Bluegrass

The Third Wheel Band CD Release at Rodeo Bar

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The Third Wheel Band headlined Rodeo Bar last night. Beyond a normal headlining show, it was their CD Release (2nd one) for Family Album.

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Eleven months ago we accidentally caught half of their set at Rockwood Music Hall. Well, hearing even one note was accidental, catching half the set was because we couldn’t tear ourselves away, even though we had to leave! I wrote about that experience.

The intro from that post was as true last night as it was last year:

The Third Wheel Band was a complete joy to listen to from their first note. In addition to playing and singing well, all three are charming on stage. There is a drummer listed on their website, but he wasn’t there last night.

Near the bottom, I wrote:

I’m now following the band on Twitter, so we’ll be sure to hear about upcoming shows and plan to catch one as soon as we can.

Amazingly, while we had a few close calls, we haven’t been able to make a show until now. When I saw that their CD Release was in our neighborhood, I put it on the calendar as a can’t move. Even though we had company staying with us, we told them that we were committed to this show. Smile

A few words about the show, then about the CD, then about Rodeo Bar (first time I ordered food there).

We stayed for the first of at least two sets (I have no idea whether they repeated the set). The majority of the set was straight off the new CD (which is exactly what you’d expect at a CD Release show!). Every song was executed wonderfully. The set lasted roughly 70 minutes, long and satisfying!

The Third Wheel Band (TTWB) is a minimalistic Bluegrass band, quite classical in their delivery (read their interesting bio to see how they chose the band name!). What distinguishes them are crisp, tight vocals (individually and 3-part harmony) and excellent musicianship (all three). Also, they’re having fun on stage, so it’s hard not to have fun along with them in the audience.

Given that most Bluegrass bands play a ton of covers (even the biggies, like The Grascals, who we just saw this past Friday!), there are two things that make a band worth following around: 1) their delivery/execution, 2) their arrangements/sensibility. The point is that many of the songs you’ll hear have been done by the greats (the original songwriters/performers and the best touring Bluegrass bands), so you can quickly tire of people who don’t do justice to those songs.

Not to worry folks, TTWB can hold their own. The fact that they are locals is the bigger surprise, because there aren’t all that many local Bluegrass or Country bands around these parts (I should have thrown in a them  or here somewhere in that phrase). Winking smile

But, rather than play a ton of really classic Bluegrass tunes, TTWB took more traditional (in some cases downright ancient) Folk tunes and turned them into full-blown Bluegrass numbers. Specifically, on the CD (with most performed during the set we attended): Skip to My Lou, Down By the Riverside, You are My Sunshine, I’ve Been Working on the Railroad, Buffalo Gals and This Little Light of Mine.

The point is that none of those are sophisticated songs, with lyrics that you better think about long and hard, but they’re classics which are ingrained in our culture (at least for those of us over 30) and TTWB’s take on them is fun and fresh.

After the set we asked how many originals are on the new CD, and the person selling them said two. I’ve already listened to the CD and I really like it, but I didn’t read the liner notes so I don’t know which are theirs.

One more recap of the band, then some thoughts about Rodeo Bar.

Greg Barresi on acoustic guitar and vocals. Excellent on both. His guitar play is really tasty, flat-picking a variety of styles, often mixing chords with mini-leads within the chord. A lot of chord play that he slides up a fret quickly and smoothly. He sings really well, on the lead and harmony.

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Step Allen on upright bass and vocals. Also excellent on both. I’m really impressed with her bass play. She’s in constant motion, even when it’s obvious she could fake it and play every fourth note and still deliver a solid bottom. She’s fast, smooth and interesting. Her vocals are classic Bluegrass. She take the highs in the band, often really bright highs.

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Ryan Langlois (again I can’t find a good individual link) on mandolin, harmonica and vocals. Let’s complete the trifecta and label Ryan as excellent on both (he’s good on the harmonica too, but he won’t rock your world). His mandolin play is quite interesting. He doesn’t play traditional leads (at least not many), but he sneaks some very sweet leads in as part of his chord progressions. Whatever he’s doing, it works. His vocals are wonderful whether he’s singing lead or harmony.

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There you have it. Our first chance encounter, followed by 11 months of being sure we wanted to see them again proved to be correct. We were both very happy to have caught last night’s show and to have a chance to purchase the CD. We’ll see them again, I’m sure!

Here’s the set list. Now that I see it, I realize that the second set was likely going to have no repeats. That’s very cool and I’m sure we would have enjoyed it just as much. Unfortunately, we’ve been burning the candle at both ends, and 10:30pm seemed like a reasonable time to head home (not that I got to sleep before midnight, though it would have been 2am if we had stayed…).

SetList

This was our second time at Rodeo Bar. It’s way more convenient to our apartment than any other place we frequent, so we’re likely to return somewhat regularly.

As we were walking in, the first person we spotted was none other than Chris Anderson. It turns out that he was playing the set before, with Josh Max and The Smash and Grab Band. I don’t know if Chris was Smash, or Grab, but I’m sure he pleased the audience either way.

Chris mentioned that his folks were there as well. We went over to say hello and his mom told me she had the Catfish Tacos and enjoyed them. That helped me decide. I had them too, and I have to say, they were great. Thanks Robin!

I like the atmosphere at Rodeo Bar, I like the staff and I like the sound system. But, the first time we were there (for The Brain Cloud) the audience was quiet and respectful, so I assumed most shows would be like that. They have two rooms, so it’s easy to avoid being on the music side.

Last night, the crowd (and it was quite a crowd) was super enthusiastic about TTWB’s songs, after the fact, with very loud applause, but there was a ton of loud talking during the songs (including from a table of four women right up at the stage). I admit that upbeat Bluegrass music with familiar songs (where you don’t have to concentrate on the lyrics) almost begs to treat it as background music, but these kids on stage are playing their hearts out (really well!) and I would wish they got more respect for their musicianship.

Anyway, since I’ve only been there twice, I can’t judge whether this is more of a bar scene with background music, or whether this is more typically a listening crowd. I guess I’ll find out, because I intend to go back (for the food, as well as the music).

