The incredibly successful 29th annual Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Society Festival concluded with a spectacular day of music on August 3 at Stony Plain, AB. I attended only the final day of the of the three-day set, and found no end to the elements that impressed.
The Society put together a very strong bluegrass lineup comprised of bands that complemented each other, featuring performers who have- for the most part, and certainly within these configurations- not appeared previously at Blueberry. Lacking a ‘massive’ headliner this year- after all, you can only bring in Rhonda, The Spinneys, The Gibsons, DLQ, and Marty so many times, no matter how popular they are- the list of scheduled performers was, from my perspective, impressive.
The delightful Suzy Bogguss was the biggest name on the bill, with The James King Band, The Rambling Rooks, The Larry Stephenson Band, and Grasstowne providing the greatest name recognition from a bluegrass standpoint.
Having not attended Blueberry for seven (!) years, much has changed since I last found opportunity and inspiration to purchase a ticket to this event. As I’ve previously written, I loyally attended Blueberry from 1996 to 2002, but became unimpressed when the previous leadership left the fest. Still, I attended on an intermittent basis to 2007.
Billing itself as “Canada’s Largest Bluegrass Festival,” Blueberry has consistently booked high calibre line-ups that have balanced the bluegrass and country elements of its name (about 90/10, traditionally) featuring regional acts as well as the up-and-coming groups, veteran bands with drawing power, musician’s musicians, and ‘top tier’ bluegrass acts. Few is the high-profile bluegrass act that hasn’t appeared at Blueberry over the past three decades.
Of the things that have changed since I last attended, the site itself is most notable. Several years ago, the exhibition grounds that house the festival had a complete makeover, and having not seen this improvement prior to this past Sunday I have to say from logistical and amenities perspectives that this is clearly the best site I’ve seen for an outdoor bluegrass festival.
Parking has been improved, and the concert seating area is now graveled. The pavilion was greatly expanded- perhaps even rebuilt- and the surrounding grounds have been completely redeveloped. The stage, which was once little more than a shed, is now a study, freestanding building with ample room for instrument storage and staff movement.
Since I only attended the Sunday, I missed Donna Ulisse & the Poor Mountain Boys completely, as well as some of the regional performers including the Steve Fisher Band. Talking with many people throughout the day, the feedback about this year’s festival and lineup was uniformly positive. The two negative elements repeatedly mentioned was the apparent over-booking of ‘country’ and ‘rock’ acts, and this was apparent on the Sunday schedule, and an annoying, continual hum in the sound mix.
While Blueberry has always included one or two non-bluegrass acts, according to those I spoke with there was a perception this year that some of the acts booked, specifically the retro-country bar band Trick Ryder and classic rock act (a weak description, but best I can come up with) Jimmy Wiffen didn’t fit with the established atmosphere of the festival.
Not being privy to the details, I’m told attendance this year was healthy, but down from last year’s apparent peak when Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder appeared and the site was overflowing with attendees. On the positive side, it didn’t rain this year!
From what I gathered, the weekend belonged to James King. His Friday performance was, by all reports, fantastic, and on Saturday Don Rigsby joined him for a couple songs. James’ recent health challenges have been widely reported, and he had a set back while at Blueberry; James shared that he had to avail himself of our health care system on Saturday, spending several hours at an area hospital.
Noticeably gaunt and obviously not in peak physical condition, Sunday’s set wasn’t as strong as his previous ones were reported to have been. Grasstowne’s Kameron Keller stepped in on banjo, while James’s regular bassist John Marquess and mandolin player- whose name I missed beyond Ron- greatly assisted in helping King get through this final set.
James did quite a bit of talking on stage, emotion entering his voice several times when talking about his band members and his
appreciation for the audience. Performing seated, King appeared to gain energy as his set unfolded. Apparently working without a set list, the band members did their best to perform the songs King called out. It didn’t help that I had a hard time hearing King’s guitar in the mix for the first third of the set.
