17 July 2008

Winners of the Games: Barleyjuice, Mother Grove, the My Three Kilts Family

Okay, I've been swamped at work since my return, but now I finally have some time to catch up. At long last, I've taken some time away to do a quick review of this year's Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, completed last weekend.

First off, I have to say that the Wise Ricky and I were invited to join...and had an absolute blast...with the lads from My Three Kilts and their wives (Rachael, Heather, and Julie). Considering that they weren't all that familiar with us off-stage before the invite, it was a particularly strong leap of faith on their part, but one that made the Games a helluva lot of fun for us (and hopefully also for them). Fantastic memories were made (we shared the cabin from Sunday's post with them, too), and a lot of laughs...eight people in a hot tub built for six was no small feat, after all. Great people, great musicians, great couples one and all. And I can always thank them for helping me get the Wise (Yet Gay) Ricky into a Hooters® before he died...a memory that makes me chuckle even now when thinking about it. Honestly, as much as Ricky and I loved the Games and all the Celtic music of the event, we probably had more fun hanging out with the Kilts family. And we thank them...again...for the great times.

Speaking of the music of the Games...as usual, there was a lot. Some of it more to my tastes than others, as that always happens, but some of it really, really good. I have to be honest here: Ricky and I go to these Games to see the music, learn about our heritage (more mine than his as I'm Scottish and he's not, but to his benefit there were many an Irish-targeted item, too), and just generally soak up the atmosphere of lots of people drinking (beer, if you brought it, as the GMHG is inexplicably located in a 'dry' county) and lots of people (mostly men) wearing kilts. I would like to say we pay close attention to the sporting events and heraldry of the all-day activities, but honestly I have to admit we don't. We come for the music, I look to see if some wise vendor has my family's tartan available and never find it, and Ricky looks and finds a sporran that he really likes, but it's greatly overpriced. And then we go listen to more music, eat, drink beer, more music. (Wash, rinse, repeat.) It may be a lot of things to a lot of people, but for us, it's mostly the music.

(Fair warning, here comes the rant...)

That said, I will say this at long last and finally let it go (been simmering in my pot for two years now): I do not, for the life of me, understand the madness behind the big Saturday night concert, one of the GMHG's main attractions. Actually, I don't understand a lot about that whole concert's dynamics, including the lineup. Let me explain: I think there are three 'Groves' open throughout the day where musicians will do sets of their music (30 minutes or thereabouts), starting at about 10am and stopping at around 3:30pm or so...each band, I believe, plays two daytime sets in the same Grove with quick turnarounds. You bring your chair or blanket and misc food item and sit down among the natural beauty of Grandfather Mountain and take it all in...but you can come and go as you want, as the Games itself and Clan activities continue on unabated on the main field. The Groves are good, but are unfortunately limited to smaller-sized crowds.

Barleyjuice performing in one of the Groves, July 12, 2008. Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, Linville, North Carolina.

Saturday nights, though, there is a more formal 'concert' feel to things, after all the days' competitions are complete and the Clan tents have went silent. You'd think with as many quality bands on tap and with many, many music-lovers in attendance, this would be the absolute best time to give the musicians the best line-up and area to roam and interact with the audience. You'd think bands would be scheduled like regular gigs are, with the opening acts leading up to more established 'headliners'. You'd think that an empty mountain field would be great to really let musicians fully interact with the audience, as they would no longer be hemmed in by shorter sets and the rocky seating geography of the Groves. (Especially, as the audience was reminded often, that the bands don't get paid to perform at the Games and rely on merchandise sales to cover their expenses.) You'd think the audience would be able to spread out on more than one hill, and be able to get to the food vendors, toilets, and merchandise areas with relative ease. You'd think all of those things would be a priority for Saturday night's show, but you'd be wrong.

