Monday, September 29, 2014

Geoff Muldaur In the Ballroom

As soon as we saw that Geoff Muldaur was playing the Ballroom at the Bull Run on Saturday 9/27, we got tickets.  This is such a nice room and we were really looking forward to seeing such a classic act (both in age and style) in that intimate setting.  No disappointment here.

Dad and Andrew were visiting, but we got out of the house at 6:00 and headed out to Shirley.  The place was mobbed when we got there, and there were drunk people dancing all over the place.  We parked across the bridge and headed in, finally escaping the mob and climbing upstairs where it was peaceful.

Muldaur started slowly (he had sound problems and we told him to just unplug dammit ... it's a small room) but ended up playing a great concert for all 25 of us in the Ballroom.  It was a madhouse there that night: a wedding, two concerts (a Beatles cover band was in the Sawtelle Room), and Saturday night bar/restaurant crowd.

Muldaur played a "Geoff Muldaur" model Martin excellently, except for two songs on which he plunked on a banjo with considerably less excellence but still assurance.  He did the stuff we wanted to hear, like Kitchen Door Blues (opener), My Tears Came Rolling, Drop Down Mama, Bobby Charles's (and Rick Danko co-writing, which I didn't know) Small Town Talk, and Find Blind Lemon, and also played lots of old blues tunes we'd never heard, introducing each with when he'd first heard it, often on Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

He played two 40-minute sets with a short break in between.  He's got such a wonderful voice, a one-of-a-kind.  Dave was by far the youngest one there (except for the sound guy), probably by at least 30 years.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Freshgrass 2014

You'd think that people who like to see music as much as we do would go to a lot of festivals.  But we don't.  But last year's Freshgrass had an awesome lineup and we almost went.  And when we saw the lineup for this year we were pushovers to go when MattW revealed that he had a timeshare condo 30 minutes South of North Adams.

They took their sweet time revealing what band would be playing what stage when.  And when they finally finished revealing, Rodney Crowell was missing, who was one of the top names IMO (he begged out to work on a movie or something).  They also had a lot stricter rules than other festivals, since they're on the grounds of an art museum.

But whatever, we were really psyched!  We took Friday Sept. 19 off from work and left home around 10.  We stopped at Shelburne Falls for a delicious lunch next to the sunny Bridge of Flowers, then continued to trundle out to North Adams, through Williamstown, and down South to Hancock.  There we met M&J just as they were coming out of the clubhouse with the keys, and trucked back down the hill to our pair of suites.  He had scored an "A" unit and a "B" unit and we had lots of room, balconies, TVs all over the place, fireplaces (they had a jacuzzi in in their bedroom), fully equipped kitchens, large bathrooms, and stuff.

We had a beer or two, drove back up to the clubhouse for a soak in the outdoor spa in the slightly chilly but beautiful Berkshire air, and then drove on back and prepped for the concert.  We were off!

And what an exhausting weekend it was!  Here's what I saw, not including the minor-league bands at the Courtyard C stage and the popup stages:


Michael Daves & Tony Trischka
  • They featured special guests Brittany Haas and Aoife O'Donovan.
  • They had us riveted at the first song, and then tore into "a murder ballad," Cold Rain and Snow; I didn't know this was a murder ballad (though I'd been hearing it for years) until they sang a verse I'd never heard ... that explained a lot.
  • It was the first act and already the surprise of the festival: Michael Daves is a phenom; you could count the fillings in his back teeth when he opened his mouth to sing, he took no prisoners.
Aoife O'Donovan
  • The soundboard guys had some problems all weekend, and they started with Aoife.
  • She wanted to open with a ballad from her album and feedback had to make her change plans on the fly; so she went into a Crooked Still rocker, and this worked out great!
  • She did her soft songs later and had the packed Courtyard D crowd in the palm of her hand, a great performance.
  • The sun was way set by the end of it and the temperature was dropping fast.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops
  • They're just not the same without Dom Flemons, not to mention original Drop, Justin Robinson.
  • And I also liked Layla McAlla and Adam Matta, who had brief stints with the band.
  • But Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins are still great, and they had added a new cello player and a bass and drums.
  • But ... this meant they weren't the ace band I expected them to be, especially when the cello and bass stepped on each other.
  • Oh well, the crowd in the courtyard (*beyond* packed now, it was almost frightening, and very cold by this point!) loved them and we left a bit early so we could grab places inside for...
The Duhks
  • The "late night" set is inside in a weird auditorium they have, and the Duhks were eagerly anticipated by everybody.
  • Again, I was disappointed that they were missing a key original member: Tanya Elizabeth.
  • They had filled her spot with a fine fiddler but Tanya had added so much to their vocal style and their funk.
  • But it was a fun show anyway, and they're a great addition to the eclectic lineup we realized they were going for; there are so many different kinds of bluegrass/roots and the festival ended up covering many of them.
  • We headed out before they quite finished, dodged some emergency vehicles convening on a crash on route 43 on the way back, and finally got to bed sometime between 12 and 1AM.

