Hills east of the park, late afternoon sun

Dim Lights

Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival 2013


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August 8, 2013: Believe it or not, I am at a bluegrass festival, and also celebrating my birthday for the 74th time. The Good Old Fashioned Bluegrass Festival (GOF) is a bit younger, celebrating its 20th year. It's sponsored by the Northern California Bluegrass Society (NCBS).

This event is a bit different from most festivals in several  ways. At every other show I've attended, the major groups and sometimes others play two and sometimes three sets over the weekend. At the GOF, each group0 plays once and once only. The idea, as was explained to me when I attended for the first time in 2011, is to have as many musicians as possible on hand, to encourage lots of interaction between performers and fans, and to have lots of jamming. Since I don't play in public, this is not a benefit to me, but that's how it is.

It was slightly disappointing last time, because there were several groups I would have enjoyed seeing more than once, but  this year I am at least expecting it.

They also have what is called the "Tweener Stage," a small stage at the side of the audience. While the sound man is repositioning microphones and doing a sound check between main stage groups, any group that wants to sign up can play a couple of songs on the Tweener Stage. Last time there were a couple of these groups that were quite good. 

It is also a low-key festival, with no "big name" national groups. However, there are several bands that are well known and very popular in California, including one of my favorites, Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players. I've seen them at least a half dozen times at four or more different festivals. This weekend I'll see them just once, but perhaps I can catch some of the members jamming.

Although I had a pretty good idea of how to get here, before leaving I entered the address in two different map apps on my iPad, and in my GPS. This proved to be an exercise in frustration. The original Google Maps app had been designed for the iPhone, but still worked fine on the iPad. A month or two later it was "upgraded" to an iPad version, and now it does not work.

The Apple Maps app was the subject of much negative comment when it came out close to a year ago, and proved to be not ready for prime time. People were directed into lakes, the wrong way down one way roads, and there were many other errors. When I entered the address into it, it selected a route that I knew was not the most direct, and that would take me through downtown Hollister. It didn't even show the "good" route as an alternative.

My GPS device, which took me right to the location by the direct route two years ago, insisted that the address could not be found. So I went old school, printing out the directions from the festival web site and using my memory from 2011.

I left Fresno a little before 11 a.m., after attending the monthly meeting of our retirement association board, and drove up Highway 99, west through Los Banos and over Pacheco Pass on State Highway 152, then southwest on State 146.

I turned off 146 on to Fairview Road, which took me south for eight miles through the country east of Hollister, then on to State 25, AKA Old Airline Highway, and another six miles or so to the San Benito County Fairgrounds, also called Bolado Park.

Officially, the fairgrounds is located at Tres Pinos, although my map programs had trouble finding this town. It does exist, because I drove through it on my way to the festival. It's on Highway 25, less than two miles north of the park, and is about a quarter mile long, with maybe six to ten businesses on the highway, and little evidence that there is any more to the town that what you can see driving through. However, it has a school, a post office, and a water company, everything a town needs to qualify as a real place.

It is very cool here, especially compared to the hot weather we've had in the San Joaquin Valley this summer. It was about 70 degrees, and is supposed to stay that way, with lows about 50. In all fairness to my home area, the 110 degree days ended weeks ago, and it did not get over 90 the last two days. Still, the cool coastal breeze is a nice change. It's a very strong breeze, almost a wind, enough to cause me to wear a long sleeve shirt when I sat outside reading earlier. Now at 7 p.m. it's 64 and the breeze has diminished slightly.

We are located in a narrow, flat valley between two low ridges, with the San Benito River on the west side, so perhaps we'll experience the evening reversal of air flow that is the norm in many areas.

August 9: This morning at 8:30 it was 60 degrees and overcast, with almost no breeze. However, as the sun started breaking through, the breeze picked up. Now at 1:30 it's fully sunny, with less breeze than yesterday, and about 75 degrees.

When I got up I did my usual exercises, including walking to the far end of the fairgrounds, then out near the entrance, and back to my camp. I fixed my traditional bloody Mary, and sat outside reading. After taking my chair over to the stage area (a walk of close to a quarter mile each way), I fixed breakfast, enjoying toast, cold cocoa, and berries from the Clovis Farmer's Market.

The official stage performances get under way at 3:00, but from 12 to 3 there is something similar to what I've seen at other festivals. Usually it's called "open mike," when any group, whether formally organized or not, can get up and do a few songs. In this case, it's called "First Stage," with scheduled sets by three groups. I stopped by for a while, but there was no seating and I didn't feel like carrying another chair over, so I went to the main stage area, checked out the concessions, and bought a T-shirt. Then I came back to the motor home for reading and napping.

My current book is Colonel Roosevelt, the third volume of Edmund Morris' 3-volume biography, this one covering TR's life after the presidency. It starts with his African safari, then goes on to the unsuccessful Bull Moose party campaign for a third term, and that's as far as I've read, a third of the way through.

