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Old Grass, New Grass: Fish DeSmith reviews Winter Bluegrass Weekend

Winter Bluegrass Weekend
Plymouth Radisson, Feb. 29-March 2
Review by Fish DeSmith
Photos by Ward Rubrecht

The thing to understand about the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association's Winter Bluegrass Weekend is that most of the attendees, to say nothing of the performers, are there because they love to play.

It was impossible to calculate the monetary value of all the instruments assembled in the Plymouth Radisson -- basses on carts or set near walls and couches to indolently survey the passing bustle, mandolins carried uncased while the bearer picks gently over a phrase that's sure to be heard on stage later, guitars and banjos in their soft cases strapped to the backs of their troubadours. Groups gather to practice for their stage time or just jam together in nooks and crannies, or amid chairs and couches in the hotel lobby. The microphone-less singers are almost drowned out by the rest of the instruments, until some passerby pauses to pick up the thread of melody, bringing it once more to the forefront.

On the hotel's second floor, there was a row of jamming rooms, places set aside, out of everyone's way, for serious players who may or may not have bands of their own, to put some time in on their skills and to pick up new tricks from their fellows. Each could have been a convivial living room gathering of old friends, and I suspect there was at least as much music played up there along this hallway as there was in the rest of the festival, and of comparable quality. Venerable, crab-handed pickers lead groups composed of a variety of players, from their septuagenarian peers down to teenagers with guitars and mandolins. Peeking over the shoulder of a silver-haired gent with a vest full of harmonicas in different keys, one could see a room full of richly talented musicians, strangers or friends, bathed in song and the late winter sunshine.

Down in the lobby, a group of young high schoolers had gathered, with a banjo, guitar, three-quarter size bass, mandolin, and a shaggy-haired cell phone videographer. They were trying to figure out a pickin' version of Death Cab for Cutie's I Will Follow You into the Dark, the banjo player's clear tenor leading the struggling players through a good-hearted disharmony of chords and percussive instrument pounding. One couldn't help rooting for them, for stretching themselves to blend the contemporary with the traditional.

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A youthful jam group tries to fuse Death Cab with bluegrass. See more photos by Ward Rubrecht.

Despite their struggles, and the struggles of many others during the day, there was only encouragement for the players. Most everyone in attendance could sympathize, remembering when they, too, fumbled the picking on a similarly tortuous run or stubbornly ran a song over and over until it clicked for them. That's not to say there wasn't sincere and ample praise of musicians, on stage and off, whose skill and dedication could make even the densest arpeggios float flawlessly off the strings.

The organized stage shows were uniformly enjoyable, but not uniform in the slightest. Varying in skill, style, traditionality, and even in electrification, the range of performers was staggering. With over 35 acts playing on Saturday, there were only so many I could fit in. I managed to see Blue Wolf, the Sans Souci Quartet, the New Bad Habits, and the Ditchlilies. I also saw Cabin Creek Pickin' warming up in a stairwell, and Namnlös, with their bowed but organesque nyckelharpa, running a few tunes in a tiny elbow-crook of a room full of pay phones.

Finishing out the day were two shows by Rustler's Moon. I saw the first, opened by the local greats, the Platte Valley Boys. Here was a reminder that all the jamming going on during the weekend, with circles morphing and reforming, does really build up to something amazing. These two acts delivered it with polish and panache. In particular, Tom Bekeny, the mandolin player for Rustler's Moon, showed the heights to which bluegrass musicians aspire during a song composed of give-and-take banjo and mandolin solos. Watching his fingerwork, I was blown away. It was like Anansi the spider god inhabited that man's pickin' hand, giving it the power to fly, contort and flourish, a spider dancing on his web, faster than I've ever seen another human being move.

After that performance, I meandered back down to the dance parlour. I was nearing the saturation point, not sure if I could distinguish between individual songs anymore. The Sans Souci Quartet's rendition of Naked Bacon Breakdown, a frenetic song of arpeggiated mayhem, was flowing into the Kathy Kallick original Coastal Fog's hopeless lamentations. I began to suspect some great jest; that these songs were all part of some larger work and I was just hearing snippets and sections amid the casual pickers and the performers on stages. Well, there's nothing to shake off paranoid musical hallucination like the toe-tapping and partner-swinging of square dancing under Dot Kent's tender tutelage, and that's how I ended my day. Tired, and now sweaty, my brain sloshing with hours of never-before-heard-by-me music, I staggered out of that oasis of admiration, collaboration, and good, clean fun.
--Fish DeSmith


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