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Friday, August 17, 2012

A Listening Festival

Festivals:  Milan Bluegrass Festival 2012

One of the great things about Michigan is the fantastic variety of music festivals every summer.  It seems like there's some sort of festival going every weekend!  Perhaps this is why many festivals have evolved distinct personalities:  The Kendallville Festival is THE pickers' festival...the WMBA Mayfest is the FIRST festival of the season...and the Wilder Festivals (Charlotte and Milan) are where you go to see the BEST acts.

Rhonda Vincent meets the future of SeMiBluegrass
I always make a point of attending the Milan festival (since it's in the heart of SeMiBluegrass country--I feel like it's our "home" festival).  The host venue (KC Campground) is a nice little campground, clean, well maintained and staffed with hard-working and caring people to make sure you enjoy your stay.  There's plenty of shade, both indoor and portable restroom facilities, and a large beach/playground/swimming hole for the kids.  The center of the campground (with camping on all sides) is a large field with a stage on one end and a large pavilion in the center that becomes the festival grounds.  There is plenty of grass area to set up your chair and even a good deal of shade near the stage.  There is always a decent sound system, though it seemed to me that they had "upgraded" this year, as the sound was fantastic all over the campground.  In fact, due to light rain most of the day Thursday and Friday, my daughter and I sat at a picnic table under a canopy on our campsite and listened to many of the acts from a distance.

Festival Favorites Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out
Traditionally, Thursday is devoted to smaller and regional acts, with Friday and Saturday building up though national and "A List" acts, culminating in the Saturday headliners.  Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out play their traditional Friday sets, complete with a picnic dinner and their annual, rousing game of "cornhole" with one of the local families.  As usual they were fantastic and it is easy to see how they earned (and deserved) nine IBMA nominations this year!  Well rehearsed stage banter, tight -three and four-part harmonies, Moore's quintessentially bluegrass vocals and the ridiculous talent of Wayne Benson on mandolin/mandola are a pure joy to watch. 

Junior and the Boys Getting It Done In The Rain!
In an era of dwindling attendance and aging fan bases, it was good to see the concert area nearly full for many of the acts.  In fact, there were a LOT more young families and tons of children there this year.  Several of the acts mentioned that Michigan fans were diehard fans, and this was put to the test Friday when Junior Sisk & Rambler's choice showed up ON THE WRONG DAY!  The event organizers managed to squeeze them in during dinner and a late night set to close the day.  Unfortunately, it was fairly cold and raining during both sets.  However, most of the seats were full of raincoat and umbrella wielding fans.  The band responded to these hardy fans with two amazing sets.  Junior is a great lead singer and rhythm guitar player who really knows how to embrace the traditional style.  The high, lonesome vocals are powerful and clear.  And nobody works the single mic as well as Rambler's choice.  While some might ignore the bands constant swaying and fidgeting, it is obvious to those who watch them that they are subtly controlling the rise and fall of their sound, mixing and equalizing it to perfection.  They really stole the show Friday.

Audie Blaylock and Redline.  Hard Driving.  'Nuff Said.
After a long night of jamming with a couple of the infamous "big" jams at Milan (yes...there is jamming there...and it's damn good), we woke on Saturday to clearing weather and a little bit of sun.  There were a lot of great acts scheduled.  My daughter and I caught sets by Rhonda Vincent (solid) and the Grascals (entertaining), then ate lunch and got set up for two of my favorite acts.  New Found Road used to play on Thursday and made the most of their "promotion" to Saturday this year.  They were tight, played some killer instrumentals and were very entertaining.  I was going to call them the best act of Saturday (they were really very good) when Audie Blaylock and his band Redline took the stage.  Great young pickers, Audie's timeless voice and enthusiasm, the killer mandolin licks of Jessie Brock and Audie's unique, machine gun style rhythm playing really define the word "drive" in bluegrass.  This is an amazing band.  I was afraid to blink in case missed something.  Go see them.  Really.  Do it.

Guitar Raffle for the Pickin' on CF festival at KC Campgound
 This year, Milan wins my award for best vendors of the year.  They have the usual bluegrass t-shirt trailer and a great local music shop with lots of entry level instruments, picks, strings, etc.  I saw at least six kids walking around with starter guitars and mandolins, so I assume they had a great festival.  The food's pretty good too.  The ice cream shack didn't seem too busy...until they added hot coffee!  There was a local non-profit hosting a pulled pork dinner on Saturday (I tried a sample...it was excellent).  But I really look forward to a beans and cornbread dinner from the campground snackshop each year.  Both the green beans with ham and potatoes, and slow cooked pinto beans are to die for.  Nothing better after a long day of listening to music and getting ready for yet another all night picking session.  In closing, make it a point to check out the Milan Bluegrass Festival next year, it's a great event with fantastic people.  See you there!

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