Archive for the ‘Blueberry Bluegrass’ Tag

Blueberry Bluegrass, 2018- in review   2 comments

The 32nd Blueberry Bluegrass Festival delivered.

While featuring several acts well-familiar in Alberta due to regular appearances over the last several years—Slocan Ramblers, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Jeff Scroggins & Colorado—these groups brought their expected ‘A’ game while other, less-frequently encountered performers including quality area  and regional artists  also quickly enamoured themselves to the healthy-sized bluegrass audience.

In its second year of rejuvenation, the current board of directors, led by Anna Somerville, executed  a flawless festival. Charged with creating an event atmosphere similar perhaps to what Big Valley Jamboree (minus the boisterous silliness) or even Edmonton Folk Music Festival (without the hill) have established, the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival has been reborn: it doesn’t matter so much as to ‘who’ is appearing or what the weather is like, what is important is the fest itself.

Several features have contributed to the festival’s rebirth. New blood on the organization side has brought in new ideas and approaches. The Bluegrass Patio beer tent proved popular as the temperature climbed on Sunday afternoon, the petting zoo and balloon man were hits, as were the nightly country dances and terrific food trucks and vendors who appeared to do steady business. Working to establish relationships with the community has been successful, with the Pioneer Museum proving popular not the least of which because of the indoor stage which offered intimate performances.

Further, the availability of three-stage choices throughout the day is a huge boon to the festival’s patrons, providing considerable choice allowing for weather influenced or music selection and crowd-size preferences. It was also great to have CKUA on-site to broadcast a one-hour Blueberry Opry radio show featuring the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, Pharis & Jason Romero, and Kayla Hotte and hosted by Darcy Whiteside, and was a welcome addition.

One would have to have been searching with a mighty cynical eye to identify shortcomings with the 2018 edition of Blueberry. Some highlights:

The Travelin’ McCourys, making their Alberta debut, closed the festival in a manner that would be impressive absolutely anywhere. Energetic and at the absolute peak of their creative and musical capabilities, the quintet delivered a set including most of their recently released album, standards, and songs from solo projects. Some in the audience may have expected more of a ‘Del’ show, but the greatest majority were held enthralled by this modern, forward-looking interpretation of bluegrass.

The appreciation shown to singer-songwriter Braden Gates (and hisGates banjo-wielding accompanist Elliot Thomas) who, while having nothing to do with bluegrass, held discriminating listeners rapt with his personable manner and strong songs. Ditto the reception offered old-timey duo Pharis and Jason Romero (a personal favourite) whose music bridged the sometimes sizeable gap between folk and bluegrass listeners. Pharis Jason CKYAThere was a time at Blueberry when such would not have been encouraged, and I am certainly glad entertainment director Carolyn Hotte, Somerville, and their board possess the wisdom to envision the positive possibilities of broadening the festival’s palate.  

The Kody Norris Show, while deliberately gimmicky, won me over with their entertaining and high-quality presentation of old-time, country and western influenced ‘grass; like slippin’ through the folds of time, this outfit is. NortonTheir humour, banter, and hijinx certainly proved popular on their first trip into Canada. A great find for the festival, their sets were highlighted by several quality Norris originals, four gifted vocalists, an enduring rendition of “Tennessee Flattop Box,” and lively dancing. A caution is offered: shtick where the front man ‘picks’ on his sidekicks, mocking them, gets old…fast.

The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, recently signed to Rounder Records and nominated as IBMA Emerging Artists of the Year, demonstrated in their multiple performances the growth that occurs when a band is fully committed to their craft. PRB CKUAWhen we saw them two years ago, they were good; now they are world-class, ready to meet the challenges top-tier professional bands encounter with stronger songs and more intricate arrangements and harmonies.

Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, buoyed by Ellie Hakanson who can sing a Hazel Dickens song and is a heck of a fiddler, Greg Blake who can sing anything, and the nimble-fingered Tristan Scroggins, showed why they are currently the most frequently booked US-based bluegrass band in Alberta. It was also great to see Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder again; while not as lively or engaging as some of the other groups—Skaggs tends to talk a touch too much, in my opinion— the music presented was enjoyable.

Musically, no act sent me running from my chair! The most overwhelming sensation felt at Blueberry Bluegrass was the tangible sense of community that is developing. While the festival has always provided welcome opportunity to reconnect with acquaintances and friends, the positive vibes emanating from every aspect of the festival—leadership, volunteers, performers, and patrons—were most obvious.

With leadership focused on the patron experience, top-flight bluegrass entertainment, and facilities that would be the envy of any acoustic, folk, or country music festival, Blueberry Bluegrass has turned the corner toward a dynamic future of their own determination. I’ve attended a baker’s dozen Blueberrys over the last 21 years, a mere newcomer compared to many: despite the lack of attention delivered to the festival by the greater Edmonton print and broadcast media, Blueberry has never been a better choice for bluegrass entertainment.

 

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Blueberry Bluegrass, 2018: Day 1   Leave a comment

The first day of the 32nd Blueberry Bluegrass Festival in Stony Plain, Alberta was as successful as anticipated.

All acts were well-received, but it wasn’t acutely apparent which of two acts was the fan favourite.

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The Blueberry main stage site

With an emphasis on show,The Kody Norris Show, a four-piece making their Canadian debut, performed a Jimmy Martin-inspired set of good ‘n’ country bluegrass that brought their considerable indoor audience onside immediately. Norris got big, deep notes from his flattop box, much to the delight of the crowd, winning them over while shamelessly mugging with exaggerated facial expressions and repartee.  His bandmates were up to the task with both Mary Rachel Nailey (fiddle, and a single song on mandolin) and Josiah Tyree (banjo) more than holding their own as foils. Their set tomorrow evening is highly anticipated.

Norris

The Kody Norris Show

With grey skies opportunely clearing for the start of the mainstage sets, the ever-growing audience moved outside for Rounder recording artists The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys. Even stronger, more energetic and personable than when we last saw them two years ago, this East Tennessee outfit set the bar high for all combos to follow. Nominated last month as IBMA Emerging Artists of the Year, the quartet slew an appreciative audience with songs from their various albums, including their brand new song, “Next Train South.” A tight, modulated, and professional set was offered.

The festival kicked-off earlier with an entirely appropriate, old-timey set from Pharis and Jason Romero, a well-regarded duo from Horsefly, British Columbia. Their haunting tones and home-hewn harmonies was a terrific appetizer for a festival that has broadened and elevated its artistic palate the last two years.

Romaro

Pharis & Jason Romero

Also appearing on the mainstage was the western Canadian band Nomad Jones who performed a selection of standards and band-written songs. Bill Humby displayed a fine voice on songs like “Gentle On My Mind” and “Down On The Dixie Line. Blueberry legends Byron Myhre and Craig Korth are always welcome on these ears, especially on contemplative instrumentals such as Korth’s “Steele Heights” which featured Korth on mandolin and Miles Zurawell on guitar.

Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, also nominated as IBMA Emerging Artists of the Year, closed out the evening with a set of bluegrass rooted in the tradition, from “Roanoke” and “Matterhorn” to “Shenandoah Valley Breakdown” and “Hey, Porter”—Johnny Cash tunes are always popular. A band without artistic weakness , one was considerably impressed with the singing and guitar playing of Greg Blake. With no little bit of country in his voice, Blake demonstrated that his live efforts match his recorded ones, previously admired. Fiddler Ellie Hakanson drew applause with her interpretation of Hazel Dickens’ “Just A Few Memories,” a performance I hope she revisits in a subsequent set. Guest bassist Nico Humby, of Nomad Jones, took part in a crystal-clear trio of “Pathway of Teardrops” with Hakanson and Blake.  As noted previously elsewhere and to their detriment, the group does distract itself with an overabundance of between song banter. But the music? Spot on!

