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Monday, July 27, 2015

Marshall Bluegrass Festival: Another Weekend, Another Great Festival!

Bluegrass All Around at Marshall!
Another perfect July weekend and another awesome Michigan bluegrass festival in the books!  The second of Michigan's "Big Three" annual festivals, the Marshall Bluegrass Festival is fast becoming the "must see" event of the summer.  Featuring a ridiculously affordable weekend ticket, Festival Promoter Jeremie Cole has managed to not only keep his late Uncle's festival running, but continues to grow and improve it.  In addition to three full days of music and some of the best parking lot picking to be had, Jeremie and his army of volunteers manage to provide a ton of activities to keep attendees busy throughout the days.  Card, golf and "corn hole" tournaments were well attended and it looked like everyone was having a great time.  As usual, everyone in attendance was well behaved, friendly and generous, making for a very family-friendly weekend.

Learning from the Pros
Friday and Saturday featured excellent bluegrass workshops in the afternoon.  The Bluegrass Mountaineers put on an excellent harmony vocal workshop featuring two young men and the A Capella Gospel performance of the Summer!  Daniel Phelps of Out of Mind Bluegrass talked about Tony Rice style flatpicking and put on quite a demonstration.    After the banjo workshop, Kurt from Harbourtown presented an excellent bass workshop that also included some nifty swing licks.  The mandolin workshop hosted by Brian Aldridge (a banjo player!) and Skip Cherryholmes of Sideline was a lot of fun as well.  Like most festivals, these workshops featured a good mix of tips from the pros, Q&A sessions and demonstrations.  The friendly, personable and outgoing presenters made them both engaging and entertaining as well.

Uncle Betty Gettin' It Done!
Being the smallest of Michigan's major festivals (though the others better watch out if the full campground this year is any indication!), the Marshall bluegrass Festival relies more heavily on local and regional acts to provide the entertainment.  However, this year's thirteen bands brought the talent, energy and entertainment of a lineup costing ten times as much!  Out of the Blue kicked things off  on Friday night with their high-energy traditional bluegrass.  Their dobro player, George Laker, continues to impress me as one of the best in Michigan.  The Grand Rapids area bluegrass band Uncle Betty contributed a fresh interpretation of classic, hard-driving, blue collar bluegrass with killer harmonies, great flatpicking and an agressive, bluesy banjo.  Overall, this was one of my favorite sets of the whole weekend somehow managing to be true to the tradition and inventively new at the same time.

The Blankenships
The Blankenship Brothers returned to the stage at Marshall.  This "family band" boasts some of the best pickers in the state.  While their covers of both classic and contemporary bluegrass standards are incredible, I can't wait for them to get some original material together and really make some waves in the Michigan bluegrass scene!  Host band, Harbourtown jumped right in with a high-powered set of their own.  As the band continues to meld with new guitarist John Coffey, their sound is developing into a much more polished, rich mix of standards and eclectic covers.  Their on-stage banter is as entertaining as always and they drew one of the largest crowds of the evening.  I'd never heard headliners Blue Mafia before and was totally impressed with their set.  Killer drive, great harmonies and a powerful female voice combined to electrify the Marshall crowd.

Future Bluegrass Rock Star in the Making
Saturday brought additional sets from Out of the Blue,  the Blankenships and Harbourtown.  It sometimes amazes me how much real bluegrass talent there is in Michigan.  These bands are every bit as good as the headliners at larger festivals!  Coffey's six-year-old grandson Gavin Connelly joined Harbourtown on stage and received thunderous applause for his rendition of "Great Big Woman and A Little Bitty Bottle of Wine".  Ottawa County and New Outlook also contributed great sets (it seems like a lot of bands bring "a little something extra" to Marshall).  Larry Efaw and the Bluegrass Mountaineers contributed an excellent old-school bluegrass set on the backs of a relatively young band.  Their "High Mountain Harmony" is second to none and really shines on Ralph Stanley covers.

Jan Green and the Six "Band Leaders"
After a long night of parking lot picking that lasted until the sun peeked up, Saturday kicked off with the Band Scramble.  Organized each year by Jan Green (who received a well-deserved "Bluegrass Person of the Year" award), this Marshall tradition is something I look forward to each year.  With people all around the campground volunteering to play on stage and random band assignment there is always music and laughter to spare.  This year was no exception.  Band "One" hit the comedy nail on the head with a mix of on-stage banter and irreverant cover tunes.  Band "Two" featured dueling mandos and Heather's amazing vocals.  Band "Three" featured CJ Outland on stage with his banjo for the first time, while Band "Four" featured his father on guitar and lead vocals.  Band "Five" featured everyone's favorite bass player Katelyn and Band "Six" (the eventual winners) brought down the house with a killer version of Angelina Baker.

Saturday featured some outstanding performances with bands Wilderness Trail and Turning Ground, and the comedy/music stylings of the Moron Brothers.  However, there were two stand out performances that rank among the best I've seen this summer.  Who could not love former IIIrd Tyme Out banjo player Steve Dilling's new project, Sideline?  Back with his driving banjo licks and instantly likeable personality, Steve seems re-energized by bandmate and son-in-law Skip Cherryholmes.  Like a puppy watching his master come up the sidewalk, Skip is all over the stage beating rapid-fire and sometimes percussive licks from his guitar and busting into grunts and shouts of encouragement to pump the band up.  Add in the killer mandolin work of Brian Aldridge and his 16-year old brother Daniel on Fiddle and you have one of the most musically proficient, high-energy bands in Bluegrass today.  The ultimately professional bass work of Jason Moore is just icing on the cake.  If you get the chance, go see them...they are everything bluegrass is supposed to, and can, be.

Out of Mind Bluegrass
The standout band of the weekend was a band the precious few fans have probably heard of, Out of Mind Bluegrass from Columbus, Ohio.  I heard them at Marshall last year and thought they were very good.  However, it is obvious that they spent the past year getting even better!  At first glance, you would suspect that the band was built around the amazing Tony Rice style licks of guitarist Daniel Phelps--and he is very, very good.  However, Brandon Fox is every bit his equal on the five-string banjo and Scott Adkins is by any measure an outstanding manolin player.  Throw in Fox's wife Lisa on the bass and you have a bluegrass quartet capable of covering even the most difficult of bluegrass standards the way they were intended to be played.  What really sets them aside, however, is the attention they pay to their powerful vocal arrangements.  Trading lead, baritone and tenor parts effortlessly, the three men in the band deliver vocals that fit their voices and fill the venue with rich, lush harmonies.  Refreshingly, every member of the band is humble and approachable and very respectful of the genre.  Unlike many of their peers, they also understand the importance of professional appearance, bringing matching clothes for each of their four weekend sets--dress pants and button down shirts during the heat of the day, and formal shirt and tie for the men and matching dress for the lady in the evening.  Watch out, this band is going places.

Overall, Jeremie Cole should be congratulated for pulling off an excellent festival.  I didn't hear a single complaint all weekend, and everyone seemed to have a great time.  I'll be back next year, for sure!

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