Date: July 23 – 25, 2010
Venue: Campgrounds in Cornish, Maine
As I walked into the main stage area of the Ossipee Valley Music Festival for the first time in the late afternoon on Friday, my first reaction was “this is small”. By comparison to Merlefest or Falconridge it was, but that’s what gave Ossipee its charm. How small was it? Our tent was 5 feet from our car and our car was a 30 second walk to either stage. No bussing necessary. I was immediately impressed with the the lack of enforcement of unnecessary rules commonly associated with concerts. No one seemed to mind open containers of alcohol anywhere on the grounds, you could wander into the performers tent accidentally (I did), or sit 5 feet from the main stage with your camera and snap away until you were tired of sitting on the grass. If it wasn’t bothering anyone, it was fair game.
Our first music experience was a new band called Della Mae which started a trend of extremely talented female performers at this festival. They didn’t have much of a catalog to reach into (which they admitted to before the encores in both of their sets) but pulled out some interesting covers including “Della Mae”, the song you’d assume they took their name from. They took the stage at 7PM just as it was becoming dark, but not quite dark enough for the bright stage lights so the lighting was not favorable for zoom lens photography. I don’t get paid, so it didn’t bother me. I remained in TV mode for most of evening which helps to prevent blur but raises the ISO to around 800 which gives the photos the unwanted grainy quality. The solution to this is to get a much quicker zoom lens, or simply crop photos with a non-zoom lens, but I enjoy taking professional-style photos, even if the result isn’t always professional. Luckily this group of ladies were very photogenic, especially the bass, fiddle and Mandolin players.
The Belleville Outfit followed and were the energetic winners of the evening and were referenced throughout the weekend by other performers for their great set. They may be the least traditional band of the festival, and it wouldn’t be fair to classify them as bluegrass as they incorporate jazz in equal parts. We had just seem them 3 days prior at Johnny D’s in Somerville, and while the set was virtually identical, this performance was by far better. The highlights for me were”Time to Stand” off their latest album and their encore cover of “Get Back”.
It was officially twilight at this point, and the fiddle and keys player were extremely energetic which added a huge degree of difficulty with my zoom lens. Needless to say, there were a good amount of throwaway photos and only a few (albeit grainy) winners. There’s no denying their fiddle player Phoebe Hunt is easy on eyes, and it’s been my long standing opinion that a woman playing the fiddle adds a few points to their hotness factor (I haven’t done the math, so let’s just say 2 points). However, considering her energy it’s hard to capture a photo that 1) is in focus, 2) is framed correctly, 3) has her eyes open 4) is non-transitional, meaning her mouth isn’t partly open, or she’s not switching positions and 5) is flattering (everyone has a double chin in certain conditions). In essence, it needs to capture what’s being seen in real-time in only 1/1,000 of a second. It’s common for people to say they don’t photograph well. That can be true, I’m sure, but it also means they probably didn’t have someone take 1,000 photos of them in 45 minutes and painstakingly remove the photos that didn’t meet the aforementioned criteria. (You’re welcome, Phebes).
Closing out the night was the Gibson Brothers, the most traditional bluegrass band of the night incorporating gospel music and Christian lyrics. It was also the first to use the traditional single mic for 4-part harmonies invoking images of the Grand Ole Opry. This was especially challenging from a photography standpoint as my positioning was key to a good photo. In most photos, someone’s face would be blocked by the the large single mic. Ideally, you want the mic to fill a gap between heads which often required moving a few feet to the right or left. Musically, I thought their set got better with time and while I wasn’t familiar with any of their original material they did great covers of the Rolling Stones “All Over Now” and Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”.
We started Saturday morning with an hour-long banjo competition. Thirty minutes before it began I hear an announcer say “we need more banjo pickers”. I had my banjo in my car, and a piece of me wanted to enter the competition. I imagined I would fill the first 4 minutes of the allotted 7 with a story about learning the banjo only 6 weeks ago. I’d then play the 4 songs I knew before getting a standing ovation and most-improved trophy. After hearing the 9 contestants I’m glad this remained only a daydream as millions and millions of banjo notes blazed the audience in the hour long competition, and zero words were spoken. Maybe next year.
The first performance to note was the Packway Handle Band, who were completely new to me and apparently most of the audience as well. They showed similarities to Old Crow Medicine Show as they paid homage to the old-timey traditions while adding a young and alternative slant. They were decked in biker glasses and moustaches and traditional alternative cowboy wear (is that an oxymoron?). While no Bob Dylan, their lyrics were interesting in a goofy way whether it was a song about ducks with gender confusion or a play on the confusing definition of their name.