New to Blueberry this year is a patio with good sightlines offering fortified beverages, sure to be popular as the forecast is positive Sunday, with a good chance of sunshine Saturday (fingers crossed.) Regardless of weather, the musical talent on display is going to be incredible, with all of Friday’s artists appearing throughout the weekend. Bolstering Blueberry will be new Bluegrass Hall of Fame member Ricky Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder (Saturday evening) and—making their Blueberry debut—The Travelin’ McCourys (Sunday night, closing the fest) along with the Slocan Ramblers, Calvin Vollrath, Kayla Hotte & Her Rodeo Pals (Saturday night dance), and Edmonton acts The Bix Mix Boys, Braden Gates, and Jim and Penny Malmberg, along with jam ambassadors Prairie’s Edge and Backroad Stringband.

Look to Blueberry Bluegrass for ticket details, load up the vehicle, and come spend a day or two in Stony Plain: I don’t know how you could be disappointed!

Blueberry Bluegrass 2018 is coming!   Leave a comment

Blueberry+Bluegrass+Festival+-+Blueberry+Map

I love Blueberry Bluegrass! Last year Blueberry rose from the ashes to present a revitalized festival featuring world-class talent, late-evening dances, and a positive atmosphere supporting area talent. That continues this coming August 3-5 with additional new features including…wait for it…a licensed patio! (Hopefully, the weather cooperates and we feel like a beer while listening to the bands.) The Blueberry Schedule has been released, and my thoughts are over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass. My preview of the festival is also there, at this link. I’ll see you there on August 5…

Blueberry Bluegrass festival 2018 preview   Leave a comment

My brief preview of this coming August’s Blueberry Bluegrass festival, held annually in beautiful Stony Plain, Alberta- the first ‘big town’ I ever visited. It’s true- as a pre-schooler, I remember visiting Stony Plain to watch my big cousin play basketball in the high school gym, attend the Farmers’ Day pancake breakfast, and have a milkshake at the Gulf station and restaurant along the highway. Hey, maybe my childhood wasn’t entirely horrible! Anyway, over at Country Standard Time I preview the artistic highlights of my favourite fester.

Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Society Festival, 2017   Leave a comment

It isn’t often you get to reinvent yourself after 31 years, but that is what Blueberry Bluegrass needed and was able to achieve during their 2017 event, August 4-6. BBG

Held in Stony Plain, Alberta, the Society celebrated their 32nd edition by pulling out all the stops to even hold the event. The current organizing committee didn’t take the reins of the fest until late February, and with no advance work having been done for the 2017 event, many feared for the future of the festival. But thanks to the efforts of area bluegrass stalwarts, many associated with but separate from the Northern Bluegrass Circle Music Society, it happened. And thank goodness it did.

Blueberry has long been one of Canada’s premier bluegrass events, having been referred to (accurately or not) as the largest and oldest bluegrass festival in the country, going through periods of growth (and stints of fallow) over the course of its three decades. It has battled August snow storms, near tornado-like winds and rain, sound system failures, no-shows, and performance disappointments while also embracing warm, azure Alberta skies, life-altering shows from legends, facilitating friendships and an intermittently strong provincial bluegrass scene.

Prior to this year’s event, Blueberry had gone through the management of essentially three different teams of leadership, each featuring individual strengths, foci, perspective, and vision during their years of control. Respect for all who previously headed the fest. While no event can satisfy each and every bluegrass fan—and I stayed away out of dissatisfaction for much of the decade from 2004-2014—Blueberry has done a pretty good job of meeting the needs of most. Quibbles aside, the Alberta bluegrass community has been well-served by Blueberry, and many of the most important names and bands have played the fest, Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, and J. D. Crowe on through to today’s hottest bands including The Earls of Leicester, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, and the Del McCoury Band. Local heroes have developed at Blueberry, among them Jerusalem Ridge and Down To The Wood.

