Ron Stewart

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!

Dan Tyminski Band at The Egg

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On March 1st, we saw the Dan Tyminski Band (DTB) at the Birchmere Theater. I wrote a long post about that which you can read here if you wish.

After we saw them (and bought lots of their music), we continued to be energized by their amazing performance. I noticed that they were going to be in Albany, NY, at The Egg, on April 20th.

That’s roughly 2.5 hours north of our house, not exactly a place we frequent regularly. On the other hand, it seems that no matter where we are, Dan and the boys seem to be roughly two hours north of us. 😉 When they played at the Birchmere, we spent the previous night in Richmond, VA, roughly two hours south of there. So, it seemed fitting to grab tickets and plan our road trip.

We left the house at 4pm and arrived in the underground parking lot at The Egg at around 6:25pm. I ate my dinner in the car, underground. Exactly the way I like it. 😉

We got to the elevator in the lobby and both immediately noticed that Dan Tyminski himself was waiting to go up in the same elevator as we were! Lois excitedly pulled out her CD (the one we bought at the Birchmere and had signed by Dan) and asked him to sign it. He immediately spotted his own signature, and told her it was signed. She told him where it was signed originally, and that she wanted a memento from The Egg as well. He was kind enough to oblige and ended up signing it again in the elevator on the way up.

Dan Tyminski

He’s extremely tall (I had no idea). Skipping ahead for a minute, Barry Bales is significantly taller, and from our vantage, even Adam Steffey appeared to be a drop taller than Dan, making them a bunch of giants. 😉

When we got off the elevator we were in another lobby waiting for the theater doors to open. They opened at roughly 6:50pm for a 7pm show. The Egg has two theaters in it. We were in the Lewis A. Sawyer theater, which seats 450 people and is arranged in an amphitheater style. There is a nice height differential between the rows so that essentially, even the worst seat in the house, isn’t all that bad. We were in the 10th row (second from last), but not too far left of center. We were a tad nervous in advance, but they were excellent seats.

The band came on the stage a 7:07pm. It appeared that they were only using microphones for their instruments (unless they all had wireless jacks to their amps). Definitely no electronic tuners. I mention this mostly because within 15 seconds of walking on stage, they were already playing a fast upbeat number. Tight and wonderful, as expected.

The crowd was clearly in love with Dan and the band. Dan joked that people in the south aren’t aware of all of the Bluegrass lovers in the north. Clearly, there are many! 🙂

The band’s bios can be read here.

Appearing left-to-right (same order as at the Birchmere) were Ron Stewart, Adam Steffey, Barry Bales, Dan Tyminski and Justin Moses.

Ron StewartAdam SteffeyBarry BalesJustin Moses

They were all brilliant last night. Ron Stewart played mostly banjo, but also was awesome on the two numbers where he played fiddle. Adam played the mandolin exclusively, and was mind-boggling. The crowd begged Dan to turn Adam loose, and he did, and Adam blew us all away! Barry was amazing on the bass (as he always is), and sang harmonies with Dan and Justin.

Dan was great all night. My one semi-complaint at the Birchmere was that Dan didn’t take enough guitar leads (he’s superb!). I don’t know if he read my blog for that show, but last night he took considerably more leads (thanks Dan!), but they were still all short. He’s very generous with the rest of the guys, and I think he feels guilty that his name is on the door and that he’s singing non-stop.

Finally, Justin Moses. This guy is simply killer! He played fiddle most of the night. Dobro on one song, and banjo on another (those are the two songs that Ron played the fiddle on). He also is the primary harmonizer with Dan (even on songs that Barry doesn’t sing), and he’s terrific on every instrument and singing as well.

I really like his solo CD which we bought at Birchmere.

When they wrapped it up they received one of the fastest (and complete) standing ovations I have ever seen. It was almost like there was a spring in each of our chairs, propelling us out to show our appreciation for their talent. They left the stage briefly and came back for a one-song encore. In total, 93 minutes on stage. A little on the short side, but thoroughly satisfying in every way.

