Review: Andrew Collins

When people think of bluegrass their thoughts may not immediately turn to Canada, but several groups and musicians are ensuring the music is thriving north of the US border. At the forefront is the Toronto-based mandolin virtuoso Andrew Collins. A mainstay of the Canadian acoustic scene, Andrew plays in several collaborations and is fast becoming recognised as one of the best mandolin players around.

Andrew can play just about anything on the 8-string, whether it’s new acoustic and jazz with The Creaking Tree String Quartet, traditional fiddle tunes in his collaboration with Brian Taheny or ripsnorting bluegrass with The Foggy Hogtown Boys. He’s also released a solo album which combines all these styles and more.

Heading the list of Andrew’s current projects is The Creaking Tree String Quartet. Made up of four highly talented musicians from various backgrounds and with three albums under their belts, they are establishing themselves as one of the leading lights of new acoustic music. Their sound incorporates classical, jazz, swing, bluegrass and folk, played on mandolin, guitar, violin and bass.

The most recent release, The Soundtrack, does exactly what it says on the tin. The album has the feel of a movie score with short bursts of incidental music coupled with longer, thoughtful passages (the incredible Spacehead clocks in at almost ten minutes). Their other releases, Side Two and an eponymous début, are similar in their creativity and experimentation whilst maintaining strong ties to folk and bluegrass roots.

They are one of many instrumental groups today who are ignoring the so-called rules and boundaries set by genre classifications. If you like music such as Strength In Numbers, Psychograss or Matt Flinner, then you’ll love The Creaking Tree String Quartet.

But Andrew has not entirely abandoned the old ways. His collaboration with Irish musician Brian Taheny, Mando Lore, is a fine collection of traditional Celtic, French-Canadian and American tunes primarily featuring mandolin family instruments. The clean, tasteful playing has won many fans, including English mandolinist Simon Mayor who feels the CD is “matchless playing of Irish traditional music (with the odd North American influence) from two true masters of their art”. The recording showcases Andrew’s talents on several other instruments – guitar, mandola and mandocello.

The solo recording Little Widgets is the perfect example of how Andrew can at once be a traditional yet progressive musician. So many genres are covered here, from the old-time fiddle tune Yellow Barber, through the swing of Blue Ming to Bach’s Cello Suite #3. Most impressive is the strength of his self-penned work. Almost all the tunes were composed by Andrew with Pendleton Murray and Dickering Al amongst the highlights.

If you’re thinking “but it’s not really bluegrass, is it?”, fear not! Andrew also plays in the Toronto bluegrass group The Foggy Hogtown Boys. Featuring Chris Quinn on banjo, John Showman on fiddle, Chris Coole on guitar and Max Heineman on bass, the band are regarded as perhaps Canada’s finest exponents of the genre, receiving plaudits from many top US musicians including Tim O’Brien.

Unlike Andrew’s other work, this is pure, hard driving bluegrass that could have come straight out of Kentucky. Their recent instrumentals CD, Pigtown Fling, features Andrew not only playing Monroe style but also composing in the same vein – The Stomp of Approval is a tune Bill would have undoubtedly been proud to write himself. The rest of the band follow suit – Quinn with a strong Scruggs style, and Showman paying homage to Kenny Baker on many of the numbers.

And his talents don’t end there. Other works include a CD with guitarist Marc Roy, and “super bands” Lickin’ Good Fried and Crazy Strings – both made up from members of various Toronto groups. Still young by bluegrass standards, and having only picked up the mandolin at 23, we are sure to see and hear even more exciting musical developments from Andrew in future.

Review: Grand Targhee Bluegrass Camp and Festival

ukbluegrass recently spent a week at the Grand Targhee Bluegrass Music Camp and the 20th Annual Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival, twin back-to-back events hosted by the Grand Targhee Resort, near the Wyoming/Idaho border and 8000 feet up in the Rockies.

Great music, people and weather all added up to make this one of the best experiences you can imagine, completely blowing away the preconceptions we had of how things are done in the States.

The Camp

First up was the camp which promised “3.5 days of high level instruction” from such luminaries as Mike Marshall (mandolin), Tony Trischka (banjo), Brian Wicklund (fiddle), Scott Nygaard (guitar), and Eric Thorin (bass). The teaching staff was backed by regular UK visitors John Lowell and Ben Winship, who was running the show. With the standard of tutors on offer this was always going to be top quality event.

