By Rob Dickens.
Mountain Grass Festival – November 2-22, Harrietville Victoria
The site for Mountain Grass Festival is Harriettville in Victoria’s north east, along the Great Alpine Road and around four hours by car from Melbourne.
While only in its third year in this guise, there’s been an annual bluegrass and old-time music event in this town for more than twenty years. The 2015 version is a three-day festival spreading itself out over this small, picturesque town.
Kick-off is Friday afternoon and the last performance is 10pm on Sunday. In terms of venues – there is the Feathertop Chalet area which incorporates the Main Marquee (where the headliners perform) and the informal Walk Up Stage, two of the town’s Halls are engaged during the day, and the nearby Snowline Hotel hosts one evening show.
I arrived early on the Friday evening and made a bee-line for the Walk Up Stage, where proceedings were getting underway. A recital of The Man From Snowy River was an interesting introduction before The Strzelecki Stringbusters had the small crowd foot tapping to old time and jug band music and laughing at the corny jokes.
The 3 Marketeers has more of a traditional bluegrass sound and included some traditional country songs in its repertoire, which included a cover of Tim O’Brien’s “Colleen Malone”.
It was time for the dinner break time and a short walk to The Snowline Hotel. On the tabled decking outside, there was already a good gathering. A group (from Canberra, as I later discovered) was jamming and I sat next to them, soaking up the music, the warm evening and the very friendly atmosphere. Not to mention one of the best steaks I’ve had for quite some time.
The main marquee was substantial and it looked like it could hold around 600 punters. Old South is a relatively recent union of experienced musicians who want to re-dedicate themselves to their music. Features here were the harmonies and the driving instrumental work, plenty of songs about murder, whiskey and trains too! A very polished set which finished with a speedy, ‘grassed-up’ version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues”, which was interesting as I had witnessed a similar treatment by The Quarry Mountain Dead Rats at the JamGrass Music festival two weeks ago – maybe Townes is becoming a bluegrass icon!
Chris Henry has been described by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) as ‘the premier Bill Monroe-style mandolinist of his generation. Originally from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and the son of veteran bluegrass musicians, he now calls Nashville his home. Henry’s backing outfit for this tour (The Hardcore Grass) includes mostly Australian players and they meld together seamlessly. As well as being a fine player, he has been recognised for his song-writing abilities and has an agreeable stage presence and flashing smile. So engaging in fact that, as at one point he jumped off the stage to strongly encourage (successfully) some of the audience at the front to get up for a dance. A new album is imminent and Henry played the title track “The Water Song” which was aptly named – flowing and refreshing. By the end of the tune, it was pouring outside, with the rain on the tent offering up its own relenting rhythm. “Now play The Sun Song!” some character in the assembly hollered. Fortunately, it was the only sign of wet weather for the weekend.
The Orpheus Supertones from Kennett Square Pennsylvania provided a more old-time set. Six-time award winners of the traditional string band competition at the Appalachian String Band Festival in West Virginia, the five-piece band features twin fiddles, with guitar, bass, banjo and wonderful harmonies. The set included “Li’l Liza Jane” from the turn of the last century, “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” (Flatt and Scruggs) and “Single Girl, Married Girl (The Carter Family). The Supertones hark back to a different era where music was handed down by word-of-mouth and personal teaching.
Rounding out the program was just about my favourite for the day, Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands. Lewis lives in Berkley California and has been a prolific songwriter, fiddler, vocalist, teacher and producer. She and her band (long-time musical partner Tom Rozum on mandolin, Patrick Sauber on banjo and Grammy-winner Todd Phillips on bass) are touring Australia for the first time. More Americana and folk in style, there’s plenty of original ballads and the harmonies are gorgeous. Lewis has a strong and compelling voice. It was a fine way to finish day one.
As well as more than fifty official performances over the entire Festival, there’s an abundance of workshops for the serious musician or performer.
As well as more than fifty official performances over the entire Festival, there’s an abundance of workshops for the serious musician or performer. Morning sessions cover bluegrass banjo, guitar, mandolin, song-writing, bass, old-time fiddling, harmonising and clog dancing/flat footing. There’s even one session devoted to the First Family of Country Music, The Carter Family.
On day two, proceedings kicked off at 1pm, with performances at the Main Marquee, the Mountain View Hall and the Community Hall. (For the rest of the weekend, The Walk Up Stage was open to any artists who wanted to perform a twenty-minute set – just put your name on the whiteboard to set aside a spot).
I decided to investigate The Community Hall that morning. A large mural ran down each internal side wall and a big, colourful, patterned quilt formed the stage back-drop. There were chairs for about 100 people, a servery at the back wall where you could get sandwiches (cut into triangles on colourful paper plates) and jelly slices.
The Black Mountain String Band from Canberra celebrates old-time music where twin fiddles and voices harmonise energetically with banjo, guitar, double bass and mandolin. Just about everybody sings in the band, but the highlights for me were some evocative instrumentals, music harking back to the American Civil War and beyond. There were fine renditions of the traditional song “Gospel Plow” which appeared on Bob Dylan’s first album and John Hartford’s “The Royal Box Waltz”, but the standout was a five-stage instrumental reading of Pee Wee King’s “Bonaparte’s Retreat” (a song made famous by Glen Campbell).
