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John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors

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"Bluegrass in the 'Burgs," Take Three


Text copyright by John McLaughlin, 2003: johnmcla@earthlink.net
Photographs copyright by Jamie Downs, 2003 : jamiedowns@earthlink.net

The Lost Ramblers have been carrying the banner for bluegrass in and around the Stroudsburgs since about 1978, when Neil Morris, Pete Papallardo and John Updike ("the other John Updike") first started getting together to pick and sing. The configuration has changed somewhat over the years, with various friends in and out of the band – but "Once a Lost Rambler, always a Lost Rambler" – and then about three or four years ago, the guys decided to throw their hat in the ring and go for broke, with their own nonprofit organization – see their website, at www.poconobluegrass.org - and their very own "Winterfest" three-day bluegrass festival (Fri Jan 31st, Sat Feb 1st and Sun Feb 2nd this year), to add to the monthly "Shindigs" they’ve been running for some time, up and downstairs at the beautiful old Elks Lodge, on Washington Street in E Stroudsburg ("Don’t Park in the Rosen’s Lot Next Door!")

This year, their Third Annual, they got the redoubtable Bob Paisley and The Southern Grass to headline on Saturday, plus an all-star lineup of regional bands, from The Blue Ridge Mtn Boys (hosts of the annual Newfoundland Bluegrass Festival, held each June up at the Greene-Dreher-Sterling Fairgrounds north of here), to Stained Grass Window, a mostly-gospel bluegrass group from out in Williamsport, to Raven Creek (from over Benton way), to Heavy Traffic (from "somewhere across the river in Jersey"), plus of course The Mason-Dixon Bandits, The Mill Creek Boys, and the Booglerizers – you believe in a tuba and the Mississippi Delta blues, don’t you? Sure. Listen to ‘em….

The Juggernaut String Band helped kick off the proceedings as part of the "Coffeehouse Stroll" on Friday Night, and the Ramblers called upon long-time friends and Old Time Music enthusiasts Wayfarers Too (Norm Williams and Bob Mallalieu), together with Raven Creek (Joe and Lorraine Feola) – from up Benton way - the Pocono Choral Society and Rev Glenn Simmons for Sunday morning’s "Gospel in The ‘Burgs," upstairs at the Elks Club – and of course there were the simultaneous sessions and shindigs going on everywhere you could shake a pick at. (We won’t even mention Todd Collins’ Mandolin Workshop, Frank Finocchio’s Instrument Clinic, or Anthony Hennigan, stepping in to run the Fiddle Workshop in place of the trapped-in-Ireland Tony DeMarco – you get the idea).

But then the Columbia disaster broke in on Saturday morning. The Lost Ramblers were not the only group who turned to "Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight," of course, but these are not the kind of people to wallow in borrowed grief, and following a brief, respectful tribute to American – and Israeli and Indian – heroes and heroines, the show went on.

Blueridge Mountain Boys

The Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, onstage when we arrived, delivered a high-powered, mandolin-driven set, marked by their version of Ricky Skaggs’ "Red Apple Rag," with a rippling mandolin (Scott Ero)-banjo (Tony McGill) duet, and their sorta-large bass player (Matt) stepped up as an unlikely Jack Herrick clone, doubling on pennywhistle, for a hard-driving version of "Blackberry Blossom," before, as noted, turning without preface to "Here’s to You, Amelia Earhart," and rounding off their set with Fats Domino’s "I’m Walkin’," charging ahead into Larry Sparks’ "1949," and offering up a 4-part a capella intro to a nice stop-time "The Fugitive," to carry them offstage.
   

Straight Drive


If you’ve heard Rhonda Vincent recently, then you’d be prepared for Straight Drive’s NY-based vocalist, Jen Larsen, with the kind of voice that could cut metal and send Alison Krauss running for cover. Tony McGill stayed onstage from The Blue Ridge Mtn Boys’ set, directing the proceedings from his banjo mike, stage right, big grin on his face at the crowd’s reaction to Jen’s amazing attack (she’s currently working with some other musicians, like Fairport Convention, on a Child Ballad CD-ROM due out later this year – listen for her version of "Lady Margaret – Doc Watson does it differently, I’d say!)
   
– and otherwise shepherding the band thro a very tight set, featuring among others Todd Collins on Bill Monroe’s "Kentucky Mandolin," riding thro a forest of mikes onstage. But it was impossible to get past that Mother Maybelle Carter sound of Jen Larsen on "Little Moses." A real keeper, someone to look out for down the line.