While their playing was on par with the rest of the bluegrass masters of the day, they made the largest attempt to connect to the audience from all bands over the weekend. This led to the most deserving encore of the festival. I’ve never been a fan of a staged encore (just like an expected tip) and it was obviously scheduled for every band as the festival host commanded that each band return after they stepped off stage even if the applause quickly whimpered. The Packway Handle Band had the traditional call and response sing-alongs but the encore had them run maniacally through the audience with their instruments now completely un-mic’d. They stopped at a group of young dancers (under 10) and had an impromptu hoedown as the audience gathered around to either take pictures or join the hoedown. I imagine lifting a double-bass over your head is, in fact, as hard as it sounds. From a photography perspective, this one was easy and the only challenge was preventing over exposure.
Of all the bands scheduled to preform, Crooked Still was the band we knew the best and one of the major draws for driving nearly 3 hours in non-coastal Maine. Their performances certainly didn’t disappoint, but their set list could have used a pick-me-up. They focused very heavily on their last 2 albums and played far too many slow tempo songs. While these songs are great I don’t think it gained them many new fans who missed out on “Angeline the Baker”, “Darlin’ Cory” and “Shady Grove”, which I hoped were set staples at this point.
Their review may have read negatively (it really shouldn’t), but their performance provided the most intimate moments of the festival. The power went out during the later half of their set forcing them to step away from the mics to get closer to the audience for a truly unplugged song. The dancers, who were dancing along the sides of the seating area, quickly rushed to the front and center where I was sitting to take photos. The power came back on during this dance-party, but being so close to the performers, I didn’t notice.
Closing out the night were the Steep Canyon Rangers, who shared the common traditional bluegrass influence with the Gibson Brothers from the previous night. What set them apart was the virtuoso playing of the fiddle player, Nicky Sanders, who teased the audience with an extended fiddle solo during the encore.
At this point, I became more comfortable with going right up front with the camera. My wife joined me for “front row” seats in front of the official front row. There was never a complaint or even a dirty look from the people in the front, but there was often a smile. I even made friends with some of the photographers and exchanged some tips. I think that living in the city for so long has caused me to assume the worst in people. On Sunday morning, my wife and I drove to a nearby lake before the scheduled music began. There wasn’t a public parking spot so that we could get out and dip our feed in the lake, but I parked in a turn-around spot as we were only going to stop for a few minutes. A lady drove by and made a frustrated face and I assumed I parked in her spot or too close to her property. I was expecting her to say something snarky, and I was prepared to respond with a sarcastic, “There’s a special place in hell for me.” She turned around in next driveway, waved at me and smiled as she drove by. Turns out, she was just looking for a turn-around spot.
The scheduled performers were complete after the Steep Canyon Rangers, but the music was far from over. A young banjo and fiddler player set up camp 10 feet from ours, and by the time we arrived back from the main stage they had already attracted a bassist, guitarist and mandolin player. I just sat on my car for 15 minutes as they eased through unrehearsed versions of “Angeline the Baker” and “Weary Blues for Waiting”. They left only due to the rain and something about finding a barn for better acoustics. This made going to sleep in a tent more challenging than usual, but it was hard to get angry or upset. The last thing I remember hearing before falling asleep was a rousing rendition of Railroad Earth’s “Dandelion Wine” coming from who-knows-where. Musicians from the performing bands could be found scattered in the musical clusters. The next morning as we were walking around the campgrounds we saw a tired Phoebe Hunt walking along the street with her fiddle in hand wearing the same clothes as the night before (a less than comfortable looking mini-skirts). It’s most likely not her Bluegrass Walk of Shame, but a result of an all night pickin’ party.
Sunday was a short day at the festival, and an even shorter day for us as the consequences of little sleep were catching up to us. We wanted to stick around for Taylor Armerding and the Bluegrass Gospel Project before heading out, which we did. The harmonies and instrumentation were spot on, but it appeared the audience was just as tired as we were. Taylor even jokingly thanked the Coleman couple for coming to the show, which was a matching set of green chairs with the name “Coleman” running across the top. We left just before the encore, got into the car, feel asleep and somehow ended up at home and alive.
Considering the festival was relatively small, there’s a larger chance that someone in power may read this that could make improvements to this young festival with potential. To start I would have liked to see more vendors for both food and crafts. In most other festivals I have seen there’s a “mini-mall” set up to showcase vendors, and I think this could be an attraction all to itself. Hippies love smoothies and Burritos, but both were missing. Also, with so many great musicians in one place it would have been great to see some scheduled workshops involving a few willing member from various bands.
In the end I have no real complaints and it was great to be at a true bluegrass festival among the pickers.