Woke up Saturday around 8 and were just about ready when D&T showed up and we all had an incredible breakfast of "everything" omelets prepared by Matt.  Then we scrambled to get all the stuff in the cars.  S&D and I left first, a little after 10, and grabbed a fine parking space and only had to wait in line for a minute before entering the venue.  It was another fine day and Andrew was at the Courtyard stage when I showed up!


The Deedle Deedle Dees

  • They were the first band up, at Courtyard D at 12:15.
  • They definitely played a distinctive style: children's bluegrass.
  • This meant they were kind of boring, unless you were into songs about Amelia Earhart, etc.
  • The highlight was when they did a song about the molasses flood in Boston and their lead singer jumped out into the crowd to lead the kids in a fun molasses simulation.
  • You had to see it to see it you know, but the most fun thing about their act was watching the kids respond ... really a great start to the day.

The Novel Ideas

  • They were up next at the field stage, where we'd set up a camp next to the soundboard.
  • They're a young, soft, country-folk, band with some nice sounds.
  • Talented people but not great songs ... I was beginning to think that the festival was starting slowly.
  • And then we gathered at the car for "gnoshes;" but I was dying to get back and soon did because next up was ...

Claire Lynch

  • Dave saw most of this too and was blown away.  Claire is a world class bluegrass musician and had a note-perfect band.
  • Her second song was her killer Dear Sister, which is one of the best folk-bluegrasss-oldtimey songs I've ever heard.
  • The estimable Mark Schatz was her bassist/multi-instrumentalist, and he delighted us all with a classic hambone.
  • For a climax of the set she did what everyone wanted: Jesse Winchester's That's What Makes You Strong, which had the field hanging on every note and got some handkerchiefs out for sure.

Haas Kowert Tice

  • Next up I ran back to the Courtyard and caught a bunch of the set from Brittany Haas (fiddle, Crooked Still alumna), Paul Kowert (bass, Punch Brothers alumnus), and Jordan Tice (guitar, Tony Trischka alumnus).
  • This was chamber bluegrass with a black belt ... perfect stuff.
  • As good as Haas is, the delight of the set was Kowert finger-picking and bowing the bass on what had suddenly become a brilliant summer day.
  • They did classics, new songs, and improvised jams ... one of those bands you could have watched all day; but...

Berklee All Stars

  • Ran back to the main stage (ok, there were beer and food breaks interspersed with all this) to see the Berklee bands.
  • They had three student bands do short sets, and I managed to catch all of them: Ellie Buckland and Isa Burke, High Rock Mountain, and then Twisted Pine.
  • They all showed incredible talent, but really playing bluegrass well as an ensemble can take a lot of practice.
  • Possibly the band of the festival (they won the talent competition, so will be back next year), was Twisted Pine, which is fronted by the majestic Adam Moore on bass and had some outstanding players, like an Asian mandolin player whom we wanted to hear more of.
  • But then it was *back* to the Courtyard for...

The Gibson Brothers

  • Yet another sub-genre of bluegrass: traditional bluegrass with brother harmonies.
  • These guys knew what they were doing and the crowd here was the older people who wanted to hear the trad stuff.
  • Their singing together is sublime and they were wearing matching suits ... just what you want.
  • Their set was fantastic, but just as they launched into their recent IBMA song of the year, Andrew and I scooped up our chairs and screwed for the main stage to see...

