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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 Kentucky 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.

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