Technically, an entire field is available for music and seating, dancing and eating...rimmed afar only by Port-A-Johns. Why the actual show is kept to only one small portion of that field, why the attendees of the concert are practically walking on each other to just move because of the restricted (but still viewable) seating space, and why there's a further very enclosed area for dancing (with rules!) on that field, is beyond me. And, damn it, it happened again this year. There was no rhyme nor reason with band scheduling for that show: Barleyjuice was one of the first ones out, and they have a huge following and are tough to follow; a last-minute change prevented a mass exodus when somebody finally realised that Scottish drumming gods Albannach (and one of Games' main musical draws, truth be told), wasn't scheduled to finish last as the headliner. All the while, fans of any and all who wanted to dance were pinned to stage right in a little corral, like calves waiting to be branded.

It's the Highland Games, people: we like to drink, we like to eat, we like to make new friends and be old friends, we like to make and listen to our music, and we like to dance. Give us those opportunities and we'll even pay you for it. All we are saying, is give fun a chance. (Apologies to John Lennon.)

(Rant over.)

On to the highlights:

  • Albannach. This is almost always a given, as I've only seen one semi-off performance from them ever, and that was due to too much alcohol consumed by the band prior to the show. (They're Scottish, so I let my people have a 'bye' on that point, as long as it doesn't become a habit.) As usual, they took it up another notch this year in their Grove performances. Consistently, they do a tremendous show. And I, for one, really like learning from David Ross...glad to see they're always a 'team' package. Jamesie, the flirty one who looks like he stepped out of a scene from "Braveheart" with long hair disheveled any which way, was in rare form. I'm still amazed Kyle can keep up the pace he does, as long as he does, on the drums...my arms would have grown numb.

  • Mother Grove. What a difference a year makes! Those who dared to ask me last year about what bands I thought disappointed would have heard Mother Grove almost at the top of that list. This year, though, they either 'found their voice' or significantly retooled their attitude when performing...the tempo was faster, the sound tighter, the song selection better, the extended solos not so much (or at least not to the point where I wishing they would stop, last year's went on and on and on). The female fiddle player, Laura Adams, is about as top-notch as any band can hope for...and any woman who can jig and fiddle at the same time to her degree of excellence is well worth a viewing. Considering the band and equipment had some instruments stolen in May, I'm hoping the merchandise sales at the Games maybe helped replenish their funds. "Kick Me" is a great song, wish they would lead off with that.

  • Barleyjuice. While this may be blasphemy in some circles, here goes: the best band at the Games this year. Now before the Albannach fans come after me, let me add this: The best band at the Games this year with vocal material. The one, if only, gripe, that comes against the Albannach legion is that a great deal of their songs sound the same (which is further hampered by the fact that so many of their songs are only drums and bagpipes, and very little vocals). Albannach is tribal, is primal, is the spirit of Scotland: unrelenting, fierce, and proud. You either love them or hate them, but that largely depends on how much you love their sound (drums).

    Barleyjuice, however, is from the wilds of Philadelphia, an area which is also known for being a little unrelenting and proud (and several more things) it its own distinctive way. Barleyjuice, though, focuses a lot on lyrics and their songs are quite memorable because of just that. They don't have the wild abandon of the Scots, no, but they do perform one damn lively, and audience-friendly, show. And they specialize, or so it seems, in Irish-based drinking-then-shagging songs...nothing wrong with that. (Unless you're at work and work in a medical facility; some bosses object to "I'm in Love with a Priest"...it's not what you think, folks...playing in an office.) This year Barleyjuice also showed a more, 'rock/country' side to them than I've seen. Any band that go from "Tartan is the Colour of My True Love's Hair" to The Doors' "Roadhouse Blues" to Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues", and then back to their "Weekend Irish" song is simply damn great. They have fun on stage, and with their audience...and it shows. And, God bless the Philly boys, at least two of them are SCOTS (Southern Culture on the Skids) fans, too, all the more reason to adore these fellas. The SCOTS can toss chicken during their "Eight Piece Box"; Barleyjuice should toss waffle fries during their "Potatoes". (Doing the "Potatoes" dance with WR and Scott's wife, Julie, on Saturday night is a great memory I take away.) My only issue with Barleyjuice is that they rarely make it down this way, although they will be in Williamsburg, VA, for their Scottish Festival in early October. Fabulous band.