Alison Brown

  • Dave joined me up front for this one and he was still gushing about Claire, until he saw Alison that is.
  • She had a great band also, including her husband on bass and an excellent electric piano player; they played the finest jazz bluegrass and blew Dave's mind again ... this was possibly the band of the festival for him, he had never heard (let alone seen) a banjo played with such fluidity and perfection and producing such dynamic tones.
  • Alison brought out guests Darol Anger and Claire Lynch and later her road managers, who were kids about 11 and 7 and who brought the house down.
  • A train came by during her set, with classic Pullmans and people standing between cars to wave at us ... quite unexpected.
  • I ran into her husband/bass player on Sunday and thanked him profusely for that set, he was very gracious.
  • By then the sun was setting fast and it was time for ...

Sam Bush

  • Wait, how many different styles of bluegrass are there?  This was the best newgrass ... though "newgrass" is almost traditional by now.
  • Sam stuck to the mandolin and to his style, which meant he roamed around the stage and egged on the different players, then took the lead himself and out-did the fantastic run they'd just played.
  • The crowd loved this and was roaring with every new wave of frenetic sound to come up the hill from the stage in the suddenly dark evening.
  • They ended and we toweled off and realized we were exhausted already; but now it was time for ...

Railroad Earth

  • This is the finest jamgrass, another distinctive style.
  • They mellowed out perhaps a little too much at this point of the evening, but were all excellent players.
  • They were spread out over the stage, as far apart as possible, and each took a signal role in the sound, which was fascinating.
  • Would have loved to see their whole set, but we realized we had to pack up the chairs and bring them back to the cars (Andrew and D&T were long gone by this point) so we could grab places inside for the late show, which was...

The Infamous Stringdusters

  • OMG, yet another style: flashgrass!
  • They're great players but had a schtick, which was to play as fast and flashy as they could.
  • It was just a cascading series of instrumental breaks, each longer, louder, and more of a crescendo than the last, interrupted by a few tight vocal interludes.
  • One of the fun things was the curtain of lights they had, which focused around one player or the other when it was their turn to GO!
  • I was really exhausted by this point, almost asleep on my feet.  About halfway through the set I told the others I had to go and they agreed that they wouldn't mind getting out of there either.
  • It was a long, slow drive back to the condo, and we all staggered into bed again, some time between 12 and 1.

Couldn't believe it, but after a lousy sleep in a stifling room with a lumpy bed (ok, the condo wasn't perfect), I got up at 8AM again, ready for another day of music!  As is always the case, after settling into a place for two days it was a pain to get everything together and get out of there on short notice.  But we did and ended up hitting the road for the festival just a little after 10.

We had to park a bit farther away and were a bit later getting in the gates (there seemed to be a bigger crowd on Sunday), but we still had the chance to grab a great spot at the main stage.

And this meant I had a chance to tour the galleries!  I had seen their "boiler room" installation on Saturday, which is a literal boiler room, back from the days when coal and steam powered the mills that the Mass Museum of Contemporary Art currently occupies.  On Sunday I had time to see some of their other exhibits too, including massive installations by Teresita Fernández (and also some more intimate gold chrome paintings she'd done), and a panoply of spacey, runny oils by Darren Waterston.  Then the show started!


Salvation Alley String Band

  • The Courtyard D stage was first up again at 12:15 with a pretty much straight-ahead country act.
  • I caught a few numbers of their's; might have enjoyed them more but had to get out of there quickly for...

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper

  • This was yet another kind of bluegrass, where there's one virtuoso and everything is centered on getting to the point in the song where he plays the bejeezus out of his instrument.
  • The virtuoso here was Michael Cleveland, a blind fiddler whom we've seen play with the best bands around and outshine them all, and who's a perennial contender for fiddler of the year.
  • Dave was again up front with me for this, he had bought into the gospel of bluegrass and believed me when I told him he would be blown away again by this guy.  He was.

