Saturday, March 12, 2016

SMS at Winter Bluegrass Festival in Minnesota

The first weekend of March is not a typical festival time in the South but to the members of
the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-time Music Association (MBOTMA) it is a time for a great festival to beat the winter doldrums.  The annual event host several bands in the Bluegrass genre and allow for
an 'Old-time' Band to be hired to perform, hold workshops, and play for a square dance on one of 4 stages in the Crown Plaza Hotel just outside of Minneapolis.  The Sunny Mountain Seranaders were fortunate to be invited to come be a part of such an event.  It was through my past contact with local player and MBOTMA member, Adam Kiesling,  that such an invite came to pass.  It is always an honor to be considered worthy of an invitation to play our style of music in that part of the US.  I am no stranger to MBOTMA having made  5 previous 'music' trips to the Land of the Lakes since the late 1990's.  Mark and John, however, had never been to Minnesota for music  and were impressed even more than I was at the quality of the festival by the end.

Back in December 2015 we basically booked separate flights that arrived around the same time so we could be picked up by Adam and driven to
the Crown Plaza so we could get checked in.  The rooms were excellent and convenient.
 The Festival is  totally self contained with a first class bar and restaurant in addition to a lunch food service in another part of the facility.   With jams happening just about everywhere  we jumped right in after supper and jammed on Friday night  with several Minnesota
folks including veteran performer Bob Bovee  and filmmaker Craig Evans.  The Slusher Dolls were a hit as well.  Overall, it was quite a party.  No driving required once you got there.  Booking a room in the place was the way to go.

Saturday 3/5 was our workday.  After a super breakfast buffet, we did some planning of our 1 hour concert set and proceed to check out the 3 large space filled with instrument vendors. Lots of cool new and vintage instruments.  My favorite fiddle was only priced at $12,000.
Our workshops were separated into banjo, fiddle and guitar.  I had about 12 people show up.
I once again hammered on the attendees to work harder on keeping time and rhythm which I see is lacking in the world of todays old-time banjo players.  We learned the basics of the Virginia tune Sandy River Belle so we could jam on it later with the fiddlers from Mark's workshop.  John taught the basics of back-up guitar to similar number of people.
After the workshop period we led a jam with around 30 people.  It was odd in that  players were sort of in rows like an audience would sit to listen.  They played right along with us for the most part.
We were convinced that there is a lot of interest in old-time playing in the North mid -West.  Some of the best local players played dance tunes for the present day  Wild Goose Chasers, a clogging team with a link back to the South's Green Grass Cloggers.  They were as good as any cloggers I know about.  Several young musicians impressed us with their good taste and skills as well during the weekend.  AJ is an excellent fiddler and his buddy Aaron a banjo maker and player specializing on old-time 3 finger picking on a Kel Kroydon style  resonator banjo.

Our late afternoon concert was attended by maybe 60 people and well received.  Following a two hour break, we played for a square dance called by Julie Young formerly of the Wild Goose Chasers.
Around 50 - 60 people attended the dance which seemed lively and fun for  everyone.
A Cajun dance followed with an excellent local Cajun band.   Not bad for a "BlueGrass Festival".
We finished up our evening with a hot jam featuring young fiddler AJ  playing C tunes along with Mark.  Of course, they were lucky to have such back-up both banjo and guitar support from John and me that helped them play better.
There was still a lot of jamming mostly bluegrass going on when we turned in for the night around 2 AM.    Spring fever was starting to set in for some people including us.

And as luck would have it, I sold my banjo to Adam.  I had been hoping for such an outcome on the UK trip but no takers.  So with a little advance notice, I  put a bug in his ear and behold that sweet
11" birdeye maple raw brass tuba phone ended up in a home with a fine player.  It was great to come back home empty handed once again for the 9th time.

I am glad to be home again. Spring fever is brewing as March is so much warmer than normal.
 I doubt we'll ever top this for just a weekend of playing our music for a fine bunch of people in a foreign land.

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Sunny Mountain Seranaders UK tour 2016

Ever since being asked to do workshops in banjo fiddle and guitar by Mary Ann Kovach in Fall of 2013,  I felt like some thing special was happening musically when collaborating with veteran fiddler Mark Campbell and ace guitarist John Schwab.  For while it seemed like my main music collaborators
from the past had all moved on and it was time for something different to happen.  An invite by
the UK's Friends of American Old-Time Music and Dance to do workshops in Cheddar, England
was exciting for me as I had always wanted to experience England as so many musicians from the US
had been hired to go for years.  Shay Garriock was hesitant to go so I asked my other cohort in the music Southwest Virginia, fiddler Mark Campbell,  to go with me as a duo.  It was a short trip but we did work up a couple of sets of music to perform and did indeed have a couple of extra gigs in addition to our main gig.  I mostly played my banjo of course, but also played several songs per set with a borrowed guitar and my own harmonica played simultaneously on a rack/holder.

