Pickin' in the Park 6/27/2004

A good day for our first Pickin’ in the Park of the year, cool and fairly dry. Chris and I arrive at the park about 1:15pm and sat down and ate the sandwiches we had brought while the featured performer, Ron Short, was setting up on stage and doing a sound check. After we were done we went and changed out of our church clothes, then unpacked our own instruments and put them on stage.

Nina Ketron, the organizer, arrived shortly before the 2pm start time. We let her know we were there, and she said she might want to have us start, then bring Ron Short afterwards. We didn’t hear her final decision until the end of her welcoming statement, when she suddenly introduced us from the audience. So we scrambled up on stage.

We didn’t waste much time; the microphones were set just fine for Chris, and I made do. The crowd was as big as we’ve seen there, and very responsive. The first two songs, “I’ve Endured” and “Going to the West”, went over pretty well. I could also see Ron Short standing in the wings, but I couldn’t tell if he was listening or just waiting his turn. At the end of the second song, Nina signalled for us to do one last song, which surprised us a bit, but we jumped ahead to “Going Down to Tampa”, which felt great and went over really well. There’s always a silver lining—the resulting three-song set was even stronger than the five-song set we had planned, and we get points for being ready to play at a moment’s notice … and ready to wrap up at a moment’s notice.

Ron Short is a very talented guy—songwriter, actor, multi-instrumentalist, storyteller—and a performer who could teach us a lot about stage presence. It’s not the sort of stuff we usually listen to, but we couldn’t help but be drawn in. He played for about 45 minutes, and the second hour was devoted to folks who had shown up for their own turn to play; the music isn’t always great, but it’s a relaxed and down-home time, always fascinating and enjoyable to watch.

The program is supposed to end with an all-performer jam onstage, but during the second hour I had watched most of the performers wander off, so I figured it would end with a perfunctory couple of songs. As the last performer was wrapping up, Ron Short came up to us and told us that he had enjoyed our set, and we chatted a bit. He gave us the best compliment we’ve gotten in quite awhile: “I can tell that you boys have been working at this.”

Then it was time for the jam session, which Ron took charge of, and it was surprisingly good, lasting half an hour and keeping a good portion of the audience around. The songs were nearly all old-time tunes, and Chris enjoyed getting to trade a number of breaks with Ron on fiddle.

As we were packing up, Ron came over and asked us if we had some sort of card. We don’t, but I wrote down my name and phone number on the back of our setlist. He said that he had a friend who was organizing a festival in eastern Kentucky, and that he thought we would do well for him as an act. Wow. I don’t know if anything will come of it, but he was serious, and it’s quite satisfying just to know that he liked us enough to recommend us to his friend.

And, yes, I’ll be getting some cards made pronto.

I love it when a set comes together

Since the last report, we’ve made significant changes to the five-song set we’ll be doing at Natural Tunnel State Park on Sunday. We thought it would be more interesting to start the season with an all-banjo set, so the songs are now as follows:

I’ve Endured (D)
Going to the West (A)
John Hardy (G)
Better Farther On (D)
Going Down to Tampa (G)

“I’ve Endured” and “John Hardy” are songs we’ve done for quite awhile, always on the banjo. “Better Farther On” is the a cappella gospel song from the Carter Family that we first tried at the Mendota Community Center. “Going to the West” is new, a simple and gorgeous song we learned at the Mars Hill old-time week. And “Going Down to Tampa” is also new, a song we learned from the Reeltime Travelers.

I’m particularly pleased with how “Going Down to Tampa” is turning out. The Travelers’ version is funky, but subtly so, and I think we’ve managed to capture some of that spirit in our performance. We’re able to establish a solid groove at a moderate tempo, and the lyrics are pretty upbeat, so I think it’ll make a great final song for the set.

Faster

Yesterday I received a mailer from Charter Communications, telling me that my promotional Internet package was about to expire, and that I had to call them to switch to either one or the other of two standard packages. I didn’t recall ever having a ‘promotional package’ (for three years?), but I called. As a result, my bandwith went from 1.5mb to 3mb, and my monthly charge went down $10. Nice.

I ran a bandwidth test yesterday, before the change took effect; it told me I had about .9mb bandwidth. Today the test tells me I have about 2.4mb bandwidth. I don’t know if the change will make much difference—the speed bottleneck usually seems to be on the other side of my internet connection.

Summer performances

June is a quieter month for the Boone Brothers, with just a few performances scheduled for the middle of the month. The pace picks up in July.

Yesterday was our one and only overnight trip. We drove to Sparta, Tennessee, about four hours along the way to Nashville from here. Sparta sponsors a weekly Friday evening bluegrass show at a small downtown amphitheater, with two bands performing. The show lasted two hours, with each band doing two thirty-minute sets.

The crowd was a decent size, although many of the folks were there just to see the other band–there was significant shrinkage after their second set and before ours. The venue was surprisingly nice, a good-sized stage and stepped seating for a few hundred people. It was hot, and not much air was moving, so we did a lot of sweating, and we envied the folks in the audience who were able to fan themselves. The sound system was pretty bad from the band’s vantage point, but I’m told it sounded OK from the audience.

The other band was very good, locals who have played together for nine years now. Their banjo player was a young boy who was amazing for only having picked up the instrument two years ago. They did solid, competent versions of bluegrass standards from the fifties and sixties. It was a reminder that live music has its own special joys, and that it doesn’t take full-time professional musicians to provide an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.

