Mar 15-17, 2010
This weekend was going to be a bit over the top. My wife and I planned to travel to two music festivals in different cities on the weekend, culminating Monday with a show in State College at the State Theatre. In order to get to David Bromberg’s Make Some Noise Festival we had to depart for Wilmington very early Saturday morning. We went with one of my best friends from York County, PA.
We arrived in Wilmington a bit before the noon start time for the day’s festivities. This festival was scheduled to run from noon to 8 PM. I had heard that the show could not go past eight because Wilmington becomes a dangerous place after dark with a lot of gang activity. Anyway, after the ticketing and bag search thing we were able to place our lawn chairs immediately beside the sound board virtually guaranteeing good sound. This turned out to be the best thing we did all day. Nobody walked in front of our seats. We were close to the stage. And the day was stunningly bright and sunny with a brisk breeze. Perfect for an outdoor festival.
The Angel Band opened the show. The Angel Band is a concoction of David’s idiosyncratic wife, Nancy Josephson. The only thing of interest with this act is that David Bromberg was not stationed on stage as a regular member of the group. David did go on stage to play a few tunes with the group. Also, the group had a new fiddle, new drummer, and a new guitarist. The girls were the same as usual. Their set was pleasantly short.
During the set, I met up with a guy who drove to Wilmington from Syracuse, NY. He said he was born in Wilmington and went to Penn State. He apparently saw my Greyfox Festival t-shirt and wanted to talk about shows. It turns out that ‘Len’ is a singer/songwriter in a group called Butternut Creek, and has written couple of tunes about Pennsylvania. I was able to steer him to the Smoked Country Jam Festival in Loganton, PA where they have a Pennsylvania Heritage Songwriting contest each year in addition to a Bluegrass Festival.
The second act was Jorma Koukonen, formerly the guitar player for the Jefferson Airplane, and for the past forty or so years he has also been the driving force in the group, Hot Tuna. Jorma performed with his great mandolin player, Barry Mitteroff. The set was really nice. Jorma’s brand of mostly traditional acoustic tunes was perfect for a warm sunny day in Delaware. Mitteroff provides most of the lead work and really provides a nice highlight to Jorma’s finger picking and singing. They even pulled out one of the old Airplane classics when they performed “Embryonic Journey.” It sure sounded good. David Bromberg came out to play a few tunes with Jorma and Barry. It turns out that David and Jorma have been touring a lot lately so there was a wealth of material they could perform together. The two, with their very different guitar playing styles, played three or four great tunes.
Railroad Earth played after Jorma. RRE is one of my favorite ‘acoustic’ psychedelic jam bands. They did not disappoint at the Big Noise Festival. During their hour-long set they covered many of their older tunes as well as some new stuff off of their upcoming album. Andy Goessling playing virtually every instrument imaginable was particularly fine. Tim Carbone provided his usual strong fiddle playing too. Overall these guys were a great act to include in a fine sunny afternoon show. David Bromberg came out to play with these boys as well. Specifically, David played with the band as they performed Bromberg’s own Lee Highway Blues prelude. The one where the words go, “Eating carbonated crap, one more piece of cardboard pie, gas hogs, services stations, then we ride.” It was wonderful to see David grinning from ear to ear as this young North Jersey band played his tune. Most of the members of the band grew up idolizing Bromberg who was a national treasure, at least within New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. Being able to play with their hero was a great experience for them as well as the audience. Todd Sheaffer sang most of the verses of the tune. Bromberg did sing one verse. They very forcefully sang the classic line from the tune, “Nothing over there but the same goddamned town.” When they sang that I had goose bumps. (I guess you have to be a Bromberg nut to understand the significance of this moment.)
My personal musical hero is Sam Bush. Since 1973, I have been going to see him either with the New Grass Revival or with his own band many times. In Wilmington, Sammy played with his band which was strangely without their drummer. Sam never did explain where Chris Brown was that day. It didn’t matter. The boys played through a nice set featuring music from Sam’s new album, Circles Around Me. I love the jams within Sam’s shows. However today Sam chose to play Blue Mountain, from the new album as the extended jam tune. Having heard this tune two weeks earlier at Merlefest and several times last year, I was a little bit disappointed. He is selling his album. If only they had ripped into Metric Lips or Mr. Freddy… Sam’s set flew by as usual. What was unusual was that Bromberg did not play with Sam during the Sam Bush Band show. They made up for that later. The band closed with a long version of the old New Grass tune, Souvenir Bottles (which is also on the new album). I still remember the last line from the song when it goes, “little Suzy took all of her clothes off in the raaaaaaaaaaain.” This line always will remind me of the 2009 Delfest when thunder roared and lightning struck just as Sammy mentioned the rain in the song. The campground was wrecked by the rain, wind, and hail. Nobody blamed the ‘Delfest storm’ on Sam (even if he called it).
