We review Mountaingrass 2023
10 to 12 November
Presented By ABOTMA – Australasian Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association
By Jim Jacob
By Rob Dickens
Hailing from the seminal town of Galax, Virginia, Erryn Marshall and Carl Jones are a couple in real life and in music. Old-time music specialists, they breeze between fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo doing what they call ‘new-sounding old-time tunes’. Jones is a talented songwriter and his wistful ballad “Last Time On The Road” was an absolute feature. The wry humour between songs was evident and they played with both speed and precision, easily manoeuvering sudden tempo changes.
From the ACT, the Black Mountain String Band is an intergenerational outfit founded in the 1970s. It is a five-piece jamming outfit certainly not lacking in musical diversity, as members segue between bluegrass, jigs, old-time, western swing and even a touch of instrumental mariachi. Donal Baylor, Jacqueline Bradley, Matt Nightingale, Kevin Bradley and Pablo Shopen put on an entertaining show and their joy playing on stage together is palapable.
Speaking of putting on an exhibition, it’s pretty hard to top The Kody Norris Show, both musically, visually and stylistically. With multiple award nominations including by the IBMA, the band recently debuted at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Their Australian tour has the slogan ‘g’day y’all’ and their unabashed home-spun and dazzling stage presence with dollops of goofy humour was met with a rousing response from the audience at the Golden Oak Room. All four members (Kody Norris, Josiah Tyree, Mary Rachel Nailey-Norris and Charlie Lowman) took turns at the single vocal microphone with plenty of bluegrass hollering and their blended harmonies a treat. Able to play at a thunderous pace and in an ever-so-tight formation, they glided off the stage in an orange and purple triumph. Not to be missed.
This was the third time I had seen Portland’s Caleb Klauder on stage, but the first as the Foghorn Stringband. In 2014 and 2015 he appeared at AmericanaFest in Nashville under the banner of the Kaleb Klauder Country Band (which later morphed into the Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms Country Band putting in impressive sets. Tonight’s show (part of the band’s third Australian tour) was a demonstration of the versatility of Klauder and affirmation of his exemplary mandolin playing. Willms was pumping out hectic rhythm guitar and the ensemble was rounded out by Nadine Landry on bass and Sammy Lind on fiddle. Four-strong vocals, lively fiddle tunes, a Carter Family cover, the delightfully frisky “Horseshoe Bend” and “Black Mountain Rag”, a couple of nice country songs, throw in a cajun waltz and some local references to Ned Kelly and Wombats and you had an immensely enjoyable set.
Dave Diprose is a multi-award-winning songwriter with ballads like “Hillbilly Radio” and “Stranger In My Home”. Stories of his life as he moved from the North West coast of Tasmania to Stawell in Victoria to other parts are both colourful and instructive. His band Hillbilly Radio was comprised of Mark Pottenger on mandolin, Andrew Barcham on bass and Peter Somerville on banjo and they adeptly provided latitude and pattern to these stories.
Perhaps the high point of the weekend was a session curated by Colin Weight (The Colvin Brothers, Nine Mile Creek) in the Chapel on Saturday afternoon.
Now this tiny Chapel of the Resurrection was built in 1868 as the mortuary for the local (now closed) mental asylum and converted into a place of worship in the 1960’s. It is located two hundred meters down the hill from the main buildings, dwarfed by giant gums and not much else than substantial tended grassland. The former altar works well as a stage, the glass panels on the roof provide glorious light beams and there’s even a curious and ornate phone and stand that may well be a direct line to whatever your supreme being is. The acoustics are pristine, the audience hushed and there is not a whiff of a microphone for the entire session.
The Cartwheels are one of Australia’s best roots music outfits who are in demand at Australia’s best music festivals of their genre and their short set demonstrated that, despite being two members short, their core material and musicianship prevail no matter what the circumstances. Golden Guitar winners Wendy Phypers (guitar and vocals), Dave Patterson (bass) and noted bluegrass player Jacob McGuffie (The Davidson Brothers) provided some classy playing around Phypers’ brilliant songs and vocals.
Jacob McGuffie stayed on and was joined by Daniel Watkins (High Street Drifters) and we were treated to great bluegrass songs and fiddle tunes, but with just two finger-picking guitars working feverishly in synch. Seeing two of Australia’s finest bluegrass guitarists together was immensely pleasurable.
The child prodigy founding members of You, Me, Everybody are Laurence and Sam Frangos-Rhodes and the duo performed some delicate material with flair and touch, including The Milk Carton Kids‘ gorgeous “Michigan”. It was fascinating to see them in the same venue five years on.
Peter McLaughlin and Mark Miracle of The Sonoran Dogs provided some of McLaughlin’s originals with guitar and mandolin respectively including his homage “Raise A Glass to John Prine”, “Rainy in Maleny” and the joyful ode to retirement (I can associate with this one!) “It’s A New Day”.
The Colvin Brothers [Weight and Vinny Russell (The Humbuckin’ Pickups) were drawn together by their love of bluegrass and old-time music but also with an eye to broader genres – ballads, country and standards. Glorious harmonies.
The closing act for this session was Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms of The Foghorn Stringband and the audience was treated to some new songs that will be on their six-piece country and honky tonk band record which is close to being finished. A lonesome cowboy song “Far Away Sky” and the driving “Badger Mountain” resonated.
The day’s highlights started with a full set from The Sonoran Dogs (with Bruce Packard substituting on bass for this show and the rest of the band’s tour – this is its start). The extended, captivating opening instrumental was a stunner, allowing each member to demonstrate their prowess, followed by a lovely take on Townes Van Zandt‘s “Snowin’ on Raton”, “Dixie Hoedown”, the classic “Dark Hollow” and Bob Dylan’s lively “Nashville Skyline Rag”. This is a seriously good band with depth and heart. Don’t miss them on the rest of their tour.
Bluegrass Parkway trekked all the way from Western Australia and put on a hell of a show. With over thirty years of experience, the men resplendent in big white hats and sharp suits and the sole female Maria Duff looking gorgeously ready to make headlines on the dance floor, they took us through some classic bluegrass and country tunes. It was a warm and entertaining set from this accomplished outfit.
Other notables were The Quarry Hillbillies (Chris Jacobs and Pete Fidler and are 3/5th of the bluegrass band Bluestone Junction) and the duo from New South Wales – StompKats – who dutifully revisit the rural sounds of the Mississippi Delta and other parts of America – music that never becomes unfashionable. Another animated and crisp set from The Foghorn Stringband closed for us both the day and this highly successful, warm, community-based event.
A big thank you to the ABOTMA Committee for putting on such a wonderful event and looking after us. Actually, we sat in on the AGM on Sunday morning and were exposed first-hand to the group’s achievements and a sample of just how much hard work is required to run an outstanding event like Mountaingrass. The talented and diverse line-up on show and the smooth event management is a testament to this year’s event and which lays strong roots for successful festivals into the future.
We also heard the compelling rationale for having to relocate the event to Bright in 2024 (just 50 minutes southeast of Beechworth). Save the dates:
15 to 17 November 2024
More Music Adventures Await!
We review Mountaingrass 2023