Catch Some Acoustic Music during May in Washington

Del McCoury BandThe Washington, DC area will be host to some terrific acoustic music acts during the month of May, ending with a stellar lineup at DelFest over the Memorial Day weekend.  With the coming of beautiful spring weather, this is a perfect time to hear some live music.

Regular readers know that I’m a big fan of the Monday Night Concerts of the Institute of Musical Traditions.  The 2008-2009 season wraps up in May, but not before a May 4th concert in celebration of Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday (I bet they’ll be some righteous sing-alongs) and the final DC-area concert of the Canadian band Tanglefoot on May 11th.   According to the IMT website, Tanglefoot is “Stan Rogers meets Van Halen.”

For some straight-ahead traditional bluegrass, check out the DC Bluegrass Union’s Spring Concert on May 9th with Dan Paisley & Southern Grass.

Bluegrass ExpressThen over the Memorial Day weekend, all bluegrass lovers in the Mid-Atlantic region will be heading to Cumberland, Maryland, for the second annual DelFest, hosted by the Del McCoury Band.  There’s a stellar line-up, including Old Crow Medicine Show, Leftover Salmon, Sam Bush, J.D. Crowe and the New South, Tim O’Brien, the Infamous Stringdusters, and Joe Craven.  If you really want to be authentic, take the Bluegrass Express train from DC to Cumberland for the festival!

Speaking of Tim O’Brien, he’ll be teaching masterclasses this summer at the DC Bluegrass Union Bluegrass & Old Time Camp, July 13-17th, in Westminster, Maryland.  O’Brien is a very talented multi-instrumentalist who can play any type of music and does it well.  Wish I could take a week off!

I love Del McCoury’s version of Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightening, so I’ve added the video from a performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.   Hope to see you around at some live music venues this month.

More to come…

DJB

Compass Records Artists Shine at MerleFest

Missy Raines and the New Hip at MerlefestI know that when I travel to MerleFest, I’d better take along some spending money for CDs.  The MerleFest Mall includes what I’ve heard described as “the world’s best Americana music store” and I wouldn’t disagree.

This year’s store was sponsored by Compass Records, which was appropriate since so many of their artists were playing at the festival.  Compass is a label that over the past 10-12 years has grown to be one of the best in Americana and roots music.  Their website tells the background story:

Co-founded in 1994 by musicians Alison Brown and Garry West, Compass is a new breed of roots-music label: eclectic, sophisticated, and artist-friendly. Called “one of the greatest independent labels of the last decade” by Billboard Magazine, Compass Records has provided a thriving haven of creativity for artists and a reliable beacon of quality for music fans. Its 2006 acquisition of the Green Linnet catalog and the 2008 acquisition of the seminal Mulligan Records label has made Compass the place to go for Celtic and roots music.

Brown is one of the most innovative banjo players on the scene today, who just happens to have an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a MBA from UCLA.  She put that education to work in founding Compass Records, and has assembled one of the most creative group of artists of any independent label today.

Many of those artists were at MerleFest, and a number were promoting new CDs.  Missy Raines and the New Hip were my favorite act on Sunday (see photo above), and they included another Compass artist, Matt Flinner, on mandolin.  Bearfoot, a new young band from Alaska, was also all over MerleFest.

Over the next week or so, I’ll post reviews of a few of the new albums from Compass.  They deserve a listen.  But until then, check out this promo video from Alison Brown and her 2008 release The Company You KeepI like the line from her husband/business partner when he says, “Alison Brown music, to me, is where bluegrass music goes to play with its Celtic, jazz, and American folk song friends.”  That’s a perfect description.  Enjoy.

More to come…

DJB

MerleFest Day 4

Missy Raines and Angel BandI’ve now arrived home and cut off my MerleFest wristband…so it is officially over.  (I’m sure the organizers are glad to know that’s what it takes.)

Sunday at MerleFest is a short day, ending at 6 p.m.  If you live 7 hours away, as I do, it ends even earlier unless you want to get home at 1 a.m.

Nonetheless, there were some good final day acts that I was able to work in before the heat and the prospect of the drive drove me out the front gate and headed north.