Second Wind

   
Second Wind, by contrast with most other bands here – who were taking advantage of all the mikes that festival soundman Jim Crawford could line up for them (as many as nine at a time) - went instead with a single mike suspended, old-time radio style, from the centre of the stage, the bass-player skipping in and out on vocal trios in time with the mandolin and guitar players – a bit rough on the banjo-picker (Andy Reiser), who couldn’t hike his cheese-cutter up that high, tho he sure sounded good if you watched close –
   
but the group delivered a mournful country weeper, "Best Female Actress," that had the ladies nodding and smiling along with the band, who, after a false start, ripped off a nice version of the old Stanley Brothers’ "Old Country Church" to boot. The dobro got a workout on the old boogie number, "Who Zat Who?" and the bass got a slap-solo on "If You Got the Time" that had the crowd demanding a second run-thro.

All of this – did I mention "I Know You’re Married" and "Bluegrass Stomp," "Nine Pound Hammer" and "I’ll Take the Blame"? – before the headliner even appeared….
Second Wind did more than warm up the crowd with a set that included their version of "Armadillo Breakdown," just for the heck of it, getting a well-deserved ovation before they vacated the stage for the Paisley/Lundy Family Band…
   

So what can you say about Bob Paisley and Southern Grass that hasn’t already been said in Bluegrass Unlimited? Not a whole heck of a lot, admittedly. Bob, one of Nature’s Southern gentlemen, has been playing this kind of music before many of his younger fans traded in their pacifiers for flatpicks ("I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name," oh my). Son Dan sounds more like Ricky Skaggs, when he gets up there into the upper ranges of the known musical scale, every year he comes around, promising "I’ll Break Out Again Tonight". TJ Lundy, son of the late Ted Lundy, is ever more the sweet and deft middle-of-the-bow, top-shelf fiddler, who can cut you as fat or thin a slice of any tune you care to name, from "Rachel" to oh, yeah, "Armadillo Breakdown," step back, fellas. The young mandolin-player Donny Eldridge is right up there with the rest of the band, showing off his chops – and vocal chords – on the Bill Harrell tune, "Are You Coming Back Again?" with Bobby Lundy on the five-string cheese-cutter and steadfast Mike Paisley on that rock-steady bass bringing everybody along on the set-closing "Shenandoah Breakdown" and on over to the record-table, for Dad and Dan busily signing a whole bunch of CD’s. You betcha.





Bob Paisley

Donny Eldridge
   

TJ Lundy

The Paisley Family
 

Southern Grass

Dan Paisley

Time for dinner. Down in the bar at the Elks Club, they’d set up a monster TV set so nobody had to miss a note of Heavy Traffic’s soaring set – "On the Way Back to My Home"- and boggle at the Booglerizers – spoons, tuba and harmonica, an old-time jug-band, swaggering thro, "Just Because You Think You’re So Pretty" - over a Bud or two. Amazing music, this. Whew. You wrung out yet?

Heavy Traffic

   

Booglerizers


   
 
     
 

Here come the Lost Ramblers and a pennywhistle….

Barbara McMahon is the latest Rambler, getting herself lost in these woods, somewhere between chamber-music (she’s a classical flautist) and Sunday marathons with Scottish strathspeys. It’s a long story, she’ll tell you if you ask her. Joined – or re-joined – by one of the original Ramblers, crew-cut fiddler Anthony Hennigan, and by his son Mike on mandolin, the festival hosts took over the stage before the return of Bob Paisley and Southern Grass - bluegrassers always give you fair value for your money, don’t they? - and away the after-dinner crowd went, toe-tapping their way thro "Lost John" and "Reuben’s Train," getting Barbara to skip them thro "Little Beggarman," with Neil, Paul and John raising their voices in a mournful version of "Rain and Snow."



   
   


A moment’s respectful silence for the seven Columbia astronauts led into "Holy Ground" – this is tact – fiddle and then mandolin picking up after the first verse, and the Lost Ramblers proceeded with the rest of a nicely-chosen set, to some extent drawing on their most recent CD, Are We There Yet? , the rest sounding casually-neatly off-the-cuff – (but guest fiddler Sue Cunningham joined them for a fiery, set-closing medley of "St Anne’s Reel/Whiskey Before Breakfast") - before they turned over the stage to their headliners, Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass, one more time.

Stained Grass Window  
   

And so it went, one musical treat after another (you can’t catch everything, your ears go numb – this is a bluegrass festival, remember?) – and this was just the scheduled program, with Williamsport’s Stained Grass Window having the perhaps unenviable task of finishing after Bob Paisley’s crew at night’s end.

Night’s end, did somebody say? There was still an open mike night set to go, down at the Best Western in Stroudsburg … church in the morning, and then another Pocono Bluegrass and Folk Society Shindig, upstairs and downstairs and everywhere else, at the Elks Club on Sunday afternoon…. Some people were gonna take this in stride, as their bluegrass birthright…. If we decided to head for home, while our ears were still ringing, do you forgive us? But we made sure we got ourselves our PBFS membership cards from the lady at the door, and we’ll certainly see y’all next time. (Did you know the record table sold out of CD’s? You cannot make up stuff like this).