Thursday, June 9, 2016

Strawberry Park 2016: Thursday & Friday - Review

We like to arrive at festivals several days before the music starts on Thursday. We can get acclimatized, rest a little, and prepare for the weekend. We've spent the last weekend in May or the first in June at Strawberry Park RV Resort, in eastern Connecticut for about ten years now, watching this fine resort campground host a large and enthusiastic bluegrass festival, fall into bankruptcy and disrepair, then rebound under the umbrella of Florida-based Elite Resorts. The spirit and lineup of the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival have been restored, the jamming community made welcome, and the facility improved overall. Now all that remains is for the crowds to return to their former size. Bluegrass fans have received what they asked for at Strawberry Park. Now it's time for the regional bluegrass community to return in force to this thoughtfully designed festival with something to offer everyone. This year, at Strawberry Park, the the sky dripped a little on Thursday, then turned very nice for Friday and Saturday before going downhill to windy and rainy on Sunday, when the festival went under cover for the day. All told, the southeastern Connecticut weather was nicer than average over the four days, the lineup diverse, interesting and powerful, and the crowd - enthusiastic. At this point, the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival is a sell-out crowd away from regaining its former glory. 


Thursdays at Strawberry Park usually start late on Thursday afternoon, allowing campers to settle in, but providing enough music to keep those who are ready to listen some good choices. This day that meant three quite different bands each playing two sets. It represented a good start.

Twisted Pine

Twisted Pine is one of those always interesting, well-trained, innovative bands coming out of Berklee College of Music in Boston which has helped build Boston into a center of creative energy seeking the new and different equaling, perhaps surpassing, the already strong classical development represented by having a world-class symphony orchestra and first-rate conservatory. Twisted Pine shows its traditional chops with satisfactory arrangements of bluegrass classics, nodding happily at the original while adding their own touch to them. Then they propel themselves into some of their own compositions with verve, attention to form and melody, and virtuosity. Keep an eye on this band as they further develop and refine their act, as well as their material.

Rachel Sumner

Ricky Meir

Kathleen Parks

Dan Bui

Chris Sartori

Twisted Pine - Bound To Do it Right - Video

The Ball Field Jamming Lot Begins to Fill

The Zolla Boys

The Zolla Boys have been playing around New England for several years, making steady progress, much aided by the addition of veteran Richard Underwood (The Johnson Mountain Boys) on the banjo. Brothers Sam and Ben seem to be coming through the big challenge of dealing with the adolescent reality of voice changes with flying colors, while taking increasing responsibility for acting in the role of band emcee and becoming more comfortable on stage. 

Sam Zolla

Ben Zolla

Richard Underwood

Larry Zolla

The Zolla Boys - Poor Boy's Delight - Video

One of the Strawberry Park Pools

The Lonely Heartstring Band

The Lonely Heartstring Band has almost all the ingredients to push it to the top of the bluegrass world: fine singing, first rate instrumental work, careful selection of tunes chosen from classic bluegrass, songs written by band members, and creamy covers of great rock material. They've scored a coup by obtaining a recording contract with Rounder Records. This year's tour takes them from Key West to New England to the West Coast. Their singing is luminous, raucous, and just plain delightful. Their covers of Paul Simon's Graceland and the Beatles' Somewhere have been joined by As Long as I Can See the Light by John Fogerty, all of which bring goosebumps to many of their fast-growing fan base. Ask you local promoter to book them, and then don't miss this upcoming band. They should be in line for mentions in several categories of IBMA Awards.

George Clements

Patrick McGonigle

Gabe Hershfeld

Matt Witler

Charles Clements

Patrick McGonigle & George Clements

The Lonely Heartstring Band - As Long as I Can See the Light - Video


Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing

Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing continues to play mostly in New England from its home in northernmost St. Johnsbury, VT. After years of touring and nearly a decade off the road in Virginia, Amos has settled on the old family farm, opened a studio, and begun writing and performing again. The band's latest CD contains covers of classic bluegrass, the music Amos loves and plays so well. I still love his New England flavored Mr. Beford's Barn (below). The band plays both hard driving bluegrass and more gentle folk tinted ballads written by the versatile Amos on either banjo or guitar. The band seldom strays far from home, but has much to offer.

Bob Amos

Gary Darling

Sarah Amos

Bob Dick

Freeman Corey

Steve Wright

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

Zollas and Underwoods

Emcee Jim Beaver

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

Mike Cleveland has been recognized as IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year 11 times, forging a record unmatched by any other musician in bluegrass music. Though not the only fiddler to front a contemporary bluegrass band, his mastery of a variety of styles combine with his hard driving sound to create and maintain the flame, just as the name of his band suggests. This is not, however, a vanity band. Each position is filled by solid bluegrass players. Josh Richards has a strong, melodious voice and mandolinist Nathan Livers is fast accurate, and animated. The addition of Lloyd Douglas on banjo brings experience and depth. Tyler Griffith has been a solid part of this band on bass for some years. 

