Prescription Bluegrass Reviewer Proclaims "Meltdown" A Success!

From time to time, Prescription Bluegrass Reviewer, W. J. Hallock finds time to attend a festival and write about it for us.  Here is his report on the 21st Annual Durango MELTDOWN.

Image635654609356817838For three full days, Durango, Colorado was on fire with some of the best bluegrass, roots and Americana music in the country! Live music was present at, if I counted correctly, fourteen different down town music venues, on the street corners of Main Street and in the halls and doorways of the historic Strater Hotel, ground zero for the event.

Big name acts such as Special Consensus, Balsam Range, Rebecca Frazier and Hit & Run (with special guest fiddler Becky Buller!), Nashville ace song writer/entertainer, Shawn Camp, Finnders and Youngberg and The Railsplitters. Durango’s own Bar D Wrangler’s, The Badly Bent and The Blue Moon Ramblers, plus about a dozen other acts from every corner of the United States were all lighting up the stages at the 21st edition of this fine event.

The Super Jam on Saturday night was the highlight for most of the folks I talked to, but, for me, the Sunday shows at the Henry Strater Theatre were my favorite. Starting at 10:00 AM, the Colorado College Bluegrass Ensemble, from Colorado Springs, CO. kicked off the day’s entertainment. They are young college students who actually attend this school to learn the fundamentals of bluegrass music and its presentation. Some are pre-med, some are environmental science, biology, music and education majors, but, their participation in this program is a graded inclusion in their curriculum. At the end of their encore, which they deservedly earned, the crowd was yelling “Give ‘em an A, Give ‘em an A,” at their Professor, who was in the audience. What a nice way to start off a Sunday morning!! My wife, Mary Ann, was present when some of these students performed at the high school where she works in Ignacio, CO. Bluegrass in the Schools is a big part of the Meltdown agenda, and hundreds of children were exposed to some fine bluegrass music in the Durango area thanks to this gracious, locally funded program.

At 11:00 AM, flat pickin’ champion Rebecca Frazier and Hit & Run took the stage. The musicianship and vocal expertise of this tight group of veteran pickers was like a jolt of caffeine this early in the day. Rebecca did a super job of showcasing three of her normal band members during their set. Award winning mandolinist, Isaac Eicher, bass and fiddle player Royal Masat and five string banjo man Kyle Tuttle were joined by none other than singer/song-writer/fiddle/banjo and guitar player extraordinaire Becky Buller for their Durango shows. Rebecca could have played some more hot licks for the crowd, but instead she focused on her singing and songwriting by performing songs from her latest CD, “When We Fall.”

For their encore, Rebecca came back out on claw hammer banjo and Royal and Becky played twin fiddles on the old gospel song “I’ll Fly Away.” The entire band was singing some great harmony, the entire room was singing along and this wonderful set upped the ante on just how good the rest of the day would be. I was very glad that Sunday’s show was the one we had chosen to attend, because, as the day unfolded, it just got better and better. To have been able to attend all three days and nights of performances probably would have killed me and this review would have been ten pages long!

The Blue Moon Rambler’s, who have performed at every Bluegrass Meltdown since its inception, and have also spent every Sunday night playing the Diamond Belle Saloon, in the Strater Hotel, for 27 years were on in the 12 noon spot. Red Greer on fiddle, George Usinowicz on banjo, Glenn Keefe on electric bass, Donny Johnson on guitar and Mario Dobbs on lead guitar, lap steel and mandolin brought a mix of countrygrass and western boogie swing to the proceedings. All five men sing, and the range of material they have accumulated over all those years together is wide and varied. Plenty of their local fans were on hand to make them feel right at home and they played like they were right in the middle of their comfort zone. This was also a perfect day to expose the band to all the out-of-town bluegrass fans who attended. They had to pull double duty though, as they had to be back on stage in the Diamond Belle at 7:00 PM. Can’t mess up the roll they’ve been on!

Over the years, I have reviewed two CD’s by Finnders & Youngberg (FY5) for Prescription Bluegrass, so I’ve listened a lot to the music they’ve recorded…… and I’ve become a big fan! This was my first chance to see them live and in person, and they were, hands down, my favorite act of the day. Their set, in the 1:00 PM slot, was filled with some of their finest original songs, plenty of musical virtuosity, stage presence galore and lots of personal charisma from each member in turn. These five musicians have been together long enough that they weave in and out, like ballroom dancers, around the one vocal mic they use. They had a set list prepared, but when I couldn’t contain myself and yelled out “Infidelity,” one of my favorite songs of theirs, lead Image635654615959345481singer and main song-writer Mike Finnders immediately shifted gears and off they went into a very lively and spirited version of a great song. No hesitation, no holding tight to their game plan, they just delivered with passion and humor.

