Sunday, February 03, 2008

A Day In Gran-nash-ville

Yesterday I set out for a sort of homecoming, except that I was about to experience my alma mater in a totally different yet full circle kind of way. For several years now, Denison violin instructor Andy Carlson has organized a bluegrass festival on campus. This is the first year I've been able to make it down, and now I gotta wonder what I've been missing.

First of all, Dr. Carlson is actually a master fiddler from Georgia. I don't know how Denison found him or how they managed to keep him, but he is a treasure. The blend of hearing him talk about the essentials of musicianship and then hear him play an absolute barn-burner was total brain-candy.

The weekend actually began on Friday with a performance of some of Andy's suzuki students, followed by The Andy Carlson Band with special Guest, Bobby Hicks, who played with Bill Monroe's band starting in about 1954. After a series of workshops on Saturday, the community was treated to a solo performance by guitar legend David Grier followed by the Steeldrivers. I have never seen Burke Recital Hall packed like that, for anything. My friends and I sat the entire time on the floor, but we loved it.

I arrived Saturday just in time for the start of the mando workshop, held in old Burke rehearsal room. Since I got there so late, I didn't have time for a flashback to days pacing the room pre recital or piano jury, or adjusting the rather noxious tour attire that was part of any Denison Singers tour. I unzipped the case, checked to see that the mando was not badly out of tune, and grabbed a chair.

The Mando workshop was conducted by Andy Carlson Band mandolin man Michael Smith. I actually learned a few things and did not panic playing in a group. Mike is quite a talent and a durn good instructor, and it was really nice to see so many folks there, including a number of students! A young man sat down next to me with a lovely center-hole mando. I asked him if he was a Denison student; he said he was and was a music minor. I said, "Hey! So was I. Twenty years ago." We thought it was pretty cool. Of course, I didn't tell him that 20 years ago there wouldl have been no such acoustic activity at Denison. I do hope Lee Bostian and Elliot Borishansky are not rolling over in their graves, although I suspect both of them would have been delighted by the upsurge in music students taking on traditional instruments like these kids were. It made me miss them to think how surprised they might have been to see me sitting there with a deer in the headlights look.

Sandwiched on both end by music was a badly needed day with friends from the area. As I gathered up myt things I was greeted with a surprise early hello hug by my longtime friend and one of the first people I met at Denison, Leotaprof. I spent the afternoon catching up with Mr. and Mrs. Shameless and a couple of my favorite teenagers, along with Mr. and Mrs. Ipsissimus (Mr. Ips has just released his debut recording called Cake. More on that soon!) Later I headed over to Leotaprof's for dinner with Dr. Leoprof and their adorable, clever, and delightfully inventive boys before she and I headed over to Granville's WINE BAR -- yes, there is a wine bar, Nona's, in Granville -- for a glass with the Ipsissimus Two and a walk to Burke Recital Hall for the concert.

First, David Grier. What can I say? I think it was a bit of an unusual venue for both these bands. Burke is a "sit quietly and listen" kind of place, and the space is pretty durn intimate. But it was packed. I thought we'd arrive to a half-full house and crickets chirping. Instead, people were seated AROUND THE LOBBY. I still can't get over it. I can't believe I forgot my camera, because no one would believe it. Fortunately I have Ipsissimus and Leotaprof to prove it and of course along with Andy Carlson who gets credit for making this whole thing go.

Oh, ok, back to Grammy winner David Grier. EXQUISITE, even with the glass-eye joke. His playing is like buttah, his self-effacing demeanor making the experience a little different. Dave's father was a Bluegrass Boy in the 1960s so when Dave when to school he thought it was natural to ask the other boys, "So what does your dad play?" Check out his Web site and the recordings in the Media section.

On to the Steeldrivers. It was award-winning Steeldrivers banjo player Richard Bailey who suggested to Andy that he invite Richard's new band to the festival. Great idea! We were all captivated by this unique Nashville band, with the intense bluesy vocals of songwriter Chris Stapleton. The only drawback was how short the set was. Even sitting on the floor we all coulda enjoyed a bit more.

The surprise of the night, for me, was what happened at Brew's afterward. Mr. Leotaprof had scored a pretty awesome table upstairs where we enjoyed a fired-up set by The Andy Carlson Band. This is a seriously talented, take-no-prisoners bluegrass band as good as any I have ever heard on the IBMA Mainstage. The band is Andy on fiddle, Michael Smith on mandolin, Greg Earnest on banjo, Casey Cook on guitar, and Keith Morris on bass. Do these guys from Georgia really know how good they are? I'm not sure.

Despite the protestations of my friends I headed home, my head full of music and my heart full of amazement that this is the same Denison that popped me out newly formed twenty years ago. I loved my experience there, and the time I spent in the music department working on my minor was probably more important than the work I did in my major area of study. I would never trade that experience for anything, but if I had had the opportunity to fall in love with bluegrass a little sooner, under the tutelage of a PhD who happens also to be a master fiddler from Georgia, well, it might not have taken me twenty years to figure out what really matters to me musically. But it's never too late, and it was so heartening to see this happening at Denison. The crowd at Brew's was filled with students who had their instruments in tow, young men and women who will someday leave that blessed place and take their own "Downhiller" experience with them forever.

Needless to say, the whole thing caught me like a Deer in the Headlights, which is the title of this track from the Andy Carlson Band release, log-a-rhythm (ha! So professorial, and considering my X was a math/comp sci major, fairly ironic). Check out all the tracks at CD baby. I can't wait for mine to arrive, and even more, I can't wait for next year.

Congratulations, Dr. Carlson, and thanks for an amazing day of music and memories. This old lady thanks you from the bottom of her heart for bringing Bluegrass to Denison.

5 Comments:

At February 04, 2008 11:37 AM, Blogger Ipsissimus said...

I thought David Grier and the Steeldrivers both were great. Looks like we should've let the critters starve and gone to Brews with ya'll to hear the after-concert concert! Thanks for the musical shove that got us out of the house. It made a dreary Feb. day into something magical.
Ipssissmus

 
At February 05, 2008 12:51 PM, Anonymous leotprof said...

What a memorable, terrific time. I loved sharing this piece of our Denison with you. Let's make it an annual gig.

 
At February 05, 2008 6:41 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Hi Ips and Leota,
Let's plan on next year for sure, floor or no floor!! Who knows, by next year maybe I'll have worked up the nerve to join the Brews jammers if they'll have an old Deni-dooer.

Had a good time with you both and enjoyed introducing you to each other.

 
At February 07, 2008 8:00 AM, Blogger Shameless Agitator said...

I'm a little slow this week, having caught some of the germs flying around here... Thanks for stopping by for a visit. It's always great to see you! I wish we lived closer so our budding tv crew could have more time to hone their craft together. Maybe over spring break? It never ceases to amaze me that we are managing to raise such amazing people all while still growing up ourselves...

Love,
Shameless

 
At February 07, 2008 6:26 PM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Hey Shameless,
Sorry to hear you got "bugged" -- but glad I got to spend a little time with The Shameless Family. You make an excellent point about how our kids manage while we fumble through the darkness. Hopefully it will help them understand what fearless really means.

Love,
MM

 

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