The Grand Tetons – backdrop to the camp and festival

A comparison with the UK’s own famous camp was somewhat inevitable and if you think Sore Fingers with altitude sickness you’re along the right lines. The week was played out with the best possible humour and a close, friendly atmosphere that will be familiar to all SF students. It speaks volumes that in only its second year the camp had already grown two-fold on the 2006 event, although there were still only 40 or so students. The low numbers meant us “English freaks” were able to fit-in from the off, and we were overwhelmed by the level of generosity and friendship that we encountered from both the students and staff.

Classes began on the Tuesday morning, but instrument lessons were kept short and sweet to allow time for other activities. Afternoons were mostly taken up with elective workshops on a broad range of topics such as songwriting, harmony singing, improvisation and music theory. There were also several structured jams, and in the evenings the tutors and their friends made special effort to ensure everybody could be involved in the informal sessions.

Fiddle and banjo workshop

Accommodation was the resort’s ski lodge with private rooms and plenty of space for any accompanying non-musical family members. In summer the resort hosts such diverse activities as hiking, horse riding, disc golf and climbing. There are bikes for hire and facilities such as a swimming pool, hot tubs and a ski lift which takes passengers to stunning views of the Grand Teton mountain range. Plenty to keep you busy during the camp’s quieter moments.

All meals were provided, with the food of a surprisingly high standard. We enjoyed the likes of salmon, pasta and plenty of fresh fruit and veg. Another stereotype was shattered by the beer on offer, which was exceptional. The choice included several examples from the Grand Teton Brewing Company, a local brewery that makes some of the finest ales you’ll find anywhere. To make things even better, those participating in the late-night jamming in the resort’s bar were often treated to free samples by the staff and other punters.

“High on a Mountain Top” jam session

On Thursday afternoon all the musicians rode the ski lift for a mountain top jam at 10000 feet. Sadly, nobody was brave enough to try and carry a bass on the lift, but the session was a truly memorable experience nonetheless. Predictably, we played songs about mountains and sitting on top of the world before heading back down to attend the tutor concert which was taking place in the local “blooming metropolis” of Driggs.

Sore Fingers regulars would recognise the format and quality of the concert, which was part of a series of free gigs held in this small town. Being at a relatively low 6000 feet, it also gave us the chance to breathe some refreshing low-altitude air! Despite some hilarious sound problems, including but not limited to mic stands collapsing, mics being turned on and off at random and some interesting use of effects, the tutors put on a great show and were clearly enjoying themselves. They played in a number of different line-ups, before all coming on stage together for a rousing finale.

Tutor concert in downtown Driggs

After the concert we stayed up long into the night chatting with the tutors. The good news is they all know about the British bluegrass scene, and those that haven’t been to Sore Fingers yet are keen to check it out. We also helped to expand their vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon expletives and football chants but the less said about that the better. For laid-back fun, Grand Targhee is completely on a par with Sore Fingers!

The camp closed on the Friday afternoon with the student concert, an informal yet high quality event. Many students participated despite zero rehearsal time, and in a tiny room surrounded by some of bluegrass’s most talented musicians it was easy to understand why some found this more nerve-racking than a full-blown gig.

Student concert

Ben laid on yet more free beer which was gratefully and quickly consumed, before we had a final rehearsal for our appearance on the festival stage that afternoon. Yep, the camp students were going to be the warm-up act for Yonder Mountain String Band!

And then it was over. It had all finished so soon, but there was no time for feeling sad, as we were joined by over 2,000 more bluegrass fans for the weekend’s festival!

The Festival

If you prefer your bluegrass to be traditional, sober, and staid then Grand Targhee probably isn’t the event for you. Indeed, if you prefer your bluegrass to be “bluegrass” this festival might not be for you.

Dancing high on the side of a Wyoming mountain with 2,500 other young music fans, watching an electric Sam Bush Band belting out Whole Lotta Love, a suspiciously herbal funk wafting over the crowd and the Perseid meteorites whizzing overhead, it would be easy to forget that this was a bluegrass festival at all.

We reckon that most Brits would love this event. If you can put up with the jet-lag and travel and you like all kinds of acoustic music and stunning outdoor scenery then do try to check this one out.

