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Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Festival Season: A Bounty of New Discoveries

The SeMiBluegrass Camp
Coming Soon to a Festival Near You
     What a crazy summer!  Hit a few of my favorite Michigan Bluegrass Festivals, and rolled the dice on a few new live music/festival experiences.  My intention was to write up a blog on each of them, but I was having such a darn good time (and picking until the sun came up too many times) that I find myself with a mixed up collection of pictures and memories that I'll share here.  Michigan is definitely home to some amazing live music events, and here are some of the best!
Chasin' Steel on stage at Charlotte
The Smooth, Cool Sounds of Lindsay Lout & The Flatbellys
     Summer started with my friends, Chasin' Steel, appearing at the Charlotte Bluegrass Festival.  Historically, the biggest and most prominent Bluegrass festival in Michigan, the untimely death of long-time festival promoter Jim Wilder left some question as to whether the festival would continue.  Based on what I saw this year, new promoter Wes has things well-in-hand and the festival will continue to grow and thrive for many years in the future.  One of the nice changes evident this year was the mix of traditional and more contemporary bands each day.  The festival still draws some big-name talent (Audie Blaylock & Redline and Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers were exceptional this year), but it was nice to see (and listen to) the jazz/swing-grass sounds of Lindsay Lou & the Flatbellys, the hot-pickin', side-splittin' schtick of Schlitz Creek and the bluegrass with a rock-and-roll attitude" of  Chasin' Steel.  I even got to pick with members of these bands in the campground late in to the night.  The late-night picking was simply amazing, and is a major reason (besides the great band lineup) that many people attend this festival.  Convenient, compact and well-maintained camping areas allow--if not encourage--people to roam from one campsite to the next, where you are apt to hear picking as good, if not better, than you did on stage that day!  The picking goes on all night, often until the sun comes up!  As a bonus, an often overlooked feature mentioned by dozens of camper I talked to was the lack of mosquitoes and biting flies in the campground (thanks to timely and repeated treatment of the grounds by the promoters).
Wyatt Kuhlman & Chasin' Steel at Aten Place
     After Charlotte, I followed  Chasin' Steel, to a cool concert series in Boyne Falls called Aten Place.   If you are not familiar, check them out online.  Owners Bill and Maxine Aten have converted their barn and the grounds of their farm to a world-class concert venue.  They book some incredible acts during the summer (the next two shows after Chasin' Steel where Detour Bluegrass and the Ragbirds to give you and idea of the caliber of talent they draw!).   Bill and Maxine open their home to the visiting bands (bed-and-breakfast style) and even feed them breakfast.  There love for live local music is evident in everything they do.  Few couples would give up all their summer evenings, and open their homes to an invading horde of music fans, but they do--and we should be darn glad of it!
Frostbitten Grass
     People show up an hour or two before the show and reserve their seats, often bringing a picnic basket and hanging out on the grounds, surrounded by the rolling hills and well-tended gardens of the property.  The show takes place in the barn, which boasts church-pew seating and a first-class sound system.  There is even an overflow pavilion  for sold out shows, and the sound is just as good out there.  Nearly everyone who attends brings a dessert or appetizer to share during the set-break, thoughtfully stored and served in the purpose built "pig trough" building.
The Sting Doctors
     Probably the highlight of my summer occurred here, when Jonah Kuhlman had his 10-year old son Wyatt join them on stage for the encore, kicking off a cool cover of "Hotel California" by strumming the first verse all by himself, adding his Dad on lead the second time through and the whole band the third.  Wyatt is already a great picker and brought the house down with this, his first ever live performance!  He even sat around the campfire afterwards, picking  with the adults until late in the evening.  What an amazing young man with, I'm certain, a bright future in music!