Darol Anger

  • Next up was some more academic bluegrass, from current Berklee faculty member, Darol Anger.
  • He had his family on stage with him for several numbers and proved to be an excellent band leader.
  • He's also a fantastic fiddler and his glue was essential ... in all, a great mid-afternoon, mellow set.

Hurray For the Riff Raff

  • Wandered around a bit and then found myself back in the Courtyard for a few tunes by Alynda Lee Segarra's band, which had been at the GRF this year.
  • Yet another style: folk/Americana bluegrass!
  • She's got a strong voice and was rocking the enthusiastic crowd in the courtyard, almost packed again at this point.
  • But I got out of there and back to the field for ...

Martha Redbone Roots Project

  • Martha's got a unique mix of blues, soul, and American Indian music.
  • You might call this "roots-grass" if looking for another name for the style.
  • The high point of her set was a long, throbbing cover of Johnny Cash's Drums, from his Bitter Tears record (recently re-recorded by Welch, Rawlings, etc.).
  • This had the crowd going wild; but back to the Courtyard now for...

Liam Ó Maonlaí

  • Hadn't heard this guy, who sang some excellent Irish folk.
  • The highlight of his set was a beautiful, ringing cover of the traditional Lakes of Pontchartrain, naturally done in a Paul Brady style.
  • The packed Courtyard became even more full as I stuck around for the next set.  What we were all waiting for was one of the real name acts of the festival...

Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

  • Béla and Abigail were delayed by the sound gremlins that had been around all weekend, but soldiered on.
  • They both had banjos of course, his with a huge body that was as resonant as Ó Maonlaí's bodhrán had been and her's as highly tuned as a banjo can get.
  • They played Béla's take on jazz bluegrass and Abigail's take on Chinese bluegrass, and then mixed the two and twisted us all around, and ended up somewhere totally delightful.
  • This had the absolutely jammed-in crowd gaping and roaring, but we (Sarah and Matt were with me) had to grab our chairs and struggle out of there suddenly in the middle of the set because we didn't want to miss...

The David Grisman Sextet (sometimes 7)

  • They were rocking on the field stage by the time we got there, and I eventually got down front and joined Dave, who was enthralled.
  • This was dawg-grass of the highest style, with covers of traditional songs, totally random jams, and Grisman songs from all eras, including Grateful Dawg!
  • Grisman brought out guests Darol Anger, Alison Brown and a guitar player from an earlier act who's name we missed.
  • This was music of the highest degree, purveyed by a musician of the highest pedigree, and up next was...

Emmylou Harris

  • She was the last act of the weekend and we were anticipating an incredible finale, but Emmylou unfortunately had a cold.
  • I was really disappointed because Matt had never seen her and was very, very psyched (we were both up front for the start of the set).
  • Emmy the veteran could not be faulted however, and several reviews I've read gushed about how great she was.
  • The fact was that though she was lacking in energy she laid down some great stuff, including One Of These Days (I've been lucky enough to see her do that song many times throughout the years), Luxury Liner, and of course Jesse's My Songbird.
  • Her old stand-by Byron House was on bass, and young Australian Jedd Hughes, was on lead and he shone as ever, including a lead on Luxury Liner that almost had Emmylou smiling ... she was obviously not feeling well.
  • The crowd shouted her back on stage for an encore, and she did a quick cover of Wheels.
  • Oh well, I've seen her many times and will see her again, I hope!

WOW ... time to get our things together and leave.  That had been 25 bands in the course of 2.5 days, plus food stalls, intense art, amateur pickers running all over the place, incredibly friendly staff (in all a great job by Freshgrass making us all feel welcome and happy), beer (Goose Island was my customary selection), and lots of happy people.  We had a few raindrops on Sunday and had suffered the cold on Friday evening, but there were also lengthy periods of blue sky and fantastic sunshine.  The weather generally held and it was as great as you'd want for a end-of-summer Berkshire weekend.

