The 32nd Blueberry Bluegrass Festival delivered.
While not on the 'buzz list' of festivals receiving IBMA recognition, and featuring several acts well-familiar in Alberta due to regular appearances over the last several years-Slocan Ramblers, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Jeff Scroggins & Colorado-these groups brought their expected 'A' game while other, less-frequently encountered performers including quality area and regional artists also quickly enamoured themselves to the healthy-sized bluegrass audience.
In its second year of rejuvenation, the current board of directors, led by Anna Somerville, executed a flawless festival. Charged with creating an event atmosphere similar perhaps to what the 'competing' Big Valley Jamboree (minus the boisterous silliness) or even Edmonton Folk Music Festival (without the hill) have established, the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival has been reborn: it doesn't matter so much as to 'who' is appearing or what the weather is like, what is important is the fest itself.
Several features have contributed to the festival's rebirth. New blood on the organization side has brought in new ideas and approaches. The Bluegrass Patio beer tent proved popular as the temperature climbed on Sunday afternoon, the petting zoo and balloon man were hits, as were the nightly country dances and terrific food trucks and vendors who appeared to do steady business. Working to establish relationships with the community has been successful, with the Pioneer Museum proving popular not the least of which because of the indoor stage which offered intimate performances.
Further, the availability of three-stage choices throughout the day is a huge boon to the festival's patrons, providing considerable choice allowing for weather influenced or music selection and crowd-size preferences. It was also great to have CKUA on-site to broadcast a one-hour Blueberry Opry radio show featuring the Po' Ramblin' Boys, Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, Pharis & Jason Romero, and Kayla Hotte and hosted by Darcy Whiteside, and was a welcome addition.
One would have to have been searching with a mighty cynical eye to identify shortcomings with the 2018 edition of Blueberry. Some highlights:
The Travelin' McCourys, making their Alberta debut, closed the festival in a manner that would be impressive absolutely anywhere. Energetic and at the absolute peak of their creative and musical capabilities, the quintet delivered a set including most of their recently released album, standards, and songs from solo projects. Some in the audience may have expected more of a 'Del' show, but the greatest majority were held enthralled by this modern, forward-looking interpretation of bluegrass.
The appreciation shown to singer-songwriter Braden Gates (and his banjo-wielding accompanist Elliot Thomas) who, while having nothing to do with bluegrass, held discriminating listeners rapt with his personable manner and strong songs. Ditto the reception offered old-timey duo Pharis and Jason Romero (a personal favourite) whose music bridged the sometimes sizeable gap between folk and bluegrass listeners. There was a time at Blueberry when such would not have been encouraged, and I am certainly glad entertainment director Carolyn Hotte, Somerville, and their board possess the wisdom to envision the positive possibilities of broadening the festival's palate.
The Kody Norris Show, while deliberately gimmicky, won me over with their entertaining and high-quality presentation of old-time, country and western influenced 'grass; like slippin' through the folds of time, this outfit is. Their humour, banter, and hijinx certainly proved popular on their first trip into Canada. A great find for the festival, their sets were highlighted by several quality Norris originals, four gifted vocalists, an enduring rendition of "Tennessee Flattop Box," and lively dancing. A caution is offered: shtick where the front man 'picks' on his sidekicks, mocking them, gets old...fast.
The Po' Ramblin' Boys, recently signed to Rounder Records and nominated as IBMA Emerging Artists of the Year, demonstrated in their multiple performances the growth that occurs when a band is fully committed to their craft. When we saw them two years ago, they were good; now they are world-class, ready to meet the challenges top-tier professional bands encounter with stronger songs and more intricate arrangements and harmonies.
Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, buoyed by Ellie Hakanson who can sing a Hazel Dickens song and is a heck of a fiddler, Greg Blake who can sing anything, and the nimble-fingered Tristan Scroggins, showed why they are currently the most frequently booked US-based bluegrass band in Alberta. It was also great to see Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder again; while not as lively or engaging as some of the other groups-Skaggs tends to talk a touch too much, in my opinion- the music presented was enjoyable.
Musically, no act sent me running from my chair! The most overwhelming sensation felt at Blueberry Bluegrass was the tangible sense of community that is developing. While the festival has always provided welcome opportunity to reconnect with acquaintances and friends, the positive vibes emanating from every aspect of the festival-leadership, volunteers, performers, and patrons-were most obvious.
With leadership focused on the patron experience, top-flight bluegrass entertainment, and facilities that would be the envy of any acoustic, folk, or country music festival, Blueberry Bluegrass has turned the corner toward a dynamic future of their own determination. I've attended a baker's dozen Blueberrys over the last 21 years, a mere newcomer compared to many: despite the lack of attention delivered to the festival by the greater Edmonton print and broadcast media, Blueberry has never been a better choice for bluegrass entertainment.
Artists hired for the fest almost always leave praising the festival; perhaps one day soon the IBMA will notice.