The festival stage and crowd

With all sorts of newgrass, jazzgrass, jamgrass, rockgrass and even a little country on the bill, the eclectic line-up had attracted a much younger crowd than seen at British bluegrass events with an average age somewhere in the thirties. Acts included Yonder Mountain String Band, Seldom Scene, The Sam Bush Band and David Grisman (with both his Bluegrass Experience and Quintet), not to mention the many groups provided by the camp instructors.

The bill was kept to only 5 or 6 bands each day, meaning most got to play a full-length set – a treat for those of us who rarely see musicians of this calibre. There was plenty of dancing, hollering and even moshing at the front of the crowd, but not once did the atmosphere change from friendly and family-orientated.

Friday night headliners were Yonder Mountain String Band, but they couldn’t appear until us camp students had our moment of glory. We all took to the stage with our tutors and belted out an out-of-tune Turkey in the Straw and an (approximately) in-tune I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home. The crowd wanted YMSB, but we still got a few whoops and even a bit of pogoing for our efforts.

Yonder Mountain String Band

Highlights throughout the weekend were many and varied. From YMSB’s energetic, youthful set to Sam Bush’s comic frontman antics (expect him to run for office next year on a Bush/Clinton Presidential ticket – George Clinton, that is – backed by Grisman as Secretary of Agriculture), not forgetting simply wonderful musical offerings from the likes of Kane’s River, Brother Mule and Tony Trischka.

The biggest surprise for us was the David Grisman Quintet whose show was an example of sublime musicianship and the purest tone, with only occasional forays into muzak territory. The perfect soundtrack for chilling out on a Sunday afternoon.

The music didn’t end with the headline acts – on the Friday and Saturday there were also special, small-scale performances in the bar late into the night, including one by Casey Driessen. We’d bumped into him earlier on and he seemed slightly confused to see us on the other side of the planet from where we’d last met at Sore Fingers.

Kane’s River

This festival was no place for the bluegrass police, with many bands using drum kits and other weird non-bluegrass instruments including flutes and pedal steels. Scott Vestal also made great use of his banjo synthesiser, lending a Hammond organ vibe to The Sam Bush Band’s set.

Away from the stage there was a good selection of stalls, including various clothing (lots of tie-dye for the hippies), instruments and plenty of hats to keep off the intense sunshine. Food available included the typical hamburgers and pizza along with more unusual efforts such as carnitas and rather tasty elk burgers. And, of course, there was yet more beer from the Grand Teton company (we recommend Bitch Creek ale and Workhorse wheat beer).

Sam Bush and David Grisman

As for picking, there was plenty going on around the camp grounds, but with such good bands on stage we rarely got involved. Being 8000 feet up the nights were cold and only the bravest souls were playing after sunset.

On the Sunday night, Grisman and co set up a jam in the resort lodge which attracted a crowd of idolising onlookers. It was at this point that we had to say goodbye to the new friends we had made and so in we waded, into the most heavyweight session we had ever seen, and started hugging the various tutors and fellow students who had made our stay so memorable. The Dawg didn’t seem to mind too much…

Review: Cornish Bluegrass Festival

August 2007

by Jer Boon

The inaugural Cornish Bluegrass Festival took place in 2004, and was by a quirk of fate also the very first bluegrass festival that I attended. As an event that gave this then banjo novice such a warm introduction to the British bluegrass scene and began my enduring love for all such events, it still commands a certain amount of special affection from me.

The event was largely the brainchild of the Cornish Bluegrass Association’s chairman, the charismatic and hard-working Dean Woon. Says Dean, “I had been toying with the idea of organising a Cornish picking weekend since returning from the Silsden Bluegrass Festival in 2003. Whilst there, people were telling me they’d be prepared to travel to Cornwall if there was something going on, and when the people from ACLAIM said they’d get a coach load to come down, that was all the encouragement we needed.”

And so the CBA was born, with an aim to promote not just the festival, but events and sessions in Cornwall throughout the year. The first festival saw five bands play to over 200 bluegrass fans at Hendra Holiday Park in Newquay.

As a newcomer to the scene, I’d turned up at that event, knowing literally one person there. I was soon introduced to a couple of friends, then some friends of theirs, listened to some seasoned pickers jamming, and quickly felt at home. It’s perhaps the holiday park setting that makes this unique event quite what it is – despite the welcome, if the music ever does get too much, you can explore the other amenities on site, go for a swim in the fun pool or whatever, and just chill out.

The growth of the event has been marked over its three incarnations to date. In the second year, the concerts switched to fill the main cabaret room, one of the larger concert venues on the scene, and the year after that a marquee was added as a second concert venue.

