Notes From The Road: This is my “Pete’s-eye view” feature on this site, with reports on interesting people and events I encounter in my travels.
This past March, for the second year in a row, Joan and I spent early March in beautiful California. Both times, events centered around a rough-hewn gem of a bluegrass festival in Brookdale, up in the winding hills outside of Santa Cruz. Festival headquarters is the old-timey/stately/funky Brookdale Lodge, an excellent fit with the music presented. It’s about 100 years old and has been through many adventures, including an earthquake years ago which caused a creek to re-route itself through the main dining room — which was then re-configured around the creek! Definitely a one-of-a-kind place.
Eric and “Banjo Barb” Burman are the coordinators, and their love for the music and the people really shows. Both work in medical professions, but they have some interesting sidelines, including putting on three festivals each year in Brookdale — and in Eric’s case, paleontology. I learned that one evening over dinner when he pulled out of his pocket and put in my hand a 5 million year-old great white shark’s tooth! It was really smooth and a bit bigger than a pocket watch. He had found it on a nearby beach a few years back.
The performing area at the Brookdale Lodge is heated solely by a large fireplace, which the customers tend and add wood to. Next door, the warmup room features a large window looking into the underwater part of the swimming pool on the upper floor, with many kids’ kicking feet on view. Just outside is a large and beautiful old log cabin, recently restored and re-finished. Nooks and crannies all over are occupied by folks jamming and visiting. A nice restaurant just next door offers good, affordable standard fare and some fine East Indian dishes added for dinner.
It’s good I like this place, because we spent most of a week there! We were part of three events at the lodge: a bluegrass band workshop, a bluegrass jam camp, and the festival.
The festival featured mainly local California bands. My two favorites were old-time groups: Faux Renwah, featuring my friends Cactus Bob and Prairie Flower. These folks are not only talented, but offbeat in their own special way, something you might expect from veteran California hippie musicians. I also really liked a (slightly) more conventional old-time three-piece band with fine instrumentation, singing, and material. They’re called the Acme String Ensemble, and they put on a fine show.
Before the festival, Joan and I visited our buddy “Cuzin Al” Knoth at the studios of the ledgendary KPIG radio in nearby Watsonville. Cuzin Al has been doing bluegrass radio on KFAT and KPIG continuously since about 1970, and still has a rampaging enthusiasm for bluegrass, new and old. He gave us a chance to pick out some favorite cuts, and kept us well-entertained with his bubbly/sardonic slant on things. We love our time with Cuzin Al, one of the true bluegrass radio heroes.
Bluegrass Jam Camp
Naturally, Al gave us a chance to plug the first of our new series of Bluegrass Jam Camps. This was a 2-day event at the Lodge, leading up to the festival. We had a great crew of people, mostly local, with one guy driving from Los Angeles, about 400 miles south. A lot of enthusiastic pickers, but as is usual at our jam camps, only a few who could take solos — at the start of camp, anyway. By the end, most had done some successful soloing .The jamming groups we created went at it with gusto, and one, consisting entirely of local women, has kept jamming regularly since the camp. These events are happy and refreshing times for all concerned, including Dr. and Nurse Banjo to be sure. We hope to do more of these, at Brookdale and elsewhere.
The Professional Band Workshop
This pioneering weekend event was put together by Mike Hall, a long time activist in the Northern California Bluegrass Society. It was attended by five bands, each with an hour time slot to be individually coached, plus classroom lectures, demonstrations, and question/answer sessions. I was the instructor for two very full days.
The bands were an interesting cross-section: One with an average age under 25 (some hot pickers there), and another with mostly retirees, including two husband-wife pairs. Very different approaches and target audiences, with a lot of well-placed talent in each. One with no fiddle, the other with two. (All bluegrass definitely does *not* sound the same!)
All five bands are talented and experienced enough to do very good music and presentation. As with all bands, they also had some aspects to improve. My job was to help each band recognize both its strong points and its needs, and to make realistic suggestions to help, any way I could. That might includes anything from performance factors to stage setup and mic technique, to emcee work and better understanding of the performer/audience relationship. It’s a long list.
Some of the discussion topics included band harmony — both the blending of voices and the all-important blending of personalities and decision-making (semi-humorously called “band marriage counseling”). Talking about CD album art and other presentational topics led to some lively discussions. I enjoyed working with each band individually. I’m glad to say that one, The Donner Mt. Boys, left for a gig after their coaching session late the first afternoon, and the next morning reported it had been their best gig ever! Needless to say, those moments inspire everyone, especially the teacher.
I took part in a different style of band workshop in Denver in February. As a single-day event with many attendees, the schedule tackled a wide variety of useful topics, with guest presenters including performers (myself and Gene Libbea), recording and live sound engineers, a lawyer, a CD designer, and promotion people. Dave Patton did a superb job of creating and presenting that offering for the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society. All signs point to its being repeated next year, a very good thing.
Of all the teaching I do, helping bands is probably the challenge that charges me up the most. Having spent many years as an inexperienced performer, I have a strong empathy with bands trying to “get their act together” and be noticed in the music world. It’s not an easy goal, and takes a lot of commitment. When I can help these folks, who’ve already worked so hard to get where they are, I feel it’s a contribution to both them and to the world of bluegrass.
I intend to do more of this type of workshop, both in California and elsewhere. Contact me if interested.
All in all, a very enjoyable, satisfying trip. Hope to see you in Brookdale next time!