Saturday, August 20, 2016

Podunk Bluegrass Festival 2016 - Thursday & Friday: Review

The four day weekend at Podunk Bluegrass Festival, held each August in the Hebron Lions Club Fairgrounds in Hebron, CT promised to be hot and wet. The forecast, a midsummer unsettled combination of heat, humidity, and thunderstorms was bearing down on the Northeast. This probably depressed attendance by the all important day-tripper crowd and drive the campers who came and stayed to seek shade, stick close to their campers during the day, and come out for the fine shows during the second sets, in the evening when it cooled somewhat. While the weather was often threatening, with lightning flashes behind heavy clouds surrounding the fairgrounds, there was actually very little rain on the site, although the heat was often impressive in this hottest summer on record. People who came to celebrate this wonderful American acoustic music got plenty of what they asked for, from periods ranging back to the early twentieth century and reaching forwards into the future.

The Band Competition: Thursday at Podunk opens with the now well-known band competition. Start-up bands with sufficient experience to be currently booking dates and at least one recorded project in circulation compete for a cash prize along with a guaranteed booking for next year's Podunk Bluegrass Festival. One highlight of this contest is that it is judged, not voted. Three bluegrass professionals, a record company executive, a radio broadcaster, a long time performer and a promoter are the judges. At the end of the contest, they meet with each band to give them detailed feedback.  The contest was won this year by Mile Twelve, an exciting young band out of Berklee College of Music, who have been setting New England on fire this summer. I guess I had difficulty getting off the mark this year, because I missed their performance. Here are a couple of the other bands:

Twelve Mile
BB Bowness & Bronwyn Keith Heinz

Bowness, Heinz & Evan Murphy

Meanwhile...the Rigs Kept Rolling In

Famed New England Photo/Videographer
On Vacation

Family Time

The Abby Hollander Band

The Abby Hollander Band, based in Brooklyn (NY) gave Podunk a strong set on Thursday evening. The band's performance was better than mine, or the lights, or something that made night photography difficult for me. This problem was rectified by Friday. However, I didn't get really good photos of this band. 

Ellery Marshall

Joseph Scott

Abby Hollander - Back When We Could Have Been In Love - Video

Todd Hutchinson Running House Sound 
for Rosewood Sound

The Jeff Scroggins & Colorado

The Jeff Scroggins & Colorado comes from Colarado and, this year, is performing a good deal at eastern festivals. Scroggins, a winner at Winfield some years ago, plays fine banjo and has built the band around Greg Blake's strong singing along with his son Tristan's voice and mandolin. Their song selection is varied with three song singers each able to provide either lead singing or harmonies. 

Jeff Scroggins

Greg Blake

Tristan & Jeff Scroggins

Ellie Hakenson

Isaac Calender 


Friday's schedule of bands described an arc from primitive pre-bluegrass music from a delightful trio called The South Carolina Broadcasters to the very edges of bluegrass music where it becomes something else, bluegrass related but no longer much grassy itself. The day's program represents a high in demonstrating what even a small bluegrass festival can become while maintaining its essential appeal to all bluegrass fans. 

The South Carolina Broadcasters

The South Carolina Broadcasters, based in Mt. Airy, NC, have carefully and thoroughly mined the mass of early recorded material stored in radio station WPAQ, where they present a four times weekly old-timey radio show, and in the dusty files of old 78 rpm records to find now obscure gospel and dance tunes that eventually merged into contemporary bluegrass. Ivy Sheppard, with her plaintive voice and deep respect for the past is the obsessive spirit behind this search as well as a major part of its powerful vocal effect. Her husband David, a well-known luthier,  adds his voice and harmony. The addition of Andy Edmonds on fiddle and mandolin has added breadth and versatility to this band, pushing them to greater achievement. This band serves to broaden the musical palette of any bluegrass festival. 

Ivy Shappard

David Sheppard

Andy Edmonds

Kids Activities

Supervised children's activities are provided on Friday and Saturday including crafts and such. 