Chris Thile and Michael Daves at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2

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Any Chris Thile show in NYC sells out, whether it’s with the Punch Brothers or with Michael Daves. Add a little special sauce, say a CD Release Show and you can be sure that the sellout will happen even more quickly.

Chris Thile and Michael Daves just released a new CD, Sleep With One Eye Open, on Tuesday this week. To celebrate, they scheduled three shows on consecutive nights (Tue/Wed/Thu) at Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2. We were lucky enough to have a friend who alerted me to the impending ticket sales a day before they were available. We bought ours for the Wednesday night show (last night) as did a number of our friends.

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There were two problems last night:

  1. Rockwood 2 had a problem with the air conditioner for about an hour and the place was hot (they worked feverishly and got it working roughly 30 minutes after the show started)
  2. Before they started playing, Chris announced that Michael had been stricken by The Pollen (something I’m familiar with because Lois has been similarly stricken for over a week, almost debilitatingly so!)

#2 couldn’t be solved by having a crew climb up and down through a tiny open tile in the ceiling (which is how they solved #1). Instead, 100% of the vocals were handled by Chris last night. While he made a very few flubs (all turned into highlight reel moments!), it was a qualitatively different experience. It was impressive to know that Chris paid attention to Michael’s parts when they were rehearsing, rather than dozing off. Winking smile

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Apologies for the photo quality. The lighting is never good for compact cameras, but it was darker than usual last night (which fit the mood just right, but made it worse for the camera), plus we were further from the stage than usual. All photos can be clicked on for larger sizes (that’s always true, even though I mention it every once in a while…)

I mentioned to a friend before the show started that I had never seen the Rockwood 2 stage as barren as it was last night, even when there was only a solo singer/songwriter performing. All instruments were removed. There were no amplifiers. No electrical chords of any kind. Just a single microphone (with a shock mount, not the typical mic’s they use in these types of shows).

Chris and Michael did not plug in their instruments (mandolin and guitar, respectively). They shared the one mic on stage for the vocals and the instruments. As intimate a setup as you can imagine, even though there were roughly 200 people getting to know each other really well (come to think of it, that’s pretty intimate in its own way).

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Both Chris and Michael were simply amazing. Aside from the fact that Chris was forced to sing all of the vocals, the two of them are a 50/50 team on this project. Even though Chris is an international superstar (perhaps the best mandolin player in the world, in my opinion), Michael gets as many leads on the guitar. At no time during a Michael Daves lead do you find yourself thinking “When will Chris take the reins again?”, that’s how lightning fast and interesting Michael is on the guitar.

They didn’t just play material from the new CD. In fact, Chris joked after the third song that they still hadn’t gotten to one that was on the new CD. No one was complaining, though I admit to still being curious as to what was on it. In the end, they did play quite a number of the songs (there are 16 on the CD) and I knew I would love the CD when I got my hands on it.

The show was split into two sets with a 12-minute intermission. Each set was over 50 minutes. Including the encore, they played for nearly 115 minutes (that excludes the intermission!).

During each set, there was a request portion that was obvious to many in the crowd (we’ve seen Chris and Michael separately, but never together, so we didn’t know what was coming). Even before Chris could get the words out: “You know what’s coming, it’s time for Fiddle Tunes!”, people were yelling out a dozen Fiddle Tunes for them to play.

During the first set, after conferring, Chris and Michael settled on three Fiddle Tunes, which they played consecutively, morphing one into the next, with no breaks. Awesome! The only thing missing was that Melissa Tong was sitting right near us and they could have forced her on the stage to have an actual fiddle player up there with them! But, given how blazingly fast both Chris and Michael are on their instruments, you could almost imagine a hard-sawing fiddle player up there.

During the second set, they agreed to do four consecutive tunes. Afterward, Chris joked that someone famousHoudini (of course, my old-man brain is blanking on exactly who now, sorry!Thanks Melissa!) died because theyhe tried to do five consecutive Fiddle Tunes. That’s why they had to stop at four. It would simply be too dangerous. Winking smile (In case you can’t easily see it, in the next photo, Chris is holding up four fingers as the crowd is going wild, literally!)

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During intermission, Lois ran up to the merch table and bought the CD. This morning, I listened to it two times straight through.

It’s an absolutely fantastic collection of traditional Bluegrass (Hill Country) music. As amazing as last night’s performance was, the CD is better (musically, not experientially). Michael’s voice is very distinctive and the two of them sing harmony really well. The mixer has their vocals and instruments at exactly the right levels throughout. There isn’t a weak song in the 16 and there are enough leads on both the mandolin and guitar to blow your mind multiple times.

ChrisThileMichaelDavesCDCoverChrisThileMichaelDavesBackOfCD

Well done, both live and in the studio!

The Grascals at Highline Ballroom

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When a band plans a tour there is very little wiggle room in any given city. They’re generally on the move all night (if they have a professional bus driver), or all day (if they’re driving themselves). There are many things you can’t control when planning months in advance.

Two such things are the unbelievably frigid temps currently inhabiting NYC (thanks global warming!) and the local team making the championship game in the NFL (thanks J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS!). Smile

The weather and the Jets might have kept some fans from making it out last night (entirely their loss!), but it didn’t stop The Grascals from blowing away those of us who were smart enough to choose them!

This was our third time seeing The Grascals and it most certainly won’t be our last. The other three people at our table had never seen them before. They are indescribably amazing (or, as one of the people we saw it with noted: “The Grascals are truly absurdly talented”). Of course, I’ll still do my humble best to give you a sense of their magic.

Highline Ballroom is a wonderful place to see a show, in particular one with a big group and a big sound. The Grascals are that.

While all six members of The Grascals blend perfectly together, I actually view them as two separate groups (more accurately, a group within a group). Each group is great in their way but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. To whet your appetite, check out the amazing number of awards they’ve won as a group and as individuals.

