08 June 2017


The BIB editor writes:

As announced beforehand, I was 'out of the office for reasons of pleasure' from Tuesday 16 May to Sunday 28 May inclusive, having planned a Continental trip to include the 15th International Bühl Bluegrass Festival in south-west Germany, followed by two bluegrass events in the Netherlands: the mini-festival at De Parel van Zuilen in Utrecht, and the 20th (and final) European World of Bluegrass (EWOB) Festival at Voorthuizen.

This ambitious plan came unstuck halfway through, and I had to miss the two Netherlands events. Apologies to all the friends whom I was looking forward to seeing at Voorthuizen; I greatly regret being absent, and the final EWOB (quite apart from its historic significance) is moreover reported to have been outstandingly good.

At the Bühl Festival, however, I'd already met friends, heard a load of very impressive music, and been given much food for thought. The following photos (by Carol Hawkins) were taken at Bühl.

Jussi Syren and the Groundbreakers from Finland (above) consistently win warmly favourable reviews in Bluegrass Unlimited for the fidelity and passion with which they capture the raw spirit and energy of bluegrass in its early years. I enjoyed them so much that a prominent member of the German bluegrass community came over to try to tone down my enthusiasm. The attempt was unsuccessful; if (as many fans in Ireland do) you want to hear bluegrass played with the guts that it had in the 1950s, very few bands anywhere do it as well as Jussi Syren and the Groundbreakers.

Curly Strings (above) have won a string of awards in their native Estonia, and last year at the 19th EWOB Festival they won not only the #1 European Bluegrass Band award but the Liz Meyer European Innovation of Bluegrass Music Award. On one level, this is completely comprehensible: they're a young, original band, full of charm, verve, and musical mastery, and worth anyone's time to see and hear. The puzzle is why they should be considered as a bluegrass band or as innovators in bluegrass. They share with bluegrass the use of bass, fiddle, mandolin, flatpicked guitar, and vocals; what they play is popular and tradition-based music in Estonian, and it's in that field that (in my view) they should be considered innovators. The music of We Banjo 3 (which I would not personally nominate for a bluegrass award) is in fact a good deal closer to bluegrass.

Balsam Range (above) from North Carolina were the headliners at Bühl, and they delivered a set with overpowering vocal, instrumental, and emotional impact. (Some of the reasons behind this are indicated in the Bluegrass Today review of their latest CD.) They have four strong lead singers, and their fiddler Buddy Melton and bass/dobro player Tim Surrett have outstanding voices, but the strength of the ensemble is something to wonder at. This is traditional bluegrass on steroids.

These were just three bands from the Bühl lineup; many more photos and videos are on the Festival Facebook, and the same applies to the EWOB Festival Facebook.

PS: The week before we reached Amsterdam, the Tropenmuseum opened its Rhythm & Roots exhibition (open till 7 January 2018), which traces the development of modern musical styles from roots in Africa. It's well worth a visit; but though the ngoni and other ancestors of the banjo can be seen and heard, the instrument in its modern form is barely mentioned.

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