“Iron Curtain” was more ragged than right, and an impromptu “Bill Cheatham” almost didn’t make it onto the rails, let alone fall off of them, but by the time he launched into “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” King’s voice had warmed up, and things just kept getting better. Promising “something old and good,” he launched into “Darling Say Won’t You Be Mine” before slipping into the always impactful “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore.”
By this time, I could hear his guitar. King paid tribute to both James Alan Shelton and George Shuffler by picking out “The Wildwood Flower” (at least, I think that’s what it was! Without words, sometimes I get confused) and “Home Sweet Home.”
More Stanley music followed with “Our Last Goodbye” and his set closing “I Am Weary, Let Me Rest.” “Thirty Years of Farming” was shouted from the audience, and King performed this bluegrass chart-topping Fred Eaglesmith song as his encore.
Few were seated as King left the stage, with the Blueberry audience showing genuine affection for The Bluegrass Storyteller. Having seen six or seven James King sets over the years, this was certainly not the strongest I’ve seen him, but I am sure glad I got to hear him again.
Far from being a country music has-been, Suzy Bogguss continues to produce albums of excellence, and while her evening set was short on ‘show,’ she exhibited talent and taste in abundance. That the mainstream chooses to pass her by is simply to our benefit.
Opening with “I Still Miss Someone,” Bogguss held onto the crowd for the full fifty-minute set. With Charlie Chadwick on upright bass and Craig Smith on guitar, she delivered several familiar songs from the Americana songbook including an exquisite rendition of “The Wildwood Flower”- man, she sings that one well- and “Careless Love.” She went back twenty-five years for her first Top 20 hit “Cross My Broken Heart,” and reminded some of us of her participation on the Remembering Buddy Holly project by ripping through “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”
Lucky was represented by “Silver Wings” and my favourite Hag song, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around the Room.” Finishing with John Hiatt’s “Drive South” and “The Red River Valley,” Bogguss’s set was ample demonstration of the breadth of the footprint she has placed on country and roots music since 1989.
Unlike some of the other ‘country’ music on the bill, Bogguss’s unvarnished but up-tempo approach to roots music went well with the largely acoustic proceedings of the day. When looking to expand the festival’s appeal to non-bluegrass devotees (as almost every bluegrass-based fest must, and seems to struggle with) the Blueberry booker would be wise to follow his instincts in this direction.
Until the Earls of Leiscester were announced, it looked like The Rambling Rooks were the latest bluegrass supergroup. Comprised of three stalwarts of the bluegrass wars, The Rambling Rooks made plenty of fans this weekend.
Kenny Smith, Ronnie Bowman, and Don Rigsby joined by Justin Moses on banjo successfully bridged the gap that exits when a band a) doesn’t have an album that listeners are familiar with and b) is bringing together under a single new umbrella three distinct performers with independent careers and repertoires.
Another Stanley tune was performed- this time “Heart to Heart (Think Of What You’ve Done)”- and I finally got to hear a fiddle as Moses picked it up on “The Kentucky Waltz.”
An aside- has anyone else noticed that fewer bluegrass bands are traveling with a fiddler? Of the six bluegrass bands I heard Sunday, Moses was the only fiddler I heard and that was only on one song. As most if not all bluegrass albums feature fiddling, I don’t think we’re seeing an adjustment to the music. Is this simple bluegrass economics? Is it too expensive to carry a fiddler far from home? With the bands I saw at Blueberry carrying only four musicians, I recall that five was once the norm. When did this change? I know I feel a little ripped off when I see only four on the stage.
Back to The Rambling Rooks. Rigsby and Bowman split the songs fairly evening- I’m guessing Don got one or two more leads, but
Ronnie’s rendition of his “Three Rusty Nails” was pretty powerful. With three-part harmony on the chorus over tasteful picking from Smith, this performance was a highlight of the day. Familiar songs performed included “I’m Ain’t Broke, But I’m Badly Bent,” an energetic “Nine Pound Hammer, ” and “Bootleg John.”
Look for an album from The Rambling Rooks early in the new year.
Nu-Blu, with ten years as an entity, represented the ‘up and coming’ element of bluegrass. Having built a positive relationship with the audience the first two days, their set on Sunday afternoon was very well received. Performing songs from all of their recordings, the four-piece outfit impressed with a good blend of male and female lead vocals from Daniel and Carolyn Routh, and strong instrumentation.