One of the fascinating things was the entirely different feel of a theater like environment vs a dinner-theater venue. We like the dinner theater ones (Joe’s Pub, BB King, Blue Note, Birchmere, Highline Ballroom, etc.), but, having fixed seats, that all face the stage has it’s plusses as well. Last night, with the steep height differential between the rows, we also had another change in perception. We were looking down on the band (by quite a bit), whereas at Birchmere, we were looking up at them from a remote table.

The perspective was interesting.

We were extremely glad we made the drive. We were home at 11pm, so not all that bad!

We’ve already pre-ordered the new CD (Wheels) expected to be shipped in late June. First 500 people get a signed copy, so we’re hoping we ordered early enough.

At the Birchmere, Dan broke a string during one number. I am reasonably sure he replaced the string off stage. Last night, Dan broke a string in the middle of a number. He waited until Ron started a banjo solo, and while Ron played, followed by Adam taking a solo, Dan actually replaced the string on stage, while singing, and ended up playing the guitar during the end of the song. Bravo! 🙂

One final thing. These guys clearly love playing together, and being together. They banter hysterically on the stage, with Adam handling more of the duties than Dan, but they all partake (except for Justin, who is the target of some of the banter). Here is a shot that captures some of that mood. 🙂

Dan Tyminski and Adam Steffey Fooling Around

Almost forgot, but at least I didn’t, to remind the rest of you to get your entries in to the Girlyman Live CD Contest. Only 9 days left to win a signed copy of Girlyman’s new Live CD. Enter now!!!

Dan Tyminski Band at the Birchmere Theater

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I’ve known about the Birchmere Theater for at least six months now, perhaps a little more. For the past seven years that we’ve been coming down regularly to Fredericksburg, VA, we weren’t paying attention to the live music scene here, spending all of our music time in NY. That all changed when we saw The Wailin’ Jennys at Gravity Lounge in Charlotesville, VA on November 17th, 2007.

Ever since that event, I have at least paid a little attention to what’s going on in VA when we’re down here. Over time, I noticed that lots of artists that we truly love play the Birchmere. In reading about it, it sounded like a great place to see a show, and many famous artists claim their start at the Birchmere.

We nearly went there a few months ago, I think to see Ricky Skaggs (one of our favorites). One of our hesitations was that it was a general admission type of place. That can always be a risk. Many of our favorite places in NYC are general admission as well. While it can be annoying (and at times even painful), at least we know the drill at those places, and we play whatever game we need to in order to get good seats (most of the time). In the end, we decided not to risk it for Ricky, with other factors tipping the scale as well.

A while ago, I noticed that the Dan Tyminski Band was scheduled at the Birchmere on March 1, 2008 (last night). We love Dan Tyminski. He’s the primary guitar player in Union Station of Alison Krauss and Union Station Featuring Jerry Douglas fame. He’s also the voice of George Clooney (well, the singing voice) 😉 in the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

We saw Alison Krauss and Union Station at the Beacon Theater. Dan Tyminski was awesome that night, as were all of the members of Union Station. That included the bass player, Barry Bales, who is now the bass player for the Dan Tyminski Band as well. Not only is he an incredible bass player, he sings harmony on many numbers and his voice is fabulous!

We decided to take the plunge and get tickets. The night before we saw the Jennys at Gravity Lounge, we had dinner with two of the single employees at Zope Corporation. We asked them if they wanted to join us for the Jennys, but both had plans. They both indicated interest in being invited to a future event.

So, when we decided to see the Dan Tyminski Band, Lois send out a blind invitation to a number of the single people in the company that had expressed an interest in live music in the past. Two of them were available and interested, so we bought four tickets.