Group #1 is a core vocal and rhythm driven ensemble comprised of Jamie Johnson (guitar and vocals), Terry Eldredge (guitar and vocals) and Terry Smith (upright bass and vocals). The three of them sing so well individually (each sings lead) and together (three-part harmony on every non-instrumental song). Jamie and Terry share MC honors, keeping everything light and funny in between songs.

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Terry Smith is also a top-notch bassist. On two numbers he demonstrated a perfect slap technique that was a blast to listen to and watch.

Group #2 is comprised of three of the best instrumentalists you’ll ever hear (they don’t even have vocal mic’s so you never hear them speak or sing). Danny Roberts is an incredible mandolin player. Jeremy Abshire is an extraordinary fiddle player. Kristin Scott Benson is a mind-boggling banjo player (multiple time Banjo Player of the Year winner!).

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Each of Danny, Jeremy and Kristin can give solo performances that knock your socks off. When they play together, most of the time one of them is being highlighted in the lead, but the other two are supporting the effort with complementary riffs. On some songs (only one brief moment last night), they have duels, which have them each repeating the same riff in a competition where the only winner is the audience!

When Groups #1 and #2 combine (on most songs), you get the best of both worlds. Amazing vocals sprinkled with virtuoso leads on the mandolin, fiddle and banjo.

They were all on fire last night, and the audience gave extended ovations after every number (and for nearly every lead during each song). Each of the three soloists was brilliant.

Jamie then thanked us and introduced the last song, Sally Goodin, off of their self-titled album (The Grascals, for those of you not paying any attention). On that CD, the song is just under four minutes, and features incredible solos on the fiddle, banjo, mandolin and then around again.

Last night, as incredible as each of Jeremy, Danny and Kristin was, this last song took it to another level. I didn’t have a second of disappointment during the earlier numbers, but after this, I realized that they were holding something in reserve.

Jeremy opened the number (just like on the CD). After his solo, Kristin took hers. Then Danny. Just like on the CD, Danny’s solo was longer than the others, only last night, Danny’s kept going (and going). Then Jeremy walked to the middle of the stage and took over Terry Smith’s vocal mic as everyone else took a few steps back.

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He wailed on the fiddle in one of the longest, most inconceivable solos. Every time it looked like he was about to relinquish the lead, he took it up a notch. You had to be there to believe it. Finally, after leaving us all shivering a bit, Kristin stepped back to her mic and continued the round until they finally called it a night.

Their live version of Sally Goodin lasted over nine minutes. It was more than twice as long as the CD version. Jeremy’s solo itself lasted longer than the entire CD version. All I can say is that if that were the only song they played (meaning, if the entire show was just those 9+ minutes), I would have felt that I had gotten my money’s worth. The rest of the show was a bonus!

Every person at Highline rose to give them a long standing ovation. Of course, they came back for an encore.

New York, those of you who passed on this show have no idea what you missed. OK, perhaps you know now. If you miss the next chance to see The Grascals when they return, it will be on you then. You’ve been warned! Winking smile

After the show, we purchased an EP and one CD that we didn’t already own. Both Jamie and Danny signed them for us.

Here is a representative set list (not the identical one played last night) with the two CDs that we bought:

SetListAndCDs

To top it all off, the five of us shared a fantastic meal and enjoyed each other’s company for two relaxing hours before the show started. The food at Highline Ballroom is wonderful, but our companions were even more wonderful. Smile

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The Grascals at Birchmere

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Last night we saw The Grascals at the Birchmere. It was our second time seeing them live. I covered the first time extensively in this post (2/3 of the way down), and all but one comment from that post applied to last night! The one comment that would require updating is that they now do indeed include photos of Kristin Scott Benson on their site. 🙂

So, I won’t repeat it all, but rather, summarize those points as concisely as I can. The three guys in the center of the stage, Jamie Johnson (vocals, guitar and general MC), Terry Smith (vocals and bass) and Terry Eldredge (vocals, guitar and the secondary MC) sang wonderfully together last night:

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Again, the biggest highlight of the evening was Jeremy Abshire on the fiddle. He’s so fast, and keeps up the speed for really long stretches, that it just doesn’t seem possible. Very close behind him (as I noted in the last post) is the amazing Kristin Scott Benson. I purposely picked seats toward the right side of the stage (normally we aim for the middle) so that I could sit right in front of Kristin, and watch her fingers fly (apparently effortlessly) on the banjo.

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Once again, Danny Roberts was incredible, and incredibly fast as well. He also has a great smile on stage, easily disarming the audience every time he flashed it. 🙂

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They played an electrifying 65 minutes, then let us know that they would be playing the last song for the night. Given the long opening set (to be covered shortly), we wouldn’t have been too disappointed at the short-ish set that we thought we were about to experience. But, we were wrong.

The last song lasted 10 minutes! It was also the only instrumental number of the entire set. Each of the three brilliant musicians, Jeremy, Kristin and Danny took unbelievably awesome and long solos. Each time you thought they might give up their solo to the next person, they would crank it up again. The audience was in awe.

When they finally stepped off the stage, it was to a standing ovation. They returned shortly, and took a request from the audience for the encore. In total, roughly 80 minutes on stage, each and every one of them delicious.

A month ago I made a mental note that they would be at the Birchmere, but I didn’t buy tickets in advance. As such, I paid no attention to whether there was an opening act, or who it might be.

We attended a Girlyman concert this past Sunday at Birchmere, and while there, decided that we would be up for the 2-hour round-trip drive to return for The Grascals, and I bought two tickets then. I noticed that there was an opening act, and who it was, but to be honest, I still didn’t focus on the names enough.

Either way, I was going…

The opening group was Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen. The two are life-long friends, and were in The Desert Rose Band together (we loved them!). Chris was also in The Byrds (one of my favorite groups when I was growing up) and The Flying Burrito Brothers. In other words, worthy of headlining any place they would choose, making this an even bigger treat than expected!

Joining them for the entire set was David Mansfield, violin/fiddle, previously unannounced. Of the three, David is by far the best musician. He didn’t sing or speak, but he played superbly on each number.