We made it back to the car and left by 8:00 or so with a long drive in front of us to get back East.  But it had been a wonderful weekend and we're already looking forward to doing it again next year!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jack White in the Bleacher Theater

We've all been very impressed by Jack White's last few records, and we were just saying that we had to go see him next time he came to town when ... we found out he was coming to town.  And not only that, but he was going to play the "Bleacher Theater" at Fenway.  For this they set up a stage on the visitor bullpen and open 6 or so sections of the bleachers and the grandstand.  We got tickets in row 40 of section 42 ... great angle but we would have liked to be about half that many rows up.  Oh well ... we were going to see Jack White at Fenway and were very excited!

The environs of Fenway were a madhouse as soon as I pulled off of Park Drive at about 5:15 and I was just able to get a spot in a corner of a closed-off Van Ness Street and a grid-locked Ipswich Street.  We met for dinner at Yard House on Brookline; good salads and great beer selection.  Then we boogied down to entrance C, paid an outrageous price for ballpark beer, and climbed up to our seats.  I was three rows directly behind the Ted Williams seat.

Olivia Jean opened at 6:30 and played some incredibly gnarly guitar and some great songs (including a cover of Shocking Blue's I'm Your Venus).  He band was fantastic too, and it was a beautiful setting, with the huge stage almost covering the vistor bullpen and the home bullpen invisible under all the trailers and out-buildings a real rock show requires.  The sun had about set by the time Olivia's act ended, and the bleachers were almost full soon after that.

It was such a fun concert for so many reasons, the drama, the song selection, the setting, the musical performances, the crowd, the stage set, and just about everything.  Take a look at the pictures on Jack's site (click on 2014-09-17, Fenway).  And I'll add some more specifics later ... have to get ready for Freshgrass!

Here's the setlist:

Just One Drink
Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground
High Ball Stepper
Hotel Yorba
Temporary Ground
I Cut Like a Buffalo
Top Yourself
Alone in My Home
John the Revelator (Blind Willie Johnson)
Rambling Man (Hank  Williams)
You Know That I Know (Hank Williams)
You Don't Know What Love Is
We're Going to Be Friends
Ballad of Hollis Brown (Bob Dylan)
Ball and a Biscuit

Icky Thump
Steady, As She Goes
Freedom at 21
Sixteen Saltines
The Hardest Button to Button
That Black Bat Licorice
Would You Fight for My Love?
Hello Operator
Seven Nation Army

OK, more details!

Jack played with the fantastic band he's been touring with lately, Lillie Mae Rische, Fats Kaplin, Daru Jones, Dominic Davis, and Ikey Owens.  They were introduced individually like they were baseball players, emerging from the little door in the left field scoreboard and running across the field to the stage.

Davis played the first half of the set on an electric, then switched to a chromed stand-up bass, that sounded excellent.  Fats did not play the theremin he had on stage, but played everything else: mainly pedal steel but also mandolin, fiddle, and who knows what, while wearing a suit and sporting a Fu Manchu.  Jones had his kit set up to the left of the stage and was an animal, pounding away with an energy we couldn't believe.  Owens wailed on the organ and also played the delicate piano parts that make Jack's recent songs so outstanding.

 And Lillie Mae was everything I'd anticipated too.  She sang the soulful backup, ripped off the searing fiddle runs, and looked really cool!  Jack jumped over to her mike and screamed into it with her on the choruses.  Fats picked up his fiddle at times and those two played unison swing to back up and take over some songs, while Jack watched them critically.

My favorite part of the show was when Jack marched over to the stand-up piano with a serious look on his face, slung his guitar back over his side, strummed a chord on the strings, and then started pounding away on the keys, staring downwards.  After a few bars he screamed, "Tell me who's that writing?" and then answered himself in the same breath, "John the Revelator!!!"  He sang a few rounds of that great traditional song, and then took us away with him on the piano, up and up and up.  Until finally he started crooning: "I love you baby, but you gotta understand, when the Lord made me he made a rambling man."  This was soulful Hank Williams on his birthday; this was roots music wailed into the Fenway Park night.  Jack did a shout-out to the great Hank after Ramblin' Man, and then did You Know That I Know as well.