Without getting into gossip and ‘inside baseball’ territory—the details of which I am not privy—or criticizing prior practices, Blueberry Bluegrass dived into their next era this year, and the effect was immediately apparent.

While getting into the festival site was a bit of a mess on Saturday morning (the only day I was able to attend this year—I don’t believe I have the stamina to take in a three-day fest), the twenty minutes spent in line awaiting admittance was the only negative I experienced all day. Well, the weather wasn’t great but that is well-beyond anyone’s control.  So many positive adjustments were apparent, some of them very significant.

Most notable, the use of the available facilities was taken to positive advantage. Blueberry has long been fortunate to have a gravelled stage site, access to flushables, and a covered pavilion for venders and additional conveniences. A new building had been built on the site, and the new board grabbed it to allow a second stage, this one indoor. As we all know, any fest is at the mercy of the weather, and by taking advantage of the new building, the organizers  advanced the festival to its next level.

BMB

The Bix Mix Boys- well, most of them. Sorry, Jim.

Not only does the second stage provide an indoor respite for those looking for such (and additional washrooms) it also allowed the festival programmers the advantage of broadening their artistic vision. Providing listeners choice (something admittedly not all welcomed when competing stage times caused undesirable conflicts) the festival allows guests their preference: inside/outside, Band A/Band B, wet/dry. According to one of the performers, the ballroom is not particularly ‘sound-friendly,’ but no one would have discerned that. Why? The festival invested in excellent equipment and sound talent, going as far as bringing in Miles Wilkinson to head up the interior sound team. Amazing. As well, the second floor of the new hall allowed for a private green room for the performers, a separate area for volunteer meals and such, and an intimate workshop space. No complaints heard. A third stage was available for the workshops and jams as well as additional performances.

The organizing committee went extra lengths to provide opportunities for attendees to participate in a variety of activities, some related to bluegrass, some not. While the music is what matters to me, I am glad that the committee recognizes that ‘value added’ elements will help grow the festival. Among the many activities organized for younger guests were a petting zoo, an arcade, and colouring contest, as well as bluegrass-related films, instrumental and singing workshops throughout the days, and facilitated jamming tents. Additionally, the venders market was vastly expanded and improved, and this was only possible by re-establishing relationships with area venders and artisans. The concourse area was filled with tables featuring commercial products, handcrafted items, and instruments, providing additional energy and vitality.

Building relationships is part of all good festival experiences, and the Blueberry board recognizes this. To secure talent, they were able to draw on the personal relationships built with professional musicians through years of involvement within the bluegrass community. The time they committed to working with the local government, communities, and service groups was apparent. Also obvious was the liaising that had been done between Blueberry and other area music presenters, the folk clubs and other western roots music fests, many of which had information tables. Gary Glewinski provided ukulele workshops.

None of this would matter if the quality of the stage presentations was lacking. Despite challenges, this year’s Blueberry line-up was more than satisfying. Of the seven full sets I witnessed, not a single one disappointed and the diversity was appreciated. Each performer seemed to match and exceed those that came before: who was my favourite? Who played last?

Blue Highway, the Foggy Hogtown Boys, and David Peterson & 1946 (two sets) displayed different shades of ‘grass, and showed that this music has room for the traditional and original, for the progressive and that which emulates a previous time. (However, I still don’t need yodelling in my bluegrass.) While I didn’t catch their sets, reports were that the Spinney Brothers and Feller and Hill were also well received, while Fervor Coulee faves In With the Old, Russell DeCarle, and Nomad Jones performed on days when I wasn’t present.

OML

Old Man Luedecke…and his mic stand

Old Man Luedecke provided a bridge to the folk world, while Foghorn Stringband brought in the country/old-time element. Both received extended ovations. Local and area bluegrass talent was also given additional prominence this year, something that had been less respected in recent years. The Bix Mix Boys, whose energetic set I did catch, and Kayla and Matt Hotte were appreciated by their audiences.