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Chris Hillman still has a strong, crystal clear voice, with an excellent range as well. He plays the mandolin solidly (and played guitar on one or two numbers). While Chris is as generous as one can imagine in sharing the spotlight with Herb and David, it’s still clear that it’s his spotlight to share.

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He’s warm and engaging with the audience, sharing stories in a self-effacing manner. The bond with his fellow musicians on stage is strong, palpable and enveloping.

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Herb Pedersen sang and played guitar, very well (both). His voice is every bit as good in the same dimensions that Chris’ is. The two of them blend perfectly in their harmonies. Given the broad range that both have, typically, whichever one is taking the lead sings lower and the other one takes the high notes. Herb took the lead in a fair percentage of the songs.

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They played quite a range of songs, which wasn’t surprising, given their longevity in the business and the great groups they’ve been part of. On the second number in the set they performed Turn Turn Turn! a song that was also the title of the second Byrds album.

They also did a very nice version of Eight Miles High (another Byrds classic). It wasn’t the more rock version that they Byrds used to do, but true to the roots of the song nonetheless, while suiting the style of these three performers well.

They performed a Stanley brothers song, as well as other classics that had the audience whooping it up. They were on stage for 65 minutes (very long for an opening act). They received a rousing standing ovation when they walked off, and could not avoid coming back for an encore (also atypical for opening acts!). So in total, roughly 70 minutes on stage!

At intermission, Lois went out and bought two of their CDs: Chris and Herb together on Bakersfield Bound and Chris’ The Other Side. Both signed the Bakersfield Bound CD.

After the show, we purchased three more CDs. We already own all three of The Grascals CDs, but we downloaded all of them from Amazon.com, so we didn’t have a physical CD. We bought one of those for all of them to sign (which they did). We also bought a Kristin Scott Benson CD (which she signed) and a Danny Roberts one (also signed).

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Lois asked Jamie for the set list, and amazingly (they are all so nice it’s hard to describe), when they left to go back to the dressing rooms, he had Terry Eldredge come back out and give it to her. Wow!

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At dinner before the show (I’ve mentioned numerous times how good the food is at the Birchmere!), we had a series of nice conversations with a father and son who sat across from us, and a lovely couple to our right. The six of us passed the time very pleasantly before the show started.

Another fabulous evening out, listening to top-notch Bluegrass music!

Sierra Hull in Madison Square Park

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I started blogging nearly three years ago, purely to keep a journal as we were growing older. Memories fade and blur over time, and this seemed like a good place to document the happenings of our lives.

It’s grown a bit since then in a number of ways, but mostly, due to some incredible connections we’ve made with strangers (some of whom we’ve since met in real life, others where the relationship remains virtual). It has also exposed us to unimaginable enjoyment in the discovery of amazing musicians.

One such virtual connection is someone who has commented a number of times on my posts, signing his comments “alandb”. Nearly every time he leaves a comment, I learn something interesting and more importantly, useful.

A few days ago, he commented on my blog about Red Molly and The Nields, and he told me that Sierra Hull (one of our favorites) was playing a free show at Madison Square Park on Saturday (yesterday). We had plans in NJ at 5:30pm (a separate blog on that following this one), but couldn’t resist seeing Sierra again. Thanks alandb!

I covered Sierra extensively in my post about the Richmond City Slickers concert including her amazing band, Highway 111. Everything that I said about them in that post, still stands.

They played for an exquisite one hour yesterday, and then were rushing to make their flight at LaGuardia, since they originally thought they were supposed to be on an hour earlier. I hope they made it!

When we saw her in Richmond it was Lois’ birthday, and the concert was a surprise for her. At the time, Sierra was just 17-years-old. To make yesterday just a little more special, Sierra was still  just 17, but that’s no longer true today! So, we didn’t catch her on her birthday, but pretty darn close.

Sierra was her brilliant self. Mind-boggling mandolin playing, superb guitar picking, wonderful voice, bubbly personality, in total control of the show!

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Clay Hess was outstanding on the guitar (he’s an exceptional flat picker), and he sang lead and great harmony with Sierra as well.

Clay Hess and Jacob Eller

Clay Hess and Jacob Eller

Corey Walker was incredible on the banjo. He also played guitar (one number) and dobro (on two numbers I think). He too sings beautifully. Yesterday, it was only harmony with Sierra and Clay, no leads.

Corey Walker

Corey Walker

Jacob Eller was superb on the upright bass. While he didn’t sing, he spent a reasonable amount of time entertaining the crowd at the mic, telling funny stories and introducing two songs.

Jacob Eller

Jacob Eller

We own a copy of Sierra’s Secret CD (thanks again to our good friend Chris for gifting that to us, and introducing us to Sierra!). At the show, we bought a copy of Sierra’s first CD, Angel  Mountain, which she put out when she was 10-years-old! Yes, 10! While she continues to grow as an artist, what makes that CD very special (we listened to it this morning) is that it’s entirely instrumental (I assume that at 10, she didn’t have the confidence in her voice yet, or it hadn’t developed enough). It’s such a treat to hear her play that much more mandolin!

After the show, even though they were necessarily rushing around, Lois got Sierra to sign the Angel Mountain CD, and I got to snap another picture of them together, to go with the wonderful picture of them that was taken on Lois’ birthday in Richmond.

Sierra Hull and Lois

Sierra Hull and Lois

Lois and Sierra Hull

Lois and Sierra Hull

Kelleigh McKenzie opened the show for Sierra Hull and Highway 111. She’s a singer/songwriter indie folk musician. She plays the guitar and banjo extremely well. She has a wonderful voice, very crisp, hitting all notes very clearly. She writes interesting lyrics about a wide variety of topics.

Kelleigh McKenzie

Kelleigh McKenzie

All of that means that I should have loved her performance. Unfortunately, I didn’t. She’s extremely talented, and I’m sure a large proportion of the crowd totally appreciated her. I appreciated the individual talents, but I never felt enveloped by the whole experience (with one exception, noted below). Something seemed to be missing.

