Thomas Point Beach reborn

This contribution comes from Dick Bowden, who will be a regular correspondent on Bluegrass Today. Here he files his detailed report on the resurrected Thomas Point Beach festival, held this past Labor Day weekend near Brunswick, Maine after having heard its requiem read in 2008.

The site is a beautiful as ever, just spitting distance from the tidal (ocean water). Since the festival was last held 3 years ago, the Brunswick Naval Air Station has closed, so we no longer “enjoy” the frequent low-level flyovers by the US Navy’s P3 Orion submarine-hunting planes.

Host Pati Crooker surprised and pleased the many fans of the 30 plus year old festival in May by announcing a 3-day line-up of top bluegrass talent. Her son Michael Mulligan has the bit in his teeth as budding Manager, and he shows all the needed urge to run this festival again! No commitment yet on next year, but Michael sure seemed up for it!

When not hosting bluegrass festivals, the huge site is a popular day picnic grounds, playground and beach for the local folks.

Already on Thursday there was plenty of the campsite jamming or field picking as they call it in Maine.  Here’s an example of Maineiac (it’s the proper term) enthusiasts who called themselves The Nitpickers (bass: Woody Woods, steel guitar: Richard Bernier, fiddle: Yvan Moreau from Quebec, guitar: Jane Bernier). As the weekend went along they were joined by many other banjoists, guitarists, mandolinists, etc. The infamous Greenwood campsite (Eddie and Jackie Greenwood and extended family from Delmar NY) had late-night jams throughout the weekend. There were many others – Thomas Point Beach has always been well known as a great picking festival.

Friday morning as the heavy sea fog lifted off the festival grounds, the festival staged an “organized placing of lawn chairs” in front of the stage. The closest parallel would be the old movies you see of the opening of the Oklahoma territory to settlers!

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage were the headliners Friday. Prior to the set, fiddler Hunter Berry strolled the festival grounds and visited with fans and friends. That’s another feature at TPB, the musicians are really encouraged (really encouraged!) by the Management to get out and mingle with the attendees. Later in the weekend Jamie Johnson and Jeremy Abshire of the Grasscals (just returned from a festival in northeastern Quebec) visited with a young fan and fixed his hair so he could sing and play with the band someday. Grasscals bass picker Terry Smith has made a fan for life out of 10 year old Eddie Greenwood – he’s already learning to play bass fiddle and is pestering his folks to buy him one!

Another Friday set featured local legend and IBMM Bluegrass Pioneer Al Hawkes & The Nighthawks, ending their set with lots of friends joining in a big jam session, including Carl and Judy Pagter from Country Ham, who played their own set later in the weekend.

Friday night the newly-minted festival manager Michael Mulligan strolled from campsite to campsite (and campfire to campfire), visiting (“visiting hard” as they say in Maine) getting to know his customers and asking their opinions. Everyone pestered him about next year, but he just said “read the program!” which told us maybe yes, maybe no.  We’ll see!

On Friday Karl Shifflet and his enthusiastic Big Country Show tore it up as usual. I haven’t seen Karl in a couple of years, so it was good to see in addition to son Chris on bass, as always, he’s found 3 great pickers and singers to carry on! A highlight for this reporter was seeing Karl take the Lester Flatt guitar break on Six White Horses, to perfection! ALLLL right!

Other sets on Friday were from local pickers Manic Mountain, and also a hot set by Sierra Hull.

Back in the campgrounds, many folks were planning day trips to buy lobsters and other local fresh seafood.

On Saturday, as the weather warmed nicely, this reporter was excited to see J.D. Crowe and the New South, to see how J.D.’s healed left arm performed. Although J.D. didn’t sing, his picking was as usual, riveting.

If you ask me, J.D. Crowe is more interesting playing back-up, off the mike, than any other banjo player taking a break! They did a particularly wonderful version of The Leaves That Are Green. Another highlight moment was there last chord at the closing of Girl From the North Country, in the key of B. All five band members hit that last note so clean, so hard and so together, it reminded one of a big cathedral bell being struck with a piledriver. Really rattled your liver! J.D.’s arm looked good, and worked fine.  Guitarist Ricky Wasson said it was bionic, but they often make a mistake on its battery and use 12 volts when they should use 9 volts. Oh well…

At this time it also became noticeable how widespread ear monitors seem to be becoming with bands. Things are changing (as always) in bluegrass music!