While some criticized the lack of BIG NAMES (whomever that is supposed to be- you don’t get bigger than Blue Highway) this year’s festival has to be considered an artistic and entertainment success. Notable was the inclusion of eastern Canadian acts this year—The Spinney Brothers, The Foggy Hogtown Boys, and Old Man Luedecke—when it was previously asserted that it “wasn’t worth the money” to bring talent west. A Canadian festival must support developing and established Canadian bluegrass.

1946

David Peterson & 1946

I was familiar with all the performers I witnessed on Saturday, but there were still surprises. David Peterson brought Mike Bub along, the bassist making his Blueberry debut twenty years after missing due to illness his scheduled appearance with the Del McCoury Band. Also with Peterson was his tenor foil Mickey Boles, a terrific mandolinist and vocalist, and the team of Corrina Rose Logston (fiddle) and Jeremy Stephens (banjo). What a band, and as a bonus Corrina and Jeremy gifted me a pair of albums, including their highly impressive High Fidelity band release. I had forgotten how powerful a singer Peterson is, and as he was singing “In The Mountaintops to Roams,” he just kept twisting emotion from the song. I’ve already filled a couple holes in my DP&1946 collection purchasing two downloads this week.

Adding to the enjoyment and in another essential progression, a rotating cast of personable MCs worked the stages, keeping the focus where it belongs—on the festival and the talent.

Of all the developments apparent at the 2017 edition of Blueberry, none seemed to be better received than the ‘late night’ old-time country dances. Featuring ever-popular local legends Calvin Vollrath & Alfie Myhres Friday and The Caleb Klauder Country Band on Saturday, reportedly the audience filled the hall and dance floor for high-spirited, communal celebration. These dances were a risk for the Blueberry folks, and it appears to have paid off in full.

FHSB

3/4 of Foghorn Stringband

The festival would be nothing without its volunteers, and while I understand some long-serving volunteers were not brought into the fold this past year, those who were working the festival were unfailingly polite and helpful. Hopefully those who were overlooked this time out, perhaps due to the lack of transition support received by the new organizers, will be encouraged back into the event.

During the course of the weekend—and as a result of meticulous planning and effort—Blueberry Bluegrass was completely revitalized!

The Board of Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Society Festival must grow their event, attracting additional paying guests and sponsorship. Keeping the focus on bluegrass will be a must, but incorporating the folk, old-time, traditional (but high-quality) country, Americana, and broader acoustic roots worlds will be an important part of the festival’s long-term health and vitality. Similarly, continuing to network with the local communities and governments will be vital, as will ensuring the festival offers its attendees more than just the music—opportunities for families to experience the music together being paramount.

My relationship with Stony Plain, Alberta goes back well before I discovered bluegrass or attended my first Blueberry in 1997. Stony Plain was where I had my first milkshake (at the long gone Gulf station restaurant out on the highway), attended my first pancake breakfast, and saw my first parade. Stony Plain was where Dr. Patterson was, where I went for speech therapy, and where once—as a four-or five-year old—I got onto the floor of the high school gym during a basketball game. It was the town of significance nearest our farm, and I thought I would always live near. Turns out, I haven’t—but for a weekend (or part of one) each year, I return. A dozen times I have driven into town for the festival, and I immediately feel at home. This past Blueberry Bluegrass was that much more significant for its improvements, and I have seldom felt so welcomed.

Way to go, Blueberry organizers: here’s to the next 32 years! See you August 3-5, 2018.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

The Earls of Leicester- Rattle & Roar review   2 comments

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The Earls of Leicester Rattle & Roar Rounder Records

Before most North Americans had heard of Premier League champions Leicester City, bluegrass fans well knew how to pronounce the name of the East Midlands municipality. That’s a result of Jerry Douglas’ brilliant, timely idea: celebrate the ongoing influence of Earl Scruggs (that’s the Earl) and Lester Flatt (there’s the Leicester) by gathering some of his finest musician friends to not only recreate but reinvigorate the songs of the (in the opinion of many) preeminent bluegrass band, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Like the Bluegrass Album Band did three decades ago, The  Earls of Leicester are more than a bluegrass supergroup. They deftly remind the bluegrass community of what this music is about: no ‘nod’ to the roots of the music (to use the popular vernacular,) this is a full-blown tribute to the sturdy trunk that has supported the many branches of bluegrass for 70 years.