She has a great stage presence. In fact, on at least two songs, her lead-in explanation of the upcoming song was much more interesting than the song. I was really interested to hear both songs, expecting the cool story to unfold further in the song, but both didn’t live up to the intro.

She played one song that negates everything I said above. She wrote it for her husband for their wedding. It’s called Wife is not a Four Letter Word. Very cute, well delivered, including another well-told introduction.

Personally, I wouldn’t seek her out again, but I also wouldn’t mind seeing her again if she was opening for someone I want to see. I’m perplexed by why I didn’t like her more, I know that I should have!

We drove in from the house just for this show. We got a legal parking spot across the street from the park. I expected to stand for the entire show, but they have the bandstand set up beautifully, including plenty of seats. There was an excellent turnout, with many people who raised their hands claiming to be first-timers at this free-concert series in the park. A great audience, who fully appreciated both artists, with a large percentage of people there having seen Sierra before!

Yonder Mountain String Band at Tarrytown Music Hall

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We live near Tarrytown Music Hall and we’ve been to six shows there since we discovered it (we were very late to the party). We are on the mailing list, so we get notifications of upcoming shows. A couple of months ago I noticed that Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) would be playing there (last night). The name evoked Bluegrass, which we love, and listening to their music (available right on their website) convinced me that we would like them a lot.

This won’t be a typical post for me following a concert. So, I need to get the good out first, before I start my rant.

All four members of YMSB are talented. All are professional musicians and they sing reasonably well (nothing special). The guitarist, Adam Aijala, is the one standout musician (excellent flat-picker, though not in the league of some others that I have covered here). I know that fans of YMSB will argue that Jeff Austin is great on the mandolin. He’s good, perhaps very good at times, but he’s actually not even close to special compared to quite a number of current mandolin stars.

Their music is very good, all around, and I’m sure that owning their CDs would be enjoyable from the first listen, and consistently so thereafter.

OK, time for their fans (very rabid ones indeed) to turn away. The rest of this post will be a train wreck from their perspective (understandably), and they should look away.

Here’s the nicest thing I can say about the show last night:

Live, YMSB is a Bluegrass version of a Grateful Dead Jam Band wannabe.

That’s not meant as an insult to the Grateful Dead (who’ve been near the top of my favorites list for 40 years!), nor of the Jam Band experience. Even the wannabe tag isn’t meant to be an insult (OK, it was definitely a shot), because they’re very good, and their fans adore them (in fact, exactly like many Dead Heads love the Dead!).

But, context matters (at least to me), and Tarrytown Music Hall isn’t exactly known for being an indoors Woodstock. You wouldn’t have known that last night.

The one thing that is all too typical of Tarrytown Music Hall (TTM) events (and I’ve made this complaint a number of times) is that they never start on time. The show was called for 8pm. I had no doubt it would not start then. At 7:50, there were perhaps 50 people in the hall (it can seat 840!). At 8:05 there were about 150 people there. At 8:18, when the band wandered on the stage, there were probably 400+, and shortly thereafter, there were over 600, I’m reasonably sure.

The point is that TTM couldn’t start the shows on time if they wanted to, because the majority of the regulars know that it’s stupid to show up on time, since the seats are assigned (no advantage to being early), and you’ll just end up sitting and waiting… It’s really rude to people who might have plans later on, or long drives home, etc. TTM needs to figure out a way to spread the word that shows will start on time, even if the audience is empty!

The vast majority of the audience last night were giant fans of YMSB and knew exactly what to expect. The couple in the row in front of us (to our left) were about to see them for the 18th time!

So, what did they know that we didn’t? First, that 90% of the audience would stand for the entire concert, and sway (not really dance), like people do at Grateful Dead concerts. This wasn’t an outdoor festival. Not only are specific seats assigned, the ones that are closer to the stage cost more. We paid for fifth row dead-center seats, but we might as well have paid for last row balcony seats.

Immediately in front of us were two couples that were in their 70’s or 80’s, and had no idea what they were in for either. They stood for roughly 1/2 of the show (at least the part we stayed for), and were clearly extremely uncomfortable for having to do so, just to get a glimpse of the action on stage.

All of that would be somewhat acceptable, if this was an adoring crowd who was mesmerized by the music. Nope, this was a party (and not the kind I’ve covered for a Kenny Chesney or Keith Urban concert). This was a literal party. In fact, here’s a direct quote from the YMSB website (that I wish I had read more carefully before buying the tickets):

“We love that people come to see us,” Johnston points out. “Everyone appreciates good music. Some people want to go to a recital and some people want to party.”

Too bad if you are in the want to go to a recital category. There’s no way that this could ever be the case for a YMSB concert, so the above quote should have been slightly different.

Still, I said above it would be OK if the crowd were adoring. Instead, the four people immediately behind us talked at the top of their lungs, all night long, about their friends who were dating each other, not about the band. And yet, the men (we think not their dates) were fans, as on occasion, they sang along, so they clearly knew the words to some of the songs. The girls’ voices were grating, and made it very hard to hear the words to many of the songs.

Next, the two leaders of the band, Jeff Austin (on mandolin) and Ben Kaufmann (on bass) have a great rapport with the crowd, and are very comfortable bantering and telling stories. Are any of them good? Who knows.

The second either of them opens their mouth, a few dozen morons start shouting, whistling, and generally whooping it up (in an apparent drunk/drugged stupor), and the voices on stage are instantly drowned out. That’s a shame, as I like banter and connecting with the performers in addition to just enjoying the music.

Even if that didn’t happen, there was another problem preventing the clear understanding of the voices on stage last night. Typically, the sound system and acoustics at TTM are top notch. Last night was beyond awful. I’m not even sure that the band was using the TTM speakers, possibly only using their own amps (even for the voices) on stage.

The biggest problem (by far) was the volume on all of the microphones. The vocals were at 50-66% the volume of the instruments. When they sang, making out the words was difficult, and harmonies might have been there, but you would never know that.

The banjo, guitar and mandolin were clear and at good volume levels. The bass was disgustingly loud (and regular readers here know that I love a good bass, so it’s not that I don’t appreciate the instrument). Aside from shaking the floor on every strum of the bass, it was so loud that it hummed (as in feedback) and overwhelmed the voices and other instruments all too often.

