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.
To celebrate our son Will’s high school graduation, our family traveled to five countries, with Pete & Joan making our European debut at festivals in Ireland and England.
We flew from Denver to Frankfurt in 9 hours, and then spent the next 9 hours going real slow on the famous high-speed Autobahn. It was supposed to be 3-4 hours to Munich, but lucky us, our Wednesday night arrival was also the beginning a 4-day holiday. Oh well, a few days later we did get to experience the thrill of being left in the dust even while going 80mph.
After sightseeing in Munich (featuring the BMW and Audi museums, high on Will’s list), we headed to the little mountain town of Gaming, Austria, for the wedding of our niece Katie, to a fine Slovak fellow named Juraj. The wedding featured some wonderful singing, and the party afterwards included some mighty festive Slovak and American dancing. The band could hardly speak any English, but did a lot of American favorites. I joined in with them on Take Me Home Country Roads, and various Slovak tunes that used the same chords as a lot of bluegrass! These folks were not slackers, either. They played for about six hours!
Next was some brief sightseeing in Vienna and a lovely bike ride along the Danube (there they call it the Donau — what gives??). An all-day train ride got us to Paris, we changed our marks to francs, and took up residence in a tiny-roomed hotel a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower. We could see the beautiful structure all lit up at midnight from our window, while the street below buzzed with cafe society in full swing. By day, Will and I climbed the tower as far as allowed, about 40 stories, and then took the scary elevator to the top. Breathtaking! Stunning!
Joan and I needed to do some practicing for our upcoming festival gigs, and with restrictions on music in the hotel, we headed for a nearby park and sat on a bench making American bluegrass music for the oblivious/bewildered/appreciative passers-by. Now we can say we played in Paris.
The sights and smells of Paris in mid-June with the city in full bloom are a delight. Strolling on the Seine, eating croissants in cafes, taking in the scene around the Eiffel Tower, exploring Notre Dame and all the interesting street life — it’s hard to beat Paris. We came home with several Tower replicas, including an over-a-foot-tall one with an honored place in our living room, right near the Empire State Building and the Ryman Auditorium.
Next stop was Ireland, Joan’s first visit to her ancestral homeland. And my first experience driving on the right side of the car, on the left side of the road, with a gearshift on the left! Driving out of the Dublin airport provided me several near-death experiences (in my mind anyway), and my understanding wife and son helped soothe me through the stress of the many roundabouts where everyone goes left/clockwise and enters from the left. Biggest thrill of all was rounding a curve on a really narrow road and seeing a truck heading full steam down the right side of the road ahead. I had to really believe that all was well and remember: Keep to the left, keep to the left! It’s not that hard, really, just different.
Our headquarters in Ireland was the little town of Athy, home of the small but mighty Athy Bluegrass Festival. The event is held in a tent in the backyard of a pub, and we got to hear some really fine music, perform, jam, and of course, drink Guiness. Our host was Tony O’Brien, who with his son Clem, are a great sounding two-guitar bluegrass duet. Both are fine singers, and Clem is also an outstanding lead guitar player. Folks in the states got to hear him when he toured with Special Consensus a few years back. He joined us on one of our sets, and really impressed us with his high bluegrassy tenor and his picking.
Other musical highlights included Four Wheel Drive, based in Holland, and including members from Germany, a very fine bluegrass group whose banjo player is the current exponent of his family’s many generations of organ makers. Also Niall Toner, a long-respected performer and radio personality who did an engaging set of his own songs; the New Deal String Band, an American-style old-time band whose fiddler is from the states; and warm and informative emcee work by Dublin’s Richard Hawkins.
The Irish are famous for their singing, and sure enough, in our sessions in the pub, there were more good voices than you would normally hear. A modest and humble community, with a lot of spirit. We enjoyed our time in Athy.
Before leaving Ireland, we had a day in Dublin, including a visit to the Guiness plant (of course). It’s the tallest building in town, with a commanding view of the city from its top floor — seventh. We even got to see a play at the famous Abbey Theater, all about a grim and dysfunctional but witty Irish family. Big fun.
Aer Lingus flew us to London where we enthusiastically did typical tourist stuff such as: an afternoon at the incredible British museum (all those years of plundering did result in an amazing collection of everything from the earliest known coins to huge ancient statues and the Rosetta stone), a lovely boat ride up and down the Thames, Trafalgar Square, and the chance to sit in on both Houses of Parliament in session. It’s magical down by Westminster Bridge with all the beautiful old buildings joined by the latest addition, the world’s largest ferris wheel. It’s hard to fathom a 50-story high ferris wheel, but when you’re there, it’s mighty impressive.
Our last stop in Europe was the A-1 Festival of Music and Dance, two or three hours north of London. Located on a charming old farm, and featuring an excellent lineup of talent from several countries, this was a most enjoyable weekend. Hilary and Roger Coulthard hosted us in their cozy, inviting home that was originally an inn and pub built in 1694! Roger is one of the dancers that performed throughout the festival, and the combination of music and dance is a welcome contrast from so many American festivals where the emphasis is on music only. This festival included everything from old-time music to very progressive varieties of bluegrass, including my old friends Tony Trischka and Skyline.
Tony and I had an anniversary to celebrate, 30 years since the our first recordings, the original Country Cooking Rounder 0006 album. We did some hits from the album at a workshop, along with more current stuff. What a pleasure to play with and hang with my old buddy, and what a great player!
Among the other highlights for me were hearing the excellent Czech Republic band, Relief (pronounced Rel-yeff), whose lead singer not only picks solid banjo, but sings both tenor and bass parts — really well — and writes good bluegrass songs in English. Not a common talent. Sorry his name eludes me, but check out this band if you get the chance. Britain has some fine banjo players who performed: Leon Hunt and John Dowling with their respective progressive bands, and Richard Collins of A Band Like Alice. These guys can really play and are putting out some great and interesting sounds. A Band Like Alice also features the excellent fiddling of Bob Winquist whom I had the pleasure of jamming with a few times during the weekend. I really enjoyed meeting and picking with many excellent musicians. Big congratulations to Chris and Gill Harrison and the other organizers of the A-1 festival. In only its second year, this one promises to become England’s premier bluegrass event. It was a pleasure for me and Joan to perform, and I look forward to returning to Britain for Sore Fingers Week next April.