Their self-titled album of 2014 was a stunner. That much-heralded recording not only won the Grammy as Bluegrass Album of the Year, but the group received six awards at the most recent IBMA festivities including Instrumental Group of the Year, Entertainer of the Year, and Male Vocalist of the Year for country and bluegrass veteran Shawn Camp. With extensive touring, The Earls of Leicester are most definitely at the fore of contemporary bluegrass performers. So, where to from there?

The lineup of the group has been tweaked, with Tim O’Brien departing and the highly respected Jeff White now filling Curly Seckler’s spot within the group: this noted musician, songwriter, and past member of Union Station more than admirably and seamlessly took over when O’Brien was unavailable to tour with The Earls of Leicester, and throughout this recording contributes additional spark within the vocal trios.

The balance of The Earls of Leicester remains consistent from last time. Jerry Douglas is the bandleader and his Dobro© is prominent within the arrangements, many of which are ‘note-perfect’ to the Flatt & Scruggs’ originals. As example, “Buck Creek Gal,” compared with a television appearance featuring Scruggs and Paul Warren, is near duplicated at the tail-end of Rattle & Roar. Still, this isn’t mimicry: The Earls of Leicester have taken the time to deconstruct the songs, challenging themselves to reassemble the arrangements with mindful awareness that a judicious balance between the original, timeless approach and modern innovation is essential.

Shawn Camp takes the lead vocals, and sounds even more confident in assuming the role of Lester Flatt. Johnny Warren is the fiddler, Charlie Cushman is on the 5, and Barry Bales handles the bass.

While the group largely limited themselves to material from the mid-50s to mid-60s last time out, on Rattle & Roar The Earls of Leicester have broadened their selection of songs. Hitting early 1950s sessions, they pick off “Why Did You Wander?,” “Pray For the Boys,” and “Flint Hill Special” this time out. Most everyone knows “The Train That Carried My Girl from Town,” “The Girl I Love Don’t Pay Me No Mind,” and “Will You Be Lonesome, Too?” but no one should object to the vibrant renditions contained herein.

The group continues to choose numbers that are familiar without being overly-recorded and performed. “Branded Wherever I Go,” “All I Want is You,” and “A Faded Red Ribbon” present different facets of the band’s personality. On the sacred side, a mid-set interlude of “Mother Prays Loud in Her Sleep” and “I’m Working on a Road (To Glory Land)” is particularly effective, along with the acute, harmony-drenched “You Can Feel It In Your Soul.” “Steel Guitar Blues,” often associated with Roy Acuff, is a number that Flatt & Scruggs performed but didn’t record. Utilizing Paul Warren’s performance diary has afforded The Earls of Leicester with an insight into the history of The Foggy Mountain Boys that others can only envy.

While one may not ‘hear’ that the album was largely cut live with the musicians playing simultaneously within the same room, you can certainly ‘feel’ the intimacy of the experience. Everything is precise and note-perfect of course, but listening to “Why Did You Wonder?” one can envision Douglas nodding to Warren to take a fiddle break after a chorus, Camp encouraging Cushman to step-up to deliver a memorable fill, and White grinning to Bales as the song is brought home.

With hundreds of songs still waiting to be recorded (drop the harmonica, and I think The Earls of Leicester would destroy “Last Train to Clarksville”) one hopes they continue to perform this music that they most obviously relish and respect. With great regard for the tradition and even greater understanding of the precision required to make this music appear effortless—and the ability to pull it off— Rattle & Roar is another outstanding bluegrass recording from The Earls of Leicester.