The Smokey Mountain Boys
The Smokey Mountain Boys in 2006

“The Festival has definitely brought bluegrass to a wider audience,” says Dean. “In 2005 there was a caravan club in one of the other areas of Hendra that had been forced to re-schedule their event due to cancellations or something, but they enjoyed themselves so much that they have rearranged their calendar to coincide with the festival ever since.”

To some of the non-musical residents, the bluegrass would appear to be something of an oddity, but it’s always well-received, including the popular Appalachian clogging displays which take place in the main patio area.

I dared to take my banjo out twice that first year, once for a slow jam led by Stuart Williams from ACLAIM, and again for the Sunday morning organised picking session, which has become a regular feature of the event. It was daunting, but the encouragement for everyone to get involved at Hendra is palpable.

Dean knows all about encouraging newcomers. “We try to promote new or relatively new bands, and also try to involve bands based in the West Country, Europe and the USA. Last year we thought that we would give the Thunderbridge Bluegrass Boys a chance to show what they could do, and what a revelation they have turned out to be.” From interviewing the Thunderbridge boys for ukbluegrass last year, we could tell that they’d been rather concerned about “fitting in” at that event, but their headline performance on the Friday more than justified the CBA’s faith in booking them.

There’s also a “showcase” concert in the afternoon where new and upcoming acts are able to air their talents.

Late Night Jamming
Late night jamming

It’s an event that Dean Woon and the rest of the CBA committee and staff manage to make almost uniquely and endearingly Cornish, not least with this year’s headline act featuring a Cornish banjo player and mandolin maker from Nashville, one Sim Daley.

“We at the CBA are fully committed to providing the best weekend we possibly can, we get no financial reward, we even pay for our accommodation at the festival out of our own pockets,” says Dean. “The only reward we get is to see the people at the festival enjoying what we have worked so hard to provide, and the thanks and gratitude from everyone when the festival is over helps make it all worthwhile.” Hopefully the Cornish Bluegrass Festival will continue to thrive for years to come. Says Dean, “Hendra can cope with in excess of 5000 people in the peak season, so we will never need to go elsewhere…I hope!”

Review: EWOB – The Carrivick Sisters

By Laura and Charlotte Carrivick

Upon arriving in Voorthuizen at around 3pm, shortly after the first bands had started to play, we were surprised to find that you couldn’t take a car onto the camping field and so had to carry everything over from the car park. So, first bit of advice if going to EWOB – pack light! The camping field was relatively small with a car park behind the conference centre for people in camper vans etc. The toilet and shower facilities were excellent – plenty of them and clean. There is a quiet and a noisy end of the field although it seems that after it starts getting dark all the jamming moves inside anyway.

When we went to register we were told of the opportunity for bands to play for an hour in a restaurant or bar in town for an hour for which you would be paid €70. This was something we did and it was well worth it to help cover travel expenses (on top of what the festival already provided). Although we only did one of these gigs, I believe it was possible to do as many as you wanted.

The Trefpunt building was perfectly suited to the event with lots of separate spaces for jamming, workshops and the tradeshow with a large concert hall. All the bands that we saw were fantastic and of the highest standard. The tradeshow was also great with many beautiful instruments to drool over and have a try of as well as a stall selling all the usual accessories, instructional books etc. and a separate room full of CDs, records and magazines.

One of the things that I initially thought could be a problem was the language barrier. This turned out not to be an issue at all though as most people could speak fairly good English, or, in the cases of people who didn’t, the names of tunes are still the same and simple gestures can be improvised to say “let’s jam over there”! We ended up jamming with a group of people from the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Sweden including the 16 year old Czech Chris Thile equivalent, his cousin who played like Jerry Douglas and a 17 year old Slovakian who played fiddle like Mark O’Connor! One main difference we noticed between festivals in England and EWOB was that the average age of players at EWOB appeared to be significantly lower which shows that the bluegrass scene in Europe is definitely getting bigger.

On Saturday we were involved with the Children’s Programme with some of the other performers, introducing some of the local children to bluegrass and old time through songs such as Old MacDonald which seemed to go down well! We were ferried to the local Church on a little tourist-type train where we set up outside in the sunshine.

