Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival - Lebanon, NH

The Third Annual Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival will take place on November 13th and 14th at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon, NH.  Featuring four major national bands over the two days and an afternoon of workshops on Saturday, the festival has established a reputation for offering cutting edge bands and headline favorites in a concert format.  Tickets are $33.00 per night or $56.00 for both nights.  All seats are reserved. In its first two years, this festival has been characterized by nearly sold out houses, fine sound, and a very enthusiastic response from its audiences.  The warm and pleasant auditorium offers excellent site lines and first rate sound. This year's event features three bands that have been IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year, including 2009 award winner The Steeldrivers.  In addition the Del McCoury Band is the winner of more individual and group awards from IBMA than any other band in the history of that organization.  Bluegrass fans wishing to see and hear the present and future of bluegrass music will find this weekend event to be a most rewarding opportunity.  Directions to the Opera House can be found here.

The Infamous Stringdusters

The Infamous Stringdusters were formed from a group of experienced young session musicians who had become the house band at Nashville's famed bluegrass venue The Station Inn.  Emerging in 2007, the band won quick recognition from their peers and from fans, garnering IBMA awards as Emerging Artist of the Year, Song of the Year (Fork in the Road), and Album of the Year (Fork in the Road), at that time an unprecedented triple play.  After three years on the road the Stringdusters have only become tighter and more exciting to watch and listen to. Combining elements of traditional bluegrass band and a contemporary jam band, their work is exceptionally tight and disciplined.  Of particular interest to close watchers is the intense concentration on each other that band members exhibit in performance. Each member listens to the others closely, weaving their unique and pleasing sounds together. Andy Hall, who was twice nominated as IBMA Dobro player of the year, attended Berklee College of Music along with band mate Chris Pandolfi, the first person ever to major in banjo there. Andy Falco on guitar,  Jesse Cobb on mandolin, Jeremy Garrett on fiddle, and Travis Book on bass each contribute virtuoso performances on their instruments.  This band is both outstanding and accessible, a treat to fans of traditional and progressive bluegrass alike.

Jeremy Garrett

 Andy Falco

Andy Hall

Chris Pandolfi

Travis Book

Andy Hall, Chris Pandolfi, and Jesse Cobb Jammin'

 Travis Book and Jesse Cobb

King Wilkie

Promo picture provided by King Wilkie

We first saw King Wilkie at Merlefest and then again at Strawberry Park shortly after they had emerged in 2004.  At that time they were a group of young musicians who had learned about bluegrass music a few years earlier, formed a band named after Bill Monroe's horse, and begun touring as a band emulating the great first generation bluegrass bands of the 1940's and 50's.  They were named IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year in 2004.  Then they sort of fell off my radar and began to create their own sound and vibe.  As they sought their own unique sound and approach to the music, I believe they were playing more college campuses and concert halls than the festival circuit we tend to follow.

They have recently released a concept album called "King Wilkie Presents: The Wilkie Family Singers" and are touring to support it as well as offer a selection of their earlier work and more traditional bluegrass music.  The CD, with a number of noted guests, tells a story in song, exploring the characters through their songs about themselves and each other. Reid Burgess, a founding member of the group, says, "Live, we're supporting the album, but mostly with a core string band.  We play some of the old King Wilkie stuff's really a mix of old and new." He notes that the characters won't play into their performance in a dramatic way, but they may talk about them a bit.  Rather, the show will feature a sampling of King Wilkie music as it has developed through the years. Burgess also commented that after their experimentation it's "refreshing to play bluegrass doesn't feel like a job any more." He concludes that to him "bluegrass is most alive, and best experienced, in campgrounds and parking lots and front porches across the USA.  That's the real culture behind the music.  That's the fun part and still what I consider to be the crux of it all."


Saturday at Upper Valley has featured workshops at the spacious AVA Gallery around the corner from the Opera House.  In addition to introductory workshops for people not familiar with bluegrass music, there have been instrumental workshops led by local musicians.  The highlight each has been a workshop showcasing one of the featured bands.  Two years ago, asked to send a single musician for a workshop, the entire Del McCoury band appeared to discuss their music, answer questions, illustrate their points with selections from their catalog, and play requests.  They stayed for over 90 minutes.  Last year The Grascals presented a similar workshop, offering insights into the band and its music in an intimate and friendly setting.

The Del McCoury Band

The Del Mccoury Band is the most decorated band in bluegrass history.  The band has won 31 IBMA awards as well as a Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Album and another Grammy nomination.  Del has recently released a five disk boxed set covering his fifty years in bluegrass. Among his other early experiences, Del was a bluegrass boy with Bill Monroe, providing a direct link to the father of bluegrass music.  His son Ronnie has been named IBMA mandolin player of the year eight times.  Rob McCoury is a top banjo player with other bands as well as a mainstay of the family band.  Jason Carter, on fiddle, has been named Fiddle Player of the Year three times.  Alan Bartram on bass is also a standout.  Del McCoury's voice is one of the last remaining high lonesome tenor voices, familiar to bluegrass fans everywhere.  His voice is such a signature instrument he is often overlooked as an instrumentalist.  He is recognized within bluegrass music as one of the very finest bluegrass rhythm guitarists ever.  Typically, McCoury will play from an abbreviated set list and then take requests from the audience.  This means that most people will get to hear their favorites. The Del McCoury Band is one of those groups bluegrass folks should seek go see and hear every time they get an opportunity.  Don't miss them at Lebanon!

Rob McCoury

Ron McCoury

Jason Carter

Alan Bartram

The Great Del McCoury


The Steeldrivers

How often has it happened to you that you've like a song so much you looked at the liner notes to see who wrote it and discovered the author was Chris Stapleton? His music has been recorded by rock, country, blues, and bluegrass bands.  The other day we were driving and listening to a Balsam Range CD when the song Somewhere In Between popped out - Chris Stapleton.  Brandon Rickman has recorded his work as have LRB and many other bands.  The Steeldrivers emerged in the bluegrass scene only two years ago with an immediately recognizable style featuring Stapleton's bluesy soulful voice in a self-titled album with almost all songs written by him and band mate mandolinist Mike Henderson.  In 2009 IBMA recognized the band as Emerging Artist of the Year.  Stapleton has surrounded himself with an experienced group of bluegrass musicians and been welcomed at bluegrass and Americana festivals across the nation.  Their music elicits a variety of responses from some claiming that their new sound represents the future of bluegrass music to raised eyebrows and questions as to whether their sound fits within the genre at all.  Suffice it to say that they represent a synthesis of style and musicality that synthesizes many elements within today's acoustic music. Richard Bailey on banjo is a very fine and experienced bluegrass musician, as is Tammy Rogers on fiddle and harmony vocals.  Her voice blends extremely well with Stapleton's throaty sound.  Mike Henderson on mandolin and Mike Fleming on bass and vocals are all good fits.  This band will grab your attention and challenge some of your assumptions of what bluegrass is as it brings up to date the already present strands of blues and rock to be found in the music.

Tammy Rogers and Chris Stapleton

 Mike Fleming 

Mike Henderson

Richard Bailey

Tammy Rogers

Chris Stapleton

The Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival at The Lebanon Opera House, presented in a concert format, is a feast showcasing the variety of music to be found within what is often considered to be a rather narrow genre.  The theater staff is professional and helpful, leading to a good viewing experience to complement the music.  See you there. 

1 comment:

  1. I've been counting down the days to the Upper Valley Festival since I bought my tickets the night Sierra Hull played across the street in the park. My fingers are crossed that Mike Henderson is playing with The SteelDrivers. Missed him at Greyfox and Ossipee.