Thursday, November 8, 2007

Upper Valley BGF, Lebanon, NH - Preview

On November 16th and 17th the Lebanon Opera House will be hosting the First Annual Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival in the Lebanon Opera House, Lebanon, NH. Looking more like two evenings of very high quality concerts rather than like a festival, this event still promises to offer plenty of musical satisfaction ranging from the traditional bluegrass style and presentation of the Del McCoury Band through Sam Bush, the originator of what became known as Newgrass based on his founding of The Newgrass Revival in the early seventies, through two cutting edge progressive bands who are fairly new to the scene but have created quite a stir in their short histories, The Greencards and Crooked Still. Acoustic music fans open to a variety of musical experiences all falling under the broad rubric of Bluegrass will find much to satisfy them over these two days.

The Lebanon Opera house is an 800 seat facility, which first opened in 1924 and through its history has presented vaudeville, theatricals, and community events. It is the largest proscenium theater in the Upper Connecticut River Valley. After becoming the town movie theater in 1951, the Opera House fell into disrepair. Its resurrection into its current state began in 1975 and has continued under new leadership as a major cultural center for the region. The Opera House presents a broad range of cultural events. Take a look at their schedule.

On Friday, The Greencards will lead off. This band has recently undergone a change, as lead guitarist Andy Falco has moved on to the Infamous Stringdusters. Nevertheless, the three originators of the band remain and will surely have added another talented person at guitar. Carol Young on bass and lead vocals, Eamon McLaughlin on Fiddle, and Kym Warner on mandolin form the core of this group, aptly named as all are from abroad, two from Australia and one from England. They arrived in the US several years ago as a pretty traditional bluegrass band, revering the first generation masters of the genre. After spending some time in Austin, TX they found themselves broadening and deepening the scope of their music until today, while it still hints at the traditional it ranges quite far afield. Read more about their genesis and development here.

Sam Bush has been at the center of bluegrass music for over 35 years. He attended the first bluegrass festival in Virginia in 1965 and has been active in the music ever since, a leader since the emergence of the New Grass Revival in 1971. New Grass Revival blended the sounds and rhythms of Bill Monroe, the founder of bluegrass music, with those of rock music. In this synthesis and through the work of the great musicians associated with the band, NGR opened the way for a new fan base to learn about the music. Both from stage and in his delightful workshops, Sam Bush honors the memory of Bill Monroe and adds his own energy, enthusiasm, and drive to it. His current band, featuring the great Scott Vestal on banjo, New England’s Stephen Mougin on guitar, Byron House, whose unparalleled excellence on bass sets a standard for all other bass players, and Chris Brown on drums. Drums are not standard issue for bluegrass bands these days, but the Sam Bush Band is not your standard issue bluegrass band. Strongly influenced by rock music and jazz, the band offers an exciting and stimulating move into a new musical world. Nevertheless, the International Bluegrass Music Association, this year recognized Sam Bush as Mandolin Player of the Year for the fourth time. Vestal was named banjo player of the year in 1996. The Sam Bush band provides a never to be forgotten musical experience regardless of what you call the music.

Crooked Still is a band which often takes traditional folk and bluegrass songs and then applies its own magic to them, coming up with unique and haunting sounds. I first heard Crooked Still at Springfest in Live Oak, Florida and was not immediately taken by them. I’ve learned, however, not to trust my initial judgment so I was pleased to get another chance to hear them at Merlefest this year. The second time around proved to be the key, as their magic captured me. This is a really good and interesting band, using acoustic instruments in unusual configurations to take mountain and bluegrass music into the world of rock and alternative. Lead singer Aiofe O’Donovan has a somewhat misty, light voice perfectly attuned to the kind of music Crooked Still offers. As a co-founder of the band with bassist Corey DiMario, O’Donovan sets the tone and takes the lead. DiMario on bass, both bowed and plucked, provides an interesting counterpoint with cellist Rashad Eggleston. How many bands feature a cello?


Fans of Crooked Still cellist Rashad Eggleston will be able to see one of his final performances with the band before he leaves for other pastures. He will make his final performance the next day in Northampton, MA and will be replaced by Tristan Clarridge on bass and Brittany Haas on fiddle. I think these additions signal a significant change in the sound of this band, but time will tell. Meanwhile, Eggleston’s quirky stage personality and interesting cello inventions are worth seeing. You can learn more about these changes at the Crooked Still site or at the Bluegrass Blog. Banjo master Dr. Gregory Liszt (yes, it’s a real doctorate, a PhD from MIT), has developed a unique four finger style of banjo play, adding another voice to the banjo rolls of Earl Scruggs and his followers. He recently toured with Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band. This band, even though it will be going through significant changes in the next few weeks, is still worth watching and listening to. Enjoy them as they are and the look for them as they develop along new lines.



Let’s get the superlatives about the Del McCoury Band out of the way right off the bat.

IBMA Awards

Entertainer of the Year – 9 times

Instrumental Group of the Year – 2 times

Male Vocalist of the Year – 4 times

Song of the Year – 1 time

Album of the Year – 2 times

Instrumental Album of the Year (Ronnie and Rob McCoury) – 1 time

Instrumental Performer of the Year (Ronnie McCoury – Mandolin) – 8 times

Instrumental Performer of the Year (Jason Carter – Fiddle) – 3 times

McCoury has also been nominated for two Grammy awards and won one. Simply put, this is one of the most recognized and lauded of all bluegrass bands, ever. And after you see his performance, you’ll understand why.

The McCoury Band is very traditional. They dress in suits, sing into one microphone, and play the traditional bluegrass instruments superlatively. While best known as a singer, Del McCoury is a fine rhythm guitar player and once played a pretty good banjo. Son Ronnie is justly recognized for his mandolin play as well as for producing any number of great records for other. He has recently produced a children’s record which is doing quite well. Brother Rob is a fine banjo picker who has had insufficient recognition. The Del McCoury character affects a slightly rakish leer accompanied by a smile that lets the audience know it’s all part of the show. The choreography of working a single mic is always interesting and sometimes I wonder why Jason Carter’s bow doesn’t put somebody’s eye out. All told, the McCoury band is an experience not to be missed. If this is your first bluegrass festival, the four bands presented at the Lebanon Opera House will give you an opportunity to see a good bit of the spectrum of contemporary bluegrass. Enjoy!

Workshops are often a feature of bluegrass festivals. The Upper Valley Festival will feature a series of three workshops held in the AVA Gallery & Art Center, 11 Bank Street in Lebanon on Saturday afternoon from 1:00 PM until 4:00. There will be three workshops: What is this bluegrass anyway?, Banjofication with Steve Henig, and A Bit of Festival with Rich Heepe. All three seem oriented to explaining bluegrass and the bluegrass scene to the novice while providing interesting material for the already initiated. This festival is a first effort for the people at the Lebanon Opera House. The lineup is very solid, although Monroe purists won’t find much to suit their tastes. Otherwise, I can hardly think of a better way to spend a late autumn weekend in New England.

Tickets are still available for this event. They cost $30 for each day or $50.00 for the weekend. The Lebanon Opera House can be found here. You can contact the Opera House here.

Scott Vestal


Sam Bush Workshop

Del McCoury and Sam Bush




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