 It was good music in that we had a good variety in our repertoire. We had great time doing what we did.  However, something could be better for the music's sake.  So we asked John to take up with us on guitar and complete the sound of a trio type string band that would have more variety and a bigger over all sound.  Thus, with several get togethers to try certain arrangements of songs and tunes
that we were familiar with, we had a couple of sets of some bona-fide old-time versions of several
classic numbers.  Bona-fide means real/genuine.  Since we continuous seek to know what old-time music really is and what defines the sound of it,  we are driven to seek the sources recordings or actual players who derive the music from something much older than the main stream culture of today's old time festival scenes.  In other words, we just feel like we want to play and sound like what we expose ourselves to by our listening.
Just like a kid from a musical family might tend to sound like his parents stylistically by  having been exposed to a certain sound for long enough, that's what we hope happens to us.

So the name The Sunny Mountain Seranaders came after a weekend of head scratching and trying to come up with names that were clever but not too silly.   We finally came up with a name and we ran with it.  We subsequently just worked up a couple of sets of tunes to perform and mainly just played whenever we could for nearly nothing just to get some experience before getting more serious about
doing some serious performances and traveling to do so.  Our willingness to travel made a difference in
our opportunities and in what we hoped to do to advance our music in the future.

Therefore, we were honored when we were  invited in 2015 to headline the 2016 Gainsborough Old-time Music and Dance festival in UK.   So we  figured a recording would be justified to document our music and be more professional in our goal to get more opportunities in the future.
We were inspired to work harder and  to share our sound in other venues in the UK as well.
Thus, we practiced and recorded 18 tracks in one day at Studio 808-A at our neighbor Joe Bass's
place in Floyd County, Virginia.  With the help go Google Sheets and Drop Box we were able to
listen and make adjustments from afar.  With Mark in Richmond and John in Bethesda MD we aren't
able to easily get together so modern ways of sending info helped us move things forward easily.
Our recording which came out in early Dec 2015 is called 'Into Thin Hair'.  A look at the cover
and you'll know why.   I am proud of it as it shows how well we can work together to play solid
versions  that aren't copies of the oldest ones but are heavily influenced.

We released "Into Thin Hair" in early December at two venues.  One was a performance for the Brandywine Friends of Old-time Music in  Newark, Delaware followed by another at Clarendon
Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia.  We were well received in each place and felt like
we did the music justice at our advanced age.

We didn't meet or play together anymore until Feb 4 when we met in the DC area to fly together to UK a week in advance of the Gainsborough Festival.  Iceland Air was a decent airline for a one stop flight
with large overhead compartments that easily fit our guitar and banjo cases.  We arrived a bit un-rested but with the help of Mike Bostock we headed south of London/Heathrow to Tunbridge Wells where
we were hosted by a wonderful couple, Lynn and Steve.  They were amazing host and dedicated to
dance music and the social purpose it holds enough to open their home to us only knowing that we
love the same thing that they do.  I suppose our ability to play well enough to be invited to the Gainsborough Festival convinced them that we would be a good fit and could also play for their American musical  presentation venture known as Cajun Barn productions.
So our first gig was in a town called Lewes in a pub known as the Con Club housed in a building
of some unknown age along a crooked narrow street typical of most UK villages.  Our set was well received by the 30 or so guest who mostly listened but were encourage to dance.  Our mountain style
of music wasn't hardly Cajun but we did get one good flatfoot dancer  who understood our beat.

Our next venue was in a town called Nailsea in the Bristol region of western England.  The Tithe Barn
is a 700 year old building next to an ancient church.  It is presently an arts center with regular presentations of all kinds.  Mark and performed there in 2014.  The Sunny Mountains Seranaders
with help of Mike Bostock and Helen Read did an afternoon demo and presentation to help anyone who attended to understand more about American Old-time music.  It was successful with about 20 attendees who enjoyed a nice reception following the presentation. That same evening we shared the stage with the Apple Jack Cloggers.  It was a nice time with perhaps 50 people attending.