It became very noticeable to me that this band listens to each other on stage with an intense focus, and that may be due in part to the fact that they all stand almost shoulder to shoulder in a tight semi- circle around that one mic. They also play very quietly, never out singing, over playing or stepping on the others' toes. I was reminded of the old saying: “If you want people to listen closely and pay attention... whisper.” The audience was listening as closely as I was, and the band had them eating right out of the palms of their hands in no time at all. The live versions of their recorded material were done with a spirit and pizzazz that made the songs even stronger and more personal. With banjo and steel guitar player Aaron Youngberg owning Swingfingers Studios, located in the mountains west of Fort Collins, CO, where FY5 records all their music, I think they should figure out a way to put out a live CD, just to capture the enthusiasm that this band emits on stage.

Vocally, I have always been knocked out with the way Mike Finnders and bass player Erin Youngberg sing together, they have a stage rapport that oozes feeling, emotion and sensuality. Their voices blend in a unique style that you will only hear from them, and Mike seems to know how to write for Erin’s signature vocal quality and turn it into one of FY5’s musical assets. Ryan Drickey, on fiddle, and Rich Zimmerman on mandolin, added the tastiest of icing on the FY5 cake, and both gentlemen contributed to the Meltdown Workshops on their respective instruments, as did Erin Youngberg, on bass, on Saturday. If you missed Finnders & Youngberg, they will be back in the area June 5th, 6th, and 7th, 2015 at the Pagosa Folk ‘N Bluegrass Festival, and their newest CD will be released soon, also. I can hardly wait to hear what they come up with next!

The show closer, Shawn Camp, accompanied by a band of Nashville’s hottest sidemen, was definitely worth waiting to hear. As a songwriter, he’s written hits for George Strait, “River Of Love,” Blake Shelton, “Nobody But Me,” Josh Turner, “Would You Go With Me,” Guy Clark, “Rain In Durango” and a list of singers a mile long. The Durango locals took a personal liking to “Rain In Durango” and he never once failed to play it again and again! As a performer, he is a member, playing and singing Lester Flatt’s parts, of the band The Earls of Leicester, with Jerry Douglas and Tim O’Brien. He has also co-written with just about every hot song-writer in Music City, including Rodney Crowell, Chris Stapleton and Guy Clark. In 2014 he earned a Grammy for Best Folk Album for producing Guy Clark’s “MY FAVORITE PICTURE OF YOU.” After hearing him, I’m convinced there are no limitations on where his talent will take him.

Shawn’s backup band was a host of luminaries in their own right. THE Mike Bub, former bass man for Del McCoury, who also played bass on the historic album “The Mountain,” backing Steve Earle, nailed it down along with drummer Larry Atamanuik, Jimmy Stewart on dobro and fiddle and Casey Campbell on mandolin. Shawn turned the lead vocals over to Jimmy to sing a song called “Naked” that brought the house down. What a hilarious moment during their set, which was relaxed and easy going. It was their last performance of the weekend and they came back for two encores. Everybody got more than they expected from these consummate professionals! I want to thank Mike Bub for spending some time with us….. he and I were both part of the Phoenix music scene long ago, and our experiences were so intertwined with the same musicians, some of whom are now part of the Nashville scene. Mike has also turned into a Producer of note working with the fine bluegrass band “Town Mountain” on their last two CD’s, and playing with the hot band “18 South.” It’s going to be fun to see what he does next!

The 21st edition of The Durango Bluegrass Meltdown was a massive success in my humble opinion. A marvelous lineup of bands was tapped to perform, workshops by some of the best musicians in the genre were attended by those wanting to learn, free shows to kick it all off and the giving spirits who played in the local schools all should be thanked. The board of directors should be applauded for their year long work to make this event happen, the sponsors should be lauded and let’s not forget to thank all the volunteers and sound crews who made it all such a marvelous experience. If you live anywhere close to the Four Corners area (Arizona/Colorado/New Mexico/Utah), or not, and are a bluegrass fan, do yourself a favor and plan to attend the “Durango Bluegrass Meltdown” in 2016.

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