What is SeMi Bluegrass? It's a meeting place where live music fans in Southeast Michigan gather to exchange information about the live music scene: show reviews, cool venues, band profiles, product reviews and more.
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If you're looking for the South East Michigan Bluegrass Music Association (A fine group of Bluegrass fans in South East Michigan) you can find them at http://smbluegrass.org/

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Biggest Little Festival Around - Norwalk (OH) Music Festival 2018

Rip Roarin' Fun at Norwalk (Rocky Top!)
Fans of the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass scene have no doubt run across fan-favorite band Harbourtown and their bass player, Kurt Hickman.  He's a great singer, terrific bass player (both bluegrass, and some classic jazz/swing stuff with his other band, Breakline).  He's also a tremendous supporter of the Fiddlin' Dixie and Lil' Friends program and the Southeast Michigan Bluegrass Music Association--and not-so-secretly a big kid at heart.  What you may NOT know, is that for the past six years, Kurt has taken on the role of festival promoter and host of the Norwalk Ohio Music Festival.  This small, but growing festival, in easy driving distance from Southeast Michigan, has a lot to offer no matter how you like you bluegrass.  Tons of local, regional and national acts (a nice mix of traditional and somewhat more progressive styles).  Also, some country and pop based acts that really bring a fresh, new energy to the crowd.  There's tons of activities, a very well appointed fairgrounds (abundant power, water and even sewer hookups and great, clean bathroom!), incredibly delicious and affordable (and clean!) food vendors.  All-in-all an excellent cross section of offerings, hand picked to provide nothing but excellence to attendees.

Hickman (R) taking care of things all day long!
This year's festivities kicked off with a fireworks display right over the fairgrounds.  Great fun, but I do NOT recommend trying to arrive the night of July 4th (it seemed like half the county was trying to walk/drive to the fairgrounds and it made it a pretty harrowing 2mph trip towing a trailer!).  Once set up and darkness fully took over, I wandered around and was pleased to find several high-quality jams in the campground, including one under the lights in a pavillion--a nice touch you don't find everywhere.  The musicianship was first class, and so was the large crowd gathered to listen.  Like most bluegrass jams, also very open and welcoming to pickers--new and experienced alike.  In between numbers, I took the time to say hello to a seemingly endless stream of old friends and "festival family" giving Norwalk much more of a family reunion feel than the usual music festival atmosphere.

Out of Mind Bluegrass Tuning Up for their Show
How's the music, you ask?  In a word, terrific!  Each day featured a killer lineup with a little something for all to enjoy.  Thursday kicked off with local band Anthony & the Ramblers with a remarkably entertaining set of bluegrass standards. Following them was Hickman and his groovy bandmates Mike and Jerri Hipp (Breakline) who entertained the crowd with their acoustic takes on classic jazz and swing numbers.  Local Ohio legendary band Ottawa County followed with an inspired set of classics.  Closing out the night was the hardest working young bluegrass band around, Out Of Mind Bluegrass from Columbus Ohio. This band does everything right.  Super high energy, hard-driving traditional bluegrass; matching outfits on stage and professional to a "T"; super-tight harmony vocals and killer instrumental prowess from every member of the band.  You can tell immediately that they have a great time on stage and enjoy playing together, and that transfers easily to energize both band and crowd.  You really need to go see them play live!

Heidi from Acoustic Edge
Friday saw a break in the oppressive temperatures and humidity and really exemplified what a local/regional lineup can be at a festival.  Five incredibly talented and superbly entertaining bands took the stage and kept the crowds growing and dancing all day and well into the night.  Newly formed local band Crabgrass , built around brothers  Kevin and Andy Crabtree gave a bluesy, rif-soaked and harmony drenched performance with some "deep cuts" and unusual covers to keep things interesting.  Uber-professional band New Outlook turned in an impressive performance of highly-technical bluegrass and featured a young (granddaughter?) singing her little heart out to Blue Moon Of Kentucky.  Country/Bluegrass act Caleb Daugherty wooed the crowd with his baritone voice and hot licks (and a killer band behind him!).  Local cover-band Acoustic Edge featured a <gasp> DRUMMER, and did more than a handful of Steeldrivers songs, all while drawing a large, enthusiastic local crowd and keeping them all entertained.