The winter weather in UK sucked for most of the days we were there.  Typical cloudy, cool and rainy.
While back home there was a drop into single digit temps with high winds.
On our way to visit with our friends Andrew and Emily, we participated in a huge jam in a ancient pub in IAD, a small village in southern Somerset (southwest England).  I finally realized that the various  areas in England have a regional name in addition to a town name much like we have state names in the US.   The presence of palm trees near the town of Torquay made me think of South Carolina.  A big thanks to Andrew and Emily for showing us the port town of Dartmouth and letting us stand on the same dock where the Pilgrims boarded the Mayflower for the journey to America in 1620.  The weather was sunny for a change and enhanced our awesome experience.  That evening we shared a fine meal and performed for a house concert in A & E's new house living room.  It was a fine time.
It was the last time Mark was able to speak clearly as he caught a cold that affected his speaking voice the rest of the trip.

Our next adventure was to go to western part of Wales and perform in a town call Pembroke- Docks.
Our next fine host was Jackie Kempton who arrange the venue and promoted us to the community.
Mike Bostock once again delivered us to the town and headed back home to Helen planning to
meet us after the Gainsborough festival to see us through to the end of our tour in London.  The
concert in Pembroke went well with a small crowd in a community center.  We were well received and
met some fine people, one of which had ancestors that had been banjo makers in London before
WW2.  Our stuff was too much for Jackie's little car so we hired a cab to haul us out to Stackpole
to Jackie's place in the country.  It was a rural apartment in a former horse stable complex for a huge estate that had once belonged to a person named Campbell.   Mark nodded in approval.

The next day was to be a day of travel to the Gainsborough Festival where we were to do a concert that evening.  It was necessary to rent a larger vehicle to cary us and our stuff to the festival.  Thanks to
Jackie for driving us.  We rode through some beautiful country in rural Wales.  Snow shown on some
of the higher elevations.  It had a certain feel to it like Southwest Virginia's rural areas.  We spent
the best part of the day traveling getting into more and more traffic as we approached Gainsborough.
The festival was held in an old school in the town with classrooms available for jamming and workshops and the auditorium available for concerts.
We did arrive safely and in time to eat a meal in the school cafeteria which also had a pub set up inside.
Beer drinking seems  so normal in UK  with the presence of pubs in every neighborhood.  The Bible Belt South in the US would never allow such except in college towns in my experience.
The festival was basically a party with music jams and beer.  People camped in campers or in the gymnasium on the floor or on cots.  It sort of looked like refugee center.  Since we were paid staff we got to stay in a house with small separate rooms with a single bed and a sink. It was cozy and about a 1/4 mile walk from the festival.  No rain and warmer than I expected but still cloudy all day long.
My Sat AM workshop involved me attempting to show 30+ people with banjos how to play better.
With a slight hangover on Sat AM, I  managed  to show the attendees how I played the claw hammer style and the secrets of the  'Mac' attack.  Basically, steady right hand rhythm and pushing the beat.  I did a demo playing to a metronome to encourage the players to practice with one if they wanted to sound like  an American old-timer from the Blue Ridge Mountains.   Simple?  For left hand challenges
with some simple string tuning adjustments I got the crowd to play along on Sourwood Mountain, Old Jimmy Sutton and  2 versions of Sally Ann in D.

I hung out around the instrument dealers and met some fine luthiers. I was impressed with the level of quality I saw.   My own banjo, I was willing to sell and managed to display it for a while on Saturday afternoon.  We mostly just jammed and talked instruments the rest of the afternoon.  The SMS did
another set of music for the evening concert encouraging the folks to dance.  There were a few that
did get up and dance.  Of course, we got out the Slusher dolls, Reuben and Daisy, and had them dance
to a rousing sing a long on Old-Jimmy Sutton.   Baaaaahhh!

Sunday found us packing the rental car again and leaving town with Jackie at the helm to drive us south  to meet Mike Bostock about halfway to London.  We were to travel with Mike driving another rental car to a place outside London called Orpington to stay at the
home of recent MBOTMA member Matt Hearing who we met at the festival.  We made it after dark, settled in a bit then walked to a pub  with Matt and wife Cynthia for beer and supper before settling down for the night.  The next evening was Monday 2/15
and we were to play our last gig at the Harrison bar/pub in north central London about 25 miles away.
Thanks to Matt,  we got oriented and took the train into the city where we could catch the London Underground subway to the area near the Harrison and walk the last 1/2 mile.  It worked remarkably
smooth.  The gig was great and exceeded our expectations in every way.  Great food, beer, great crowd for a Monday night and our best performance of the trip.  We left there feeling like it we had done
a great job and ready to go home.   Next day was travel day.  We had a big breakfast in the airport, caught our delayed Icelandair flight to Rekyavik and barely made our connection back to the US.

We departed knowing that we'd meet for another adventure soon.