Spain’s Al Ras Bluegrass & Old Time Festival 2019

This review of the 2019 Al Ras Bluegrass & Old Time Festival in Barcelona is a contribution from Michael Luchtan, an American living and studying bluegrass in Spain.

In Catalan, the regional language of Catalunya, Al Ras means “in the open air,” and the Al Ras Bluegrass and Old Time Festival has its origin as an outdoor Bar-B-Q amongst like-minded musician friends in Mollet, a small town just outside of Barcelona. Fortunately for us, the city of Mollet saw this gathering of bluegrass musicians as something special, and worked with the group to organize a more serious event, something that has now become an annual multi-day festival held the second weekend of November. Although most of the events are centered around Barcelona, the Saturday night main concert continues to be sponsored by the city of Mollet. Its traditional location, el Mercat Vell (the old market), became unavailable at the last minute, but the city secured the Centre Cívic Can Pantiquet, a neighborhood civic center, to host the event.

In fact, a community center in Mollet is a great location for a bluegrass and old time event because bluegrass music, even in these wayward antipodes of the bluegrass nation, is a socially driven, community supported music. Now in its 18th year, the 2019 Al Ras Bluegrass and Old Time Music Festival was a great success, building community by encouraging local bands and hosting some quite respectable outside acts. 

Tony Williamson, world-traveling mandolinist from Chatham County, North Carolina and winner of the 2018 North Carolina Heritage Award, had been visiting Barcelona and working with local musicians for almost two weeks before the festival. He comfortably shared the stage with the opening act, the Al Ras House Band. The House Band is a rotating cast of characters consisting of the musicians who show up at the biweekly bluegrass jam at La Sonora: community members like Jorge Rodriguez on guitar, Joan Manel HernĂ ndez on cajaon mandolin, Laura Pacios on violin, and Albert Vojtech on harmonica.

Honorary Al Ras community member, the great banjoist Jean-Marie Redon, was in town for the festival, from just over the Pyrenees in his native France, with Sharon Lamont. He played a few numbers with the house band while Sharon got onstage and started clogging. Redon is credited with bringing bluegrass to much of Europe through his influential album, Paris Banjo Sessions (1975). Redon’s album, which also featured Bill Keith, was the first bluegrass record available in Catalunya after the dictator Franco died in 1975.  

In addition to being in the House band, Tony Williamson was a featured performer for the festival. Tony, who’s love for wine has taken him on a tour of bluegrass communities up and down the Mediterranean coast, was backed up by the Barcelona Bluegrass Band: Lluis Gomez on banjo, Maribel Rivera on bass, and Phil Fernbach on guitar. Tony and the band expertly worked the condenser microphone center stage (donated to the organization by Ear Trumpet Labs), and the room came alive with the sounds of a modern Bill Monroe. 

On stage directly after Tony and the band was Bum Ditty, a Barcelona group consisting of local fiddler Joana GumĂ­ and Rutherford county, North Carolina transplant Ned Somerville. The front porch sounds of central Appalachia aren’t often heard near cosmopolitan Barcelona, but Bum Ditty captured the crowd in Mollet with the old time flavor of a Clifftop campground. The duo sings harmonies, both alternating on banjo and fiddle, with Joana seamlessly stretching her violin till it scratches.

After Bum Ditty was the new, next best thing: the Barcelona Bluegrass Kids! The bluegrass kids are the next generation of bluegrass musicians in Catalonia, the pride of the Al Ras community, conducted by Maribel Rivero (bassist for the Barcelona Bluegrass Band). The musicians range from age 7 to 13 and cover violin, bass, guitar, and banjo, and are growing up making bluegrass music together. The group plays classics known to bluegrass communities around the globe: songs that are everyone’s first bluegrass tunes such as Angeline the Baker and Old Joe Clark. The audience loved it!

France was well-represented at this year’s Al Ras. Not only were Jean-Marie and Sharon there, performing on-stage with the house band and in the hallway jams outside the concert, but the next group onstage, Mando Duo, also made the drive over the mountains from France. For this show the two mandolin players, Bernard Minari and Daniel Portales, were accompanied by Daniel’s brother, Patrice Portales on fiddle. Bill Monroe defined what bluegrass players today think about the mandolin, but the angelic tremolo of this instrument in fact stems from the folk traditions of Europe. Of course, it’s no easy task to follow the Bluegrass Kids, but the band got the crowd’s attention with lyrical, original tunes on the mandolin and mandocello. One memorable moment of their show was when the group played an original tune dedicated to LluĂ­s GĂłmez, longtime friend of the duet, and the head organizer of the festival. The night of the concert, the three made lasting contributions to the community in the spontaneous jams that occurred, and followed up with a well-received appearance at the regular Bluegrass Jam held at La Sonora the following night.

Barcelona is host to a number of different bluegrass and old time music groups, and the weeks leading up to the festival saw members of the Al Ras House Band perform with bands like Newgrass Republic and YerbAzul. But the local headliner for the 2019 Al Ras festival was none other than the Silky Ramblers, a progressive bluegrass band featuring originals written by Isaac Casas and Jordi Marquillas and a few unusual covers (like the Louvin Brothers Great Atomic Power). Isaac is a talented improvisor on the mandolin, and Jordi plays the fiddle in the group. The two sang harmonies in Catalan and English, powered by impressive bass playing from Oriol Aguilar, banjo from David Munne, and great flatpicking from guitarist Cristobal Torres. The Silky Ramblers are one of the most original groups in Catalunya, pushing the progressive bluegrass boundary with effortless musicianship.  

The community raffle served as intermission between the local headliners and the big American band from out of town. For the raffle, the youngest member of the Barcelona Bluegrass Kids drew numbers from a hat, and the winners were invited to come onstage to receive prizes including Al Ras T-shirts, a ukelele donated by Fanatic Guitars music store, capos from Shubb and hats from Northfield, and a collection of albums such as the Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real, donated by longtime Al Ras supporter “Disco 100” music shop.  

The headlining act was a group from the states, Jeff Scroggins and the Scroggdogs. Jeff’s powerful rolls on the banjo only rarely took center-stage, as most of the spotlight was given to the twin power duo of Scott Gates on mandolin and Yusef Tucker on guitar. The two grew up in a supportive bluegrass community in California, and their musical familiarity kept the harmonies on point, the tempos snappy, and the arrangements tight, loose, and seemingly well-oiled. Evan Winsor rounded out the group on bass.

The night ended as all great festivals do, welcoming everyone onstage for a final jam of the evening. A crowded stage played through Old Joe Clark and the local favorite, Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The magic of the evening continued offstage as impromptu jams broke out in the hallways, in an exciting mix of local and out of town musicians. For a community-produced festival, this is the true reason they volunteer so much time to put on an event. As community member Juan Pablo pointed out, the purpose of the festival is not simply to produce a show for the public, but to provide an opportunity for the community to raise the level of their playing by exposing them to great musicians from the US.

The Al Ras Bluegrass and Old Time Festival is not just a weekend of concerts, but more importantly, it is events like the banjo workshop by Jeff Scroggins, the mandolin workshop by Tony Williamson, and the opportunity for members of the community to come together to play bluegrass music socially with new and old musical friends from close to home and far away.