Chris Smith of Caney Creek Entertains the Crowd
Saturday proved to be an eccentric and eclectic mix of top-notch performances.  Breakline kicked things off with another set of cool, swingin' jazz numbers followed by the Stanley Brothers inspired band Caney Creek who brought some of the finest pickin' and tightest harmony vocals of the weekend to the stage.   This was followed up with long-time Ohio bluegrass veteran Kevin Prater and his band who, while 100% traditional, managed to turn in super-high energy, super-entertaining set featuring frenetic and talented fiddle player Adam Burrows who wore his excitement and joy on his sleeve for everyone to see and enjoy.  IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year Volume 5 made an appearance and entertained the crowd with some "A-list" picking and singing.  After a suppertime return set by Out of Mind Bluegrass (somehow even better than their Thursday set), County Artist Terry Lee Goffee capped the night with a tribute to the "man in black" himself, Johnny Cash.  I'm usually not much for tribute/cover bands, but he did it right...the outfit, the voice, the band, everything--terribly cool and completely entertaining.

"The People, The Places, The Music".  Norwalk Music festival hits on all these.  Make it a point to get there next year and enjoy the setting, the vendors, the crowd, the music and the pickin'!  You won't be disappointed.  Hope to see you there!  Like what you see/read here?  Follow us on Facebook for more great "semibluegrass" content.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

A Rollicking Good Time at ROMP (Owensboro, KY)

A Little Fun with We Banjo 3 at ROMP
What a festival season it's been so far--small and large; traditional and progressive; focused and free-wheeling--something for every live, local music fan!  Recently, I had the opportunity to cross a major festival off my "bucket list" and attend ROMP ("River of Music Party") outside of Owensboro, Kentucky.  Hosted by the International Bluegrass Music Museum and Hall of Fame at Yellow Creek Park, this event drew a capacity crowd of 30,000 bluegrass and old-time music fans together for four days of incredible music and fellowship.  Of particular note was the festival's embracing of the "roots and branches" of bluegrass with acts acts that ran the gamut from very traditional (Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Alison Krauss) to newgrass/progressive acts (The Sam Bush Band, Pert Near Sandstone and Love Canon all gave incredibly entertaining and in-no-way-traditional performances to the roaring approval of enormous crowds).

Love Canon on the Late Night Stage
With daytime temperatures in the mid-to-high nineties, and oppressive humidity levels, some of the most enjoyable performances came at night in the late night stage, across a psychedelically illuninated bridge at the Pioneer Village stage (really the back porch of a log cabin...a truly unique setting allowing the fans to get up close to the bands, while still providing excellent sight lines and sounds for remarkably large crowds--all on their feet dancing and singing along nightly).  We arrived Wednesday night in time to see Hank, Pattie & the Current tearing it up with some old-time Americana and impressive mandolin/fiddle playing.  I'm pretty sure they were breaking in a new bass player, and she was KILLING it--not only adding some grooving bass lines, but dancing and singing along with every song.  Thursday featured two great, young bands the Fireside Collective and Pert Near Sandstone.  Kudo's to these two bands for reading the crowd correctly, throwing all the slower stuff out of their set list and barging ahead, full-throttle with a long string of hard driving, high-energy and eminently danceable tunes that got the crowd going and kept them on that high note until the wee hours of the morning.  I hate to admit I missed Friday's set with the Jeff Austin Band (and member of the Travellin' McCoury's sitting in!).  Closing out the festival Saturday with an unbelievably quirky and fun set of bluegrass/90s music covers was the incomparable Love Canon.

