20th annual Al Ras Bluegrass and Old Time Festival in Barcelona

Closing jam at the 2021 Al Ras Bluegrass and Old Time Festival – photo by Eduardo Manzanera

This review of the 2021 Al Ras Bluegrass & Old Time Festival in Barcelona is a contribution from Michael Luchtan, an American living and studying bluegrass in Spain.

Friday, November 5 was the 20th Annual Al Ras Bluegrass and Old Time Festival in Barcelona, Spain. It was a toned down affair this year compared with festivals from before 2020, where there was always a band from the states, and a band from outside the region, invited in to help the local bluegrasseros and old-time musicians celebrate. It almost doesn’t seem like the same festival when I look back on the Bluegrass Today article from 2019. Tony Williamson didn’t show up for the house band and to give a mandolin master class, we didn’t have Jeff Scroggins and the Scrogg Dogs spilling out of the hallways at Mollet jamming with the locals, no friends from France, not even the folks from Madrid came in to see the show this time.

While it is true the festival was understated this year, we all still had a great time. It was a full house (at reduced capacity) at La Sedeta, the traditional Friday night location for the festival. The Al Ras house band, led by Jorge Rodriguez, led musicians from the regular bluegrass jam in some jam favorites, including members from local bluegrass bands like the Newgrass Republic (Tony Jou, Joan Manel Hernandez, Paco Torres), Yerba Azul (Jorge Rodriguez, Pepe Fuster), Woodspell (Isaac Casas, Jordi Marquillas), and of course Lluís Gómez of the Barcelona Bluegrass Band, FlamenGrass, and the only member present at the very first Al Ras 20 years ago, was up there too.

The annual raffle was a great success, with local Banjista Laura Frucella winning a year’s subscription to ArtistWorks, and others getting strings from Spanish string maker Gato Negro, a microphone from Santa Cruz de Tenerife VS Audio Systems, and a young violinist with the lucky number 77 won the Introduction to Bluegrass Fiddling by Lluís Gómez and Oriol Saña along with a 15% discount on a mic from La Lonja Audio, the distributors for Ear Trumpet in Spain.

Although the line-up for the festival was strictly local, the crowd received a surprise when visiting old-time musician Brad Kolodner took the stage and played a song on a borrowed banjo during the intermission between the two main acts, giving everyone a final chance to buy a raffle ticket.

The second act, Woodspell, evolved out of the Silky Ramblers, a group that met at the 4th annual Barcelona Bluegrass Camp. This group of accomplished musicians played well arranged originals in the native Catalan language. From what I was told, it was important for these musicians to write and sing in Catalan, as that is the language they felt they could best express themselves in. Cristobal Torres holds the rhythm steady and provides bluegrass fills and solos, and the bass player Oriol Aguilar has not only the necessary groove of a bluegrass player, but also the ability to step beyond a simple alternating bass. A lot of the interplay of the band happened between the sister instruments of the mandolin and violin, and the harmony between the voices of the musicians who play them: Isaac and Jordi. Like a lot of the other musicians in the audience, I am hoping that some more of their material gets recorded and made available.

After Woodspell played an encore, there was one more act, a somewhat impromptu group that has grown to be a tradition. All the musicians who were involved in the evening got up on stage and played together. While some musicians had to stay on the side of the stage due to COVID restrictions, everyone joined together to close the festival with a heartfelt rendition of Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Let’s hope the circle will remain unbroken, and we will see everyone again in good health next year, the first weekend in November for the 21st Al Ras Bluegrass and Old Time Show.