So many songs had me almost giggling with delight.  He covered an obscure Dylan song.  He did You Don't Know What Love Is, which was the song I really wanted to hear but never expected him to play.  He did the great duets with Lillie, Temporary Ground and Alone In My Home.  He did I Cut Like a Buffalo, perhaps the best song from his brief Dead Weather foray.  And then he did Ball and a Biscuit, a song I love but really, really, never expected him to play.

We were ready for it to get cold, as it often does on a late summer Fenway night when the wind picks up.  But the temperature didn't really drop and the crowd was thick and writhing.  It was so comfortable in the bleachers, both environmentally and psychologically.  Almost all of the people were there to see the genius play, and we almost all knew the songs and were hanging on every note.  The 10% who were just there for a rock show were kind of freaked out by us fanatics, almost like at a Grateful Dead concert.

And I have to mention how fantastic the production was, because that's what really took the experience over the top.  The "bleacher theater" idea worked wonderfully, at least for the section we were in.  The sound was perfect.  They had rigged lights all over, but chiefly in three large light boxes that swiveled high over the stage.  They opened the curtains behind the stage, and the background was the beautiful greensward of Fenway.  They had pixel-perfect video screens to the left and right at our eye level (40th row), and though we could see the musicians fine I found myself watching the screens at times.  The camera work from the robots on stage and the telescoping lenses near the soundboard (one section directly to our right) was incredible, and they had two separate feeds on the two screens.

They played a long set and then bounced off stage.  We knew they were coming back for an encore, but what I wasn't ready for was a fucking 9 song encore!!!  This was really a second set.  They opened with Icky Thump for Dog's sake and did Freedom At 21 and That Black Bat Licorice.  We were just rolling with delight and laughing in ecstasy.  Finally they were done, and Jack regaled the crowd with his appreciation of our appreciation.  Beyond everything, this was a case of a musician letting it all hang out and walking that fine line, having it work totally, and feeding off the raves of the crowd.  This was a lot of fun for everybody.

Took a while for the bleachers to empty, but we and the people around us had nothing to complain about.  We'd just shared an incredible auditory and visual experience and wanted to keep it in our minds as long as we could.  Finally got out of there and it was just a few hundred feet to where I'd parked.  We were gone into the night but I think I'll remember Jack White at Fenway Park longer than a lot of things!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

AATW Runs Into Shirley

The summer music slow season is about over and the Fall schedule is about to descend on us, oh no!  First up was Asleep At the Wheel at the Bull Run on Thursday, 9/11.

AATW has been around since 1970 with a rotating cast around lead-man Ray Benson.  Ray has had his ups and downs over the years, but the band is back on top.  Nobody can do Western Swing the way they do.  Well ok, some people can, but AATW and Benson do it with an ease and a sense of fun that can't be equaled.

We were at the table at the left corner of the stage, and so had pretty good seats.  You've got to be up front for the Sawtelle Room because the floor isn't pitched and the stage is barely elevated.  Just before the band went on a rogue attendee asked if she could squeeze into our table and we said sure.  She asked and I told her I'd been listening to AATW for a long time, and she said probably not as long as her.  As it turned out, she's Ray's sister and is currently living on the Cape!

Ray has added some new personnel to the band, Emily Gimble on piano and vocals (Tommy Gimble's granddaughter) and Katie Holmes on fiddle and vocals.  Emily was off the charts fantastic.  Her piano chops were superlative and her vocals were flawless, including a lead on the classic blues tune, A Good Man Is Hard To Find.  Katie was pretty good, as well as Eddie Rivers on steel, David Miller on stand-up electric bass, and David Sanger on drums.  They also had a saxophonist/clarinetist (their producer perhaps? he alternated on soundboard) who we would have liked to hear a bit more.

Their mix was pretty muddy at first, but they eventually got used to the room and filled it well.  Benson was in a pretty expansive mood and was, as usual, incredible.  He's got one of the great voices, including power throughout an amazing range from upper baritone to the deepest bass.  They have an incredible repertoire to cover and tried to get to a bunch of those songs.  I was very glad to hear them do Faded Love, on which they did a couple of measures of "everyone play!" Dixieland, and also House Of Blue Lights and even Hot Rod Lincoln.

Dave liked it!  Not a bad drive back home and got to bed not too late.  Much more music to come soon!