MUSIC ALONG THE RIVER IS GRAND
by Carl Feather
The Grand River plays a tune that few appreciates; to most, it becomes monotonous after a few bars. The strings of fiddles and guitars, the breath of a flute and whistles, would balance the river’s bass.
Thus they come on a summer Saturday and Sunday to strum and sing. The sound is lovely; lawn chairs and ears appear on the lawn like dandelions in May. The tradition was begun by Scott Burgett, and as the years have passed, mandolins, ukuleles, banjos, a bodhran and concertina have become part of the ensemble—Joel Specht, Herschel Blevins, Mike and Stephen Kellat, Jennifer Simpson, Andrej Debevc, Bruce Blair, Laura Fidel and many more.
Laura Fidel, the concertina artist, recognized that both the music and the setting were special and worthy of nurturing. Thus did she take on a role of promotion and organization of Music Along the River, Ashtabula County’s largest acoustic music festival. And thus will the event return this summer, Aug. 19 and 20, to the south side of the Grand River at the Harpersfield Covered Bridge Metro Park.
“This is a nice place to have something like this,” says Laura, a Unionville resident and retired occupational therapist. “Everybody who comes out for this comments on what a beautiful site this park is. It is a beautiful spot and we are very pleased to share (the music) with its visitors.”
The music is a mix of Celtic, bluegrass, folk, old-time and more. The musicians volunteer their time and talents to the free event. Even the workshops in ukulele, banjo and dulcimer techniques are as free as the river along which they are held. Donations from the grateful audiences and students are used to promote the event.
Emphasizing a laid-back, family-friendly experience, the festival is unpretentious. The main stage is in the larger of the two pavilions on the park’s south side. Seating is limited to picnic tables, so guests are encouraged to bring their own comfortable lawn chairs. Food may or may not be available, so, again, guests need to plan ahead or have a designated “carry-in” runner. Musicians who come to learn, jam and listen can take advantage of free primitive camping along the park’s north side.
A section of the grounds will be open to vendors who sell hand-crafted items or products/services related to music. There is no fee to set up, but NO tables, chairs or canopies will be provided.
“We do not charge anybody anything here because this is a public park. If someone calls and says they want to set up, that is fine, they just need to abide by the rules of the park. But we would like to see people who have products, services related somehow to music.”
This year’s festival adds a Friday evening event, a drum circle around a campfire on the north side. If you can bang or tap a drum or other percussion instrument, bring it and join the circle. Marshmallows are optional. Rain? The event moves under a pavilion.
Events on Aug. 19 begin with two hours of workshop opportunities starting at 11 a.m. Joel Specht and Andrej Debevc will teach introductory banjo techniques, while Bill Schilling will lead a workshop on mountain dulcimer technique.
Performances get under way at 1 p.m. in the Ellsworth Pavilion:
- 1 p.m. Cleveland Brassworks
- 2 p.m. Bill Schilling and the DulciMore Ensemble
- 3 p.m. Mr. Haney Old Time String Band
- 4 p.m. Old Time Slow Jam, led by Joel Specht
- 5 p.m. Old Time Up-Tempo jam, also led by Specht
Throughout the afternoon and into the evening, small groups of musicians will gather along the river to pick, fiddle and whistle in impromptu jam sessions, happenstance that makes the festival popular with audiences and musicians alike. Laura says the musicians come from as far away as Salem, Akron and Geauga County to participate.
Workshops in ukulele technique get under way at 11 a.m. Sunday and finger-style guitar-picking at noon.
The Sunday afternoon main stage acts are:
- 1 p.m. The Non-Trio
- 2 p.m. Andrej and Leo
- 3 p.m. Bruce Blair
- 4 p.m. Irish Jam led by Laura Fidel
It is during that jam that Laura will bring out her concertina, a bit of a novelty in these parts and typically associated with Celtic and English music. Laura says that she was introduced to the instrument by accident during a vacation to Mystic Seaport, Conn. She and her husband stumbled upon an outdoor concert at which a musician was playing a concertina.
Similar to the accordion, a German invention that built upon the concertina’s bellows and buttons architecture, the concertina developed concurrently in England and Germany to meet the needs of musicians who required a small instrument to accompany signers. In addition to portability, the concertina has the advantage of a chromatic scale, so it is easy to produce a chord on the instrument “wherever you set your fingers” Laura says.
It was not long after first seeing and hearing a concertina being played that Laura was on her way to the Button Box in Amherst, Mass., to purchase her own instrument. That was 1995 and she’s been playing the instrument ever since.
She says that last year, when the Irish jam was held, the ensemble included her concertina, fiddles, whistles, a flute, Irish drum, guitars, mandolins and even bagpipes.
Among the reasons that a concertina is rarely heard in these parts is the cost; prices for a beginner’s instrument start at $1,000. You don’t need that kind of money, however, to enjoy Music Along the River. Just bring whatever you can afford for the donation jar, and sit back and enjoy the music of the river and its band.
Interested in volunteering for this event? Volunteers are needed to set up for MATR Friday evening and Saturday morning. Other volunteering opportunities are open, as well. Contact Fidel. LAFidel@roadrunner.com