Danny Paisley’s Southern Grass did their usual exuberant, or might one say boisterous, hard-driving traditional bluegrass set. Danny always seems to be having the biggest time in his life when he’s on stage! Even way off in the campground, you could really hear some of Danny’s whoops, making one listener state “he sounds like Curly Sechler singing just vowels with Lester Flatt!”

What a pleasure to sit and listen again to Dudley Connell’s voice with the Seldom Scene! Dudley is among the select few bluegrass vocalists who’s singing voice sounds just like his speaking voice, no artifice in the singing. The Scene was having such an obvious good time it was infectious. Good ol’ Ben Eldredge got the crowd cranked up as he sold the performance of Lay Down Sally of course. When the fellows would do those long drawn-out trio endings, it reminded this old fan of “the good old days” when you could see The Osborne Brothers, and well, The Seldom Scene doing these extravagant vocal gymnastics to close out songs.

It struck me funny to think of the Scene as”traditional bluegrass and part of the old days.  Dudley announced that the Scene has been in business 40 years now. Sigh… Listening to the Scene again was a lush, luxurious experience.  The huge crowd in the orderly lawn chairs certainly agreed.

The Steep Canyon Rangers closed out Friday night with energy. Fast, crisp, and good long jam arrangements – seems like their first number ran 6 or 7 minutes! A listener who likes the old traditional stuff said the Rangers are clearly doing bluegrass using new songs and lyrics and topics; modern but “without cheese” in their material. Interesting viewpoint…

The Rangers are clearly great ambassadors for bluegrass, whether on their own, or supporting Steve Martin’s show.

Another Friday feature was the triumphant return of the Country Man Dan experience – Dan Henderson of White Plains NY and his band of merry pickers doing Alan Jackson songs with a bluegrass/reggae rhythm! Watch out on YouTube for a hot backstage jam after the show closed out.

Sunday dawned the warmest yet with more new acts on the roster. This reporter took the time to check out Peter Rowan and his Bluegrass Band. I never know what to expect from Pete Rowan, and frankly never got into Free Mexican Air Forces and American Indian material, but nevertheless, Pete can surprise. Which he did.

Supported by Jody Stecher on mandolin, Mike Witcher on steel guitar and Paul Knight on bass fiddle, they got my attention instantly with the pulsing opening number Jailer Jailer, one of Pete’s orginals. Now where else are you gonna hear lyrics like “My God is better than your God; My God can really do the job; But your God is just… odd…”

Jody Stecher sang some gut-bucket blues for a solo. Rob McCoury came out to help near the end of the set with some bluegrassier numbers like Edd Mayfield’s I’m Knocking on Your Door. Sitting in the sunny audience area on a warm afternoon it struck this observer that Pete was doing the most dignified set of music I can remember. Perfect for a relaxing afternoon.

His guitar playing was just perfect, even for an old mossy fig like me. I wasn’t disappointed, when Pete announced the next tune would be dedicated to “the Tibetan cause,” and his admiration for His Holiness the Dali Lama. While I didn’t understand a lot of what Pete was talking about, his song told the history of Buddhism coming from India to China in the 7th or 8th century. “Across the lonesome hills, I come riding…” was the interesting refrain’s opening lines.

This year Thomas Point Beach joined the festivals that are now scheduling acts to a single appearance in one day, with a one set lasting 90 minutes. A number of fans volunteered to Bluegrass Today their general displeasure with this development, feeling it’s often too difficult to sit in the sun for a full 90 minutes, or if God forbid you miss the set (lobster road trip?) you miss the artist all together.

It also seems to somewhat restrict the musicians ability to mingle and visit with the crowd. Let’s find out how widespread this phenomenon is, and just who likes it or doesn’t. The general view I got was that it might be good for the bands’ schedules, getting from one booking to another, but some opined perhaps it’s wearing on the musicians too.

Perhaps so, later in the day Pete Rowan and The Traveling McCourys did a 90 minute set of all Bill Monroe music. During the set Pete said “90 minutes straight of Bill Monroe’s music?  What was I thinking?” Tony Rice did not make it to the festival to participate in this set, to the understandable but forgiving disappointment of many flatpicking fans in attendance.