I arrived a little later than planned (must have been that early morning post), so I skipped Doc and the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s traditional gospel show and caught up with the Dixie Bee-Liners at the Hillside stage.  I’d seen them the day The Dixie Bee-Liners at Merlefestbefore as part of the New Generation Super Jam and wanted to see a full show.  They had a very entertaining set, with strong harmonies and interesting arrangements.   They are worth a look if they are traveling to your town.

Afterwards, I stopped by the Americana tent and caught the end of Happy Traum’s show.  While most people think of MerleFest as primarily a bluegrass festival, it really showcases all types of music including a strong strand of acoustic blues.  Traum sat on-stage with his guitar and took requests, picking such classics as Step It Up and Go.  Because of his Homespun Tapes series of instructional DVDs, Traum deserves a great deal of thanks from everyone who cares about acoustic and traditional music. 

Pete Wernick and The Gibson BrothersOn the Cabin Stage, Pete Wernick (a.k.a. Dr. Banjo) brought out The Gibson Brothers for a short but strong set.  These guys are exceptional singers in the brother duo tradition, and Wernick added a warm presence (no pun intended) as the MC and experienced performer.  I have a good friend in Staunton who went to high school with Wernick and even my friend – who is a physicist – calls him Dr. Banjo.  Wernick – a founder of Hot Rize – is a giant in the progressive bluegrass field, but in recent years he’s focused more on the traditional side of the music.  It was nice of him to use his time to showcase The Gibson Brothers.

Next came the highlight of the day for me.  I’ve written recently about Missy Raines and the New Hip’s performance in the Washington area.  But today she was even better.  The New Hip came out smoking and never let up.  They sounded just like a jazz quintet, with lots of great interplay and strong individual solos.  The addition of mandolin star Matt Flinner just made the band that much better.  This guy has serious chops.  Check out his new CD Music du Jour, as it is a strong work by his normal trio. 

Raines also called up Angel Band to help out with the vocals on Cold Hard Business (see photo at the top of the post), and did they ever take care of business!  After her show, I actually had four different people – three of them strangers – ask me if I’d heard Raines’ show…she was that good.

The Carolina Chocolate DropsFor me, the day ended with the Carolina Chocolate Drops.  These three musicians have a real love for the old-time string band music of the African American community, and it shows in their infectious set.  Truly, a great way to end my MerleFest 2009.

I just checked the MerleFest Forum board to see how others were viewing this year’s festival.  There were some complaints about the relatively weak line-up (I would agree to a point), and also some notes about the repetitive nature of many of the acts.  It wasn’t my strongest MerleFest, but I have a hard time complaining when I get to spend four days in the Carolina hills (even if it is hot as Hades) listening to great musicians play what they love.

More to come…

DJB

Bright Morning Stars

Bearfoot at the Creekside StageEvery day at breakfast before heading off to MerleFest, I’ve sat down and planned how I’m going to negotiate the day and the 14 stages.  This morning I had penciled in some old favorites, but when I arrived at the festival site I had a change of heart and decided to spend my morning listening to new bands.  You could call them the bright morning stars of the Americana music world.

Saturday is the longest day of the festival, so I’m just back into my hotel room after midnight and have downloaded my pictures.  Rather than write a long, involved review, I’m just going to hit some of the highlights of the day for me:

  • Hearing the young band Bearfoot from Alaska.  They sing beautifully and write interesting songs such as Drank Up All the Whiskey and Good in the Kitchen.  Angela Oudean is a promising young fiddler and Odessa Jorgensen is a fine songwriter and singer.
  • I love the energy of the New Generation Super Jam on the Watson (main) stage.  The SteelDrivers played great straight-ahead bluegrass.  Next Generation Super JamThe Belleville Outfit and The Dixie Bee-liners joined together for the spirited Bo Diddley number Mona, which included that most rare of bluegrass festival sightings – a drum solo.  Cadillac Sky had another entertaining set, singing songs you don’t normally hear at MerleFest (You Shook Me All Night Long).  And The Farewell Drifters offered good progressive bluegrass.  (Yesterday, the leader of the Drifters got off one of the festival’s best lines when he said they were going to play some old time music – for them – and then launched into Ticket to Ride.  That hurt.)
  • It wasn’t all new acts.  I did go back to the Creekside stage for more John Cowan (can you tell I like The Cow?).   What’s not to like – the band zipped through the catchy Carla’s Got a New Tattoo, flexed their instrumental chops on Tony Rice’s Gasology, and then turned the Creekside into a revival meeting with Sam Cooke’s Jesus Gave Me Water.  Just wait, you’ll find more Cowan a bit later in the day.John Cowan
  • Hearing Sam Bush sit in with The Greencards, who are still a new young band even though these two Australians and a Brit seem to have been around for a while, was a treat.
  • David Bromberg’s set at the Hillside stage was much better – in my mind – than the one I heard a couple of years ago when he returned to touring.  He was right on today, especially with the blues.  He showed those chops on The First Time My Woman Left Me – This Month .  On What a Wonderful World It Would Be, Bromberg updates the lyrics by adding “Ain’t nobody here knows what a slide rule is for.”  That got a laugh in our section of the hillside.  Finally, he brought on the Angel Band for a spirited version of Roger McGuinn’s Lost My Driving Wheel.

