Event Review: The Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival
September 2-4, 2005, Woodstown, NJ
The Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, sponsored by the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, is now in its 34th year and is arguably the best bluegrass festival in the country. It’s not the biggest, certainly – that title probably belongs to Bean Blossom or Grey Fox - nor does it have the patina of authenticity of Galax or other festivals held in the South.
But although metro Philadelphia seems a long way from Appalachia, the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival was actually started in 1972 by music patriarchs Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, along with the Brandywine Friends of Old Time Music, as a vehicle for promoting the music, which at the time was struggling for the attentions of the rock generation in the Northeast. Year after year it provides smart, imaginative booking amid the convenient and bucolic setting of the Salem County fairgrounds outside Woodstown, New Jersey. The 2005 festival was no exception.
For my money, this year’s highlights were two. Uncle Earl, an all-female quintet of twenty-something alt-old timeys were a sensation. Consisting of K.C. Graves, Kristen Andreassem, Rayna Gellert, Abigail Washburn, and Sharon Gilchrist, Uncle Earl (they decline to explain the origins of the name) captivated the crowd with two sets full of energy, humor, gorgeous harmonies, instrumental prowess, and, yes, sex appeal.
All five members of Uncle Earl offered distinctive contributions and talents, but particularly notable were Sharon Gilchrist’s soulful turns at the mandolin, when she was not playing bass, and banjoist Abigail Washburn’s beautiful lead vocals. Washburn’s interest in Chinese music and modalities (she is fluent in Mandarin) was apparent in the exotic tinge she lent to several songs, particularly “Warfare,” and in her banjo playing overall.
Uncle Earl embodies a recent revival in old-time music (i.e., the fiddle and frailing banjo-driven mountain music that helped give birth to the more commercial bluegrass form invented by Bill Monroe and others) among younger musicians. The 1970s saw a flourishing of hippie old time bands like the The Highwoods String Band, Putnam String County Band, and Hollow Rock String Band, but those disappeared by the early eighties.
The late ‘90s, however, beginning with the wonderful Freight Hoppers, saw a new generation embracing the raucous energy and alt-appeal of the music. Uncle Earl say they got “Warfare” from the recordings of North Carolina legend E.C. Ball, who was discovered by Alan Lomax in the 1940s.
But my guess is that they first got it from the Freight Hoppers, who – it is worth noting - remained true to the song’s original lyrics, an apocalyptic tale of Christian factionalism (“holiness people . . .shouting Methodists . . . praying Baptists . . . Presbyterians too”). Uncle Earl can’t help politically correcting the original, by altering the lyrics to embrace all Christians, Jews, and even Muslims, something that would have been unimaginable to Estil Ball. Or perhaps that’s simply part of the adaptive nature of the folk tradition. You decide.
Either way, you should definitely catch Uncle Earl while you can: the members of Uncle Earl also typify the individual/group relationships common in a music business in which it is increasingly rare for any group to stay together for a prolonged period of time: each member of Uncle Earl has a dizzying array of solo recordings, side projects, other group projects, and probably doctoral dissertations as well.
Their new CD from Rounder Records, She Waits for the Night, is highly enjoyable, but doesn’t quite capture the magic of their live show. They encored their second set with an acapella “Keys to the Kingdom,” led by the charismatic Abigail Washburn, who took the daring step of inviting the audience to sing along (keep in mind these were almost all white people whose favorite faith-based organization is NPR), and the audience complied with enthusiasm.
At the other end of the age spectrum were Chris Hillman
and longtime musical partner Herb Pedersen. Hillman, founding member of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, is himself a kind of patriarch of alt-country. He is 60, but looks in better shape than Dick Clark did at 30. Hillman started out as a teenage bluegrass wunderkind in southern California in the early 1960s, before detouring into the pop-rock explosion brought on by the Beatles and Dylan.
Hillman plays an excellent, melodic mandolin, and Pedersen – normally a banjoist – played guitar, and their harmonies and musical wisdom form a rich blend. Hillman and Pedersen are both sturdy songwriters – Pedersen’s “Wait a Minute” is a standard in the newgrass repertoire – but it’s the magic of their voices blended together that provides the real pleasure of their act.
This was best demonstrated in their treatment of the Byrds’ classic “Eight Miles High,” which was surprisingly powerful in their hands. No mere greatest hits obligation: Hillman worked out a careful mandolin part throughout, abetted by guest bassist Todd Phillips, whose jazz-inflected style is perfect for this song. Pedersen and Hillman are both true survivors, gracious professionals, with a lot to teach young musicians and audiences alike.
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