Thursday, June 21, 2018

Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival 2018 - Review

Thursday May 31, 2018
The Strawberry Park Amphitheater

The Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival opened for its 41st go-round on a cool, slightly overcast afternoon promising four days of wonderful music in an iconic setting featuring both the well-known open-air amphitheater, shaded by trees, raked to provide excellent sight-lines, and some of the best acoustic qualities to be found anywhere. Often plagued by periods of rain at this time of year, this large all-purpose resort campground also features a covered performance stage for use when serious rainstorms threaten to interfere with fans' enjoyment. With 2018 having served up a cool, wet Spring, there was no reason not to expect extensive use of both venues during the four days. Everyone's expectations were met, while the music continued with several changes of venue from the amphitheater to the secondary stage, close to the snack bar and extensive swimming pools. For us, it was our first attendance at an outdoor festival where we didn't live in our own camper, beginning the next stage of our adventure in a convenient rental unit only steps from the entrance to the amphitheater. As usual, in this blog, when bands appear on more than one day, they are only covered them once. 

Twisted Pine

Twisted Pine is a young, exciting, and increasingly tight, entertaining band which has show remarkable growth during each of the three years they have appeared at Strawberry Park. Featuring a fusion of folk, bluegrass, Americana roots music influences, their tight singing and play crosses generations and genres with charm and smooth musical finesse. 

Kathleen Parks

Rachel Sumner

Dan Bui

Chris Sartori

Twisted Pine - Kentucky Waltz

A Relaxing Thursday Afternoon

The Stockwell Brothers

The Stockwell Brothers have been staples at festivals, small venues, and concerts around New England for more than a generation. Oldest brother Bruce is well-known among banjo players nationwide, often serving on the staff of banjo workshops. Brother Barry promotes music and cultural events, having recently developed The Next Stage  in Putney, VT while brother Al owns and operates a recording studio. Bruce's wife, Kelly, who he met when she took banjo lessons from him, has joined the band on bass. They always entertain with their combination of bluegrass, folk, and softened rock music. 
Barry Stockwell

Bruce Stockwell

Al Stockwell

Kelly Stockwell

The Stockwell Brothers - Single Handed Sailor

Hunter Berry Looks on from the Walkway

Rhonda Vincent & the Rage

Rhonda Vincent is a dynamo. Performing over 100 dates year after year, featured on Larry's Country Diner on RFD-TV and singing harmony on dozens of recordings a year, she seems to be everywhere, but not overexposed as audiences come to hear their favorite bluegrass singer, who never sits down after a show until the last fan has left the Rhonda Vincent Boutique. At Strawberry Park Rhonda closed out the evening on Thursday, following her set with a jam with fans, then two sets and a guest appearance on Friday. Wow!

Rhonda Vincent

Brent Burke

Mickey Harris

Aaron McDaris

Hunter Berry

Josh Williams

Sally Berry

Rhonda & Josh Williams

Rhonda Vincent & the Rage - Momma Tried


 Friday opened at Strawberry Park threatening rain, which soon came in buckets, driving the festivities under the pavilion next to the snack bar just up the hill from the amphitheater. While the noise of people coming for late breakfast and lunch along with kids in the nearby swimming pools providing something of a distraction. Having a dry day, even though it was pleasantly warm, was welcomed by almost all but the most diehard traditionalists. Unhappily, this is not a good setting for me to do videography, so there are no videos from this venue. 

Boxcar Lillies

This is the third year for The Boxcar Lillies to appear at Strawberry Park. More a folk/Americana group than a bluegrass band, they offer a tuneful, lively mix with strong singing and instrumentals. A good act to open the second day of this fine festival.

Jenny Goodspeed

Stephanie Marshall

Jim Henry

Mile Twelve

Mile Twelve has been steadily rising regionally and, now, nationally as they garnered ten second round selections in the nominations process for IBMA awards. The third round, for members, usually rolls out in late July. Be sure to consider this worthy band in your voting. Coming out of Boston, Mile Twelve has an international as well as broad American flavor to draw on in its work. Young, enthusiastic, and thoughtfully creative, they bear deserve your attention. 

