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Walnut Valley Festival gets magical

Winfield, Kansas, September 13, 2006

Reviewed by Corinne Brown

Other recent concert reviews
If Oz exists, it's at the Walnut Valley Festival National Flat Picking Championships, a magical place where new artists emerge and musical greats mingle with the fans.

Now in its 35th year and billed as the Walnut Valley Reunion or "Picker's Paradise," three days at this fest proved why it's a mecca for lovers of bluegrass, finger style and flat pick guitar.

According to Rex Flottman, public relations director of the festival, 35 acts filled the schedule, chosen from 300 applicants. Originally, the festival grew out of bluegrass, the primary style of many of its original founders, but over time audiences wanted more diversity.

Performers returning this year included the Byron Berline Band, Misty River, The Waybacks, Andy May, Chris Jones & The Night Drivers, Steve Kaufman and Dan Crary & Thunderation. First timers were Cadillac Sky, mandolinist Bruce Graybill, Hot Strings and Mountain Smoke.

The bluegrass lineup featured Pat Flynn, Buddy Green & Friends, The Greencards, Marley's Ghost, The Wilders and Spontaneous Combustion. Traditional Irish or "green grass" featured the Celtic sounds of The David Munnelly Band, direct from Dublin.

For lovers of Western music, "cowgrass" included Bluestem, plus Roz Brown and Bill Barwick of Denver, and newcomer Dave Stamey, a California artist. Instrumental composers/performers included Stephen Bennett, Tommy Emmanuel and Pete Huttlinger, while cross-over entertainers featured Tim O'Brien, Small Potatoes, and Still on the Hill.

Folk artists were John McCutcheon, Tom Chapin with Michael Mark, Julie Davis, Jo Ann Smith and Pocket Change, the Old Time Folk Duo, Cathy Barton and Dave Para, plus newcomers Adrienne Young and Little Sadie. Visual interpreter Linda Tilton, signing for the deaf, returned with her talents.

Situated at the Winfield Fairgrounds, four stages radiate around a midway. Concert appearances rotate and change on the hour. Around the formal stages however, are a series of camps where different musical styles and/or instruments prevail; swing, rock, Beatles, folk, high lonesome, flat picking, fiddle or banjo - many of which start in the morning and continue until dawn. These musical jam sessions, often featuring stellar musicians, are as much fun and as entertaining as the main features.

Especially notable among the performances were a number of solo acts, starting with John McCutcheon, a veteran of the folk tradition whose talents on a dozen different instruments including the hammer dulcimer, guitar and banjo, were inspiring. His deep audience connection, made through meaningful songs about war and justice, as well as enchanting originals written for children, proved him a tireless entertainer.

Dave Stamey on six string guitar captured new fans with a great repertoire of originals exploring cowboy life. Paired up with long time Winfield favorite Bill Barwick for a shared afternoon set, the combination left audiences asking for more. A cowboy jam ("Boots and Saddles") with all the western entertainers filled Stage 4 for a memorable closing performance.

Finger style guitar artists Pete Huttlinger and Stephen Bennett (on a National resophonic guitar, six string and harp guitar) spellbound audiences with their virtuosity. Australian import Tommy Emmanuel, a master instrumentalist, gave one of his top performances, bringing his fans to their feet.

Bluegrass band The Wilders proved repeatedly why they drive fans to a frenzy: a cross between rockabilly and traditional bluegrass, the excitement of their almost Cajun music has to be heard to be believed.

Versatile entertainers Small Potatoes, a husband wife duo, surprised audiences with fresh duets that included flute and mandolin accompaniment and exquisite harmonies.

The only disappointment here was the much touted band Spontaneous Combustion who adapt rock n' roll classics to bluegrass rhythms. Though hard driving and energetic, the runaway vocals and instrumentals left this listener uninspired.

The absolute highlight was the tightly woven David Munnelly band from Ireland, also featuring American born tap dancer, Nick Gareiss, who lit fire to the stage with his air born feats, and fiddler, Daire Bracken, who absolutely stole the show.