I have seen many great acts over the years. I had never seen John Hiatt and his Trio. So having Hiatt at the Big Noise Festival looked to be the most interesting show of the day. It did not disappoint. Hiatt is a blues based rocker who has written great songs and performs with style and energy. Man, were he and his band good? They played many of his tunes from previous albums. They also played his tune, “Thing Called Love,” which became a big hit for Bonnie Raitt about 20 years ago. He mentioned that Bonnie’s making it a hit put his two daughters through College. The crowd loved it.
Hiatt’s most recent album was produced by the leader of the blues/jam band North Mississippi All Stars, Jim Dickerson. Hiatt told the audience that Dickerson told him of the wise advice he had put on his grave stone. It read, “I’m not gone, I’m just dead.” Something to think about.
They played one of my favorite Hiatt tunes, “Memphis In the Meantime” with the crowd providing some of the chorus and requisite groaning (you had to be there). It was great. He played a couple other big tunes from his repertoire including “The Tiki Bar is Open,” and “Tennessee Plates.” John finished with his classic “Crossing Muddy Water.” It was great. Bromberg came out to play a slow blues with Hiatt as the encore. It was so smooth and tasteful. Bromberg sure can play blues guitar. I have to also mention that the Hiatt trio was fantastic. They understood when to back off to let Hiatt’s vocals carry the tune and they knew when to rock out hard. What a show. Perhaps the highlight of the entire weekend!
The final act was the David Bromberg Big Band. David has several configurations of bands that he performs with. The Big Band is by far the best of the lot. The Big Band lends itself to David playing lots of blues tunes, which seemed to be the theme of the day. The only oddities were the personnel changes in the Big Band. Gone was horn giant, John Firmin, replaced by John Payne, who has played with Bromberg in the past and now runs a jazz workshop in New England. Steve Wiser is no longer on fiddle and was replaced by a very young Nate Grower.
The net effect of the changes was that some of the standard Bromberg Big Band repertoire sounded a bit different. Not bad, just different. The sound was a bit off too during the set. It was very unfortunate that the crowd could not hear the penny whistle during his Yankees Revenge bluegrass medley. Overall the band was good, but it was not orgasmic like this band has often been in the past.
Shortly into the set, David started inviting members of the other bands back on stage to play with his large ensemble. Andy Goessling played in the horn section and sounded like he should be on Bromberg’s short list for future Big Band gigs. He took solos and held his own with Peter Ecklund on trumpet and Mr. C, Curtis Lindberg, on slide trombone. David announced that he wanted mandolin players on stage. He collected Sam Bush and Tim Carbone. They then did a few of the Bromberg bluegrass standards in his typical style. He finished his bluegrass arrangement with his trademark triple fiddles. At one point he egged his own mandolin player, Mitch Corbin, to play like Sam Bush. Mitch tried, but you could hear Mitch saying he was intimidated because Sammy was looking over his shoulder as he played.
Eventually, David had Jorma back on stage with an electric guitar in his hands. He also gave Sammy his telecaster. Apparently David had the idea of a big blues finale. Sammy did not like the telecaster, so someone brought him out a Gibson hollow body which he gladly accepted and started to play. The slow blues was fabulous. Both Jorma and Sammy took extended electric guitar leads. It is amazing how well Sam plays the blues guitar. Bromberg provided blues vocals as only he can.
Well into the blues jam, the power went out. My buddy and I both happened to be looking at the big generator off stage right towards the river. We saw it puff out a cloud of dark smoke just before Bromberg and his friends went silent. People scurried about and after more than 10 minutes, the power came back. We were picking up our stuff to leave and had to set it back down for whatever was going to happen next. It was worth the wait.
The band broke into a very fast version of the Bromberg classic “Sharon.” It was great. I have heard this tune performed live perhaps 20+ times and I never tire of it. Today was no exception. The horns and drums added so much the tune. Wonderful. After a quick break, the everyone who was around came out to play with David on Robert Johnson’s blues classic, “Sweet Home Chicago.” This was a fine ending to a great event. What a way to end the day.
After driving back to York County for the night we had the opportunity to take a leisurely journey through northern York County as we moved towards the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival for their Sunday show. York County is incredibly beautiful with farms and vistas that simply inspire good feelings. My buddy Tom, gave me a back roads only route to get to the Granite Hill Campground for the Gettysburg event. We really like the little town, New Berlin. I am so glad he pointed us towards rural York County.