The gospel side was represented by “Little Mountain Church” and Carolyn Routh’s “Hammer,” a great song. They mixed things up a little, going for different sounds including a bass, guitar, and mandolin arrangement for several songs.
The treat of their set was the stage debut of Nu-Blu’s strong new single, “Jesus and Jones;” this song went over especially well with the audience. Nu-Blu was a good band to kick-off the day’s bluegrass offerings.
Without offense to anyone, it is always wonderful to hear Steve Gulley. Last through Alberta with Dale Ann Bradley this past autumn, Gulley was filling in with his former-Grasstowne mates this weekend. Alan Bibey’s band is always top drawer, and being the true pro that he is Bibey ensured his band of Gulley (guitar), Justin Jenkins (banjo) and Kameron Keller (bass) was ready for their final set for the weekend.
Great songs abounded. The “In the Blue Room” instrumental flowed into “Blue Rocking Chair,” and then Gulley just killed it. His a capella rendition of “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)?” was maybe the best vocal performance I have ever heard him give in concert…and I’ve heard some pretty amazing stuff from him. Gulley also performed “The Door,” a song he usually sneaks into his sets, while he did his best Del to accompany Bibey on the closing “The County Fool.”
My favourite bluegrass set of the day came from The Larry Stephenson Band.
Celebrating his 25th year as band leader, Stephenson’s high tenor should be welcome on any bluegrass stage, and his afternoon set appeared to be appreciated by most in attendance.
Utilizing a single vocal mic, the band worked it with meticulousness. Standing back two feet and more on the choruses, Stephenson’s voice pierced the afternoon heat. It was an amazing thing to hear!
When I think about bluegrass, this is the kind of music I want to hear- drivin’, subtle only in its vocal and instrumental precision, straight-ahead, no nonsensical humour or lame banter: The Larry Stephenson Band was exceptional.
The spirit of the Osborne Brothers’ music was certainly palatable throughout the set. The forlorn “Give This Message To Your Heart” obviously brought this to the fore, as did ” Washed in the Blood of the Lamb.”
Stephenson’s mando breaks were a wonder to hear in such an intimate setting, while Kenny Ingram remains as powerful as ever. His signature “Pike County Breakdown” was mighty crisp. Guitarist Colby Laney took the lead on “Lover’s Lane,” while the bass was handled by Matt Wright.
“Poor Old Cora,” “The Many Hills of Time,” “The Pretty Blue Dress” kept things moving, and by the time Stephenson was holding that note in the show-stopping “How High Is That Mountain?” he was just showing off. The spirit of the Osborne’s returned as the set closed with “The Sound That Set My Soul of Fire” and “Me and My Old Banjo.”
Vocally, instrumentally, song selection and balance- not that it is a competition, but The Larry Stephenson Band performed the strongest set of bluegrass I heard all day. Amazing stuff.
By the time The John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band hit the stage, it was dark and I was ready to hit the road for home. I did stay to listen to about half of their scheduled allocation, and while it was obvious the group- including Herb Pederson, Brad Davis and a bass player- advertised as Mark Fain, but I know better to believe bluegrass festival programs; Jon Randall was advertised as part of the band, but obviously didn’t make the trip)- favoured extended jams on tunes including “It Doesn’t Matter,” “Lady’s Love,” and even Rodney Crowell’s “Wandering Boy,” they didn’t do so much noodling to cause me to drift away.
The crowd had considerably thinned by this time, and whether it was the time of evening or that the group was a bit too progressive, I thought these impressive players meshed and presented good music. I guess you either ‘get it’ or you don’t, and that’s okay.
Congratulations to the entire Blueberry board and volunteers, especially first time talent booker Kenny Mak, on a very successful bluegrass fest. It was great to catch up with so many folks, and Elsa even brought over a piece of saskatoon pie. Trust me, it doesn’t get better than that!
I’m already looking forward to the 30th Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Fest next August long weekend. Maybe I’ll even get there!