The second day of three-day fests are the most difficult, I find. The novelty of day one is over—the renewing of acquaintances, the excitement of once again celebrating great music in a community—and by the end of the day, no matter the quality of music, I am bagged. Proof in point—in bed by 10:30 last night, and slept straight through to 8:00. I am still a bit foggy. I thought I stayed hydrated, but it doesn’t feel that way as I type.
But the music! Man, if day two of Blueberry Bluegrass 2019 didn’t provide the surprises of day one—Hanne Kah Band, Bill & the Belles—it did offer up a full slate of quality bluegrass and acoustic entertainment of a variety seldom experienced at this small-town, big-expectations festival.
I sat in on a couple of the morning ‘master sessions’—Joe Mullins and Jason Barie (banjo and fiddle tunes) and John Reischman and Tim O’Brien (being cool)—and enjoyed the spontaneity and interplay of these incredible performers. The intricacies of 2nds and 5ths continue to elude me, but the music sounded terrific and there were many in attendance who seemed to be hanging onto every word and note demonstrated and discussed. Haven’t heard audience members start the tortoise shell conversation in several years, so that was a treat.
Once the band stages opened, things accelerated quickly.
Joe Mullins & Radio Ramblers (I mis-type Rambers Choice almost every time!) gave another great performance, this time on the main stage. Playing favourites (“Bacon in My Beans”) and songs from the vast catalogue, the group delivered everything expected. Note to bands visiting: Mullins sold every CD he brought, and could have sold many more: we continue to support the merch table at Blueberry!
I have seen and heard John Reischman & the Jaybirds more times than I can count, and they have never disappointed. This was my first opportunity to hear guitarist Patrick Sauber with the group, and he fits in nicely. Nick Hornbuckle (5-string) continues to do more with a couple fingers than most can do with four, Greg Spatz (fiddle) is as sweet as ever, and Trisha Gagnon (bass) always rises to the occasion. Words fail me when discussing this band: they are among the most genuine bluegrass personalities I’ve encountered, and their music is absolutely of the highest quality—perfect for a sunny afternoon. I look forward to their Sunday set.
We headed inside for Bill & the Belles, and again was entirely enchanted with this quartet’s ‘old-time’ charm—part musical theatre, part-early country rural honesty, and entirely genuine and offered without condescension. Like no one else I’ve heard. They have another main stage set today, which I get to MC.
The evening’s mainstage offerings included an extended and engaging set from Tim O’Brien Band that I wasn’t able to fully appreciate as I was concentrating on things backstage, ensuring I was prepared for the rest of the night: not sure why I bothered, as I still screwed up. Imagine if I wasn’t prepped?! The band did sound good through the stage wall, and the crowded enthusiastically called them back for an extended encore. I eagerly anticipate today’s shows—they perform on the mainstage again early Sunday afternoon.
What more can I say about High Fidelity? I love this band—most importantly, great modern bluegrass that is entirely traditional: yes, modern bluegrass can (and maybe should) be entirely traditional. They played a mess of songs from Hills and Home, and were positively beaming on stage. The audience loved them, as they should. Corinna, Jeremy, Vickie, and Daniel are quite simply great people who are wonderful to work with, and are highly recommended to all presenters and festivals. I’ll listen to them any time, and will get another chance on Sunday.
Finally, Front Country absolutely destroyed the Blueberry stage, delivering a set of high-octane acoustic rock ‘n’ roll the likes of which I am confident the festival has never witnessed. Front Country is not a bluegrass band, but Melody Walker’s songs are so appealing and bridge the gap between expectation and reality. Adam Roszkiewicz is a multi-instrumental monster, and Jacob Groopman is an excellent support and partner to Walker.
The group connected with the audience—the bluegrass police had left—and gave the few hundred remaining everything they could have hoped for—energy *check*; a melodic rollercoaster *check*; powerhouse lead vocals *check*; interesting covers and vibrant originals *check* *check*. By the time their set ended with “Sake of the Sound,” there was no way I was going to haul them off the stage—people were standing and dancing. Closing with Tom Petty’s “Don’t Do Me Like That,” when Front Country finally left the stage, they did so having conquered an audience that is much more accepting of music outside the bluegrass norm than some would have you believe.
Blueberry, in my opinion, must remain a bluegrass festival. But it has to continue to become more than that, and Saturday showed the full vision of Artistic Director Carolyn Hotte and Festival Leader Anna Somerville. They continue to take chances, and more often than not, they are successful. Anyone who witnessed Saturday night’s main stage set saw the continued potential of this festival—bluegrass of a couple different varieties combined with acoustic Americana-rock. Diverse flavours for the same folks. From where I was standing, it appeared the audience loved it.
More coming Sunday, including Darcy Whiteside’s live broadcast of The Bluegrass Hour, High Fidelity, Bill & the Bills, Tim O’Brien Band, Nu-Blu, The Jaybirds, Western Flyers, and The Barefoot Movement. It is going to be a fun day in the Alberta sunshine.