This weekend sees the Bristol Bluegrass & Americana Festival arrive in town for the eighth year running. To take place at the Folk House it will feature the cream of bluegrass musicians including the Carrivick sisters, Ben Somers, Heather Bristow and The Hogranch, to name a few.
The festival will bring a varied roster of musicians to Bristol for one weekend. Featuring The Ben Somers String Band, The Grass Snakes, Heather Bristow and Friends, The Jolenes, The Kentucky Cow Tippers, The Vanguards and of course, The Hogranch.
Organised by Keith Howard and his band mates of The Hogranch, the festival was established eight years ago. Keith’s own musical education into bluegrass and Americana was born out of many a trip across the pond to the USA including a visit to the seminal RockyGrass Festival in Colorado:
“Most of the songs I’ve written were inspired while there.” Keith says.
For those who aren’t familiar with this genre of music, it is best described as a highly sociable and interactive form of music. Think lazy summer afternoons, extending into evening, sitting on the porch, with mosquitoes buzzing and the citronella blowing on the breeze. It’s an inclusive and intrinsically communal music, as Martin Froud of bluegrass band the Grass Snakes, explains:
“It’s a very inclusive music. A lot of people go to a bluegrass festival to jam and play together. Most of it is learned by ear. It’s about being able to hear what you are doing as much as anything else.” Martin says.
Bluegrass is predominantly influenced by the Appalachia and has roots in both English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish music. Later, jazz elements were introduced via the African-Americans. Traditionally defined by a cluster of five or six instruments, it typically will feature improvisation and lyrics born out of everyday narratives.
“The great thing about bluegrass is you can get away with doing something very simple and bring it into something much more complicated.”
“Bluegrass was invented in the 30s, it’s not really been around for long. Each instrument has a very specific role, there are six instruments used – fiddle, mandolin, banjo, double bass, steel string guitar, and dobro. It’s very much rigidly those instruments, and each instrument has their particular thing they do in a band line up.” Explains Laura Carrivick.
Laura Carrivick and her sister Charlotte own the Bath Bluegrass School and regularly teach fiddle, guitar and banjo alongside John Breece. The sisters grew up in South Devon, and have been focused on music since they were 10 years old, busking in Salcombe where they found the confidence to expand to play gigs across the UK. They have since become masters of their instruments, with regular tours across the UK, Europe and Canada – including appearances at Glastonbury Festival.
Saturday 5 March will see an all day event including workshops in fiddle, from Laura Carrivick, guitar from Charlotte Carivick and banjo from John Breese. All are widely acclaimed musicians with extensive experience, and workshops can be purchased as part of the ticketed event. The festival will also include an open mic and jam session.
Laura plays fiddle and the dobro resonator guitar. Both Laura and her sister Charlotte have a strong affinity for bluegrass music and this weekend, they will be sharing this knowledge in their workshops.
“I teach a wide range of people. The great thing about bluegrass is you can get away with doing something very simple and bring it into something much more complicated. So it’s quite approachable at all levels. The great thing about it, is that once you are at middle standard on any bluegrass instrument, you can easily play with other bluegrass players. You can easily slot in. It’s nice and sociable.” Laura explains.
Heather Bristow, originally from North Carolina, is a writer and musician who now lives in Tetbury. She has played festivals including Didmarton and Cornish bluegrass festivals, Priddy Folk Festival, Cambridge Folk Club, the Village Pump Weekender (Trowbridge), Folk at the Oak (Corsham) and a variety of venues in the Bath and Bristol area. She moved to the UK when meeting her husband through their mutual love of bluegrass music. She will be opening the festival, playing with her band Iron & Oak on the evening of Friday 4 March.
“If you’re interested in learning to play as an adult, it’s a great way to come out and get a taster. Some of the best bands in the country will be at the festival. Ben Somers, The Jolenes – they’ve got the whole vibe.” Heather says.
Laura and Charlotte Carrivick knew Heather previously, when they played at her album launch for 2012’s ‘Ragged Souls’.
“The Carrivick sisters are amazing and I have known them from the bluegrass workshop, since they were young. They’re absolutely amazing musicians. They’re lovely and very focused. I think their raison d’être is playing. They’re good teachers as well.” Heather says.
Keith of The Hogranch sums up bluegrass & Americana music:
“It’s accessible and relatively easy to play. It’ ‘three chords and the truth’. And it’s not ageist in any way.” Keith says.
Ben Somers is a saxophonist and bass player, based in London. After graduating from Middlesex University in the discipline of jazz, he has since pursued every musical opportunity possible. Previously collaborating with Seal and acclaimed Berklee College of Music associates, Ben has been involved with the Bluegrass & Americana Festival in recent years, with his former band, The Absentees. He now plays as part of the Ben Somers Band, collaborating with a wide range of professional musicians.
Ben teaches double bass and saxophone, and through his tutoring at the Sore Fingers summer camps for Bluegrass musicians, based in Frome, he met a guitarist from New York and a mandolin player, Joe Walsh, from Boston – both of whom he now plays in a band with.
Ben will be playing at the Bluegrass & Americana Festival this weekend, and he explains what fuels his passion for composing and performing:
“As much as possible, I try not to write in a pastiche way. I’m constantly trying to bring everything together and into my writing. All of my genre influences make up my sound. I try to write in a no holds barred way.” Ben says.
Ben grew up surrounded by bluegrass and country music, with his Dad being an avid fan of the genre and a musician himself. It was a slow burner for Ben, but once hooked, he really was absorbed.
“I went to all of my Dad’s gigs and always wanted to play with him, and then one day, I heard Steve Earle and fell in love with bluegrass. So I got myself a bass and started playing that music again.” Ben recalls.
“I’ve never done anything else, I’m not sure I could.” He adds.
Sponsors, Hobgoblin Music, established in 1976 are based on Park Street, and have given us the low-down on the best of their Bluegrass/Americana inspired instruments. So for anyone wishing to take the plunge and learn how to jam like the best of them, here is a summary, courtesy of Hobgoblin Music.
Guitar: Ashbury AG25-S £119
The solid spruce top and large body of this Dreadnought guitar give it the punch, presence and full bass required to hold down the rhythm in a Bluegrass ensemble, without the high price of many solid-top guitars.
Banjo: Ashbury AB-35 £249
Hobgoblin’s best-selling banjo, the AB-35 has a spun aluminium rim that gives plenty of brightness to the banjo tone without the weight of some pricier models.
Fiddle: Cremona SV-130 £209
Complete with case, bow and rosin, this fiddle’s carved spruce top and solid maple back and sides give it a strong clear tone to kick out the distinctive ‘chop’ rhythm technique used in Bluegrass playing.
Liam of Hobgoblin Music says:
“I think of bluegrass as the American folk equivalent of Jazz: it’s based on traditional fiddle-led folk tunes, but the style foregrounds individual soloing and improvisation. That can make it a daunting genre to get started in, because pretty much everything you hear recorded is played really fast. It’s important to start slow, though – precision is crucial at high tempo, and if you haven’t practiced slow and steady, your timing is liable to go haywire when you reach performance speed.”
For more information on Bristol Bluegrass & Americana Festival: www.folkhousemusic.com