Monday, February 16, 2009

Free Your Mind

There's nothing like a festival to free your mind from the stresses of every day life. And when it comes in the middle of the doldrums of winter, when there's not much else going on, it can be just what's needed to lift your spirits. The annual Joe Val Bluegrass festival held at the Sheraton in Framingham this past weekend was a welcome little vacation not far from home. And without having to deal with camping and weather, you can really just enjoy the music and people at the fest, instead of having to worry about building a shelter from the storm. From the time we checked in late Friday afternoon we never even needed to venture outside for the next 48 hours, except to put our stuff in the car at checkout time. In between music and visiting with friends we got to enjoy a swim in the indoor pool, and a few trips to the fitness center including a session on the Wii, with virtual skiing, soccer, and hula hoop!

As far as the music presented on the stage, the Steep Canyon Rangers on Friday night were my favorite. I had seen them there before, but I kind of forgot how good the Steep Canyon Rangers were. They had some really good harmonies, and well crafted instrumental arrangements, with a healthy dose of showmanship to keep it interesting.

Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper heated things up on Saturday night in typical fashion, with Mike flailing away on the fiddle accompanied by a crew of top notch musicians, including a new young banjo player.

The closer for Saturday was the Kruger brothers, who finally took the stage after what seemed like a very long set up time. They started out with several of their trademark classical/acoustic /instrumental pieces including the usual romp through some movie theme songs.... Then they were joined by Adam Steffey on mandolin, and Bobby Hicks on fiddle, in the debut of the Kruger Brothers Bluegrass Project. These two veteran award winning musicians added a much more hard driving bluegrass dimension, which helped wake me up after nearly being lulled to sleep in the hot dry air of the crowded ballroom. And afterwards, there was much more foot-stomping bluegrass to be heard in the halls of the hotel, all night long.

Josh Williams on Sunday was an amazing guitar picker and singer with a sweet voice, whose playing seemed effortless. At such a young age, he is already a veteren of several bands, including Rhonda vVncent & the Rage, and has already established himself as an accomplished musician, recognized recently as IBMA guitar player of the year. Although I had to leave before the final act of the day, the much anticipated Dailey & Vincent (whom I hope to catch at Podunk later this year), I was glad for the chance to see Bobby Osbourne for the first time, a legend from days gone by. Opening with Jimmy Martin's Sunny Side of the Mountain, his strong and mournful voice was unmistakable.

Bobby Osbourne

This year's festival featured a new Showcase Stage in a separate room downstairs near the vendors, where several local bands played, including Back Eddy bluegrass band, who seem to be expanding in both sound and personnel. Another one I caught was Late Night Radio, a mix of bluegrass, swing and jazz. I was drawn in as soon as I hear them doing the Waybacks' Compadres of the old Sierra Madre. For some reason I'm always drawn to whatever is a little different at the festival, whatever stands out.

Bluegrass Accordion

Speaking of standing out, I play accordion, and I go to bluegrass festivals, and sometimes I'll join in a jam, if I come across one that seems open to it. Usually, whenever I bring the accordion out at a bluegrass jam, like this weekend, people are surprised to see it, and will make comments like, "Wow, bluegrass accordion!" or "Hey, I have an accordion, but I never thought of playing bluegrass on it!". When I wrote the title of this post, Free your Mind, I was thinking of them. Bluegrass is one of the only kinds of music that I know of where the audience is made up of so many musicians who like to participate. I didn't even like bluegrass music too much until I had the chance to play it, although my first intro to playing bluegrass was not on an accordion, but on a borrowed stand-up bass. Because bluegrass festivals present the most opportunity for joining in a jam, and that is the instrument I play the most, I've learned to play bluegrass accordion. This is not something I've really set out to do, it has just sort of happened.

So why play bluegrass accordion? For one, the accordion does not have to be tuned, so it is always ready to go. I play a keyboard rather than a button style, so I can play along in any key. It's really fun to play bluegrass accordion because at times you can play the parts of guitar/ bass/ banjo/ mandolin and fiddle, all in one instrument, depending on the makeup of the jam. If there's no fiddle player, you can play fiddle tunes. If there is no bass player, you can play the bass part. It is very flexible.

For a bluegrass jam, I like to use a smaller 12-bass model because it is not as overpowering as a larger one, but I also play a 48 bass with different stops (tones). If there is a bass and some guitar players around, you don't have to play the bass side, . But if you do play the chords on the bass side, it can kind of mimic the guitar chords. Most of the songs are simple 3 chord structures and familiar tunes, and the bass side of an accordion has the 1-4-5 chords conveniently next to each other. The only thing you have to watch out for is that, in some of the larger jams, you may not be able to hear yourself, and you could easily be playing the wrong bass chords with your left hand, and it will mess up the person on your left, so its usually best to just use the right hand if it is a large group.

Some of the more traditional string bands do not always greet the arrival of a bluegrass accordion with open arms, but at a good size festival, you can just move on past them. If you come across a jam that has maybe one percussionist, like an egg-shaker or scrubboard player with good rhythm, that's usually a good sign it is an accordion friendly jam.

When you first get into a jam, chop along to the rhythm with the mandolin on the right hand side, fingering the chords and adding in a few fills here and there like a banjo. When it's your turn to take a break, play a little melody as a lead, like a fiddle. Single notes are fine, but mixing in some double and triple notes sounds better, like double and triple stops on the fiddle. The swingier and bluesier songs, and the old-time country tunes and ballads, lend themselves more easily to the accordion, but any mid-tempo 3-chord song can easily be played on the accordion. Throw in a few seventh notes or chords on the bluesy numbers. On a slow song, less is more. On all of them actually - while it is tempting to wail away on the accordion and it is easy to get carried away, you just have to be mindful of the whole group, and wait your turn. And I usually sit out the really fast, breakneck bluegrass songs like Foggy Mountain Breakdown, because they just sound better on banjo. And that's how you play bluegrass accordion. Or at least that's how I do may be unorthodox, but it is fun.

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