker-Dunham Theater in Brattleboro, VT. He has also been instrumental in the development of the Next Stage Project in Putney, VT where he currently serves on the board of directors.
Al (Alan) Stockwell within a trio of reclusive Vermonters is perhaps the most elusive of all. His mandolin play is solid, adding both melody and the chop that helps make drums unnecessary in a bluegrass band, he also sings the baritone parts in the family trio. Baritone is at once the least noticed and the most crucial part in trio singing, serving to fill in the gaps and round out the sound. Al has a degree in electrical engineering, working as a sound engineer at Black Mountain Audio in Brattleboro, VT.
The Stockwell Brothers - The Hobo Song - Video
Several years ago there was a young physicist who wanted to learn to play the banjo. Folks at the Maple Leaf, a local music store, sent her to see Bruce Stockwell, where she started to learn to play banjo. Sometime later she married him, changing instruments to the bass. Kelly, younger and quite outgoing, began encouraging Bruce to play out more. Soon the band Hot Mustard was born, experiencing modest success. Upon its disbanding, she joined the Stockwell Brothers on bass, filling out their sound and giving them the look and feel of a full bluegrass band. She manages their social media, what there is of it, and, I suspect, does their booking and promotion.
As a quartet, making their second appearance since Kelly has joined them, the band proved to be versatile, musically ambitious, and entertaining. They fit well in bluegrass settings as well as the broader Americana category, to which they bring singer/songwriters like Antje Duvekot and Kris Delmhorst to life. They are appropriate in many settings, from intimate, quiet settings to full-blown festivals. I look forward to seeing much more of them in the future.
The Stockwell Brothers - Saturday They'll All Be Back - Video
Thursday, December 3, 2015
For those of you who currently have reservations to attend the new, moved, and re-imagined YeeHaw Bluegrass Festival to be held in the Okeechobee County Agri-Civic Center in Okeechobee, Florida from January 21 - 23, a new attraction has been added that ought to encourage you to arrive on Monday or Tuesday and stay for the entire week.
The Lonely Heartstring Band
The Lonely Heartstring Band will appear on Tuesday evening 7:30 PM for a single performance. They were originally formed, while several members were still students at Berklee College of Music in Boston, as a Beatles cover band to perform for a wedding using traditional bluegrass instruments. Soon the band was performing Beatles material, writing its own songs, and covering traditional classic bluegrass. Since then, their growth in quality and recognition has been phenomenal. Each member of the band has individual credentials that would make him stand out. As a unit, they have forged themselves into a powerhouse band that has recently appeared at major festivals like ROMP, Grey Fox, Thomas Point Beach, and Telluride. You'll soon be hearing much more from this band appearing on a major record label and winning awards. Don't miss this opportunity!
The Lonely Heartstring Band - Something - Video
This special performance will be available to those already camped at the festival site, the Okeechobee Agri-Civic Center, the new site for the YeeHaw Bluegrass Festival. Check-in for this festival will begin at 11:00 AM on Monday, January 18th. As has become the tradition at events promoted by Ernie and Deb Evans, activities will continue all week long. Don't miss the fun by waiting to arrive later. A large tent will be available for activities and will also house this special concert.
Here's another song by The Lonely Heartstring Band, a gospel song which emphasizes the breadth of their catalog and their ability to deliver a range of traditional as well as somewhat unconventional but not radical bluegrass material.
Lonely Heartstring Band - What a Meeting at the End of the Road - Video
This large, modern facility has a large supply water and electric sites, which are already sold out for this season. However, almost unlimited space is available for dry camping with the additional advantage being the hot showers and flush toilets are abundantly available. All sites are within easy reach of a standpipe that will allow them to fill their tanks. A honey wagon will be available each day. There are other amenities available which come together to make this an altogether more acceptable site for a festival than many others, anywhere.
The Main Show Site
The Festival itself, running from Thursday thru Saturday has a strong lineup with a gospel sing on Sunday morning. Ernie has also planned to have a local RV dealer presenting an RV show as well as offering gear and necessities for RV'ers just starting their 2016 season at one end of the show building. Artist merchandise will be available at the other end. Plenty of food and craft vendors will be set up just outside. Here's the revised YeeHaw Bluegrass Festival flier:
We're excited about this new management and new location for an old and respected festival had recently