Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tough Lick Story

There's an old tune called Sourwood Mountain that Ron Stewart recorded on a CD titled Team Flathead - The Huber Banjo Sessions - a project that was originally intended to showcase the exceptional tonal characteristics of Huber banjos. If you're a fan of Huber banjos like me, you may be interested to know that Ron used a Lexington model Huber banjo (serial #102-4) with a maple neck and resonator to record this tune. If you're not a Huber banjo fan, I don’t know what your problem is, and you can just ignore the details mentioned above.

Back to Sourwood Mountain. I liked the song the very first time I heard it, but it really caught my attention when I purchased Ron Stewart's instructional DVD titled Ron Stewart - A Bluegrass Banjo Professional. The DVD by the way, is available from Acutab Publications.

Each tune to be taught (on the DVD) is played at full speed by a three piece band consisting of only bass, banjo and guitar. After the full band version, each song is then discussed and played at slower speeds with just the banjo for instructional purposes. For all you fans of the banjo, Ron is playing a Lancaster model Huber on the DVD which is owned by John Lawless. And once again, if you're not a banjo enthusiast, I don’t know what your problem is; you should just ignore the banjo details.

Bluegrass, being a highly improvisational style of music, allowed Ron to move away from the melody (just a bit) on the second break of the song. It was this moving away from the melody with a syncopated lick near the end of the second break that actually caught my attention the most about Sourwood Mountain. This syncopated lick is not on the Team Flathead recorded version, nor is it played during the instructional parts of the DVD; it was just something Ron did on the fly while playing the song at normal tempo with the band.

Now here’s the tough lick part of the story. I just spent close to two hours trying to insert that syncopated lick into Sourwood Mountain without success. Using a piece of software called Transcribe! from Seventh String Software, I was able to slow the tune down enough to figure out what notes Ron was playing and figure out a roll pattern to execute the lick. For reference, here is a link to a 9 second clip of Sourwood Mountain; the difficult lick starts at the 6 second mark.

It seems I can play the lick repeatedly without making a mistake while practicing, but I can’t seem to get it right in the context of the tune. My fingers know how to do it, my brain wants to do it, but they won’t cooperate. In my experience, one thing is for certain; whenever you hear the word "syncopation" in the context of playing a 5-string banjo, you know there’s trouble ahead!

I shall conquer this dilemma. Somehow.

UPDATE - Sep 25, 2008
After another hour (last night) of trying to make this difficult lick work, I was finally able to get it right a few times at the end of my practice session. The question is, will I be able to repeat it tonight? And the answer is, probably not; at least not at first.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

30th Annual Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival

Note As you read along, feel free to click on any of the images to see a larger version of the same.

The Bluegrass Widow (Helen) and I, along with our friend Kenny Innis, just returned from the 30th Annual Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in Brunswick, Maine. We saw many of our Bluegrass Friends from Saint John, New Brunswick while we were there; I can think of 23 right off the top of my head.

As you enter the park and look to the left you'll see five animal carvings. All of the carvings were done by Tim Pickett from Eliot, Maine. The first, Tommy P. Banjo Bear was done in 1998. In 1999, Trudy P. Bass Bunny was carved. Then in 2000, 2001 and 2002, Toby P. Coyote was carved playing guitar, Trixie P. Fox was carved playing fiddle, and Tallulah P. Moose was carved playing mandolin. All of the carvings were made completely using a chain saw and all were done within the 4 day period of each festival in the years mentioned. That's impressive!

The photo above right is one of the Bluegrass Widow standing beside Trudy P., the bass bunny.

As usual, the festival was one of the very best I’ve ever attended, although I’ll admit I wasn’t too thrilled on Friday due to what I thought was a lack of Bluegrass content. Saturday and Sunday proved to be spectacular days, however.

Of course, the highlight of the entire event for me was Jim Mills and Kentucky Thunder on Saturday night. Go Jimmy! Pardon me, I meant to say Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

Above left is a picture of Ricky Skaggs and some of the Thomas Point staff right after the show ended.