Michael Cleveland

Joshua Richards

Nathan Livers

Tyler Griffith

Lloyd Douglas

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper - I'm Yours - Video

The Kruger Brothers

The Kruger Brothers have the capacity to always seem at home, comfortable, and musically inventive whether they're playing at a bluegrass festival, in a concert hall accompanied by a string quartet or a symphony orchestra, in a relaxed jam at a major festival, or in one of the seemingly off-the-cuff parties that turn into concerts in their homes. Coming to the U.S. from Switzerland more than twenty years ago, they settled in Wilkesboro, North Carolina because it was near where Doc Watson lived. There followed a cascade of music, mostly banjo-based, largely bluegrass and folk related, and always pushing the possibilities of what a string trio could produce. Jens Kruger, winner of the 2013 Steve Martin prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, is clearly one of the best banjo players in the world, but whether you here the Kruger Brothers at a festival or in a concert hall, prepare to be awed and inspired. Brother Uwe is a marvelous flat-picker and powerful baritone singer, while the third Kruger Brother, longtime bassist Joel Landsberg quietly draws cheers from people who recognize excellence in bass playing. 

Jens Kruger

Uwe Kruger

Joel Landsberg

Jens Kruger & Joel Landsberg

Jens Kruger

Kim & Barry Ford

The Gibson Brothers

Bluegrass is a deceptively simple form of string band folk music. Almost anyone with more than rudimentary skills in one of the six bluegrass instruments (banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass, Dobro) can join in a jam group, play bluegrass songs, and sing. Excellence in even one of these instruments is devilishly difficult. Learning to play several well...magical and less rare than you might think. The Gibson Brothers began playing guitar and banjo, soon taking lessons at Dick's Country Store, Gun City and Music Oasis in Cherebusco, NY. Within a few years they were playing in their own band, while finishing high school and going off to college at nearby SUNY - Plattsburgh. It only took a little over twenty years of hard work for them to become IBMA Entertainer of the Year in 2012 and 2013, placing them among bluegrass royalty. They write most of their own songs, many of which have won awards, too. The songs are, like the music and the Gibson Brothers, deceptively simple...and fully engaging. For this year's tour, they are showcasing about a dozen new Gibson Brother's songs for their next CD, coming out early next year. They keep on producing and delighting their audiences. 

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

Mike Barber - The Third Gibson Brother
Member of the Band Since the Beginning

Jesse Brock
Two Time Mandolin Player of the Year

Clayton Campbell

The Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers - Fools Hill - Video

Bruce & Kelly Stockwell

Emcee - Kim Ford

The Steep Canyon Ranges

The Steep Canyon Rangers closed out Friday night with a double set. This was the first time the Steeps had appeared at Strawberry Park in nine years, the last appearance coming when they were nearly fresh out on the bluegrass circuit, playing and singing as a straight-up bluegrass band. Through the years they've continued to develop their music, keeping it contemporary while also continuing to show their roots. Today, they've effectively added Mike Ashworth on percussion, contributing a different flavor, controversial because Bill Monroe never traveled with drums. Ashworth's addition particularly allows the mandolin a greater melodic role, since it no longer needs to provide the bulk of the percussive and rhythmic quality formerly required. The band jams with the best, but has never forsaken its song-based music, which often carries with it strong emotional and intellectual content. Their showmanship continues to make them visually entertaining as well as musically so. 

Woody Platt

Graham Sharpe

Mike Guggino

Charles R. Humphrey III

Nicky Sanders

Michael Ashworth

Graham Sharpe, Woody Platt, Mike Ashworth, Mike Guggino

The Steep Canyon Rangers - Las Vegas - Video

I've not generally been a fan of the long set at the end of the evening, but I've come to appreciate its use. I thought, for instance, when Dailey & Vincent performed long sets followed by one or two closing bands, they took all the air out of the festivals where this happened. However, closing with a double set allows a band to build and develop a complete presentation with shape and form not as often found in the traditional 45 or 50 minute set format used in bluegrass festivals. There is a downside for such performances, especially for families with young children, who often leave early to get their kids to bed, thus missing a headline band. 

Friday at Strawberry Park developed as one of the most engaging and exciting days of bluegrass music I've experienced. The day featured plenty of traditional bluegrass, bands rooted in tradition yet finding ways to grow the format, and bands echoing bluegrass while taking it to new and varied audiences. It was a stunning day. Two days left to go......