Two weeks to Blueberry: you’ll want to be there to catch The Earls of Leicester!

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee- Donald

Inserted chronologically, and originally published elsewhere:

Blueberry Bluegrass & Country Music Festival, Canada’s largest bluegrass fester-and one of its longest running-goes the August long weekend, which in atypically contrary Canadian fashion falls on July 29-31 this year.
Blueberry occurs in Stony Plain, Alberta one of many charming small towns and cities (population 15 000, give or take) surrounding the province’s capital city, Edmonton. Blueberry started in 1985, had the requisite growing pains, and bloomed into maturity in 1995 hosting Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys. The festival experienced a spurt in growth-and budget-around 2005 and has continued, during the last decade, to bring to Alberta some of the finest bluegrass bands performing. The festival grounds underwent a complete upgrade a few years ago, and it is difficult to imagine a better small town festival location.
The sustainability of the festival is a tribute to the efforts of the volunteer-based organization.
(I started showing up in 1997, attending regularly until I became so overly involved in my own bluegrass-promotion efforts-through my association with a Red Deer-based club-that the last thing I wanted to do during the summer was spend time surrounded by people far more interested in talking through sets than they were in listening…fortunately, that rude behaviour appears to be less prevalent today. Also, I got tired of the shameless self-promotion and other irritants I felt had become rampant at the fest. I’m not sure that has stopped, but I have become much better at worrying about only things I can control. I’ve returned the last couple years, and have enjoyed myself quite thoroughly.)
I heartily recommend that Americans looking for something a little different take advantage of the excellent exchange rate and visit Stony Plain and Blueberry this summer. As far as line-ups go, you can’t help but be impressed: The Earls of Leicester, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, David Parmley & Cardinal Tradition, Bluegrass, Etc., and The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys will provide a range of bluegrass interpretations throughout the weekend. Unlike some other festivals, artists usually play sets on two or three of the days of the event. (The schedule for this year isn’t yet posted.) I also understand that they are switching from 45-minute sets to sixty and ninety minutes sets, resulting in fewer transitions. A band competition is also featured, as are free workshops in the mornings.
As Blueberry includes-for some damn reason-the words “& Country Music Festival” in its name, there is almost always a couple acts that play some form of the music. Some years it is a well-regarded, welcome name-Suzy Bogguss, Marty Stuart, Michael Martin Murphey-and other years it is a local or area ‘noisy boy’ who plays some semblance of rock ‘n’ roll-inspired country. This year, the country element of the bill will be represented by a set of well-known area country music veterans collectively billed as ‘Canadian Country Music Legends.’ Depending on what they perform, Young Medicine, a First Nations duo, may end up being of most interest.
The management group of the festival work hard to present a family-friendly environment. The local economy is supported via several food trucks and concessionaires on site, as well as a small market of area crafts and other offerings. There are a lot of (unserviced) sites for RVs and the like, and there are many area campgrounds that offer additional amenities.
If there is a criticism of the festival, I would suggest that they have not done enough in recent years to support Canadian bluegrass bands (I well know that Chris Jones has long lived in Canada.) Non-local Canadian bluegrass bands have become a rarity at the fest, and that may be a reflection of the dearth of quality groups across the country-although other fests seem to be able to feature some. Alberta bluegrass bands often get ‘less-than-prime’ performance slots. Why precious financial resources were/are earmarked for less than impressive outfits-musically amateurish (I still haven’t recovered from Trick Ryder a couple years ago) or awkward electric-guitar focused schedule fillers-over the last couple years while ignoring the potential of (reasonably priced) Alberta roots acts-I’m thinking Matt Patershuk, John Wort Hannam, Laura Vinson, or Maria Dunn-to further expand their aural texture, or Canadian bluegrass bands is puzzling. Most likely, these are ‘inside baseball’ factors that will not concern most patrons: if uninterested in the stage performance, most will simply break for lunch or go back to the camper for a nap. Me, I fret and think about what I ‘could’ be listening to if only someone had greater (or at least, more flexible) vision. Okay, so I haven’t completely succeeded in worrying about only that which I can control.