Because I didn’t know anything about the Birchmere, I made some assumptions, which (of course) turned out to be wrong. I gathered a list of 10 restaurants that were all very close to the theater, and sent links to three of them to the two guys. They both picked Lilians (which was likely my first choice as well). Here is how the one review (linked above) begins:

This place is rad. Imagine a squad of fine latin women dressed in short black skirts and revealing tops serving drinks and awesome Salvadoran and Mexican cuisine.

When I mentioned this to another friend of mine, he said “Sounds like a Spanish Hooters!” Indeed, I wonder why two single guys, roughly half my age, would have any interest in eating at Lilian’s? 😉

Yesterday morning, I did something that I should have done before I asked them where they wanted to eat. I went to the Birchmere website, and read their FAQ. I immediately found out that this place is like most of the general admission places in NYC, meaning they serve dinner at the place. That’s one of the few positives about general admission. You have to show up very early, but at least you can relax, eat, drink and enjoy yourself without then rushing to make it to the show.

Unfortunately, we never got to experience the Spanish Hooters directly, but perhaps, some day. I love Mexican food, enjoyed the one Salvadoran meal I’ve ever had, and now feel the overwhelming need to report back to my loyal readers whether the rest of the review is accurate as well. 😉

So, we picked up the two guys and headed north, early. My plan was to get there by 5pm when the ticket doors open, then perhaps wander around the neighborhood a bit, returning at 6pm when the theater doors open. The best laid plans…

I have a GPS (I’ve written about it before, when mentioning that it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given). I set the address and off we went. When I was coming up on the exit, I was telling a story. I heard the GPS telling me that I needed to make a left, but she’s often a little late with the voice prompts, and I was certainly late in following the directions. I missed the exit. No biggie, because the GPS always tells you what to do.

The only problem was that we ended up crossing the Potomac River into Washington, D.C, before she guided us back (yes, since the voice in the GPS is female, Lois and I believe that the GPS itself is a woman) so the detour was much longer than expected. We didn’t get to the theater until roughly 5:15pm. We received ticket number I11, and had no idea whether that was good or bad.

Different than all of the other general admission places that we’ve been to in NYC, there is a very large indoor space at the Birchmere, where you can comfortably wait until the 6pm doors open. There is a bar, but no pressure to buy any kind of drink. Lots of seats (tables and benches). What an incredibly nicer way to treat your early arrivers than in NYC, where we stand like idiots in a line on the sidewalks outside of our favorite clubs…

We relaxed and chatted. The 45 minutes passed quickly. At 5:57pm, they announced how the numbers (our I11) worked. They called out every single number, in order, so there was no reason to rush the door. Wow, exactly as the FAQ explained it, and on time like clockwork. Regular readers will know that my appreciation for this type of behavior is over the moon.

The Birchmere understands the two most critical rules of customer service:

  1. Communicate clearly with your customers and prospects (set expectations!)
  2. Deliver the exact experience that you communicated

Could it be any simpler than that? No, but it’s the rarest of companies that delivers even #1 (the easy one!), and you can count on one hand the number of companies that then deliver #2…

They started last night with H49. That meant that we would have a bit of a wait to be called, but it shouldn’t be too brutal. That was correct. H49-H99, then I00-I11. Roughly 15 minutes, I think. But, we were indoors, seated, and knew exactly when we would be called. More than acceptable.

When we got into the theater, we immediately liked what we saw. The layout was similar (with some very significant differences) to BB King in NYC. Lots of tables, most seating 12 people (some smaller tables as well). Nothing was left near the stage, but there was an empty table for 12 2/3’s of the way back on the left side of the stage, with what appeared to be a fantastic view of the stage. We grabbed the first two seats on either side of the table and settled in.

We ordered drinks and food (mostly comfort food, burgers, BBQ, chili, salads, etc.). Food was wonderful (I had the pulled pork BBQ sandwich with homemade chips and spicy coleslaw). Everyone liked their meal. Service was excellent.

