Wednesday, July 23, 2008

2008 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival

Down from the Mountain

We returned from Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival a few days ago. More so than any other festival, for me a trip to Grey Fox requires a little more time to ease back into "reality". Where else can you walk around in a sarong all day, not worry about how your hair looks, and consider a cold shower a luxury? It’s all about enjoying the simple things of life - acquiring food, drink and shelter, enjoying time spent with friends and family, the beauty of your surroundings, and of course, the music. For me the Grey Fox experience is like living in a kind of Utopian society for a few days. This is why I like to volunteer at Grey Fox – it's more about being part of the festival then paying close attention to all of the musical performances, many of whom I have seen multiple times in the past. My job at the festival for the past 5 years has been in the information booth, where we try to provide answers to questions about the site and surrounding area, as well as take suggestions and raffle entries, and manage the Lost & Found, among other things. As a bonus, I get to meet and greet old friends and new as they pass by on their way to a stage, vendor or campsite.
Much of the main stage audience is rather sedentary (witness the mad dash to place chairs on every available inch of the main concert area as soon as most people arrive), but thankfully there is also a dance tent/ pavilion at Grey Fox where you can cut loose. Musically, I gravitate more towards the non-bluegrass acts, many of whom play in the dance tent – like Big Sandy and the Fly Rite Boys, the Red Stick Ramblers, and the Wilders. On the main stage, I enjoyed the less traditional bluegrass such as Sam Bush, the Steeldrivers, and Missy Raines. The new site on the Walsh Farm in Oak Hill, NY had some improvements over the old site in Ancramdale - namely the vast, flat camping and vendor areas. I was able to ride my bike around the grounds and even off site a bit, and was not so tired from fighting gravity all weekend, as on the previous site. However, the size of the place was a bit daunting, and I missed being able to easily visit all my friends' campsites at night, not wanting to ride my bike in the dark (or while carrying instruments). At the previous site, we always knew where everyone would be camped, but now it is a whole new world. It took a while to figure out where everyone was – some were almost a half mile away, in the far corner near quiet camping. Also the position of the main stage at the top of a rather steep hill, away from most of the vendors, was a drawback, because you couldn't easily go get food or roam the vendor area from there. Tractor-shuttles were available, but were often full. Like taking the elevators at the Joe Val festival, sometimes you had to go down first to go up.


Lugging fest goers up the hill to the main stage

But aside from that, there was the same kind of familiar, friendly feeling at the festival (minus the drama of weather-related road closures and potential traffic mishaps on the hill) and it ran quite smoothly for the first year at a new place.

My first 24 hours felt a bit surreal. I arrived late Tuesday afternoon and set up in the staff camping area. After a quick staff meeting and some dinner, I passed by a friend’s campsite where they were watching a movie on their computer, “I’m Not There”, the rather bizarre Bob Dylan bio-pic that features several different actors playing various facets of Dylan. That was a trip. Then the next day, after moving into an adjacent site that had been occupied by a group of massage therapists, I took my bike out to explore the local area. I was going to ride to the store, but it was up a steep hill and it was over 90 degrees. So I stopped into a nearby café for an ice coffee and some air conditioning. The café inside was cool, dark and relaxing, with lots of wood, evoking a hobbit feel - but I wasn’t interested in the “spiritual nourishment” that was also being offered … I’ll leave it at that. Entering back into the festival, I rode around the grounds, and encountered a man riding a giant wooden rocking horse, kind of like a scene from the Bob Dylan movie of the night before. I climbed up for a ride and enjoyed the view, overlooking the mountains in the distance, rocking gently in the breeze. After working a few hours that evening, I ventured down to the far reaches of the campgrounds, where a group of friends from back home was set up, and I was amazed to find that they had arrived shortly after 9 am and had ended up so far away.

On Thursday, Joe & a friend were supposed to arrive around 9 pm, and I didn’t have to work until 10 pm, so I had the whole day to enjoy the festival. I climbed the hill for the Dry Branch welcome set at 2 pm. It was moving to hear Ron Thomason reminisce about all the years everyone has gathered for this festival, and they played some of the same songs they had played at the first festival over 30 years ago when it was the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass festival. (I started attending in 1992, when it was still known as Winterhawk). Even though it was a pain to climb the hill to hear the music, it was fitting that we could still say “on the hill” to describe part of the festival anyway.

looking down from near main stage

View from near the main stage, overlooking the rest of the festival, with camping areas in back

The fiddle fever workshop in the Masters Tent was great – Linzay Young & Kevin Wimmer from the Red Stick Ramblers, Michael Cleveland, and Brian Wicklund from the Kids’ Academy – played together and separately, and took turns explaining how they got started playing, attempting to answer the usual technical questions with not-so-technical answers. ( what kind of bow do you use? I dunno, whatever I can find,..etc). Then the Steeldrivers workshop right after that blew everyone away, myself included. They have a bluesy / country kind of sound, with unique vocals and stellar songwriting. It was fun to hear the stories as well as the songs. Then, after listening to the Red Stick Ramblers doing their swing thing on the main stage, I went to the customary tie-dying session at the Family Stage, thrusting my hands into buckets of red, purple, orange and blue dyes along with all the little kids. Had to get properly colorized for the rest of the weekend! After dinner I went back up on the hill for some music by Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, and to try to contact the guys by cell phone, to no avail. So I rode my bike to the entrance to see if they had arrived, and voila, not only had they turned in their tickets, but had found my campsite! Everything was going according to plan. I worked the booth from 10 to close while they went to see the Steeldrivers. hopefully I'll be able to catch them again at the Podunk bluegrass festival coming up in Hartford in a few weeks.