Evan Henry

Bronwyn Keith-Hynes

BB Bowness

Nate Sabatt

David Benedict

The Gibson Brothers

The Gibson Brothers have ascended into the stratosphere of bluegrass bands through hard work, dedication to their craft, superior song writing which has become increasingly dominant in their performances, the high quality of their musicianship, and the nature and quality of their brotherly banter, all demonstrated in the video below. While fiddler Clayton Campbell appears to be on sabbatical from the band, the high quality of interaction and musical excitement remains. Jesse Brock's work on mandolin draws cheers for his intense solos. Their performance tonight as part of a single ninety minute set was highlighted by Rhonda Vincent's guest stint, which is also part of the video.

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

Jesse Brock

Mike Barber

Eric & Rhonda

Leigh & Rhonda

Three Song Medley

Kathy Ward & Son James Ward

Emcee - Jim Beaver

Phillip Wells - Scholar, Radio Personality, Friend

Dailey & Vincent
Jamie Dailey

Darrin Vincent

Dailey & Vincent brought their big show to the stage of Strawberry Park to close Friday night. Their performance was fast paced, varied, and lively. The addition of Gaven Largent on Dobro as well as banjo, the two quirkiest instruments to play, has strengthened the left side of the band.  Since Dailey & Vincent feature a number of songs, particularly gospel and patriotic ones, where the banjo might not be seen as an appropriate instrument, the addition of the Dobro to the instrumental mix is welcome. Largent, while young, is a master at both. Seth Taylor's return to the band, on an semi-regular basis while he also continues to perform with Mountain Heart, is welcome for both his excellent guitar work and pleasant stage personality. Patrick McAvinue, 2017 IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year, continues to deliver pure excellence here, as he has at each stop in his career. This very good ninety minute performance closed  an excellent day at Strawberry Park.

Jeff Parker

Patrick McAvinue

Aaron McCune

Gavin Largent

Seth Taylor

Bob Mummert

Jeff Parker & Jamie Dailey

Jeff Parker, the last remaining member of the original Dailey & Vincent beside the two founders, will be missed when he departs to form his own band. He's been a reliable vocal addition as well as serving as a useful comic foil with grace and good humor.

Darin Vincent, Aaron McCune & Patrick McAvinue

Despite the fact that two of the biggest headliners held the crowd through two consecutive ninety minute sets still does not cement, in my mind, that this double long show to close a successful day is a really good strategy. It sure worked this Friday night at Strawberry Park, though.


Saturday at Strawberry Park was saved by the ability of the festival events to move fairly quickly from the amphitheater stage, one of the most pleasant venues in bluegrass when the weather is fair, to the covered pavilion in the pool/snack bar area just a few dozen steps away. As the day wore on, with the weather turning from pleasant to downpour to promising and return, the flexibility of the setup, the skill of Ace Audio at providing excellent sound in two widely different venues, the ability of the Strawberry Park Staff, and the good nature of the hardy fans used to such quirky weather  in late Spring all turned the day into a positive experience, though a times a bit damp. I was not able to record any videos on Saturday. 

Around the Campground 


Sideline has moved quickly from being, just as its name signals, a group of longtime professionals seeking some side work for the off season when their regular gigs were on hiatus to one of the busiest and popular bands on the bluegrass circuit, traveling in their new (to them) bus to over one hundred performances a year from coast to coast. Three original members (Steve Dilling, Jason Moore, and Skip Cherryholmes), all long-time professionals in major bands, remain. Meanwhile, mining the rich supply of available bluegrass tyros to be found in North Carolina, the band has improved with each change. Troy Boone on mandolin and vocals and Daniel Greeson on fiddle bring first rate skills honed at ETSU, while Bailey Coe contributes his fine vocals and rhythm guitar after several years singing with The Grasscats under the tutelage of Russell Johnson. This is a first rate band deserving recognition from IBMA in its nomination process. This year, Sideline has reached the second round of the IBMA awards process in eight categories: Entertainer of the Year, Vocal Group, Instrumental group, Song (Thunder Dan), Banjo, Mandolin, and Guitar. 

Steve Dilling

Jason Moore

Skip Cherryholmes

 Bailey Coe

Troy Boone

Daniel Greeson

 The Kruger Brothers

The Kruger Brothers don't simply sing songs, they provide a musical experience bringing their audiences from tears to laughter as they weave folk songs, bluegrass, rock covers, and Jens Kruger's classical compositions for bluegrass band and symphony orchestra together into music that touches the heart while challenging expectations of what music can be. Jens is well-recognized as one of the world's finest banjo masters, while brother Uwe on guitar is without peer. Joel Landsbrrg, the "third Kruger brother," is crucial tying their music together on the bass. While the Kruger Brothers on record are excellent, their live performances defy description. See them if you can!