I am pretty sure that the concert was sold out, but there was a seat or two empty, likely from people who ended up simply not showing up after buying their tickets. I tried to guess the number of people, and my guess was 600 tops, but definitely between 500-600. BB King seats 400, and this place seemed to seat more (not that it was larger, but BB King has the bar inside, where the space at the Birchmere was filled with tables).

The show started at exactly 7:30pm, as advertised. The band came out to wild applause, and began playing fairly quickly. They were instantly awesome. Five people on stage. I’ve covered two of them already (Dan and Barry Bales). From left-to-right, here were the remaining three players: Ron Stewart, Adam Steffey and Justin Moses.

Ron Stewart primarily played the banjo (amazingly), but also played a mean fiddle on a couple of tunes. Ron reminded me of poker superstar Daniel Negreanu, and I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of a poker-playing banjo player. Ron talked a bit, but never sang a single note. Ron is one of the best banjo players I have ever seen/heard. Bela Fleck is perhaps considered the best, and we’ve seen him, and perhaps he’s better, but Ron is close. We’ve also seen Ricky Skagg’s banjo player, and he won banjo player of the year six times.

Adam Steffey played the mandolin, brilliantly. He was also incredibly funny, reminding both Lois and me of Bill Engvall. He only sang on one song (lead!). He was great, with a very deep voice, but perfectly pitched. It was surprising to me (after hearing him) that he didn’t participate more in the vocals. Adam is one of the greatest mandolin players I’ve ever heard/seen. He is so clean it’s amazing. He’s fast too.

Unlike the Ron Stewart vs Bela Fleck comparison above though, I think that Chris Thile is even more incredible than Adam. That’s not to take anything away from Adam. It’s like comparing Tiger Woods to Phil Mickelson. Phil’s no slouch, and neither is Adam. 🙂

Justin Moses played the fiddle (mostly), but also played the banjo and the dobro. He was masterful on all three, but in particular, was amazing on the fiddle. He sang harmony all night with Dan and Barry, and hit a lot of high notes perfectly.

Steffey, Bales and TyminskiRon Stewart and Justin Moses

The five of them are all amazing talents individually, who blend together to form a perfect bluegrass band. I should mention that Dan sang his heart out all night. He is also an extraordinary guitarist, but last night, he gave 99% of the solos to the rest of the band, and only played lead guitar in two or three numbers, and those were short licks. He anchored the music with great rhythm guitar all night, along with Barry’s amazing bass playing.

As amazing as Union Station are (and they are truly amazing), many of Alison Krauss’ songs are very slow, and sometimes quiet. Talented musicians can shine on those numbers as well, but more up-tempo numbers give them more opportunity to show their wares.

Last night, there wasn’t a slow song in the bunch. Every single song had a driving beat (with no drum in sight!), with energy that had every person tapping their feet or swaying their heads, that had them sweating their little hearts out on stage. It was simply fabulous.

The crowd erupted into a standing ovation at the end of the show, and they played one song for an encore without leaving the stage in between.

I went up to one of the staff after the show and asked what the seating capacity was. 500, so I was correct on my estimation of the range. 🙂

After the show, Lois bought two DVDs (one by Ron Stewart and the other by Adam Steffey), and three CDs. None of these merch items are cheap, but it’s one of the most direct ways to support the artists, so we try to do it! Lois then stood in line (she was roughly 15th in a line that ended up getting very long!) and got all five of our goodies signed by the respective artist. Of course, since she’s so unselfish, she had each of them sign it To Hadar. Awwwwww, she’s so sweet. 🙂

Signature Party at Birchmere Theater

We had a fantastic time. We would go see the Dan Tyminski band or any of the individual members again in a heartbeat. We will definitely go again to the Birchmere. It won’t be hard to find a reason to go there, since they have top act after top act. For example, one week ago, David Bromberg and the Angel Band played there. Al Jarreau was there on Feb 12th (two days before we saw him in NYC). Acoustic Alchemy was there in early February (one of my all-time favorite groups) but we were in NY and couldn’t make that show.