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Where No Bluegrass Has Gone Before: Russia-America Bluegrass Jamboree 2012

Posted by MrNatch3L on Thursday, August 16, 2012

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Well, another Russia America Bluegrass Jamboree has come and gone - the third one so far. When I suggested the crazy idea to the American Consulate General in St. Petersburg 3-1/2 years ago I never dreamed how amazingly it would pan out. Some of you may remember the first one in 2010 kicked off with Pete and Joan Wernick accompanied by Justin Hoffenberg on fiddle and yours truly on bass. Then last year we brought over Donna Ulisse and the Poor Mountain Boys (Greg Davis, banjo, Rick Stanley, guitar, Jon Martin, mandolin and Bobby King, bass). This year Bill Evans came over with an all-star cast from Nashville: Barbara Lamb, fiddle, Tim May, guitar, and Todd Phillips, on bass. What a treat to meet those folks and hear them play over here.
The 2012 jamboree was a bit different in several ways. For one thing it featured shows in vastly different localities: super-urban Moscow, Russia's analog of New York City, and Totma, a very small provincial town with a long history - 875 years! And a connection with the USA - the founder of Fort Ross in Sonoma valley California was a Totma native. The reason the Consulate chose to have a show there was to showcase American traditional music as part of the town's bicentennial celebration of the founding of Fort Ross.
One thing about doing a show in Totma: we can credit Bill Evans and company for boldly taking bluegrass where no bluegrass has gone before. The crowd numbered around 1000 and we can be pretty sure it was the first time any of them heard bluegrass music. There's an old saying in Russia: "In this country we have two problems: fools and roads." Bill and the gang definitely experienced the latter. The road from the first show at Vologda to Totma was, well, the word brutal comes readily to mind. I've ridden over worse but only once. I think if Bill ever performs with the same band again he can name the act "Bill Evans the the Rough Riders".
For me the shows were a little scary because I was asked by the consulate to act as emcee and introduce all the bands. The catch: I had to speak Russian, which I've never formally studied, which I began to learn at past 40 years of age, which is my 4th language, at which I'm still not real fluent. I pulled it off somehow.
The high point for me was an impromptu jam session with the 2 Russian bands that were on the Vologda-Totma leg of the jamboree. It was in Totma after the ceremonial ringing of the cathedral bells simultaneously with Fort Ross. The directors of the Ivan Kuskov Museum graciously made this beautifully restored old log building available way after hours. Look for the jam videos on my videos page. I know Bill and the band were pretty exhausted, but they realized how much it meant to the Russian musicians to get to pick with these masters.
As if meeting and listening to Bill and watching his technique close up weren't enough, it was such a treat to meet and get to know the band members. Barbara Lamb is a consummate entertainer in her soul - on stage and off. During the big jam finale number at Totma she jumped out in front and started clogging (and the crowd goes wild!) This might not seem too amazing until you realize this is a woman who's had both hips replaced! The Barbie pink fiddle case cover was classic. As a former professional bass player it was a real treat to meet Todd Phillips. I only wish we could have rounded up a good stand-up bass for him. As it was, he brought over this really funky green Hoffner copy electric bass he picked up for the trip. To look at it you might think - this'll never work for bluegrass. In the hands of Todd Phillips, trust me, it worked.  Then there was Tim May. Tim struck me as a quiet man of few words, and when he did speak it was worth listening to. I sensed a lot of energy going on inside behind the scenes which came out when he started flat-picking the guitar. I'm a Tony Rice fan from way back, but I have to say I liked Tim's playing at least as much if not more.
On the provincial leg of the trip (Vologda, Totma) we were accompanied by two Russian bands: Fine Street, from St. Petersburg and The Grass Pistols (formerly Country Saloon) from Nizhny Novgorod. I did some double banjo with Vladimir, the banjo guy for Fine Street, who was sporting a new Gibson RB this year. We've met up several times in St. Petersburg recently, and I hope to do more with them, especially with Anastasia (a.k.a. Nasyta) - a quiet almost shy woman who just renders on the fiddle. I'd like to work out some fiddle and banjo stuff. The Pistols are a little different - a trio of banjo, mandolin, and electric bass. They're making a bit of a name for themselves in Europe, and were just back from performing at one of the La Roche Bluegrass Festival in France, one of Europe's major festival. Tanya on the mandolin exhibits a strong Sam Bush influence, and Mikhail on the banjo puts out an amazing amount of energy. I hope the consulate got some footage of them playing and will post it to You Tube. I'll share it on BHO if they do.
The last show I was part of was in Moscow and a club. This was a bit of a let-down, though Bill and the All-stars were hot. I felt it was not really the right venue for this event and I know Bill concurred with that. I certainly intend to initiate some follow-up discussion and give some feedback to the organizers in case the jamboree will happen again next year (I hope so!). Well, you live an learn.
So as I write this, Bill and company have completed the final leg of the tour to Yekateringurg and Perm - away off in the Urals - where I could not take enough time from work to go to. I'm sure Bill will have photos and comments on his blog and Facebook page.
Although a bit rougher around the edges organizationally than previous years, probably due to a couple of personnel changes at the consulate during the year, the overall raison d'être was not lost. We're showcasing some of the best of American culture in places that have never encountered it before, bringing people together rather than dividing them, and helping a form of music we all love to be heard in and spread to places and people where it's never been before.  

2 comments on “Where No Bluegrass Has Gone Before: Russia-America Bluegrass Jamboree 2012”

avcase Says:
Thursday, August 16, 2012 @2:25:49 PM

Very interesting, thank you, Robert! Looks like I missed a lot of fun, but I'll try to get to the festival next year for sure. Or maybe you bring this festival to Kazan someday ;) . It's a beautiful city, by the way!

Torben Pedersen Says:
Sunday, August 19, 2012 @1:48:01 PM

Music have no borders - Let`s all play together.
The best to all of you

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