    Barleyjuice doing "What's up Yours?". Courtesy of YouTube.

  • Bella's in Banner Elk, North Carolina (hidden away in a Food Lion Shopping Center complex, of all places). Except for a lovely place near the Trevi Fountain in Rome, I have never had better Italian food in my life. All in our party agreed, it was top-notch material, even by Heather, our Italian by heritage in the group. Forgive the slightly high-strung blonde hostess, though, I'm hoping she was just having a bad day and easily overwhelmed. Also kudos to the Crossnore Volunteer Fire Department and Linville Central Rescue Squad members: 2 years straight they've given dead-on recommendations for food that has been nothing short of fantastic (not to mention, they do a great job with parking and transportation to/from the Games).


  • See lengthy rant above.

  • In addition to the above rant, there might be a need to re-examination of the audience target. Some of the bands are a too rock for 'pure' Celtic material, some are too 'new age'. I have no problems with either to some degree, but some 'purists' out there aren't happy and the choice of bands in general kept creeping up in conversations, in merchandise tents, waiting for food, etc. Then again, beggars can't be choosers: if the GMHG don't pay the bands anything to perform, that does limit potential candidates. The tradeoff between these two forces will be interesting to see in years to come. Still wish they had an 'amateur' concert night for less established musicians and/or bands...my buds, My Three Kilts, would kill it.

  • I am trying really hard to not be too snide here, (which is my tendency as a former musician, unfortunately), but here comes a personal mantra: events such as this should not have bands doing covers of other bands'/artists' material unless those covers are done really, really well. (See Barleyjuice for advice on how to do this well.) The GMHG is the perfect place to play original material, or a lot of traditional songs that you've updated, and some covers. However, doing traditional songs or covers badly is the kiss of death, as most of the audience has a diverse, and deep, musical knowledge base.

    In the interest of appearing nice, I won't name the guilty musicians directly...but those who attended, and those responsible for this muck, know who they are.

    Last year, I railed against the 'Farrah Fawcett-head' lead guitarist band who proceeded to not only do a cover of an old AC/DC and Bon Scott-era song (generally always a mistake), but they did it horribly. That band somehow took "It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock N Roll)"...a song that features a bagpipe solo in the original, for Pete's sake...and made it into a guitar song, complete with several missed chords, featuring (you guessed it) 'Farrah Fawcett' on lead in place of the bagpipe solo, even though 'Farrah's band had a very competent bagpiper. (Far more competent on bagpipes than 'Farrah' was on guitar, in comparison.) I'm a hard-core AC/DC fan, to boot. Bloody freaking hell. It was nothing short of stupefying.

    This year, another band decided they wanted to incorporate a cover song in their set...but this time it was Led Zeppelin. "Good Times, Bad Times", to be specific. This is also generally not a good idea, as most everyone knows lyrics to most of their songs, and knows how the song is 'supposed' to sound. And let's never forget Led Zep was a phenomenal band, perhaps the best ever in rock. Everybody wants to cover them, everybody wants to be them on stage, but few (if any) ever will convincingly. (You know where I'm going on this, and it's not going to be pretty.) Let me finish with this: if you can't do a Led Zep cover song musically, don't play it in front of people until you can. Furthermore, if you don't sing the lyrics of a favourite Led Zep song that everybody in the audience knows the words to, don't perform it until you feel you can sing it on stage. What was played in the Grove...a mash of dropped riffs and an uneven beat, with audience members in the trees singing the song as no one else was...was a bit painful to witness. Please, in honor of the late John 'Bonzo' Bonham (legendary drummer for Led Zep), I beg you: work on the song a great deal more before playing it in public. Pretty please. Even with the forgiving sort that attends these Games, nobody likes Led Zep Musak. Nobody.
  • 1 comment:

    ricky said...

    I'm glad I didn't post anything on our trip. I was struggling to come up with something more than "a great time was had by all"!