Blueberry Bluegrass Festival, 2019- Stony Plain, Alberta reflections

Blueberry Bluegrass Festival, held annually for now 34 years in the central Alberta community of Stony Plain, is a highlight of my calendar. Where I once attended up to four multi-day music fests annually—and once, in 2003, I believe I hit seven—it is now the only festival I attend. Blueberry Bluegrass just suits me, and I have written about the reasons elsewhere, as well as providing more detailed insight into the festival’s organization in previous pieces; click on the links, if interested.

For this year, just the facts, poorly written and edited.

For the first time, I’ve been asked to be part of the rotating core of volunteer MCs and that meant that I had to miss High Fidelity’s early afternoon main stage set. I am told they were more than terrific, and I look forward to hearing them today.

While the site looks near-empty during the morning several hours before the festival started, this gives an idea of the quality of the grounds. One of the better layouts I’ve experienced.

I spent my day inside at the Fillmore Stage. One of the most positive features of the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival has been the addition of a second ‘main’ stage (as well as a smaller showcase stage at the Pioneer Museum) allowing not only an alternate performance stage should the weather turn nasty (more on that in a moment) but the ability for patrons to have a choice in their musical selections. While there are still a few who grumble about moving from outside to inside (or even more bizarrely, about having too many choices—“How am I supposed to know who to go listen to?”) it appears the festival audience has grown into this format. Based on the number of folks inside for the set of Jessie & the Gents, I would suggest many not only appreciate the opportunity to get out of the heat (and into the air-conditioning comfort) but also the opportunity to hear music that doesn’t necessarily fit within bluegrass parameters.

The Fillmore Stage provided a four-hour tour of acoustic, Americana, folk, and country-infused music.

We started in Canada with area-group The Strawflowers drawing a sizeable audience for their harmony-rich, Appalachian-influenced old-time and pre-bluegrass music. A four-piece band built around Pamela Johnson (guitar and lead vocals) and Hannah Goa (fiddle and vocals), Bruce Ziff’s clawhammer (and jaw harp and step-dancing) provided further connections to the past. Zach Daniel Robertson (bass) stepped up to perform one of his compositions as well. Very enjoyable, and an appropriate start to the fest.

Half of The Strawflowers

Next up were Jessie & the Gents, traveling from Switzerland. Performing original music mixed with some covers (a spot-on rendition of Louisa Branscomb’s “Steel Rails”) the group attracted several hundred listeners who appeared to enjoy every minute of their too-short forty-minute set. More country honky tonk than bluegrass, fiddler Rainer Hagmann and Rick Noodlander (guitar) were especially impressive, with Jessie Hardegger singing the leads. They perform several more times this weekend, and I can see their following growing.

Jessie & the Gents

The Growling Old Men—Ben Winship (mandolin, vocals) and John Lowell (guitar, vocals)—are area favourites from a variety of festival, concert, and workshop appearances. The American component of our International stage, the duo allowed what started as a sparse audience, but grew to include up to a hundred, to settle back and enjoy their musical virtuosity—great pickers, clean and with tone—and engaging singing. At turns playful, epic, and affecting, their songs kept our attention. They also appear many more times this weekend.

The Growling Old Men

Closing the afternoon of international acoustic music were the incredible Hanne Kah Band, from Germany. I have almost no words for this band as I have seldom been so taken aback—in a positive way—by a Blueberry group with whom I was not previously familiar, outside a little YouTube prep in advance of my MCing responsibility. Given the clips heard, I suspected I would enjoy their set; I had no idea that their appeal would be so broad.

Singing in English, Hanne Kah not only has a fabulous and strong voice, she possesses the personality creating immediate connection with her audience. They are an acoustic rock ‘n’ roll band, the likes of which I am pretty sure has never previously appeared at Blueberry.

Hanne Kah and Patrick Jost

Playing a slightly extended set, at MC request (!), the group presented songs from their new album Y in a stripped-down fashion that was appealing. “Generation” and “Dunes” were memorable. A song inspired by the experiences of a Holocaust survivor, and the rising tide of right-wing fascists, was especially compelling.  

Hanne Kah is a personable band, all smiles and uplifiting positivity. The vocal harmonies of Patrick Jost (guitar) and Nikias Quernheim (upright bass) added to the effect, and Malte Schmidt, playing a small snare and various percussion effects, was smiling the entire set—as were his colleagues. Hanne Kah Band kept several hundred listeners fully engaged, receiving a standing ovation and the first encore of the session.  As one attendee mentioned to me after their set, “This is what we need, young people! It is nice to have something a little different.”

Explaining the background of their songs, Hanne Kah connected with listeners and stepped away from the mic to perform entirely unaccompanied once. Closing with audience participation, the band wasn’t allowed to leave the stage without performing another number.

Hanne Kah Band is highly recommended to other roots and folk festivals; it is unfortunate that they were booked for only a single set. They do play in Edmonton tonight (August 3) at the Almanac on Whyte and then return to British Columbia for another appearance before heading home.

Not near bluegrass, the reception Hanne Kah received is evidence that there is room within Blueberry’s musical palate for far-ranging acoustic sounds. Can you tell I loved them?!

Finished with MCing for the day, I was able to head outside in time to hear Bill & the Belles, out of Johnson City and Bristol, Tennessee. Again, completely engaging but in an entirely difference way, this quartet takes listeners back in history, performing lighthearted, pre-bluegrass country music, the kind that would have been heard in the 1920s and 1930s. A wonderful presentation, the fairly youthful group presented both original songs (“Wedding Belle Chimes” and “Never Get Along With You” were two highlights) and era-appropriate covers. Kris Truelsen (guitar) has a unique, tenor voice and combined with Kalia Yeagle(fiddle) and Helena Hunt (banjo) they sound like something other-worldly, an audio connection ghosting through the broadcasts of the past. Andew Small lays out the URB.

Bill & the Belles are playing all weekend. Very enjoyable.

Bill & the Belles

After a supper break, dangerous-looking clouds started rolling in from the west, necessitating moving the evening’s music inside—another advantage of having multiple stages, something other fests cannot offer.

Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers delivered exactly what we expected: straight-ahead, powerful, and exceptionally-executed contemporary bluegrass. More traditional that some, they are exactly the kind of bluegrass band that appears to best go-over at Blueberry. Having received 5 IBMA nominations in the last couple weeks, this high-performing group is at the top of their game, and their first Blueberry set gave ample evidence that they are one of the finest in the business.

Slightly unfocused, but not in their music- Joe Mullins & Radio Ramblers

Performing several songs from their recent For the Record album including “That Old Wheel,” “Bacon in My Beans,” and “Georgia Slammer” and an extended medley of train songs, these vets had the audience in thrall. “Long Gone West Blues,” written and performed by Pharis and Jason Romero—who appeared at last year’s Blueberry—was another highlight. Any attendees who missed their set due to weather concerns are well-advised to make time for them Saturday.

Headliners The Cleverlys had to cancel their appearance due to a family emergency, and while patrons were disappointed, Texas’ The Western Flyers stepped up to offer an uplifting set of old-school swing and western-infused country music. Heavy eyes forced my exit after twenty or so minutes, but it was apparent that the audience was appreciating their set.

Lots more music Saturday and Sunday (August 3-4) at Blueberry 2019, with John Reischman & the Jaybirds, Nu-Blu, Front Country, High Fidelity, Tim O’Brien Band and The Barefoot Movement being acts I am especially looking forward to, as well as more from Lonesome Ace String Band and Steve Fisher Band as well as the other groups mentioned being anticipated.

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