By 5 p.m. the entire Hillside Stage area was covered with thousands of people (a friend of mine estimated it at 10,000) for the highly anticipated Hillside Album Hour hosted by The Waybacks.  Guitarist James Nash knows every single rock guitar lick ever played, and I’m convinced the Album Hour was conceived so that Nash and Sam Bush could live their rock god fantasies and so everyone can hear John Cowan sing pure rock and roll. 

Emmylou, Ronnie Simpkins, and Sam Bush on the Watson Stage

The identity of the album is kept a secret until the opening chords ring off of Nash’s guitar.  During the sound check, he must have played five or six well-known licks, at one point stopping and saying, “Damn, that’s another record we can’t do.”  But soon enough the classic kick-off of Brown Sugar started the set, and the entire crowd was ready for the Stone’s Sticky Fingers.  Emmylou delighted the crowd by being the guest vocalist for Wild Horses, and while there wasn’t time to get through the entire album, these true guitar heroes rocked the Hillside Stage for a very satisfying hour of rock and roll history.

Tonight’s headliner at the Watson Stage was Emmylou Harris, and she didn’t disappoint.   Playing to a huge crowd, Harris and her three-piece acoustic Red Dirt Band touched on songs from throughout her career.  Poncho and Lefty, Red Dirt Girl, and Bright Morning Star (see the connection!) were all favorites.  Sam Bush joined Emmylou for the finale Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight and had the crowd wanting more.  Bromberg played the short Cabin Stage set to bridge the shows on the main stage, and then the Sam Bush Band was rocking…even on bluegrass numbers like Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.  As I left, BeauSoleil had the dance tent hopping to a Cajun beat.

As the clock nears 2 a.m., I have to close this out.  There’s the Nashville Bluegrass Band/Doc Watson gospel sing in the morning, not to mention the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

More to come…

DJB

New Wave and Old Standards Shine at Merlefest

Tony Rice

Merlefest Day 2 began bright and early for me this morning, with a rousing performance at the Americana Stage by the DC-based band Scythian. I caught the irony of having a band fronted by two Ukrainian brothers opening up the Americana stage, but that’s the joy of Merlefest and hey, it is a post-Obama election world.

Then came the first great surprise of the morning. I went to the Traditional Stage to hear the New North Carolina Ramblers, but walked in to a packed tent listening in rapt attention to 86-year-old festival patriarch Doc Watson playing a set with old time banjo wizard David Holt.  (It turns out the Ramblers were double-booked and so Doc and Holt were on-call.  And when I say packed, I mean packed.  The picture below was taken from the side because the front was crammed with kids and grandparents alike.) 

Doc was in fine form, playing guitar and singing with lots of strength and emotion. Fiddle tunes (Whiskey Before Breakfast paired with Ragtime Annie) were interspersed with Travis-style picking (Deep River Blues) and even a harp/bones duet. Holt taught everyone the Etta Baker version of Railroad Bill and had us all singing the chorus:

Railroad Bill, Railroad Bill, Lights his cigar with a $10 bill and then rides, rides, rides

Watson and HoltDoc Watson (left) playing with David Holt ended their set with There Goes the Train That Carried My Girl From Town.  I’ve heard Doc dozens of times over the years (the first at Nashville’s old Exit/In as a college student), but this was a special set and I’m glad I caught it.

After watching a bit of the Welcome Home Super Jam on the main stage, I worked my way over to the Hillside to spend the afternoon. And what an afternoon it was.