The notable thing about Grey Fox this year was the heat – temps in the 90’s every day and high humidity made it a challenge to sit out on the hill and listen to music on the main stage, so I didn’t mind working the info booth most of the afternoon – it was shady after all! While I was there I kept hearing reports of a creek on the edge of the property where many of the fest-goers went to cool off, so I was looking forward to jumping in after my shift, which just so happened to coincide with an announcement from the main stage advising people not to swim there. We took a walk down there to check it out anyway, but after seeing the crowds in the shallow water in the hot sun, we opted for cool showers back at camp instead. As you can see in this video someone has posted on youtube, there was a pretty good size jam session going on down there!

Afterwards, the Wilders were really stirring things up in the dance tent with their raucous hootin’ and hollerin’ music, and they were great. So much energy! Then we took the tractor up the hill for some of David Grisman’s set, then walked back down for Big Sandy and the Flyrite boys, probably the furthest from bluegrass, but one of the highlights of my festival, musically. And the dance tent was a good place to be during the thunderstorm, which Sandy took advantage of to play a few extra songs – he didn’t want to go out in it either! Walked back up the hill to end the night with Tim O’Brien and the Infamous Stringdusters, a good combination - but there was nowhere to sit since all the chairs were soaked. Afterwards I took my little accordion out and went to visit my jamming buddies in the hinterlands of the campground, and got to bed after 3 am.

Saturday was a full day – after breakfast I decided to take advantage of one of the volunteer perks, to see Missy Raines & the New Hip from the front row seating area. They were great –more jazzy than bluegrass, she played a set of perky instrumental grooves, joined by guitar, (electric and acoustic) mandolin, dobro and drums. I stayed for some of Chatham County Line, notable for their use of the single microphone, which requires a lot of coordination, and the harmonica. Then I brought my guitar down to the Grassroots stage for a little group lesson. After all these years, I finally learned something about picking bluegrass guitar! (ie., alternating picking directions down/up). After that, I went to see Gravity playing in the dance tent - they were okay for a band from Sweden, but not really inspiring much movement except for a few kids, and of course Dancin’ Chuck. Sometimes the “dance” pavillion is just a nice place to get out of the sun or rain, and sit on a flat surface as opposed to a hill. We had a nice shady camp set up and listened to some of the main stage from there, on the festival radio station, but I wanted to go back up front to see the Gibson Brothers, one of my favorite contemporary bluegrass acts. Love those harmonies and heartfelt songs about country life, especially the one they wrote about Grey Fox festival, with the refrain, "Aint nothin' in the world like bluegrass music."

Cleaned up and went back to work from 6-10. From my vantage point in the info booth, I spotted an old friend walk by, whom I hadn’t seen in years, and was not expecting to see at Grey Fox. She had come down from Vermont with family and friends. It was her first time there and she immediately commented on the great “vibe” at the festival, how it reminded her of the Cajun festival where we used to both volunteer at Escoheag.

After work I made it to the dance tent for some of the Red Stick Ramblers – decidedly not bluegrass, but another of my favorite bands at the festival. They were in Cajun mode, with Jesse Lege on accordion and vocals, and Joel Savoy taking Kevin Wimmer’s place on fiddle. As usual, they had the crowd worked up into a frenzy - not a formal “dance” by any means, but a rocking good time. The Red Sticks were followed by Red Knuckles, who played to a packed dance tent, but I thought it was too hot and crowded there, so we went up to see Sam Bush, who started a bit late. He was good as usual and played a long set, well past 2 am, but I didn’t stay till the end, since I wanted to catch up with my Vermont friends. I brought my accordion down to where they were camped and we jammed and hung out 'til the morning light.

Sunday I was going to go to the Gospel set, but decided to first stick my head in the “town meeting” which was held in the Masters Tent, giving people a chance to meet with the organizers and talk about what went right/ wrong at the festival and the new site. I found it so interesting that I ended up staying for the whole thing. If only all town meetings could be so well run and civilized! There were comments on a number of issues, mostly on the layout of the festival, and the fact that the camping appeared to fill up so quickly. I am sure things will improve next year, as the organizers review the notes from that meeting, the suggestion box, and the surveys that will be filled out in the weeks to come. In the meeting, some people referred to Grey Fox as “their Christmas”, a feeling I can definitely relate to, not only about Grey Fox, but also Jazz Fest, Rhythm and Roots and others. These festivals are the gatherings I look forward to every year, more so than other holidays.

More photos from Grey Fox 2008

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