Sunday, September 14, 2008

11th Annual Park Slope Bluegrass and Old-Time Jamboree

Yesterday was the 11th Annual Park Slope Bluegrass and Old-Time Jamboree (or is it the Park Slope Old-Time and Bluegrass Jamboree? -- it seems to switch every year) at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture.

Organized by James Reams and Tina Aridas, this event is a consistently wonderful weekend of music in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It starts with a James Reams and the Barnstormers concert on Friday night, and then Saturday afternoon is dedicated to workshops and jamming all over the grounds of the beautiful 1900 neo-Jacobian mansion on Prospect Park West. In recent years, there has also been an afternoon film festival. Then on Saturday evening, a group of great old-time and bluegrass bands -- definitely with more of the former than the latter -- come together for a concert.

A few highlights from this year:
  • American Flyer - A bluegrass group featuring Ben Freed on banjo, Bill Christophersen on fiddle, Gene Yellin on guitar and vocals, Phil Zimmerman on mandolin and vocals, Ethan Kende on bass and Deb Griner on vocals and guitar, these guys put on a really, really solid set of music consisting mostly of bluegrass standards. I found myself particularly impressed with Ben Freed's banjo last night. He took a really nice solo on Bill Monroe's "Travelin' Down This Lonesome Road", provided the classic kick-off to Jimmy Martin's "Hold Whatcha Got" and also hit the right notes on Red Allen's "Hello City Limits." Gene Yellin had some wonderful vocals, too.

  • John Cohen and Annabel Lee - This set was exactly what I would have wanted from John Cohen, one of the founding members of the New Lost City Ramblers -- celebrating their 50th anniversary this year -- and an important folk music collector and scholar. With Annabel Lee singing and playing guitar, and John switching between guitar and banjo, we heard a number of great old-time tunes.

    "Rolling Mills," a song that John collected from George Landers of North Carolina, featured this particularly evocative verse:

    Now bring my revolver here.
    Come and shoot out my brains.
    For I'd rather be dead and buried in my grave
    Than to be in the trouble I'm in.

    "Going Down the Georgia Road" was a variant of "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" that featured a slight melodic variation. (Having had a sip from the brown jug after being awarded the annual Brown Jug Award (along with Tom Paley), John Cohen said, "Whoa... I forgot where that one ended!")

    And then John told a terrific story about looking up Cousin Emmy when the New Lost City Ramblers were playing out at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, and he and Mike Seeger went to her house, and she was giving them a hard time, not really wanting to talk to them. So when she stepped out of the room, John picked up her banjo and started playing her version of "Johnny Booker." This instantly changed her tune -- so to speak -- and she came back in the room and said, "Where did you learn that? ... You got that note wrong there!"

  • Tom Paley - The other founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers on hand -- Mike Seeger wasn't there -- Tom Paley played a solo set with a couple of terrific classics ("Wreck of the Tennessee Gravy Train" and "Oh My Little Darling") and a lovely Swedish fiddle tune.

  • New Lost City Ramblers Reunion - Tom Paley and John Cohen did get together to play a few tunes with Bill Christophersen, the consummate journeyman who doesn't need to leave New York, on fiddle. They played only a few songs, and the ratio of time tuning to time playing was approaching 1-to-1, but the crowd jumped right in on the choruses of Charlie Poole's "Baltimore Fire" and "Leaving Home" (the encore), which I think spoke to the importance of the band in the collective memory of the audience.

  • David and Linda Lay - From Virgina, this husband-and-wife team (married after 10 weeks of dating and one true-love foot massage complete with udder cream) put on a really great show. Linda plays autoharp and sings absolutely beautifully, while David plays rhythm guitar and sings shy harmonies. They opened with "Just Someone I Used to Know," known as a classic Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner or George Jones and Tammy Wynette duet and done here with an autoharp! The crowd felt free to join in immediately on the chorus of "Drifting Too Far from the Shore" and also "Angel Band" with which they closed their set. Her autoharp playing was lovely, and the level of professionalism in their performance was a notch above. On tour as part of the Virginia Folklife Program, definitely do try and catch these guys.

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