One bad thing about the Sparta date was that it was in the next time zone, and so we didn’t finish until 10pm EST. Since the next date was at 11:30am in Bybee, about two-thirds of the way back home, it made more sense to stay at a hotel than to drive home and back.

We made it to the hotel at midnight, got up again at 8am, ate breakfast and drove on, arriving around 10:30am. This was the first year for a very small festival in a very small town, done as a favor to a friend who had helped the brothers get started, but we were surprised to see that quite a few people had showed up. Shortly after we arrived some really ugly clouds moved in and it started to rain; people ran for their cars, but most of them just waited until the rain moved on a few minutes later.

The rain shower was a mixed blessing; it lowered the temperature about fifteen degrees, but it also raised the humidity about as high as possible. We played on a small stage with a tarp covering the top and sides, which insured that we would be dry but also that no air would be moving in the vicinity. After a forty-five minute set we were all dripping with sweat.

The sound wasn’t very good in Bybee, either, and it always surprises me how difficult to play it is when you can’t hear yourself clearly. I could barely hear myself at all, and was plucking the strings way too hard as a result; I don’t know if my fingers would have lasted 45 minutes under that strain.

Fortunately, the sound man came over after a couple of songs, took the microphone out of its stand, wrapped it in a cloth, and wedged it in the tailpiece of my bass. Suddenly I was really loud, and was able to back off quite a bit on the plucking. I could even hear the pitch of my notes pretty clearly, which allowed me to relax about my playing. So I probably ought to stop using stage mikes and figure out how to mount a microphone on the bass (this is what Brandon Story does, and he’s very happy with the results).

Learning new songs

The New Dominion String Band will be playing at the Natural Tunnel open mic program on Sunday, June 27, about ten days from now, and we need to come up with a new five-song set. We could do it without adding anything to our repertoire, because we’ve learned dozens since our last appearance in August. But it’s an opportunity to stretch, so we’ve decided to use a couple of songs from the new Open Road album, In the Life.

Open Road has become one of our favorite bands. They are young, but they are traditionalists, as you can tell from their stage outfits. The lead singer, Brandon Lee Folk, has a very distinctive voice; he has also written some excellent songs, and one of them on the new album (“I’m Not Perfect”) is good enough to be a standard.

So we’re working on “I’m Not Perfect”, along with their fairly different arrangement of a Louvin Brothers song called “What a Change One Day Can Make”. Both are challenging; when Open Road does them they sound dead simple, but when we try to do them we run into one subtle difficulty after another in phrasing, timing, etc. At this point it’s still scary—will we be able to master them in time, or should we punt and do something we know cold? It’s a good motivation to practice.

The rest of the set will be: “Can’t You Hear Me Calling”, a fast Bill Monroe number we do pretty well; “Seven Sundays in a Row”, a slower semi-gospel number by Blue Highway; and “Better Farther On”, a Carter Family gospel number that we do a capella. One minor problem is that four of the five songs are in G, and one of the rules we try to follow is never to do more than two consecutive songs in the same key. Tonight we tested each one of the songs in A, but none of them sounded good there. The other possibility is to move them down to F, but my bass playing doesn’t yet sound very good in that key.

State Street Mural

About fifteen years ago Tim White, a local bluegrass musician, painted a huge mural on the side of a building on State Street that borders a parking lot. Sometime later a local civic group built a small stage underneath the mural, and folks began using the site to present free bluegrass music concerts on Tuesday nights. Now there is some sort of music played there every night–gospel, country, bluegrass–and the shows are well attended.

I’d been to a gospel show and a country show, but never to a Tuesday night bluegrass show because I’m usually recording a Bible study that night. Because there was no study last night and because Chris wanted to go, we went downtown to check it out.

The good points: the weather was pleasant, the venue was comfortable (if you brought a folding chair), there were maybe a hundred folks in the audience, the first of the two groups was not bad, and the second act was very good. And with one exception, the bad points aren’t worth mentioning.

The one bad point worth mentioning is that, like many Bristol events, it is handled in a lazy and disorganized manner. There are plenty of online mentions of the event, but none of them tell the start time. When we showed up, we decided that showtime was 7pm, but then nothing happened until 7:20pm. Well, actually something was happening—some folks were frantically practicing in an adjacent parking lot, and finally they took the stage at 7:20.

That was the group that was merely OK. From what we could figure, they are the organizers—at least they were the ones who were setting up and testing the sound system when we arrived. We don’t know, though, because they did absolutely no M.C. work, not even to announce the names of the songs they played.

Shortly after 8pm they looked offstage, then quickly picked up their instruments and left. About five minutes later another group of much younger folks took the stage and began to play. They were all very good, and we decided that at least some of them must be students in the ETSU bluegrass program in Johnson City. After a couple of songs, one of the two fiddlers looked at us and waved at Chris—and Chris said, “Hey, that’s Mr. Goforth”—who was his guitar teacher at old-time week in Mars Hill. But we never found out who anyone else was, because once again there was no M.C. work at all.

It seems that with a bit more effort at organization and promotion, they could triple the size of their audience. But as it is, we enjoyed about half the music, have no idea who we saw, have no idea who will be playing next week (or when), and consequently we aren’t too motivated to make another trip downtown.