This report on the Al Ras festival in Barcelona is a contribution from Michael Luchtan.
We celebrated the 21st Al Ras Bluegrass and Old Time Music festival on the first weekend of November, 2022. This was the first time since 2019 that the festival had returned as a four day event. In between jams and musical memories, there were a number of magical moments and unforgettable performances, including one of the last by the current lineup of the legendary Euro Bluegrass band, Red Herring.
The festival started on Thursday in the back of La Sonora de Gràcia, just up the street from the little plaza Sant Miquel. Friends, fans, and family came out to see the Newgrass Republic, fronted by lead singer and rhythm guitarist Tony Jou, with Joan Manel on mandolin, Albert Queralt on harmonica, Paco Torres on bass, and Ignasi Cardus on banjo. Playing bluegrass infused with a dose of Gram Parsons, the Newgrass Republic were co-erced into giving us two encores, ending with the crowd rousing rendition of Mule Skinner Blues.
On Friday the crowd gathered in the downstairs bar of La Sedeta to jam amongst the otherwise everyday festivities going on at a local community center: after school birthday parties, family gatherings, old folks playing cards, and kids outside playing soccer. But in the auditorium upstairs, the audience was there to see bluegrass, and they were treated to the premiere performance of Howlin’, a duo with Isaac Casals from the group WoodSpell Band – and previously of the Silky Ramblers – and Jorge Rodriguez, who is the guitarist for YerbAzul. Their performance veered toward the sweet harmonies of old time brother duets served with a healthy portion of Norman Blake, all punctuated with virtuosic performances on mandolin by Casals and enchanting solos by Rodriguez.
After Howlin’ left the stage, the crowd was treated to the tight stage presence and powerful musicianship of Red Herring. The Amsterdam-Rotterdam band has been one of the most prominent bluegrass bands in Europe for the last decade. It started out as a duo between Joram and Arthur, both multi-instrumentalists, but turned into a trio with the addition of bassist and singer-songwriter Loes van Schaijk. The band solidified as a quartet with strong bluegrass foundations when they were joined by Paul van Vlodrop. Paul is a pillar of bluegrass in Europe, he is a popular teacher at bluegrass camps, including the Barcelona Bluegrass Camp, and performed throughout Europe and the United States. He has the chops to show from sharing the stage with legendary “Bluegrasseros” like Bill Keith and Byron Berline. The crowd remained mesmerized the whole set while band members passed instruments around, and swapped turns singing lead.
The major event of the festival has always been on Saturday, a little outside Barcelona in the lovely town of Mollet, in the old food market turned community auditorium in the center of town. Bluegrass musicians jammed in between stellar performances by great bands, a raffle, and the Bluegrass Kids. The show started quietly, but with a show-stopping performance of the Oriol Saña Trio. Oriol is at the highest level of violin mastery in Barcelona, and the tradition of violin artistry goes back quite some time in this city that has long been a cultural capital of Europe. We are lucky that he spent some years at Berklee and fell in love with the fiddle stylings of bluegrass. The Oriol Saña Trio provided by far the most magical moments, holding time hostage to transport us to another plane, illustrating the musical depth that this community has.
The Al Ras Bluegrass Kids took the stage after the Oriol Saña Trio, and were a highlight for the parents in the crowd (I’m a particular fan of the boy with the handsome head of hair playing fiddle in the back row (my son)). There were 15 kids in all: two cellos, one guitar, one banjo, 12 violins. They sang and played You Are My Sunshine and two instrumentals: Old Joe Clark in D and Cripple Creek in A. Friends, things look promising for fiddlers in Barcelona in the next five, ten years! A big thank you to the band coach, Maribel Rivera – the kids love you!
The Denim Rips, from Lleida, took the stage next and set the tone for the rest of the night. Seven stout members skillfully powered through bluegrass and folk numbers, singing with an infectious chorus effect that had everyone wanting to join along. Johnny Rooster, playing a Pratt banjo, was the organizer behind The Old Rooster Festival in Lleida, and is a graphic designer of the highest quality, evidenced by the beautiful poster that he designed for this year’s festival.
FlamenGrass performed next, demonstrating the breadth of our musical community, by mixing Barcelona bluegrass with a strong taste of flamenco. Guitarist Javier Vaquero is an accomplished flamenco musician, and banjoist Lluís Gómez is a pillar of bluegrass in the area, not just continuously showing up and holding down his chair in the bi-monthly Barcelona Bluegrass jam in La Sonora, but also regularly attending IBMA and playing at various Festivals in Europe. His instructional book for the five string banjo, co-written with Toni Giménez, was the first instructional book for banjos available in Catalan. Bassist Maribel Rivera and violinist Carol Duran are comfortable in both flamenco and bluegrass, along with many other situations that they see in their professional musical life. When they walk the bridge, with Lluís on one side and Javier on the other, an infectious groove emerges.
By the time Yerbazul took the stage, the kids had gotten a little antsy from sitting around and were outside busking for donations and selling tickets to the raffle. Two american expats living in Barcelona, Don Dworkin on bass and Ricky Araiza on mandolin, get together once a week to drink wine and work on songs with bluegrass guitarist Jorge Rodríguez and banjo player Pepe Fuster, and the result is a familiar yet distinct sound of Americana, ranging from The Band to bluegrass standards.
After Yerbazul, while the headlining band, Red Herring, was setting up, we held the annual raffle. A big congratulations to the winner of the year subscription to ArtistWorks, and thank you to our other sponsors: the musical publishing house DINSIC, Gato Negro, producing high-quality guitar strings for Barcelona musicians for over 150 years, and the participating bands who donated CDs.
Red Herring treated us to another performance of their fine-tuned set, one of the last shows that the band will do with this current lineup. Where Joram and Arthur will go next no one knows, but lets hope they take a little bluegrass with them.
At the end of the show, all the musicians got onstage for a rousing final jam, and slowly drifted home, basking in the warmth of a social music event.
On Sunday, whoever still had the energy (and it was over ten musicians), came out to Rubí for a Bar-B-Que and Jam at El Barn d’en Greg – Greg’s Barn. It’s a recreated barn-dance venue catering to the Catalan country-line dance crowd, and musicians from Red Herring, Newgrass Republic, Flamengrass, and the Oriol Saña Trio played along with visitors in the center of the ample dance floor, drinking beers, trading licks, cutting up, and generally enjoying musical fellowship, until Greg called everyone to the table for a healthy portion of BBQ Chicken and ribs.
As winter approaches, we will continue to meet at La Sonora for Barcelona Bluegrass Jam twice a month, and at the slow-jam once a month, and plan for the next big event, the 7th Barcelona Bluegrass Camp, held the first weekend in March 2023! Hope to see you there!