Perfect sunny, breezy day to head out to the barns and rolling fields of the Carroll County Farm Museum for the 2007 iteration (10th annual) Common Ground on the Hill traditional music and arts festival. The 4 stages had started running with all kinds of music and dance at 10am, but life happened and my wife and I didn’t arrive until 2pm.
With the late start, I had one item on my agenda. Find Tony Ellis. Tony is a modern master of tradition singing, fiddle playing and especially banjo composing. His CD “The Quest” (http://www.tonyellisbanjo.com/store/quest.html) is one of the purest, sweetest pieces of acoustic music to come out in the last 30 years.
First stop, race to the Garden Stage for my annual favorite workshop – “Banjos On Fire.”
Tony is there with Bob Lucas, Dave Bing and some other great pickers. He tells a story and plays a song about a hanging judge and his hangman who built a scaffold that could hang 6 men at a time. The discovery of this workshop, though, is Kate Lissauer. She played “Hog-Eyed Man” on a long necked banjo whose deeper tone blended beautifully with the lower end of her vocal range. I bought her “Ain’t No Grave” CD so I could hear it again. (www.katelissauer.com/recordings_main.htm) Plus, she’s real purty – though I didn’t make that observation to my wife. 6 banjos burned it down together on “Soldier’s Joy” to end the session.
Next stop, out to the Amphitheater Stage for more Tony at the “Fiddles Galore” workshop. This is one of the best spots for traditional music I’ve ever been in. Just a 50ish seat natural theater with benches mounted on the hillside, surrounded by pine woods. Tony pulled out “Round Knights of the Table” off “The Quest.” Kate Lissauer showed she can scratch a nice old-time fiddle, though her voice doesn’t suit it as well. How anyone can sing while playing chin-rest fiddle is beyond me, though half of these eight fiddlers could do it.
Workshop time gave way to concert time and we followed the performers’ golf cart over to the Selko Stage for an hour of (big surprise) Tony Ellis and the Musicians of Braeburn. Tony was joined by his son William Lee on guitar and backed with bass and pump organ. They opened with “Ballad of Jesse James”, to which he said even audiences in Japan can sing the chorus in English. They played 4 more tracks off “The Quest” with “Paddlewheeler” the highlight, a couple off their new “Weaver’s Quilt” CD and songs inspired by recent tours in Japan and Belarus. At one point, the son took the mike for one by “American composer Charles Berry.” Their country spin on “Maybelline” was a hoot. William Lee also brought out a medley of Rev. Gary Davis tunes. Of course nobody interprets Rev. Gary Davis close to Jorma, but with strong singing and jaw-drop amazing picking, William Lee Ellis takes a distant second.
Last stop, we camped out for the rest of the night at the main Pavilion Stage. The warm-up hour before the headliners is always the Walt Michael String Band. Walt is the visionary, planner and maker of this fest and deserves this spotlight. When he plays his hammered dulcimer, sound-gems fly in all directions and hang like ornaments in the stand of beech trees that shades this stage.
Enter Jean Ritchie. I’m not familiar enough with her catalog to describe her setlist. But as Doc Watson noted later, she has incredible pitch control. Jean Ritchie’s voice is a wonder of nature. So strong and yet so ethereal at the same time. It’s like a powerful spirit blows out from the stage whenever she sings. After 6 or 7 songs, she invited Doc out to join her – reunion of their 1964 Live at Folk City album. They chatted briefly about what songs they still knew in common, settling first on “Storms Are On the Ocean.” Then Doc voiced what all of us had been thinking. Jean had been singing accapella or playing autoharp while her son accompanied on banjo. Doc said “Jean, I want to hear you play your dulcimer.” So she played the lead while they traded the conversational parts of “Shady Grove” and then finished with a give-me-chills version of “Amazing Grace.”
Doc Watson’s headline set was a thing of rare beauty. How he has retained such a resonant, unigue, perfectly measured singing voice into such advanced age is astonishing. The show was dual guitars throughout, no extra pieces. Second guitar for the first half was grandson Richard Watson, with Jack Lawrence taking the second half. Jack’s picking technique is amazingly skillful, but I personally prefer Richard’s phrasing and think it meshes better with Doc’s own. There were a few songs Jack sang that I didn’t recognize and a couple instrumentals I can’t name, but the bulk of the setlist went:
T for Texas
In the Pines
The Cat Came Back
I Am a Pilgrim
Eastbound Freight Train
Nights in White Satin
Yes, that’s Justin Hayward’s “Nights In White Satin” from the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past. Set my new standard for unexpected and surreal covers, surpassing Riche Havens covering Pink Floyd at last year’s fest. Doc’s version of “In the Pines” is the gold standard. All three guitarists came out to rock the “Workingman’s Blues” closer.
Doc was too tired to encore and everyone knew we’d had our due and respected that.
Bottom line – the folk-geek highlight of my year. 364 days and counting down to next year’s Common Ground on the Hill.
thats good stuff~
Doc is a national treasure, thanks for the review.
What Cleetus said. I'll add two words: Doc RULES!!
Doc Is Awesome!!!!!! I make sure I see him at least once a year.
Doc is the man....
only seen him 2x's but some of the best damn music i ever heard....
sounds like one heck of a festival....you easties do pretty well out there w/ traditional music...nice review...