Turn it up, till we blow a 50 amp fuse… or a transformer, whichever comes first.
I started the morning on Friday in a songwriting workshop led by the day’s opener, Steve Gulley. Gulley’s writing resume is thick, but that doesn’t necessarily make for a good workshop. Fortunately, he’s also personable and presents some good ideas for others who are somewhere in the process. It was an hour well spent. Workshops are a unique part of the Bluegrass festival experience and I hope they continue.
As I said, Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle began the day with a solid set (no fiddle, so though Dad enjoyed it, he had to wait until Volume Five for that….see previous post for reference). Though Gulley’s voice is the focal point of the group, he is supported by a quality group of pickers. There was no slack to be found here, nor throughout the Thurs-Sat lineup, for that matter. Their latest CD (self-titled) has received a good deal of airplay on bluegrass radio, with good reason. She’s A Taker, Hello Goodbye and Leaving Crazy Town are all lead cuts from the disc. Their treatments of the covers Not Fade Away (Buddy Holly) and Don’t You Ever Get Tired of Hurting Me (Ray Price/Ronnie Milsap) are also rather notable and they came across very well in a live setting.
Kenny & Amanda Smith’s work is well documented throughout Bluegrass circles. Their two sets in Auburn showed why. Amanda’s vocals and Kenny’s guitar work are perfectly suited to each other and they make wonderful music together.
Auburn,AL is a university town. Thoroughly. The combination of orange and blue permeate Lee County, Alabama. Dad said he even saw an orange & blue fire truck and though I didn’t see it, I don’t doubt it. Volume Five‘s members played up the idea by having each of their members wear shirts representing their home or favorite universities. Clemson, Tennessee, Univ. of Alabama, Arkansas & Georgia were all represented on stage. Continuing the idea of modern Bluegrass which tips its hat to the past, Volume Five is a band with both solid vocals and instrumental breaks. Glen Harrell’s vocals and Patton Wages’ banjo work were the strongest parts of the band for me.
The Grascals took a similar hint about college attire, but they played to the host city by each wearing Auburn Tshirts. The Grascals are old pros at this festival scene. They have a devoted following and seem to garner new fans with every release. Kristin Scott Benson’s banjo work stands out in my mind as one of the best from the entire weekend.
Balsam Range wore no collegiate logos. What they did do was present a stunning presentation of Bluegrass and Gospel music. Their vocals were perfect and their fingers flew across their instruments. Buddy Melton is one of my favorite active male vocalists in the genre and, despite allergies, he sounded wonderful. Too many favorites from their sets to name, but the cover of Everything that Glitters and From a Georgia Battlefield were particularly special. I am now, officially, a Darren Nicholson fan as well. I knew I liked what I heard on projects, but he smokes the mandolin. If he hadn’t been in 90+ degree weather, he wouldn’t have even broken a sweat. He made it look easy, but he was working lake a madman.
The Earls of Leicester were the marquee act of the weekend. They make few appearances and each of the members is involved in other groups, so many fans made extra effort to come to Auburn as this might well be their only chance to see the Earls.
Sidebar: For any who may not know, they recreate some of the music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs of the late 50s and early 60s. (Thus, the ‘Earls’ of ‘Leicester’). They dress in suits with string ties and deliver the songs with the same energy and power as the original group but with, arguably, better tools/skills and higher quality results. That’s not a knock to the original as they did amazing things with what was available at the time in the process of blazing a trail.
During the Balsam Range set, Mathan Holt (festival promoter) was walking around and noticed a transformer behind stage beginning to smoke. Between the BR and Earls set, it blew. So, no lights or sound reinforcement were available and the Earls were ready to go on… To say there was a lot of tension/anxiousness in the air is an understatement. I yield to Jerry Douglas’ account of what happened next:
“As everybody wondered what we should do, (Shawn) Camp said to me, ‘why don’t we just play a couple of tunes down front without the system?’ I agreed with him completely. So down front we went with the help of some flash lights and cell phone lights, and we did what ended up being a whole show.
I think we enjoyed it just as much as if we had a perfect stage to perform on. I apologize to those too far back to hear us clearly, in a perfect world, these things wouldn’t happen. But this one just isn’t perfect. We are acoustic musicians so we were able to do this. Good idea Camp! The show must go on.”
In the days of Flatt & Scruggs, it wouldn’t have been unusual for them to set up on a street corner, a car lot or on theatre building to promote a sponsor or an upcoming show. That’s what happened here. They came out of the stage area onto a concrete pad set up for cloggers and did their set. The audience came in as close as they could and lit the new ‘stage’ with cell phones, as Douglas said. The result was absolutely amazing. Perhaps because of the lack of monitors, the guys were all listening closely to each other and the harmonies seemed even tighter than expected. The best part was that they all seemed to be having a lot of fun in the middle of a situation which would have sent lesser entertainers back to the bus. About 2/3rds of the way through the set, the power was repaired. The Earls chose to remain down in front of the audience to finish the set- much to the audience’s liking, of course.
Several people have commented that not only the circumstances, but the sound was strangely like F&S (more than usual). Dad chose to remain back up the hill, away from the stage, so he only caught bits and pieces of the unamplified portion. He commented that it was rather eerie hearing fragments of the music with the natural bending of the tones and harmonies between the two points. It was so reminiscent as to be spooky at times. I’m thankful that I was there and it’s a memory I will keep with me as long as I breathe.
As if we needed more, the Earls joined in the jam with everyone. It was a magical time.
Favorite memory (other than the Earls…): Balsam Range’s entire set. Despite fighting allergies and oppressive heat, they delivered a very energetic set- the tightest of the festival to that point, in my opinion.
Worst thing- The heat was the worst on Friday. It was hard to sit and listen that afternoon- had to keep walking around. Butter Pecan ice cream helped. It was slightly pricey, but I think I’d have paid more if necessary…
Next post: Winding it up with top shelf Bluegrass and honky tonk country