Monday, July 11, 2016

Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival: August 4 - 7, 2016 - Preview

The twenty-fourth annual Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival will run for the twenty-fourth consecutive year at  Benton's Sugar Shack Golf & Camping just north of Thornton, NH from August 4 - 7, 2016. Craig Engel and Steve Abdu, who assumed management of Pemi Valley four years ago, have learned the lesson that continuance is ensured by growth, growth requires a constantly improving and striving lineup as well as a welcoming, nurturing environment for young pickers and jammers of all ages. By taking a few risks, staying in the pocket of bluegrass, creating a festive environment in every aspect of its presence for four wonderful days, and communicating thoroughly with their audience, Craig and Steve have continued to build and develop their reputation and presence in the pantheon of fine New England festivals.

The Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival web site is filled with useful information presented in a thoughtful fashion, much of it aided by the use of videos. For details about camping, the venue, and other important information, I encourage you to make use of their web site as a resource for buying tickets, getting a campsite or a hotel room, the pre-festival Wernick Method Jam Camp, opportunities to volunteer, and more.

The Lineup

This year's lineup at Pemi Valley is deep and varied, including major entertaining bands, historic bluegrass band, and a few modern innovators. Meanwhile, there's always plenty of activity around the campground to keep those who don't wish to see or hear a particular band busy. 

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage

Rhonda Vincent & the Rage will be on hand for two days this year. Putting a major headliner on Thursday increases the liklihood of people deciding to arrive for the entire four days. Rhonda has been a mainstay of bluegrass music for a long time, having won eight IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year Awards as well as kudos as Entertainer of the Year. Her band is filled with excellent musicians, people who are stars in their own right, hardly deserving the name of side musician. It's nice to see Rhonda back in New England after what seems like a couple of years' absence, at least for us.

Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers are a fine band wherever you see them. In New England, they seem to be on home turf, close enough to their roots in rural upstate New York (I won't discourse on what upstate means here. Suffice it to say, it's a lot further North than the suburbs of the City.) Since they began performing, when they were still in  high school, they've worked and sung their way into the hearts of "their" audience. Crowds in New England and New York are deeply familiar with the catalog of songs they themselves have written, requesting many from their earlier recordings. Your likely to get some of those older songs here. Their act is a high wire event, working with no set list and much spontaneous brother bickering as part of the show. No wonder they were named IBMA Entertainer of the Year twice. 

Seldom Scene
Dudley Connell

Since 1971 (the year the Gibson Brothers were born) Seldom Scene has been a ground-breaking band in bluegrass. Over it's 45 year history, the songs and musical style of Seldom Scene has gone from being highly innovative, bringing rock and roll and folk music to bluegrass, to being just plain excellent, as they perform largely from their very deep and extremely popular catalog. Meanwhile, one of the models for a band like Lonely Heartstrings must be Seldom Scene's treatments of popular music from their own era. Recently, Rickie Simpkins has joined the band in the banjo position once held by Ben Eldridge, the last original member of this highly original band. He add an element of flexibility to the band's sound, as he plays the fiddle, too. Seldom Scene is always fun to see and hear.

Rickie Simpkins

Blue Highway

Blue Highway has become note for fine singing, especially in acapella harmonies, three band members are first-rate song writers who keep the band supplied with new songs, often hearkening back to an older sound. Instrumentally, they're strong at every position, even with the storied Dobro player having left for newer challenges. Gaven Largent, the band's new, young man on the slide, is enthusiastic, making his own mark from almost his first day. Bass player Wayne Taylor is recovering from a heart attack, and apparently doing well. Blue Highway is lively and musically superior.

The Helen Highwater String Band

Take four varied Nashville veterans, each with distinctive, varied backgrounds, give them a mysterious sounding name that's somehow familiar and unknown (Missy Raines tells me it's a made up and somewhat whimsical name capturing the vibe of this group), put them out on the festival trail together, and magic is just likely to happen. Mike Compton is renowned as the most able of the modern Monroe-style mandolin players, traveling around the world performing and presenting workshops. Shad Cobb has worked with fine traditional bands and ground-breaking progressive ones. He's at home with the fiddle...anywhere. Missy Raines cut her teeth as one of the finest young bluegrass bass players, winning IBMA bass player of the year awards nine times. Her acoustic jazz band, The New Hip, forged new ground in the roots world. Joe Newberry recently cut his ties with his straight job and took to the road as a singer and song writer. He co-wrote "They Called It Music" with Eric Gibson, winning IBMA song of the year. Should be interesting and broad based performances.

Chris Jones & The Night Drivers

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers have had a change in personnel, as Ned Luberecki has joined the Becky Buller Band, to be replaced by young Gina Clowes, whose "technical mastery," according to veteran Chris Jones, helps he banjo to fit right in, while her voice will fit right in with the voice the band has had to farm out in many of their recordings. As the voice of "true grass" on Sirius/XM radio, Jones is an acknowledged expert on bluegrass recording history. His own music combines this knowledge with more contemporary materials, often including his whimsical sense of humor, as seen in his Bluegrass Today column.  Looking forward to this one....

Gina Clowes

The Lonely Heartstring Band

The Lonely Heartstring Band continues to improve as its national visibility and reputation continues to spread. Their excellent new recording from Rounder Records, Deep Waters, includes most of the songs their fans have been hearing on the road for the past eighteen months. Lonely Heartstring's vocal and instrumental musicality establishes new heights of excellence for other young bands to scale. Their thoughtfully innovative covers of rock & roll classics continue to be added judiciously, with Credence Clearwater Revival's "As Long as I Can See the Light" being the new addition. Their schedule takes them from Maine to California in the next few months. Don't miss them!