On the right is a picture of the Bluegrass Widow with Jim Mills (from Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder). I know what you're thinking... but you're wrong; the Widow is not all dreamy-eyed for Jimmy, she's just tired, okay? Actually, the real story here is that the Widow's eyes are faster than the speed of light itself... and there is no way you will ever get a picture of this girl with her eyes open if a camera flash is nearby. I once took 60 photos of the Bluegrass Widow and of those sixty pictures, there were only three in the whole lot in which she had her eyes open - and those three pictures were the only ones that didn't involve flash.

Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, the Grascals and the Del McCoury Band also performed outstanding shows. In addition to the big boys, there were several other lesser known groups that performed very well; 24 bands in all, I believe.

We arrived on Friday around 1:00 PM, so we missed the Rhonda Vincent shows on Thursday. However, we did see Rhonda Vincent & The Rage in Rogersville, NB the weekend before. If her shows were anything at all like the Rogersville shows, then I’d have to say you probably got your money’s worth there as well.

It’s hard to know where to begin describing this festival. They advertise it as "The Spirit of beautiful Thomas Point Beach and Bluegrass Music!... Experience the MAGIC." Certainly, there definitely is a feeling of magic in the air at this festival. Unlike many other festival grounds that only have a stage and a big open field, Thomas Point Beach has everything you could ever want for a pefect holiday weekend.

First and foremost of course is the music, which is pretty much non-stop for three solid days. The camping areas of the park at Thomas Point Beach are just beautiful - full of tall pine and oak trees that provide you with just the right amount of shade while providing you with scenic beauty at the same time. The park was absolutely loaded with RV’s, trailers and tents this year - the most I’ve seen in the very few years I have attended the festival.

All through the day and into the wee hours of the morning you can take part in (or just listen to) one of several jams going on. At any given time, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if there are at least 50 jams taking place, with the number probably doubling after the main shows have ended at night. As you walk around from camp site to camp site, you can hear the camp fires crackling and smell the smoke in the air.

While the stage shows were going on, there were also several workshops taking place. I managed to take in a mandolin workshop that was put on by Danny Roberts of the Grascals and also a banjo workshop put on by Aaron McDaris, also a member of the Grascals.

Helen and I spent a fair bit of time walking through the park, stopping to talk to total strangers and listening to several jam sessions. For the most part, we tried to stay out of the way of our Saint John friends so they could enjoy their weekend away. We made a new friend in Sharon from South Portland on Sunday evening and we exchanged addresses. I’m looking forward to visiting with her in the near future.

We had full intentions of going to the Sunday morning church service on the beach front, but alas, we stayed up just a bit too late with the jammers on Saturday evening. We almost made it, but not quite. We did take part in a Sunday morning gospel jam at 10:00 however. We saw fellow Saint Johners Tom Mason, Larry and Carlotta Walsh, David Maguire and Loretta and Clay Johnson and Irene at the gospel jam as well.

We spoke very briefly with Ricky Skaggs and Jim Mills before they headed out; Jim Mills said he remembered us from last May in Moncton, NB. Ricky and Kentucky Thunder had to make a very quick exit as they had to catch a flight from New York City at 4:00 AM. Just the same, they took time to sign autographs and had their picture taken with several fans. They didn’t leave the festival grounds until shortly after midnight, eastern standard time. I wonder how their flight worked out?

Now for the sad news if you don’t already know. The 30th Annual Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival was the final one, as Patti Crooker, camp ground owner and festival organizer is retiring. I don’t know what will happen, but it sure would be good if someone took the festival over. There are rumors of the County Bluegrass Festival in Fort Fairfiled, Maine picking up the Labor Day weekend dates, but it certainly won’t be the same as the Thomas Point festival. I just can’t imagine what could possibly generate the same magical feeling that you get at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick, Maine.

The people that own the bus in the photo to the right have attended every Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival for the past 30 years and what's more? They have parked their bus in the same spot for all of those years! The sign on the bus reads "On The Same Spot For 30 Years!!" There is another sign on the outside of the picket fence that reads "Eviction Notice," but you can't see the sign on the fence as it is blocked by the gentleman on the roadway side of the fence.

At the conclusion on Sunday evening there was a spectacular display of fireworks as we all celebrated 30 years of Bluegrass music at Thomas Point Beach - a happy and sad occasion at the same time.

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