Read our coverage of the MountainGrass music festival 2018
Images: Jim Jacob
Words: Rob Dickens
A new venue…a new town…a new vibe.
MountainGrass, the old-time and bluegrass annual three-day music festival set in rural Victoria, Australia, got a new look, a face lift even. The historic gold town of Beechworth played host this year after the festival organisers, The Australasian Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association (ABOTMA), decided to move the site from the alpine village of Harrietville, forty minutes away.
Specifically, the setting comprised two indoor rooms in the George Kerferd Hotel (a large conference meeting place and a bar), a small room deep in an adjacent building, the nearby Chapel (so small it had its own personality!) and the Pitts Family Circus Tent (a five-minute walk away). Merchandise, a food outlet, instrument stalls and plenty of jamming spaces nestled around and under mature trees completed the scene.
One of the focal points of Jeff Scroggins and Colorado (USA) is, of course, Scroggins himself, a high energy, spirited banjo player and national champion. His striking long hair sets him apart visually from the bulk of the performers here this weekend. His lightning-fast licks as he glides effortlessly up and down the fret board is another, exciting point of difference. Jeff Scroggins has an impressive CV, having played with major artists like Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan and The Dixie Chicks. Other strengths in the group were the twin award-winning skills (vocals and guitar) of front man Greg Blake (West Virginia), the harmonies and fiddle playing of Ellie Hakanson (Oregon) and the rhythmic underscore of Nico Humby’s (Canada) bass.
The set was a nice mix of country tunes, songs from Blake’s new solo album, covers of Bill Monroe, George Jones, Johnny Cash (“Hey Porter”), Jimmy Martin (“20/20”) and Jimmy Webb (“Galveston”). A balanced and telling session.
The Blue Ridge Broadcasters (USA) contain innovative and engaging young musicians who provide a mix of driving fiddle tunes and traditional songs. The band is Emily Schaad (fiddle), Joseph Decosimo (banjo), Doug Sharkey (guitar) and Joe DeJarnette (bass) and they have been working together for over a decade, winning prizes in traditional band and fiddle contests.
What was particularly enjoyable was the sharp and interesting repertoire – carefully selected songs from Jimmie Rodgers, Clyde Davenport, Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson. Their twin-fiddle tunes were a delight, in particular, “Waiting For Nancy” and “Wild Goose Chase”. Overall, an Appalachian treat with a fine, energetic young band filled with gifted multi-instrumentalists, sharing and breathing vitality into past traditions.
Bluegrass Parkway from Western Australia is one of Australia’s best-known bluegrass bands. They remain faithful to the traditions of bluegrass (even before time the music was called ‘bluegrass’) by gathering around a single microphone, bursting forth with crisp three/four-part harmonies and showcasing material made famous by Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Award-winning mandolinist Mike Compton joined them today and provided some added gravitas.
Slim Dime is a duo from Melbourne Australia – Jen Land on acoustic tenor guitar and vocals, with Chris Taylor on acoustic guitar, banjo and vocals. They also doff their hats to traditions and they clearly know and appreciate their musical antecedents. Their set was my first visit to the not so deftly named Mayday Hills Art Society Room reached after a healthy walk. Her voice is melodious and his playing very accomplished, making their work look effortless as do the best performers. The harmonies are sweet and nuanced, like the A.P. Carter vocal drift to and from the microphone that they use. They coped well with a broken guitar string early in the set as well.
The foursome Bryant & Brown have been in the game for over forty years and the members (Paul Brown, Terri McMurray, Mike Bryant and Marcia Bryant) carry on the traditions of the Blue Ridge Mountains, its history and learning passed down. Brown has devoted much of his life to documenting and promoting senior Appalachian musicians over many years. He is a former NPR journalist who now hosts the Across the Blue Ridge music and culture radio show. The band’s music is informal and folksy and most of the set today were lively instrumentals that would have been ideal for people wanting to dance. Australia, alas, does not seem to have that stomping/clogging tradition and I suppose the room setting did not invite anyone to get off their seats anyway. Interestingly, it was the band’s first visit to Australia.
Rhodeworks are Laurence (17), Sam (15), Nate (12) and their Mum, steadying the ship with her bass but clearly taking a back seat, away from the spotlight). The band has won an award for their vocal and musical talents and the boys are largely self-taught multi-instrumentalists and vocalists who have performed at many festivals throughout their native New Zealand and Australia. What they do is fast-paced, high-energy folk music, showcasing a blend of well-known traditional bluegrass alongside original material and well-interpreted covers. Their show in Pitt’s Tent was blessed with great acoustics and they covered the Punch Brothers‘s layered song “Julep” with aplomb as well as an inventively-good cover of Dragon’s “April Sun In Cuba”.