Jens Kruger

 Uwe Kruger

Joel Landsberg

The Kruger Brothers, wisely, closely control the amount of their content they allow online. The segment below, reocorded at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants)in California in 2017 was one of their offerings played at Strawberry Park, representing a wonderful example of their versatility and appeal to audiences across an incredibly wide spectrum of music fans, including bluegrass. This video includes two movements from Jens' Appalachian Concerto and Uwe singing Sting's "Fields of Gold."

Devoted Fans

The Lonely Heartstring Band

The Lonely Heartstring Band only needs to sing and play, both of which they do at least as well as any other band, but they also bring a light-hearted personality to their performances drawing them closer to audiences.  A Boston band with roots from coast to coast and northward to Canada, their sound stands out among young, emerging bands for its purity and power. Their rock covers recreate and then, almost, surpass the band they're covering. First with the Beatles, but now with Paul Simon, John Hartford, and Credence Clearwater Revival, they constantly bring surprise and delight. Their singing, highlighted by the brother harmonies of twin George and Charles Clements blend as only twins can. Gabe Hirshfeld is emerging as one of the finest young banjo players because of his brilliance and restraint. His sense of humor permeates the band's approach to its audience. See, hear, and become captivated.

Gabe Hirshfeld

Charles Clements

George Clements

Patrick M'Gonigle

Matt Wittler

Charles & George Clements

The SteelDrivers

The Grammy winning SteelDrivers reflect Muscle Shoals and Nashville as much as they do Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs, but they're one of the most popular and successful bluegrass bands of the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Their bluesy, boozy sound works best, and they've been most effective after dark, often bringing a dark sensibility to their music. They've been a pretty stable band except at the crucial blues singer vocalist spot, which now sports Kelvin Demrell singing and playing guitar as the band's fourth singer. On a wet Saturday night he introduced  himself with enthusiasm, his energy fitting right in with Tammy Rodgers' fiddle and the always elegant Richard Bailey on banjo. 

Kelvin Demrell

Tammy Rodgers

Brent Truit

Mike Fleming

Rodgers & Fleming


Sunday dawned warm and sunny, ready for the morning gospel show to be followed by two excellent regional bands providing solid, entertaining music as those who haven't too far to drive home or who aren't yet quite ready to give up the magic relief from the outside world provided by bluegrass festivals. 

Dry Branch Fire Squad

Dry Branch Fire Squad opened the morning with it's traditional Sunday morning gospel program featuring old time gospel music punctuated with some of Ron Thomason's patented story-telling and a few words that manage to send a humane, faithful message while pretty much leaving any reference to formal religion out of the mix. This program always includes some old time country church gospel music and ends with "If I Could Just Touch the Hem of His Garment" drawn from Matthew 9.21, always leaving the crowd yearning for more. A highlight of Dry Branch Fire Squad's two shows this weekend was the return of Brian Aldridge on mandolin, guitar, and vocals to the band after several years' absence. This represents his third stint with the band, which was much welcomed by those who know him. 

Ron Thomason

Brian Aldridge

Tom Boyd

Jeff Bird

Brian Aldridge

The Gail Wade Trio

Gale Wade has a warm, winning personality and writes good songs, often about her love for horses. Like many New England musicians, she performs with at least three bands we've seen as well as singer/songwriter sessions in coffee house settings. We've seen her from New England to Tennessee. Along with Tim St. Jean on squeeze box and mandolin and Joe DeLillo on bass, she earned the enthusiastic encore the audience awarded her.

Gail Wade

Joe DeLillo

Tim St. Jean

The Blackstone Valley Boys

The Blackstone Valley Boys closed the festival with a pleasant set of traditional bluegrass as well as some newer material and a few songs written within the band. The Dick Brothers have been playing in and around New England for a generation, as have the other members of the band, all familiar to bluegrass fans from the region. 
Dave Dick

Bob Dick

Tim St. Jean

Bob Dick & Ken Taylor

The music was finished about 1:30 or so, as we picked up our chairs to return to our rental park model trailer just outside the top of the amphitheater. It was our first festival without our trailer, which the Park has actually bought to become part of its rental stock. We look forward to experiencing our bluegrass from a somewhat different perspective but with our enthusiasm for the music and the community that supports it. Tired, we packed and drove our new, much smaller, vehicle home. 

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