See, for me, anyone can book the top three bands for a bluegrass festival-as long as the group is touring and you have the budget, those deals are easy. Where the skill comes in is in booking the rest of the fest-Who is the under-known band that will be the fan favourite? Which act, a little left (or right) of center, is going to surprise everyone with something different? What veteran can be brought in to connect to the roots of the music? Who can be hired to expand your audience beyond the essential seniors? Which band will be hitting the charts in a year or two? (The bands that would have pushed the fest even further this year might be the likes of The Hillbenders, Della Mae, Sister Sadie, The O’Connor Band, Irene Kelly…still, this year’s Blueberry lineup is very strong.)
No one goes to Blueberry Bluegrass for anything but bluegrass, and with a line-up of stellar American acts playing this year (and a Canadian dollar that is very favourable to south-of-the-border visitors) there is no better time to discover this Alberta festival.
If you are looking for more Canadian content in your bluegrass, there are other festivals from which to choose.
A few weeks after Blueberry, a smaller bluegrass festival goes further south in the province. Near Nanton, the Shady Grove Bluegrass Festival occurs August 19-21. Housed on the Broadway Farm, for a few years a decade ago, Shady Grove gave Blueberry a run for its money. Currently, the festival appears content to be the less flamboyant cousin, quietly going about its business presenting an emerging American act (this year, Jeff Scroggins & Colorado) as well as several Alberta and Canadian bluegrass groups-the very capable Canyon Mountain, 5 on a String, Misery Mountain Boys, All Day Breakfast Stringband, Steve Fisher, Prairie’s Edge, and the Spitzee Post Band.
Again, unserviced camping, a family atmosphere, and plenty of jamming will be present.
In north-central Saskatchewan, near Prince Albert Provincial Park and Big River, is the Northern Lights Bluegrass & Old-Tyme Music Festival, August 12-14. I’ve never attended this fest, but it has been going for more than a decade to good word-of-mouth reviews. The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys are the featured Americans, with a variety of Canadian acts rounding out the bill- The Fitzgeralds, from the Ottawa Valley, The Annie Lou Band-an act I have great regard for-Quebec vets Notre Dame de Grass, All Day Breakfast String Band, Rugged Little Thing, Andrew Sneddon and Matthew Hornell, and others appear. A music camp is held the week following.
The Steep Canyon Rangers and The Kruger Brothers are about all the Edmonton Folk Music Festival is offering this time out for bluegrass, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of great roots music-starting with John Wort Hannam, Mike Farris, Dar Williams, and Colin Linden amongst the usual assortment of bigger names-on offer. The fest goes August 4-7 in the province’s capital city.
July 21-24, the Calgary Folk Music Festival is on in the tranquil environs of Princess Island Park. No hardcore bluegrass, but The Steel Wheels appear, as do Robbie Fulks, Eilen Jewell, Ian Tyson, and Elizabeth Cook, as well as a huge slate of roots, folk, and world acts. Always a good time.
Consider coming north this summer:there is a great deal of bluegrass and roots music occurring in Alberta’s prairie provinces. I would suggest you are not only assured excellent music, but the company of some friendly folks who share your passion for bluegrass music.

 

Blueberry Bluegrass Music Festival July 31-August 2, 2015   Leave a comment

untitledWestern Canada’s and most likely Canada’s largest bluegrass festival celebrates its 30th edition later this month with a roster that includes Hot Rize, the Seldom Scene, the Del McCoury Band, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, and several Alberta acts. Over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass, I advance the show and speak with one of the festival’s organizers, my bluegrass pal Sheila Hallett. If all works out, I’ll see you there…but, don’t let that stop ya!