Leftover Salmon on the Main Stage
That is not to say that the main stage didn't feature some incredible music as well.  Thursday showcased some of the mainstay's of traditional bluegrass and allowed them to stretch their legs and show where they could take things.  Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver contributed a set of their timeless classics, and then went on to host the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.  Ricky Skaggs came out with Kentucky Thunder and some of his bluegrass hits, but quickly shifted to glittery red Fender Telecaster and rocked out to some of his big county hits--complete with electric bass and pedal steel guitar.  It wasn't only the guitars that were electrified...so was the crowd.  Seminal jam-grass band Leftover Salmon closed out Thursday.  While more than capable of entertaining with more traditional bluegrass-style tunes, this band really hits their stride when they venture out into world-rhythm laced, Grateful Dead derived and spaced out jams built around their original material.  It's best not to think too much and just enjoy the show!

Giddens Kicking Off a Monster Set
A couple of women really stole the spotlights this year with ex Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens blasting through a nearly 2-hour long set of old-timey, roots-revival music featuring her powerful and soulful voice and a blistering array of instrumentation from herself and her band-mates.  Truly one of the most inspiring performances of the summer.  The enormity of her performance was capped only by her connection to the fans.  She spent well over an hour meeting and posing for pictures with fans afterwards.  And...as various "selfies" would later prove, finding time to "jam" with some young fans as well.  The undisputed queen of bluegrass, Ms. Alison Krauss brought her homey and instantly recognizable repertoire to a sell-out crowd Saturday night.  Her quintessentially pure vocals matched perfectly with the harmony vocals of the band and the accompaniment of master instrumentalist Ron Block.  How does one follow a legend?  The promoters--in a stroke of pure genius--opted for Kentucky homeboy Sam Bush and his band to close out the night.   Not a person left after Krauss and all were treated to a high-energy, harmony-laced, driving onslaught of progressive and traditional grass tunes.  The crowd was still on their feet as the midnight curfew came and went.  The band even pushed the rules a little and gave a short, memorable encore performance before sending the crowd off to dance the night away with Love Canon at the late night stage.

Billy Strings
Even with these powerhouse bluegrass acts, there were still some memorable moments at ROMP.  The Travellin' McCourys gave a tremendous late-night performance on Friday night.  It's sometimes weird, and always encouraging to see a field full of "twenty-and-youngers" dancing their butts off to a bluegrass band.  The smile on brothers Rob and Ronnie McCoury say it all--they enjoy it just as much as the fans do!  Billy Strings brought his usual mix high-octane, nitro-powered bluegrass to the stage with a killer mix of Bluegrass Album band, Doc Watson and Billy Strings orignials.  He's at his best when he just lets go and jams out...and the crowd got a LOT of that during his scorching set (both musically and climatically).  Probably my favorite set of the week, and arguably the most engaging and entertaining was the get-on-your-feet CeltGrass performance of Ireland's We Banjo 3.  With a seemingly familiar instrumental lineup (how do they play those banjos?) and a stompbox "drop" fit for any dubstep performance, the band drew fans to the front of the stage like iron filings to a magnet and their energy and enthusiasm rippled through the crowd setting the stage for a great night of music.  When they come around your neck of the woods, go see them...you owe it to yourself.

Pickers at the Museum
There was so much else to see and do at ROMP.  We took a wonderful tour of Owensboro's newest brewery, O. Z. Tyler and got to sample the wares.  While we were in town, we had a great lunch and toured the International Bluegrass Museum and Hall of Fame--well worth the trip.  There were a number of really cool vendors there (my favorite recycled feed and cement bags from southeast asia into gig bags was an ex-marine, who visits southeast asia where he procures used feed and cement bags, and pays local labor a living wage to produce unique and high-quality purses, messanger and gig bags).  The food vendors were all super clean, perfectly professional and offered a variety of fresh, wholesome foods at ridiculously affordable prices.  And the people.  They were great.  Friendly, welcoming, and in a great mood.  Volunteers and festival-goers alike--all the type of people I crave being around!  Defintely a "bucket list" event to attend, but now I have to seriously consider going back EVERY year, as it meets all of my criteria: The People, The Place, The Music.  Hope to see you there!