I have no idea whether this was because YMSB’s own sound person was just one of the worst (we’ve experienced a few bad sound engineers) or whether this was the fault of TTM (which normally nails sound!).

The audience didn’t seem to notice, let alone care. Like I noted above, they were there for a party. I was thinking to myself that if the band slipped off the stage, and put on a live CD in the background, few would have noticed.

Could there be an explanation? Perhaps. One of their songs is about smoking marijuana, and while they sang it, a bunch of people near the stage were clearly smoking it. That’s not so unexpected outdoors, or when seeing an Allman Brothers concert at the Beacon Theater, but at TTM, for a somewhat Bluegrass type show? Totally unexpected. No, I’m not a prude when it comes to this kind of stuff, just surprised at the context.

I must be running out of complaints, no? No. I’ll probably lose interest in typing before I’m actually done complaining. 😉

Next up, for the first time (reminder: this was our seventh show at TTM), no one came out to introduce the band. They just wandered on stage, and after talking for three minutes, started playing. No problem, but after the fact, it made us think that TTM wanted to distance themselves from the band. But, if that’s true, why invite them to begin with?

You might think I’m joking about TTM wanting to distance themselves, but I’m not. Ben Kaufmann made a big deal about that very fact. He told a story (that I strained to hear) that they played a theater the night before and would likely not be invited back, and he predicted the same would be true for TTM. I hope he’s right. Actually, I don’t care, as I know better than to go again…

Why did he think they wouldn’t be invited back? First, he said “They had no idea what they were getting themselves into!”. Ha ha, that’s a good one on them (the theater owners/bookers)! But, he was more specific. He said that at the theater, there was a special section called Gold Circle Seating, where he believed rich people with season’s tickets sat (the implication, never said, is that these idiots came because they owned the seats, not because they had any interest in the show).

He made fun of a gentleman who was wearing an ascot, and who left the show in disgust, complaining to management that he had no view from his special seat. Ben thought it was hysterical that he expected a normal show from YMSB. Lest you think I don’t have a sense of humor, or that I actually believe that there was a person wearing an ascot, you should know that I took the story figuratively.

I think it’s wonderful that they are successful, and have such a huge and loyal fan base. What I don’t understand is the joy Ben takes in alienating potential fans. People who buy season’s tickets (or people like us, who specifically bought tickets for this show!), need to be included, drawn in, not made fun of. I’m gonna guess that the rich guy is less likely to download an illegal copy of their music (should he become a fan), but perhaps YMSB eschews money as well.

I’m running out of steam, so I’ll just add one additional rant, aimed both at YMSB and TTM, equally.

Tickets at TTM are expensive in general. The same exact group costs dramatically more at TTM than they do just 30 miles south when they play in NYC. One example: we’re seeing Dave Mason at TTM tonight. We paid $126 for two tickets (including fees). When we saw him at BB King in NYC last year, it cost us $80, and a few months earlier, in NJ, cost us $60 to see Dave.

Well, TTM is a non-profit, and doesn’t have a show every night, so I guess that they charge a premium to keep up this beautiful and historic theater. We aren’t too annoyed to support that. Especially, if it means a bigger cut for the performers. Of course, at 840 seats, it also has a significantly larger capacity than many of the clubs we frequent in NYC, so there’s a double effect of potentially putting a lot more money in the artist’s hands. Good.

Except when the artist shoves it in the face of the patrons, making fun of people who can actually afford to pay for a ticket, and have some expectation of what it means to have a certain seat reserved for them.

Last night, we paid $86 for two tickets. I’ll bet that there are few shows a year where YMSB commands this high a ticket price, especially in a venue this large.

When intermission came (75 minutes into the show), we were thrilled to have the ability (and the excuse) to get up, without having to push and shove through the crowd, and we happily went home. I applaud YMSB for putting on a very long show (many shows are only 75 minutes in total), and clearly, they were going to give at least another hour, but we’d had enough.

Summary: they have talent, and the music is good. The sound was beyond awful, they were smug and obnoxious and the crowd was mostly there to feel good about themselves, rather than enjoy the actual performance.

Happy Birthday Lois

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Lois and I rarely exchange gifts or cards on any occasion, including birthdays. The main exception is that Lois has gone out of her way to make some of my milestone birthdays very special affairs. That included my 30th, 35th and 50th.

This was not a milestone birthday for Lois, but I decided to give her a small surprise nonetheless. Surprising Lois is no easy feat. She’s curious about lots of things, and not shy to ask questions, so some outright lying is required, something I am normally loathe to do. C’est la vie! 😉

We spend a lot of time working in Fredericksburg, VA, and often spend the intervening weekend in Richmond, VA, where we have more good friends than you can shake a stick at (always a fun thing to do). I noticed that there was a Bluegrass Festival (specifically, the City Slickers Bluegrass Festival) on Lois’ actual birthday. I knew that this would be a cool thing to do, with as many of our friends as could make it.

I already covered the event itself in a post yesterday. This post will cover the details leading up to it, and a bit of the rest of the weekend after as well.

Once I decided on this event, I wrote to a bunch of people and invited them to join us. One after another, I got back regrets that people would be out of town. Of course, it turned out that this was Mothers Day Weekend, and our closest friends were coupling that by attending a Law School Graduation for the son of another friend.

For a couple of days, it looked like it might just be Lois and me. Not that it wouldn’t be fun, but it wouldn’t be a party. 😉

Then I got one yes, followed by one maybe. That’s where the count stood for a few weeks. I bought four tickets, and figured at least we were set for a good time, and put it out of my mind.

A week out, I got another two tentative attendees, and they asked me not to purchase tickets in advance, in case they couldn’t make it. Thankfully, they were able to make it. In a wonderful surprise, someone else who was planning on being out of town ended up staying in Richmond, partially to help celebrate Lois’ birthday, so seven of us all enjoyed the show together!