Steve Dilling has found a new instrument in Sideline that gives outlet to all his skills, banjo player, baritone harmony singer, and band emcee. As such, he has helped jell a band begun as little more than a jam into a foreceful proponent of well chosen bluegrass songs from its first classic generations that thrills audiences and has provided them with so many dates they've had to buy a bus to help get from place to place. This is a fine band composed mostly of experienced musicians whose strengths lie in making tradition contemporary. 

Nathan Aldridge

Skip Cherryholmes

Brad Hudson

Brian Aldridge

Jason Moore

Sierra Hull

Sierra Hull isn't the sweet little thirteen year old mandolin wizard who sprang seemingly fully forged on the world when she first signed with Rounder Records. Everyone recognized her as a prodigy then. Now she's a fully fledged musical artist with an exceptional command of her instrument and an increasingly pleasing singing voice. In conversation she's thoughtful and introspective, and both those qualities come through in the music she's playing now as a young adult. What we don't know, nor, I suspect does she, is what's coming next. On her current tour, she's performing with the brilliant Ethan Jodziewicz, a Curtis Institute of Music graduate whose a protege Edgar Meyer, and long-time musical sidekick Justin Moses on banjo, guitar, or Dobro...whatever is needed. I've seen their show, comprised of some songs from her earlier recordings and others from her latest with these two, and found it increasingly pleasing as I've heard it further. If you're used to her earlier style, it takes some getting used to, but is more than worth the effort. 

Ethan Jodziewicz

Justin Moses

Sierra Hull

Mark Fitzgerald - Rosewood Sound

After three weekends of working closely with Mark Fitzgerald and Todd Hutchinson of Rosewood Sound at three festivals in New England this summer, I'm convinced that this Syracuse, NY, sound company has the clearest idea of how to deliver acoustic sound anywhere in the Northeast. Their sound is clear and focused, bringing the instruments alive with wonderful clarity and crispness. At Podunk they added the skills of a lighting specialist who, but the second day, had dialed the lights in to provide wonderful brightness, balance, and color for the evening. Since few sound companies are well versed in light and lighting, this addition moves them near the top for festivals seeking to deliver real quality sound in a visually pleasing environment. 

Ronnie Reno & the Reno Tradition

Ronnie Reno is heir to the first generation of bluegrass performers as the son of Don Reno. He's reaches toward the future as his music brings bluegrass to new audiences through his programming on RFD-TV. Quietly and persistently, Reno's a power in bluegrass music. His Nashville-based band is stocked with first-rate musicians, many of whom have been with him for years. His smooth singing and confident media seasoned delivery keep his show moving. Much of his music comes from his father's music, music many consider to be among the most important of the first generation of bluegrass music. 

Ronnie Reno

Mike Scott

Heath VanWinkle

Steve Day

John Maberry

Alison Brown Workshop

Grammy winner and 1991 IBMA Banjo Player of the Year Alison Brown presented a well attended workshop. There were constant offerings at the Better Living Building, where the workshops were held, that offered instruction, opportunities to chat with the artists, and performances. Strong workshop design. 

Alison Brown

Bryan McDowell

The Americana Stage

Them Damn Hamiltons at the Acoustic Stage where a variety of acoustic Americana music was offered during the first three days of the schedule. The heat may have made the walk up to this stage a bit daunting, but it was located on a pleasant, grassy site without the dust that had characterized it last year. 

The Alison Brown Quartet

Alison Brown has long been recognized as one of the finest and most creative banjo players in the world. Before returning east to Harvard College, she was well known on the West Coast for her work with Stuart Duncan. After graduate school at UCLA, where she earned an MBA, she worked as an investment banker for a couple of years before returning to her love of music, trading a lucrative future for the risks and rewards of her artistry. She and husband Garry West are the founders and owners of Compass Records, a prestigious label in bluegrass, celtic, and world music. Her performance at Podunk featured jazz tinged bluegrass flavored, and pop infused music, much of it from her new recording. Completing the musical arc of the day, the set presented compelling and satisfying music. 

Alison Brown & Garry West

Byron Larrance

Garry West

Joe Davidian

Bryan McDowell

Alison Brown Quartet with Sierra Hull - Leaving Cottondale - Video 

Simply a wonderful day...despite the heat and humidity. More coming.....