After a quick lunch it was time for us to head over to the green room and then for a quick sound check as we were the first act up that day. The sound for the entire festival was absolutely fantastic both from the performer’s point of view and for the audience. Our slot went well and we were pleased to see that the hall was full despite the lovely weather outside!

The winning band for #1 European Bluegrass Band, who will perform at IBMA next year, was a very new band from Sweden called G2 Bluegrass. They were a fantastically tight band with brilliant musicianship all round playing original and traditional songs. Stylistically, they were fairly similar to bands such as the Infamous Stringdusters. The audience popularity vote went to 4 Wheel Drive who will be appearing at the Cornish Bluegrass Festival this year.

All together, it was a great festival and we would highly recommend it to anyone despite the long journey.

Review: EWOB – The New Essex Bluegrass Band

By Dixon Smith and The New Essex Bluegrass Band

The tenth annual European World of Bluegrass Festival was held on 17-19 May in Voorthuizen, Holland, attracting the cream of Europe’s bluegrass bands. Forty-two bands were selected to appear out of over eighty who applied, from almost every conceivable nation, with the Czech Republic especially heavily represented; performing with the great precision that comes from classical training. Let it be said loud and clear, “Europe’s finest bluegrass bands are as tight and driving – with soaring, high-lonesome harmonies – as the finest acts from America.” Amongst the most outstanding bands to appear were: 4 Wheel Drive (Netherlands), Meantime (Slovakia), Lonesome Mountaineers (Sweden) and the Petr Brandejs Band (Czech Republic), but there were many other bands who showed how popular this beautiful music is throughout the whole of Europe.

The United Kingdom was represented by the New Essex Bluegrass Band and the Carrivick Sisters. This was the fourth EWOB appearance for NEBB, and we felt in top form, having picked almost all day long every day. Our performance on the opening day was voted third best of the bands that appeared that day. A colour photo from that performance appeared in the next day’s local newspaper which gave the festival some prominent publicity. We gave interviews to two Dutch radio stations and recorded a live performance for each station to play at a later date, and we also performed at two additional venues in Voorthuizen, a restaurant and a bar.

The entire town of Voorthuizen is behind this event. Local businesses and shops lend generous sponsorship, the cafes, bars and restaurants invite bands to play inside and outside their premises, and the townsfolk give the warmest welcome to the EWOB visitors.

What made the festival especially rewarding for the members of our band was the opportunity it gave us to meet, or renew friendships with, musicians from many different countries. I met Norris, for instance, an elderly bluegrass statesman from New York, who runs The Ebony Hillbillies, the world’s only black bluegrass band. We spent two consecutive afternoons picking with James Field, the fine guitar player and lead singer who played with the great Joe Val in the Charles River Valley Boys and recorded the classic Beatle Country album with them in the 1960s. His taste for traditional, first-generation bluegrass overlaps ours perfectly. James lives in Paris, and he’d brought a certain banjo-picker friend with him to the festival, a living legend who was eager to spend the week picking. His name? – Bill Keith, with whom Greg and I spent two exciting evenings picking tunes. I hadn’t seen him since we’d met at a picking party at the University of Connecticut in 1965.

The other band members had the opportunity to renew acquaintances with two groups they have known for several years and who are both appearing at UK festivals this year. The Dutch band 4 Wheel Drive, winners of this year’s audience popularity award, will be appearing at the Cornish Bluegrass Festival. The Looping Brothers from Germany who took the same award in 2005 will be at Didmarton.

Voted Number One European Bluegrass Band was Sweden’s G2, an exciting, tight, energetic and contemporary young band. Their prize for taking this prestigious award, voted for exclusively by all the festival musicians, was a trip to the 2008 International Bluegrass Music Association convention in Nashville.

What else? Oh yes – our young friends The Carrivick Sisters. The New Essex Bluegrass Band had an opportunity to pick and sing with Charlotte and Laura on several occasions during the week and saw their formal Saturday afternoon performance. Simply stated, they were amongst the two or three standouts of the festival. This is said not because the twins have only just turned eighteen years old, but rather that their musicianship on guitar, Dobro, fiddle, and mandolin is impressive yet tasteful, and their harmonies impeccable.

Numerous listeners to these picking sessions remarked to us upon their abilities, and these comments were confirmed by the reception the enthusiastic audience gave to their stage performance. They’re already seasoned professionals and write most of their own material. Have no doubts, these young ladies are already stars, and we think it is only a matter of time before a solid label signs them up. They are the future of acoustic music.