Gold Heart
Shelby Gold

Gold Heart has continued to develop and improve over the several years they've been on the Trail. Their stage presence has become professional, they write and choose good material for themselves. Recently, their younger brother Kai has been added to the band on banjo. 

Torie Gold

Zink & Co
Cory Zink

Zink & Company, last time we saw them, had added strength at banjo and fiddle with widely experienced Dan Menzone and Gary Parmerleau on fiddle, giving it added strength as a bluegrass band. Cory Zinc has a pleasant baritone voice and is comfortable with both bluegrass and country music. John Roc has been a regular member of the band on mandolin for several years. 

Julie Hogan

Beartracks is a highly entertaining bluegrass and acoustic music band featuring the high energy of brother/sister duo Julie Hogan on Bass and vocals and Tom Venne on guitar and vocals. Their singing and play of bluegrass, classic country, and gospel bluegrass reflects their North Country (that's Upstate New York for the uninitiated) background and their broader appeal. In recent years they have extended their reach as far west as Ron Thomason's High Mountain Hay Fever festival in Colorado, into Canada, Pennsylvania, as well as New England and New York. Harry Ralph is a fine fiddle player who always adds to a band's versatility. Steve Light, of Plattsburgh State University and the Bluegrass Gospel Project, has been added to the band on banjo. Try to keep up with Julie's energy, even from your seat!

Tom Venne

Bluegrass Gospel Project

The Bluegrass Gospel Project, brought together for a one-off performance that turned out to be so successful the members decided to turn into a more regular offering. The band brings fresh interpretations to gospel bluegrass from a variety of traditions and backgrounds. It plays at bluegrass festivals, in churches, in concert halls, and on town greens to a variety of audiences. We haven't seen this group in several years....looking forward to seeing them.
Newfound Grass

Newfound Grass is the host band of this festival, since Steve Abdu plays bass in in and Craig Engel sings lead and plays guitar. We've seen this band in several settings and always found them to make interesting song choices, sometimes on the edges between bluegrass and other genres befitting the varied and intersting backgrounds of the members.

Parker Hill Road Band

The Parker Hill Band is a regional group that does little to make itself available online to people hoping to learn more about them or write about them.

Overall, this year's lineup at Pemi Valley offers a great deal quality at the top, while not neglecting local and regional bands. It should provide many happy hours of listening to first rate music...but that's not the end of this festival.

The Details

Camping: Pemi Valley has an unusual amount of space available for camping as well as extremely varied terrain at different distances from the main stage. You can find secluded camping sites along the Pemigawasset River, secluded woodsy sites, or open sites on a plateau closer to the main stage. Steve and Craig also provide unique insights into the choices. Here's a link showing regions and even specifics sites where you can camp.

Labeled Campground Map

Camping reservations as well as tickets can be purchased here. For further information about camping, you can contact Steve or Craig by phone here:  (603) 726-6005 or at Furthermore, full descriptions of the various regions are provided. Here are a few pictures of the various venues in use: 

Tickets: Tickets to Pemi Valley can be purchased online here. Information about ticketing and camping can be found here. Remember, you are buying tickets to a festival not a concert. Because of that, don't expect to drive up to the gate and be allowed entry because you "only want to see your friends and jam." You are expected to purchase day tickets, wear an armband, and vacate the grounds unless you purchase a multi-day pass. 

Pemi Valley Bluegrass University: During the past few years a group of New England's finest musicians and teachers has formed, under the leadership of Tony Watt, what has become known as the Bluegrass University. After an introduction earlier in the weekend, The University usually convenes on Saturday afternoon for a 2 1/2 hour small group session with one of the teachers. University classes are usually geared toward beginner and novice bluegrass musicians. You can get further information about the Bluegrass University here

Wernick Method Jam Camp: On Wednesday and Thursday (August 3rd and 4th) well-known fiddle teacher and bluegrass fiddler Ellen Carlson will be conducting the first Wernick Style Jam Camp at Pemi Valley. Over the years, Pete Wernick, known as Dr. Banjo and a founding member of pioneering bluegrass band Hot Rize as well as a long-time president of IBMA's Board of Directors, has developed a curriculum and approach to teaching jamming, as opposed to playing an instrument. These camps are held at festival sites around the country, with many of them being taught by instructors trained by Pete Wernick, himself. You can get more information about Ellen's Wernick Style Jam Camp here. There is an additional cost for this very fine experience. You'll find Ellen to be supportive, personable, and effective.

Ellen Carlson

Pemi Valley Kids Academy: Ellen Carlson will also be directing the Pemi Valley Kids Academy again. Kids Academy represents an opportunity for experienced children and beginners from ages 8 - 17 to learn to play bluegrass music together and to have a chance to perform onstage on Sunday morning. The Academy also offers parents a little off-time from supervising their children to pick themselves, watch the show, or socialize. You can get the Registration Form for Kids Academy here

How to Get to Pemi Valley
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Since the Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival and the Podunk Bluegrass Festival no longer occur on the same weekend, the opportunities to attend major bluegrass festivals in New England have been extended. Sadly, the loss of Pati Crooker and the decision to end the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival have reduced this rich New England bluegrass heritage. The four remaining festivals, including Strawberry Park in May and Jenny Brook in June provide significant differences in location, design, lineup, and vibe. They are drawn together by a committed group of festival attenders who love to attend shows, jam, and gather together providing great bluegrass to a region no larger than the state of Indiana. It's really quite a remarkable legacy we've been handed. Beyond these major events, people from the region, across the nation, and around the world journey to the northeast in summer to visit the region and enjoy the music. You should make the Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival a regular part of your music life.