The day’s second surprise was my introduction to the band Cadillac Sky. While their instruments gave the appearance of a straight-ahead bluegrass band, it took about 10 seconds to figure out otherwise.

After rocking through tunes such as Everybody’s Got a Good-Bye Story, they would shift gears and have guitarist David Mayfield play a little personal biography vignette that closes with an abrupt ending that suggests you’d much rather be listening to something else.   Mayfield’s stage persona is described on the Skaggs Family Records website as “poetic-demolition derby” and he proved it with a guitar-thrashing but amazingly entertaining solo version of Freeborn Man.  Jimmy Martin he’s not!

The Hillside Stage view at Merlefest 2009

And that’s not surprising.  Cadillac Sky cites influences such as Radiohead and Gnarls Barkley.  Not your typical bluegrass band but part of a new wave of “new traditional” (for lack of a better term)  bands that was very much on display today at Merlefest.  These guys are terrific musicians and lead singer Bryan Simpson has a great voice that’s supported by strong harmony singing by the band.  Check out Gravity’s Our Enemy, their new CD, but most definitely take the time to see them live if you get the chance.

I had heard of the teenage mandolin phenom Sierra Hull when I was at Merlefest two years ago, but I’d never heard her front her band, Highway 111.  She’s an obvious talent and a fluid mandolin player who has – as Sam Bush notes on her website – tremendous potential for future growth.  Her voice is still that of a teenager (a similar issue with the Lovell Sisters), but her mandolin work already shows a lot of maturity and musicianship.  Hull ripped through  Smashville, a new instrumental written by Mountain Heart fiddle player Jim VanCleve.

From the youngsters, the Hillside StageWayne Henderson then turned to someone who was there at the first Merlefest 22 years ago – newgrass vocalist John Cowan.   With his bandmates in the New Grass Revival in the 70s and 80s, Cowan helped redefine bluegrass and also helped set the course for an inclusive, open, and experimental Merlefest.  Cowan started with the old NGR hit Callin’ Baton Rouge and inserted a bit of Blackberry Blossom in the middle.   His jazz-influenced drummer provided a unique percussive setting for the Bill Monroe classic – and Cowan staple – Good Woman’s Love.   All in all, Cowan was Cowan – and I like that very much.

After three hours of sitting on the ground and shifting around to try and stay in the shade, I was ready for a different venue.  I stumbled across guitar builder and picker extraordinaire Wayne Henderson (photo above) in a picker’s tent just playing with festival-goers who had brought along their instruments.  I listened to a bit of the Grascals on the main stage, but I’m not big fan so didn’t stay long and caught some dinner.

But in another surprise, after dinner I came across The Duhks playing in the dance tent.  I love The Duhks, but don’t normally go looking for music in the dance tent.  But the roof was pulsing with the energy coming from the Winnipeg-based band, and so I stopped by.  And that place was rocking! 

The Duhks at the Dance TentIt was a high-energy show throughout the set, but they took it to another level with an over-the-top version of Whole Lotta Love.  Being from Canada, they even added a verse in French.  Lead vocalist Sarah Dugas has a set of pipes and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a fiddle, banjo, guitar, and drums blasting out stadium rock.  Wow!

The day ended for me in a rain-marred show by Mountain Heart with special guest Tony Rice.  I entered with the band playing  a surprisingly good version of Whipping Post.  (Everyone at Merlefest wants to be the Allman Brothers, which is appropriate since the late Merle Watson – for whom the festival is named – always cited Duane Allman as his influence on slide guitar.)  After a short opening, Mountain Heart quickly brought out Tony and started working through his cannon.  Most turned out well.  Mountain Heart has a talented lead singer, a wonderful mandolin player (Aaron Ramsey), and the aforementioned Jim VanCleve on fiddle.  When playing straight-ahead bluegrass with Tony, such as Freeborn Man, they sizzled.  But on the Bela Fleck-penned Whitewater, they couldn’t quite match the original, even with Tony playing a great couple of solos.  I know, because I listened to the 20th anniversary jam version of Whitewater on the drive home tonight.  It isn’t surprising they couldn’t top Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, and Byron House.  Who can?