The fact that they are still learning their craft is a sobering thought because, if they keep at this music business with the relish and persistence they exhibit now, Rhodeworks will be a force with which to be reckoned. Speaking of perseverance, lead singer Laurence had his right forearm and wrist in a cast but still managed to play guitar with authority.
Now to one of the artists down the bottom of the bill, but one of the finds of the event for both of us here at Listening Through The Lens. Sydney based, The Willing Ponies played a unique brand of material. It might not be bluegrass (although they may have ‘grassed’ it up for this event) and it’s not really Americana either, but the set was all original, terrific material, written with sincerity and a keen eye. They did not even go for a cover to close the set, instead stuck to their guns with another original and engrossing piece. Hand over some well-developed songs to their author to sing with a troupe of great pickers in support and you have a winning combination. “America What Have You Done?”, “Hope To Be Happy”, “Magnolias”, the intense break-up tune “Texas” and the reflective “These Days Are Gone” are masterful songs to deny at your mistaken peril.
What we need is a record release from these people, so that we all can share the benefits of one of Australia’s most original outfits. For the archive, The Willing Ponies are Ricky Pannowitz (vocals, guitar), Paul Abrahams (upright & electric bass), Nigel Lever (mandolin, vocals), Ben Thomas (banjo, vocals) and Wen-Tjen Lim (fiddle).
Cameron DeWhitt is a claw hammer banjoist and old-time musician living in Philadelphia. He has been on tour for some weeks in Australia, showing his wares at a number of country events and today, in the Pitts Family Tent, he played his final show of the tour. A distinctive player, he can also holler it up when the circumstances dictate. The set list was interesting, with many traditional tunes like “Wild Bill Jones”, “Happy Hollow” and “Done Gone”. Joining him were Gareth Bjaaland and Nara Demasson.
DeWhitt also hosts the weekly podcast Get Up in the Cool which features conversations and musical collaborations with some of old-time music’s heaviest hitters.
As luck would have it, Jim Jacob wandered down to The Chapel during a quiet moment expecting to see not much there (there was nothing scheduled in the official program) and was pleasantly surprised to be able to sit in on some videos of performances being captured by Ricky Pannowitz and Paul Abrahams of The Willing Ponies.
We don’t have the videos to show you, but Jim managed to capture some stills. Ricky and Paul are principals of Vudo Media, a content provider and video production company based in Sydney. The company specialises in video and audio production, written content, branding and brand awareness across a range of digital platforms.
Here are two of Jim’s photos taken while the videos were being shot:
So, how did the MountainGrass transplant go?
There were many plusses and astute decisions made by the organising committee. To start, the town of Beechworth itself and the general site facility covered themselves with glory. The addition of The Pitt Tent was a wonderfully pleasant performance area (it was a little far removed from the rest of the action, but I assume that was due to finding the closest, suitably flat terrain). The Chapel was a terrific intimate and light-filled place to visit. The parking was certainly a breeze and the usually splendid Harrietville weather made the trip down the road unfettered.
While the main space in the Hotel (the Harold Whittaker Room) was an ideal size, its orientation did not seem to enable optimal viewing all over and the sound there did not seem to these ears to be as lively as most other places. Perhaps also it would benefit from being opened up externally so there was less of a barrier between it and the gorgeous weather outside. Now to the MHAS Room (named after the Mayday Hills Arts Society) embedded in the former Government mental health facility. It served as a key secondary performance space and to say it was a circuitous route to get there is an understatement. While the signposts (there were a lot of them) avoided anyone getting lost on the way there, multiple visits required a significant commitment of time and effort and a feeling of being well removed from the rest of the activities. A better solution for this would be a great advantage for coming years.
Most importantly, these areas for improvement were dwarfed by the constant showcasing of the diverse and engaging music on offer, the joy in seeing traditions being passed down via informal jamming and many workshops, and lastly the informal warmth, the community and the fellowship of the participants.
Put it down as an event for next year, and hats off to ABOTMA.
Read our coverage of the MountainGrass music festival 2018
Like to e-subscribe to Listening Through The Lens?
Click on the HOME PAGE and enter your email address
We won’t clutter your inbox
We won’t share your email address
You can unsubscribe at any time