Along the way, there were some twists and turns. Lois reached out to a number of friends independently, knowing that we would have more time to run around than usual, given that we would be house sitting (and dog sitting) for our friends. Behind her back, I was telling people that they should respond however they want (make plans, don’t make plans, etc., but not to reveal the surprise!).

In fact, I asked one of the confirmed people to suggest coming to see Lois at 2pm on Saturday (the gates for the Festival opened at 2:30pm) so that I could be sure Lois would want to be at the house at the correct hour. That worked out perfectly (or so I thought it would).

One of the women that Lois reached out to invited us for dinner on Friday evening to spend some time with them and their now-crawling baby girl. We were delighted and accepted right away. An hour later, she emailed again (to Lois) asking if we could move it to Saturday night. Lois instantly accepted and (thankfully!) informed me after the fact.

I wrote to our friend and said that I didn’t intend to officially cancel, which would make Lois suspicious, but that we would not be able to make dinner on Saturday because of the concert. At this point I was pretty sure that the surprise would be revealed sooner rather than later, purely for logistics reasons, or from being caught in a silly lie.

On Friday, we had lunch with our attorney in Richmond. We bumped into our hostess for Saturday night waiting for the elevator (she works for a consulting firm which is part of the same law firm). Later that afternoon, I emailed her and asked her to write to Lois and move our meal up to lunch. She did.

Lois became suspicious immediately. This was now the second time that the meal had been rescheduled. I did my best to downplay the changes. Lois was now nervous that we wouldn’t get back in time for the 2pm meeting at the house. I assured her we would.

Then Lois wrote to another person who was coming to the concert, and asked to get together for breakfast on Saturday. That person wrote to me and asked what she should do. 😉 I told her that breakfast would be fine, as long as it didn’t interfere with her ability to join us for the concert. She said it wouldn’t, and she showed up at 9:30am at the house on Saturday.

We ended up at our appointed lunch at exactly noon, perfect. We had a wonderful time catching up with our friends, and playing with the baby (a complete delight!). When it got close to 2pm, Lois was getting nervous about the person who was coming to the house. Of course, I had already redirected her to where we were (she’s the sister of the husband of the couple we were visiting). I pretended to email her, and pretended that she said she would come there instead. 🙂

Baby

Baby

Baby and Hadar

Baby and Hadar

We had a fantastic meal (home cooked) outside in the garden behind their house. It’s now three days later, and Lois and I are still talking about it.

Amazing Outdoor Meal

Amazing Outdoor Meal

At 2:30, I excused myself to go back to the house to walk the dog and feed the fish. Half an hour later, Lois showed up, and the other couple was already there. Now she finally knew something was up, but she still thought it was just going to be a get-together at the house, to say Happy Birthday.

I told her not to sit down, that we were heading to the Science Museum. She didn’t believe me. It was the truth, as the Festival was held on the grounds of the Science Museum of VA, in the Garner Pavilion. I joked that there were 6,000 strangers waiting there to sing Happy Birthday to her (and she was a little more than nervous that perhaps I was telling the truth!).

Science Museum of VA

Science Museum of VA

Until we were in the parking lot, she had no idea what we were about to do. Thankfully, she loved the idea, and the actual show, beyond my hopeful expectations. So, I done good! 🙂

After the show, we went to one of the couples’ house for home made birthday cake (chocolate-chocolate, which was beyond awesome!), and ice cream. The next day we joined most of the people who joined us for the show for an incredible Mothers Day celebration at the local country club. It was magical, with three generations of mothers in attendance, all mothers-in-law to each other.

Birthday Cake

Birthday Cake

A fantastic weekend that will not be forgotten soon. Happy Birthday Lois! 🙂

P.S. We have a ton of good looking friends. Here is one tiny bit of proof of that fact!

Good Looking Friends

Good Looking Friends

City Slickers Bluegrass Festival

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This past Saturday, May 9th, 2009, seven of us attended the City Slickers Bluegrass Festival in Richmond, VA. How and why we came to attend will be the subject of my next post, this one will just cover the event itself.

There were three headliners and one opening act. The opening act, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon came on at 3pm. We weren’t able to get there until 3:30pm, so we caught the last 30 minutes of their set. Nothing worth mentioning (sorry), so I won’t waste space on them.

At 4:25pm, the first of the three headliners (and the one I was most curious to see live) came on, Sierra Hull. I was familiar with Sierra Hull because a very good friend of mine (an American who lives in the UK) bought me her CD (download on iTunes) a while ago. I loved it from the first listen (thanks again Chris!).

What I didn’t pay attention to until long after I loved the album was that Sierra was only 17-years-old (still is!) and that she plays the mandolin in addition to singing lead. I feel silly saying plays the mandolin, it sounds so mundane. I really love the mandolin, and I try to pay attention to the difference in style and abilities of the various top players.

Up until now, I would have rated my top three favorite mandolin players as follows:

  1. Chris Thile
  2. Adam Steffey
  3. Ricky Skaggs

Choosing between #2 and #3 above is a little arbitrary, they’re both so good. #1 however is a no-brainer for me. That’s still probably true, but I have to tell you, that after seeing Sierra Hull play for nearly 120 minutes (in two sets) on Saturday, I might slip her in between Chris and Adam. And, she’s only going to get better, I’m sure!

Lest you think I’m dissing Adam Steffey, here’s a quote on Sierra Hull’s site (front page) by Adam Steffey himself!

Sierra Hull is without doubt my favorite mandolin player!

See! 🙂 Sierra also played guitar (beautifully!) on roughly four numbers, but she was born to play the mandolin!

Backing up Sierra is a group called Highway 111.

Clay Hess plays the guitar and sings a ton with Sierra (lead and harmony). Clay is an awesome flatpicker, and he sings really well too.

Corey Walker played the banjo and sang as well. He’s really good. It was hysterical to hear Sierra (all of 17-years-old) saying “Can you believe how good Cory is, and he’s only 19?”. 🙂

Jacob Eller rounds out the band on the upright bass. Wonderful in every sense of the word.