Tonight Tony played a beautiful solo medley of Shenandoah and Wayfaring Stranger (see photo at the top of the post) that led into the band’s version of Tony’s classic Manzanita.  A very satisfying show all around.

Soon after they left the stage, lightening and thunder led to a pause in the main stage activities.  I was tired (it was very hot on this day where we weren’t suppose to see any rain), so decided I’d miss Del McCoury and I’d catch the Waybacks at the Album show tomorrow.  Now that I’ve posted reviews, I’m off to bed to rest up for Day 3 at Merlefest.

More to come…

DJB

Jerry Douglas, Travis Tritt, and the Fretboard Journal Cap First Day of Merlefest 2009

Douglas and TrittWith just a Dobro, acoustic guitar, and one great country blues voice, Jerry Douglas and Travis Tritt filled the North Carolina night with terrific music at the end of Day One of Merlefest 2009.

I left this morning and drove to Wilkesboro on a picture perfect spring day.  The Shenandoah was beautiful as I drove up the valley: red-buds were everywhere, and the hardwoods were just beginning to green.  Just another reason I treasure my 15 years in Staunton and go back as often as possible.

I arrived at the Wilkes Community College campus – home to Merlefest – in time to catch most of the Lovell Sisters’ act.  I’ve written about the Lovell Sisters before, but they continue to grow as musicians and as a band, with more complex arrangements and beautiful harmony singing.   They ended with a tune by that well-known bluegrass composer Jimi Hendrix.Wayne Henderson

Wayne Henderson followed on the Cabin Stage.  Wearing his Boston Red Sox hat (see photo at right) and finger-picking on a beautiful Henderson guitar, Wayne and his band-mates put some life into tunes such as the old chestnut Sweet Georgia Brown.  Henderson was also the subject of an earlier post on More to Come… as I wrote last January about his appearance in the Fretboard Journal.    Regular readers will know how much I love that magazine, so I was thrilled to walk into one of the store tents after Henderson’s set and walk straight into the Fretboard Journal table.  I had a chance to thank the editors for producing such a great magazine and to tell them of my quarterly blog posts when their current issue hits my mailbox.  They were kind enough to say they’d seen More to Come… in their Google analytics.

Peter Rowan pulled together a bluegrass band for the evening and featured Stanley Brothers’ guitarist George Shuffler on a few numbers.  Rank Stranger was the highlight – a perfect tune for Rowan’s voice and Shuffler’s guitar. 

The disappointment of the night was Dailey and Vincent.   They are the hottest new act in bluegrass, racking up awards right and left.  The playing was technically fine, but it was all just a little too canned and too contrived – even down to stopping songs, cracking a joke or two, and then picking up where they left off.   I finally wandered off to find some dinner, and only returned when I heard the beautiful voice of Tift Merritt.  Part of the “Tradition-Plus” part of Merlefest, she was new to me and brought a jazzy, singer-songwriter sensibility to the night.

The stars were out on a crystal clear night when the stars of the evening, Jerry Douglas and Travis Tritt, walked on stage a little before 10 p.m.   No band, no contrived jokes – just two very talented acoustic musicians.  After a short instrumental, Douglas and Tritt launched into the Allman Brothers’ Come and Go Blues, showcasing Douglas’ bluesy slide and Tritt’s bluesy voice.  They played for an hour-and-a-half, with each entertainer taking a short solo set in the middle, and the energy and musicianship were high throughout.  They played Tritt’s hits (Here’s a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares), a song to warm the heart of this preservationist (Country Ain’t Country No More – about the paving over of land for suburbia), and ended with the old Elvis hit T-R-O-U-B-L-E that Tritt has made his own.  Douglas’ electric dobro was making enough music for a full band as they left a satisfied crowd.

Time to put this one to bed and get ready for a full Friday.

More to come…

DJB

Merlefest

It Ain’t Over…

It Ain't OverAs I’ve written before, I love good baseball writing.  So I almost laughed out loud when reading the Baseball Prospectus’ It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over and came across this passage from a story about the 2003 National League Central pennant race between the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs:

The Cub’s opponents going into the final four days were the Reds and Pirates, and the Astros had four games against the Brewers.  The top two teams in the NL Central would battle it out against the bottom three, and whoever beat up the eminently beatupable would advance.

“Eminently beatupable.”  With language like that, you know exactly what he means.

More to come…

DJB