On Sunday a visit with a family of Floridians and South Carolians who had flown up for the weekend led to a detailed discussion of chitlins. This is why Maine needs the Thomas Point Beach festival. Where else are the Maineacs gonna learn that other folks in the country eat food weirder than lobsters? Chitlins?

Did I mention that this led to an argument between the South Carolinian and a Tennessean about the proper name for pork tripe? Tripe?! No! PAUNCH!

To someone from Maine, this is more fun than watching professional wrestling. Meanwhile the Southerners were cooking and serving a fest of barbecued pulled pork and beef brisket and red hot sausage. I didn’t stay for the chitlins and tripe… er, paunch…

Meanwhile on stage The Grascals purveyed their happy show to a full house Several fans mentioned that Kristin Scott Benson’s banjo playing has reached a new peak of talent.  Very true!

If it’s possible to say such a thing, Del McCoury’s festival-closing might possibly have been the best set he’s ever done. 90 minutes of whip-cracking tight, powerful, shall we say, “manly” bluegrass.  Wow! The boys were on… full military power…

After the set Del gave all the credit to the excellent sound system, saying “You know I could really hear good, heh heh, it’s easy to sing when you can hear good!”  Rob’s banjo was particularly powerful, playing a banjo made by his father in law Dave Kennedy of West Virginia, made back in the 1960s. It’s a powerhouse!

Just as Del closed the show, and Pati Crooker and her son Michael and their staff took the stage to say “Thanks!” and sing Will The Circle Be Unbroken, who, or what, rolls into the audience area but a truck towing a flat bed trailer loaded with hay bales, old wagon wheels and Christmas light with The Tennessee Mafia Jug Band ballyhooing for all they were worth! Electricians and sound men scurried to wire up the flat bed when it stopped, and Leroy Troy and the Jug Band made like a hen and laid it on ’em for another 90 minutes!

The crowd was mesmerized by this apparition. A rendition of Ghost Chickens in the Sky rendered the folks ecstatic!  Great to see Brother Ernie Sykes Jr., (ex Bluegrass Cardinals from “the old days”) playing bass with the Jug Band. Shad Cobb flat WORE OUT his fiddle for the folks. Lester Armistead, as usual, was singing tenor as if at gunpoint.

Troy closed the night and the festival with about 15 minutes of solo banjo playing, singing and monkeyshines. The crowd wouldn’t let him leave, so he did something I’ve never seen him do before, he played a patriotic medley on his clawhammer banjo:  American the Beautiful, God Bless America, Grand Old Flag, The Stars & Stripes Forever, Yankee Doodle, Dixie, etc, while the crowd rared back on the hind feet and bellered like a dying calf in a hailstorm. A very effective closing. And, IBMA notwithstanding, you just can’t have enough hay bales in bluegrass music.

Oh and then, Pati and Michael engaged Country Ham to run a jam session at the big fire pit for another hour, plus! Fine old time fiddling and banjo picking!

Although only 3 days long instead of the usual 4, the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Special may have been as good a festival as they’ve ever put on in 30 plus years. Certainly a top line up of talent. Some folks are going to regret not making it there, the crowd was a bit smaller than usual – perhaps due to scheduling conflicts since the festival was only announced in May, also probably due to some folks in the northeast being held at home cleaning up from Hurricane Irene. It would be interesting to know if the Delaware Vally festival in New Jersey this same weekend also saw the gate down a bit.

Great line-up, perfect Maine weather (cool at night!), beautiful stars in the sky and the sea 100 feet away, great jams til 4:00 in the morning, an impromptu stage set by an all-girl band on the empty but still-lit main stage late Sunday night/Monday morning. These enthusiastic ladies drew scores of people back to the stage and endured quite a bit of good-natured heckling from the mostly male crowd.

One exchange “You’re pretty good, for girls!” Retort from the banjo picker “You’re pretty articulate, for an a**hole…”  Now where else are you going to find that kind of fun?  For the sake of propriety, let us refrain from reporting the name this thrown-together band of enthusiastic ladies. Let’s not encourage this…

Well, this is your faithful reporter Dick Bowden, signing off with my new catch-phrase for this political season:  RALPH STANLEY FOR PRESIDENT!