Hart, Harp & Bones
     The next stop on my summer tour was 8 hours away in Marquette, and worth every second of the drive!  I have always wanted to attend the Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival and finally made it work in my schedule.  Set in the beautiful Marquette Tourist Park, the festival grounds are as good as they get.  Plenty of shade, abundant electrical and water hookups, a sandy swimming beach, plentiful and clean restrooms and awesome food vendors (including the famous Dia De Los Tacos food truck--simply out-of-this-world good!).  I listened to some incredible bands here.
Probably some of the best music I heard came from members of the legendary U.P. bluegrass band Frostbitten Grass, who reunited after a 10-year hiatus and dished out some of the grooviest, hippest (and late at night in the campground, some of the funniest "PG13") music of the summer.  By no means a typical bluegrass band, their sound is hard to classify other than "infectious" or "fascinating".  Check them out online, you'll dig it.
Cody Lakenen
     A couple other bands really caught my ear as well.  The String Doctors captured that classic string-band, old-time ballad sound, including a cover of "Georgia On My Mind" that left me speechless.  A pleasant surprise was local Marquette Newgrass outfit Sparrowtree, who have matured into a tight, hard-driving band with first-rate vocal harmonies.  Definitely watch for them in the future.  I also sat in on a great acoustic blues workshop hosted by Hart, Harp & Bones who not only play classic delta blues, but share the stories behind the tunes, and explain how they fit into the history of American music.  It was great to see local street musician Cody Lakenen sitting in with them as well, as he has become an incredible slide guitar player and really added to the workshop.
Sparrow Tree Getting it Done Vocally
     Even SeMiBluegrass favorite band Dragon Wagon made an appearance, closing out Saturday night at the dance tent, keeping the enormous crowd on their feet and dancing until well past midnight.  Their set features some new songs, including a great cover of the Gillian Welch classic "Miss Ohio" sung by new fiddle player (and frontman Don's new fiance!) Megan.  Definitely a "keeper".
     Finally, I attended the Marshall Bluegrass Festival in Marshall, Michigan.  Long known as the premier "Parking Lot Picker" festival in Michigan, this was another festival with an uncertain future after the passing of promoter Burke Cole.  Thankfully, his nephew Jeremie Cole has picked up where he left off and forged on, full-speed-ahead.  When I arrived early Thursday, I was forced to park in the far corner of the festival grounds.  This was awesome news because: 1) it meant attendance was way up from last year, when I arrived late and parked near the middle of the grounds and 2) new upgrades to the fairgrounds meant I still was able to access 20V, 30V or 50V electrical service!  Evident from the time you pulled in the gate was all the hard work Jeremie and his army of helpers put into growing the festival.  There were activities every day of the week starting the Sunday before the festival!  A well organized and well-run kids activity area looked  like a lot of fun.  The band scramble shows were just as good as the regular stage shows, and the workshops were not only well-attended, but fun, informative and entertaining.
Dragon Wagon and a FULL dance tent!
     Local acts abound at the Marshal Bluegrass Festival, but two acts really stood out.  First, was national bluegrass act Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice.  One of my favorite bands, and winner of the 2013 IBMA Best Male Vocalist and 2014 SPBGMA Best Bluegrass Band awards, Junior and the band put on an electrifying performance featuring hot picking and powerful harmonies.  Watching them perform, you have to wonder if they even need the PA system, or would their sound carry the festival on its' own?
Out of Mind Bluegrass

Mandolin Workshop
     The other pleasant surprise was a young bluegrass group of of Columbus, Out of Mind.  I ran into these cats picking "Wheel Hoss" under a tree by my camper and they blew me away from the beginning.  Definitely a traditional sound, they cover Bluegrass Album band classics like they are meant to be played!  Great mandolin chops, a driving banjo roll, and the smoothest flat-picked guitar I've heard really pushes the band to the next level.  I watched their guitar player hang with the best the campground had to offer all night, and he never broke a sweat, throwing in one hot guitar lick after another.  He even stopped by our campfire for a late-night snack (really early morning) and picked a few SemiBluegrass tunes.  Keep an eye out for them, you won't regret it (I see they're already scheduled for Marshall next year!).
Late night, under a tent, with a bunch of strangers playing
music.  It don't get no better than that!
     I am always saying "there is nothing better than live, local music" and I mean it.  Michigan is home to some incredible festivals.  In addition to these, we have the Milan Bluegrass Festival that draws all the big names in Bluegrass, the funky-cool mid-summer hippy-fest that is Blissfest, and the Wheatland Music Festival bringing you the premier names in folk-based music.  There's live, local music out there everywhere...get out there and enjoy some!