It was a five-minute walk back to the Feathertop Chalet festival hub where the event and merchandise was now on display – T-shirts, stubby holders and tea towels were some of the items available. Also, a healthy array of artists’ CDs were on offer. The area also featured a bar, two casual eating options and many had gathered here around the outdoor table settings to jam together. It was a perfect, cloudless and warm day and I was inclined to spend some time outdoors.
As it turned out, there was a continuous, informal jam going on, featuring Hamish Davidson, Chris Henry, Patrick Sauber (from Laurie Lewis’ Right Hands) and basically anyone else who wanted to join in. Altogether, a wonderful warm communal scene and to sit and listen, chat with other attendees and artists, it was as relaxing a musical experience as I could imagine.
Finally, the jamming session petered out and it was time for dinner. On the formal festival agenda, the dinner break today was taken up with the ABOTMA Annual General Meeting. Now, The Australasian Bluegrass and Old Time Music Association formed in 2013 to support the teaching, performance and promotion of bluegrass and old-time music in Australia and New Zealand. It has steadfastly reinvigorated and grown the Harrietville gathering.
Back at the main tent, I was very pleased to see The Davidson Brothers kick off the evening set. Having performed for over twenty years, they are now one of Australia’s premier bluegrass outfits, having won three Golden Guitar awards with their own Australian contemporary take on bluegrass sound.
The band has toured Europe and The United States (I saw them perform, somewhat ironically, for the first time in Raleigh North Carolina at the 2014 IBMA awards). As well as brothers Hamish (mandolin) and Lachie (banjo and violin), the band included award-winning guitarist Jacob McGuffie and bassist Louis Gill. The boys have a warm and laconic stage presence, plenty of humour and wonderful playing, where everyone in the band is given space to show their wares. A joyous set in front of a good crowd which provided a rapturous reception. I can highly recommend seeing The Davidson Brothers and you also could check out the band’s excellent seventh album Wanderlust.
All the action was at the Main Marquee for the rest of the night, with the three headlining US bands following. The Saturday crowd seemed significantly bigger than Friday’s.
Sunday’s format was pretty similar to the previous day, a good deal on offer with the addition of a two-hour gospel concert in the morning.
A stroll to the Community Hall where I was keen to see again The John Flanagan Trio (the band’s convincing appearance at the JamGrass Music festival this month still fresh in my mind). “Nobody Knows Me”, “Ripples” (a new song) and “Call It Gone” were very appealing, and my second witnessing of the band’s joyful take on Poco’s “Africa” an unmitigated pleasure.
The Mountain View Hall is also located centrally in Harrietville, another short walk from all other venues. This Hall was rustic and intimate, smaller than The Community Hall and a speaker perched near the main door provided patrons with an option to lie on the grass outside and hear what was going on. Inside it was clear that this is the home of The Mountain Pickers’ Association, giving further evidence that the town of Harrietville has a rich bluegrass and old time music tradition.
I need to elaborate on Buffalo Nickel and extol their virtues. Comprising Paddy Montgomery (mandolin and dobro), George Jackson (fiddle and banjo), Daniel Watkins on guitar and Isaac Barter bass, they individually or collectively have a seriously impressive CV, which includes the backing band for Nashvillian Chris Henry, John Flanagan Trio and bluegrass legend Peter Rowan on his 2012 Australian tour. Three of the members have won Davidson Brothers’ scholarships with a new album recorded as a result (release date uncertain). Montgomery was until recently a member of premier bluegrass and roots outfit Mustered Courage, Jackson has won the Golden Fiddle ‘Best Fiddler as a soloist and is three-time Australian Champion. Watkins is a wonderful guitarist and is a passionate, strong vocalist.
Put it all together and I witnessed a tremendous set, which incorporated some beautiful instrumentals (“Hanging From The Legend Tree” and “Moth Trap”) and the powerfully grim “Old Home Place” (originally by The Dillards).
It was getting close to leaving time for me, but I had a chance to catch the entire set of Nine Mile Creek who play traditional and original material with plenty of up-tempo rhythms and dual vocals. I particularly enjoyed their version of The Steeldrivers’ “Can You Run” with beautiful harmonies and a fully-cranked take on David Allan Coe’s “Tennessee Whiskey”.
In summary, there’s a lot to savour about Mountain Grass. The location is picturesque, the weather was perfect……..
In summary, there’s a lot to savour about Mountain Grass. The location is picturesque, the weather was perfect, the venues and their proximity to each other ideal, the sense of community and friendliness was always on show, in fact it’s just about the friendliest music festival I’ve attended.
The sound for every show I saw was remarkably good. The Walk Up Stage was an innovation this year and seemed to work well. The informality and ever-present jamming indicates that a large proportion of the attendees are musicians themselves. The on-site food options were limited, but no one seemed to mind (perhaps many seasoned patrons made their own arrangements).
The music program worked well, although for two of the three nights, the only formal performances were at the Main Marquee and the headliners played there two or three times over the weekend. For me, it would have been preferable to have some other options at those times to showcase the wider talent on offer.
The music itself? If you are seriously into bluegrass and old time music, there’s no better place to be.
It will be on again next year – pencil in November 2016 and Harrietville in your diaries!