Today there is no official dinner break, with groups scheduled on the hour every hour from 3:00 to 9:00. Due to my late breakfast, I won't want to eat for a while, so I'll take a break when there's a band that is less than stellar. The final group is one I've heard a lot and don't much care for, so I will return for the night at 9:00 and watch a little TV before bed.

9 p.m.: Day 1 is over for me, although there is one more group. I've written before about how there is always one group that is a "revelation" - unknown or mostly unknown to me, but good enough to stand out above the rest. Today I discovered it works both ways - a band so bad you want to cover your ears. The MC said that this group has played the side stage, but this year was promoted to the main stage. What he didn't explain was why. I guess the most polite thing I can say about them is that I'm sure the band members are all nice to children and small animals.

Fortunately they were followed by a group that erased 99% of the bad memories. Canyon Johnson have been together for about 18 months, although most members have played for a number of years. They came together in a jamming class taught by a professional Bay Area musician, and it's obvious they paid attention, and they were rewarded with a sincere request for an encore.

The group that followed them defies description, but I'll try. The magazine Bluegrass Unlimited has a category in its CD review section called "On the Edge," which I interpret as having gone so far from traditional bluegrass that they are in danger of falling off the edge into something completely different. The Creak is such a band, playing what might be considered "newgrass" or maybe "jamgrass." In any event, if you like that sort of thing you'd enjoy this band, because they were very skillful. It's just not my cup of moonshine, and I went back to the motor home for a break.

The rest of the bands were the usual variation of average to good, with one very good band ending the evening for me. The first time I saw Bean Creek, based in Santa Cruz, I didn't care for them much. Over the years they have grown on me and probably have improved as well, and now I agree that they deserved their recent honor as co-winner of band of the year as chosen by the NCBS. This competition is open to bands that are not primarily touring bands, so the prize will not be going to Kathy Kallick or Laurie Lewis, but helps to honor somewhat lesser known California groups. The other co-winner is Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players, who deserve to win every year for the next decade.

The Tweener Stage bands were mostly good amateurs, with a couple of standouts, particularly a trio from Napa Valley that went over big with the crowd.

August 10 Lunch Break: The three groups so far today have been reasonably good, with one that could be called very good. This was Gold Coast, which played here early in the festival's existence, maybe ten to fifteen years ago, and have not been here since. They were solid instrumentally, with several good vocalists, including the teenage daughter of the group's leader, who has been invited to perform in the Kids on Bluegrass shows at International Bluegrass Music Society (IBMA) World of Bluegrass in Raleigh NC next month. I've seen her with local Kids on Bluegrass, and she is pretty good, though not a match for Cia Cherryholmes (against whom I judge all teen singers) or AJ Lee.

The weather is quite a bit warmer today, although the breeze is steady enough to keep it from getting uncomfortable. In the motor home, I should be in shorts and T-shirt, but I don't want to change for what will be a fairly short time before it cools off. Since I have 30 amp electrical power, I can just run the air conditioner for a while. The Weather Channel app says it's 79 in Hollister (about ten miles north), but probably a bit cooler here with the air flow along the river valley.

Dinner Break: The afternoon program was mostly pretty good, starting with Keystone Station, a traditional style band. I took a break during the next band, one I've seen a number of times at events near home. The last band was a substitute for a group that could not make it, The Naked Bootleggers (actually fully clothed). They are an energetic band with some non-standard instruments (harmonica and washboard), sometimes reminding me of Snap Jackson.

I have finished my dinner of pizza and fresh vegetables, and have a few more minutes before the evening show. The first group is unfamiliar to me, but they are followed by the Central Valley Boys, Sidesaddle & Company, and Snap Jackson, all of whom I've seen multiple times, and all of whom are quite good. I think I may have seen the other group, Houston Jones, but don't remember anything about them (meaning they were neither exceptionally bad or outstandingly good).

August 12: Back home and time to finish up, covering Saturday night and Sunday. After listening to the first song by Houston Jones, I returned to the motor home to do some more reading.

Houston Jones had electrified acoustic guitars, loud drums and keyboards, and I was pretty sure they were here two years ago. I looked up my report from 2011, and discovered that I found them "quite interesting, with lyrics that made you sit up and take notice." This year they made me stand up and walk away. I think there are two possible reasons: Possibly last time I was sitting farther back, and they did not seem so loud; or possibly I am two years older and grumpier.

Just to clarify, I don't object to groups like this being on the schedule. I think everyone, including me, needs to try new things. Sometimes we'll like them, sometimes not. When I first saw Snap Jackson, my first reaction was "wow, that's really different." My second reaction was "wow, that's REALLY good." I know many people in the audience liked these non-traditional, pretty much non-bluegrass groups, even if I did not.

The rest of the evening was worth the entire weekend price of admission. The Central Valley Boys, who can sometimes be pretty average, seemed to really connect with the audience, and the crowd and the band clearly had an outstanding time. Sidesaddle & Co. have grown on me over the years, and they also put on an excellent set.

