Circus No. 9 at the 2021 Podunk Bluegrass Festival – photo by Dale Cahill
The campers were lined up on route 63 when Podunk Bluegrass Festival 2021 opened its gates on Wednesday, August 11 in Goshen, CT. Rich Heepe welcomed the crowd, and Rich Whitman offered golf cart concierge service to help campers find just the right spot. Everyone was relieved that the festival had begun. Smiles all around.
Rich James and Shawn Szirbik, Podunk board members, were happy to see the steady stream of campers. Julie James, Podunk Treasurer, tallied a sixty percent increase in campers this year. A welcome boost in attendance! With thirty bluegrass bands, around the clock workshops, vendors, and food trucks there was something for everyone. The Goshen Fairgrounds is also proving to be the festival’s best location yet. The clean facilities, easy to negotiate festival lay out and prompt shuttle service were as nice as any bluegrass festival we have ever attended.
The festival kicked off on Thursday with a band competition which included four bands, The Bad Oats, The Green Sisters, On The Trail, and West King String Band. The Bad Oats won the competition and The Green Sisters won fan favorites. There were also three workshops that first night, and a late-night jam with Beg, Steal or Borrow and Grain Thief.
On Friday, the song writing contest winner was announced. This year Richard Piccarreto won for his song Tenney Hill. The Friday night lineup included the Rock Hearts, Circus No.9, the Slocan Ramblers, David Peterson & 1946, and Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper. Seeing Circus No. 9, a band we were hoping to hear this festival season, was a treat. This laid back and extremely talented group of four progressive musicians from East Tennessee did not disappoint. We are always happy to hear On the Shelf by Circus No. 9 included in the Sirius XM playlist. Tom Cassell’s distinctive vocals backed up by his talented band members keeps us singing along.
Unbeknownst to festival goers, on Friday afternoon Julie James got a call from Michael Cleveland telling her that his bus had broken down in Milford, Pennsylvania and he couldn’t find any rentals to get them to Goshen. The Podunk crew rallied, found a passenger van, hooked up a trailer and sent two volunteers to make the five-hour round trip to collect Cleveland and his band. In the spirit of solidarity, that night Dave Peterson and his band 1946 extended his own set by an hour to give Cleveland time to take the stage. Michael Cleveland and the Flamekeepers took the stage at ten o’clock and played until midnight to a full and enthusiastic crowd. At the end of the set, Cleveland then joined the late-night jam with Circus No. 9 and the Rock Hearts.
Saturday’s shows went more smoothly for the crew and included AJ Lee and Blue Summit, The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys, Billy Droze, and The Jacob Jolliff Band. The mix of traditional and progressive bluegrass kept everyone satisfied. The crowd enjoyed Billy Droze’s polished stage show. Then they were mesmerized by the Jacob Jolliff Band.
Another treat for us was attending workshops. A fiddle workshop led by Neil Rossi and another by Austin Scelzo were particularly helpful. Both natural teachers, they mixed concrete practicing techniques with basic music theory. The workshops were designed to appeal to both experienced and novice musicians.
Organizing this festival during the COVID Pandemic created new challenges for Podunk’s promoters, in large part due to scarcity of goods and materials. James said that even finding enough port-o-lets proved difficult. One problem they did not have was finding willing, able, and dedicated volunteers do all that is needed to run a successful festival. They nailed it and we suspect that bluegrass fans new to Podunk in 2021 will return next year.