The four of them blend beautifully together. Sierra is also as personable and commanding a stage presence as you could imagine, a seeming enigma for someone so young. The show would have been worth it just for Sierra’s two sets, but wait, there’s more! 🙂

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Lois got her picture taken with Sierra right before Sierra’s second set. According to Lois, she’s as sweet and personable one-on-one as she is in front of the entire crowd!

Lois and Sierra Hull

Lois and Sierra Hull

At 5:45pm Seldom Scene came on the stage. As much as I love Bluegrass music (and trust me, I’m totally in love with the genre), I’m not a real aficionado of enough of the leaders in the category. I know a lot of groups which I love, but there are so many more that I’ve either never heard of, or have heard of but don’t really know their music.

Seldom Scene has been at the top of the Bluegrass world for over 30 years, but they fell into the category of heard of but not known by me. One of my friends (Richmond-based, but unfortunately out of town this past weekend) is a major fan, so I was really looking to finally getting to know them.

Wow! Even though these are no youngsters, they jam as well anyone blessed with youth. Their voices are amazing, individually and when singing harmony together. They are superb musicians, though none of them stood out to me like Sierra (folks, that’s not a complaint or a put-down of Seldom Scene band members). The songs were fantastic, and their 80 minute set was outstanding from the first note until the mandatory encore!

Seldom Scene

Seldom Scene

The second (literally) that the encore was over, the heavens opened up. They had predicted possible thunderstorms throughout the show, so it was nice that it held off until after 7pm, and waited until a natural intermission too. Severe lightning caused them to power down the sound board and stage. Better safe than sorry.

Sierra Hull was scheduled to come back on the stage at 7:30pm. Amazingly, shortly after that time, the rain stopped, and we were blessed with a cool evening. The show was only delayed 10 minutes, as Sierra was back on at 7:40! As I already noted above, she blew us all away again.

The final headliner to take the stage was The Grascals. Lois and I own three of their CDs, so we’re familiar with their music, and love it. I’m going to gush about them in a minute (including covering them individually), but take the time to read their bio to see how many awards they’ve won in their impressive but reasonably short career!

OK, you don’t win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Entertainers of the Year award (in consecutive years no less!) without being something extremely special. They are indeed very special. This was our first time seeing them live, and I was really looking forward to it!

They are all superb musicians, but the focus is really on the fiddle, banjo and mandolin. The bassist is superb, but not really highlighted, and the two guitarists support the sounds wonderfully, but they are never highlighted (even less than the bass!).

Standing left-to-right on the stage:

Danny Roberts on the mandolin. He’s really good. Very fast, very clean, very interesting licks. Highlighted a lot in most of their numbers.

Jeremy Abshire on the fiddle. Holy Cow! This guy is amazing. If I had to make the call, I’d say that The Grascals highlight him slightly more than the rest, but who could blame them. He’s outstanding in every respect. Fast as greased lightning, but always interesting.

Jamie Johnson on vocals and guitar. (No particularly good link to him personally, sorry.) Jamie is the main MC (Master of Ceremonies) for the group. He also sings a slight majority of the leads. He’s very funny, has a good voice, and keeps the action rolling throughout the show.

Terry Smith on vocals and bass. (Also no good direct link.) Terry anchors the group nicely on the bass. On one number, he played slap-style, and was awesome. Terry sings on all of the songs, lead on a few. More on that in a minute.

Terry Eldredge on vocals and guitar. (Again, no good personal links. This isn’t as big as surprise to me, as I mentioned above that neither of the guitarists is a solo star in their own right.) Terry shares the MC duties (he’s quite funny), and sings lead just a tad less than Jamie, otherwise singing on every number.

Kristin Scott Benson on the banjo. Another Holy Cow! Kristin is the current IBMA Banjo Player of the Year! A month after winning that honor, she joined The Grascals. (They need to change the picture on their site to include her!) 😉 Folks, she’s amazing! I think they highlight Jeremy on the fiddle a drop more than they do her, but not by much. On a few numbers, she plays a mind-boggling riff, and Jeremy follows it on the fiddle in his own mind-boggling way, and then Kristin goes again, in a dueling fashion. Incredible!

OK, since I did my three favorite Mandolin players above, I’ll do my three favorite Banjo players here:

  1. Bela Fleck
  2. Ron Stewart
  3. Jim Mills

As with the mandolin, I’m being somewhat arbitrary in ranking #2 and #3 above, as I could listen to both for hours on end. Also like the mandolin, I think Bela is simply the best, no questions asked. Ron Stewart currently plays banjo with the Dan Tyminski Band, and Jim Mills plays with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

Anyway, while I might not alter the above list (as I think I would for Sierra Hull), it would be a close enough call to consider Kristin for the #2 or #3 spot, and I’ll confidently declare her in my top four! 😉

Terry Smith is probably the strongest vocalist of the three as a soloist, but he rarely solos for them. The other two (Jamie and the other Terry) are both good individually, but really nothing special in my opinion. But, when the three of them sing together (which is on nearly every song), they produce magic. The three of them are so tight, and their voices blend beautifully.

The Grascals are fantastic, and I look forward to seeing them live again.

Sorry about the quality of this next photo. It was already dark, and the lighting wasn’t good enough for our compact camera:

The Grascals

The Grascals

This was our first festival, so we were nervous whether we’d be able to sit outdoors, on folding chairs, for seven hours. It was a piece of cake, with fabulous music, good food (BBQ) and a well-run show.

Here we are, enjoying ourselves completely!

Lois and Hadar

Lois and Hadar

Thank you Rotary Club of Richmond, VA for putting on a helluva show. We’re already planning on returning next year!

Here’s a shot from behind the stage, to give you a sense of the beautiful and relaxed atmosphere of this event:

Behind the Stage

Behind the Stage

P.S. If you’ve made it this far, Bravo! I know I rambled on about how awesome Sierra Hull is, and perhaps you don’t want to hear any more about her. But, if you have more patience, here is a long, but fantastic article profiling her five years ago, when she was all of 12-years-old! Read it all the way to the end, it’s priceless!