Finally, Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players put on a show that kept the crowd glued to their seats. I've seen this group at least ten times, and I thought this was the best set they have done. Since it was the last act of the night, instead of the 45 minutes allotted to other groups, they played a full hour and twenty minutes, and left with calls for "one more"..."four more"....etc. Although it was late and getting cooler, I don't think one person left the audience during their performance.

Since I first saw them in 2009, I have become ever more impressed with the bass playing of Brian Clark. He plays like no other bluegrass bass player, and did some high speed bass solos, something that is rarely seen. Maybe having five strings instead of four makes him 25% better.

The Sunday bill was a mixture of typical regional groups of varying quality. One high point was seeing Ella Naiman, a member of the late lamented Dalton Mountain Gang, filling in with two groups, The String Slingers and Sidetrack. In fact, three of the four members of the Gang were there - Yosef Tucker and John Cogdell with the Central Valley Boys and Ella's Dad, Tom, playing banjo with a group on the side stage.

Sidetrack played music that was more or less "oldtime," but their most impressive number was a cowboy song, The Brazos River, which they said mentions every river in Texas. The link leads to a more authentic cowboy rendition of this excellent song.

The standout group of the day was Carr Creek Crossing. Although they had a small drum kit, the playing was unobtrusive, and most of the time the drummer played the banjo. This group did a number of non-bluegrass songs, in a very entertaining style, not really converting them to bluegrass. This included songs by Greg Brown, Robert Earl Keen and the Youngbloods, as well as a heart-breaking song about the Mann Gulch Fire, especially poignant in view of the recent firefighter tragedy in New Mexico.

I watched only a few minutes of the next band, which I had seen before, and missed the last one completely, staring home at 3:30. Stopping to stretch in Los Banos, I was slammed with the valley heat when I stepped out of the motor home, making me appreciate even more the great weather at the festival. It was between 70 and 78, with Sunday afternoon the warmest. There were clouds all but the last night, so the low was just below 60 Thursday and Friday, and down to 50 Saturday.

Heading back to the motor home each evening I had a good view of lots of stars, one of the benefits of being at a bluegrass festival, since most of them are away from brightly lit urban areas. Sometimes there are too many lights at a fairgrounds, but they didn't turn them on at this one, making for a good dark sky.

When I pulled into my driveway about 6:30, the odometer showed that my total travel was 248 miles. The trip home would have taken less time if I had not napped briefly in Los Banos, and stopped for groceries and gas as I approached home.

--Dick Estel, August 2013


Photos (Click to enlarge; pictures open in new window) 


Mike Hall, NCBS President, opens the festival

Damdave & the Hot Damn Band Canyon Johnson
Mike Hall, NCBS President, opens the festival Damdave & the Hot Damn Band Canyon Johnson
The Creak Creak bass player's highly decorated instrument Sycamore Bend
The Creak Creak bass player's highly decorated instrument Sycamore Bend
Circle R Boys Bean Creek Gold Coast
Circle R Boys Bean Creek Gold Coast
Elicia & the Fun Guys Rogue River Keystone Station
Elicia & the Fun Guys Rogue River Keystone Station
Grassfire Naked Bootleggers Houston Jones
Grassfire Naked Bootleggers Houston Jones
Central Valley Boys The Boys with Jack Kinney and Alex Sharps Sidesaddle & Co.
Central Valley Boys The Boys with Jack Kinney and Alex Sharps Sidesaddle & Co.
Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players String Slingers Dark Hollow
Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players String Slingers Dark Hollow
Sidetrack Dim Lights Carr Creek Crossing
Sidetrack Dim Lights Carr Creek Crossing
Courthouse Ramblers Kids on Stage More Kids
Courthouse Ramblers Kids on Stage More Kids
Still more Kids Bubbles entertained some of the youngsters at the even The crowd relaxes under a big shade
Still more Kids Bubbles entertained some of the youngsters at the event The crowd relaxes under a big shade
RV camping area Tent camping area 2013 T-shirt has the same picture used at the first festival
RV camping area Tent camping area 2013 T-shirt has the same picture used at the first festival 
Hills east of the park, late afternoon sun Grape vines above the highway to the east This busy gopher excavated next to my feet for several minutes
Hills east of the park, late afternoon sun Grape vines above the highway to the east This busy gopher excavated next to my feet for several minutes
NCBS Board of Directors
NCBS Board of Directors
Related Links
Canyon Johnson The Creak Sycamore Bend
Circle R Boys Bean Creek Kitchen Help
Gold Coast Keystone Station Grassfire
Naked Bootleggers Houston Jones Central Valley Boys
Sidesaddle & Company Snap Jackson & the Knock on Wood Players String Slingers
Dark Hollow Dim Lights Courthouse Ramblers
Central Valley Bluegrass Northern California Bluegrass Society Dick's Bluegrass T-Shirt Photos
Kids on Bluegrass Good Old Fashioned Festival Dick's Bluegrass Odyssey
Tres Pinos California Bluegrass Association Bolado Park
Carr Creek Crossing

The Boys with Jack Kinney and Alex Sharps

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