photo by Joan Harrison

“I started playing the banjo at age 15 and never stopped.”

On May 20th, Ben Freed died of a massive heart attack. He leaves behind his wife Nomi, their daughters Madelyn and Liza, and a far reaching network of musicians with whom he shared his love of the banjo and bluegrass music. He was generous with his knowledge and a highly respected instructor who mentored many of our finest young banjo players.

Ben developed a dynamically driving style, citing Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Tony Trischka and Alan Munde as major influences. Four CDs of all original music attest to his gifts as a composer, producer, and player. Pete Wernick called Ben’s Suite for Bluegrass Banjo “one of the best banjo records, ever.” Ben also played on the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers film “Raising Arizona”, “The Simpsons”, and numerous commercial soundtracks.

As a member of Diamonds in the Rough, Laurie and the Locals, American Flyer, The Soy Boys, The Corn Fed Dogs, and most recently, The Sleepy Hollow String Band, Ben declared that “performing live music with my friends is an exhilaration that is hard to describe.”

The five members of Gravel Road, a youth bluegrass group “hailing from the Floyd/New River Valley area of Southwest Virginia,” look so young you’d expect to see them standing outside the middle school gym at a chaperoned dance. The anchors of the group seem to be guitarist/singer Nick Weitzenfeld, mandolinist/vocalist Addie Levy, and banjo player Adam Bishop. Bassist Jared Houseman and fiddler Lydia Bowman are newer to the game but already capable of holding up their share of the blend.

With a band name like The Flying Circus and the leaking of a rehearsal photo showing the musicians in costume, the HVBA audience at Trinity Church last Friday night (4/24) hardly knew what to expect. A motley (yet somehow polished) crew marched into the room from the rear. The audience gasped. I will “say no more” about their entrance.

If you weren’t there, you missed a stellar performance from four of the finest bluegrass musicians in this region. Fred Robbins was able to capture the whole business on video, with the enthusiastic consent of the band leader who calls himself Col. Buff Orpington (“Buff” to his closest friends). I have been threatened that I will never again be invited to a Circus rehearsal, so for the purposes of this review I must refer to the musicians by their stage names only. A clever reader will be able to piece the rest together by consulting Fred Robbins’ still photos published earlier this week.

It’s hard to be a Dailey and Vincent fan because they can be so unabashedly shameless. Where other bluegrass musicians grew up wanting to be like Bill, or Earl, or Doc, these guys grew up wanting to be the Statler Brothers. When I first saw them live I was turned off pretty much instantly by the pure geekiness and showiness of it all. On stage they are less people than they are Muppets.

Which is too bad, because they are truly great singers and can craft a song beautifully. They won me over when they released Brothers of the Highway in 2013. It’s a fantastic album, and it made me reconsider the one before it, Brothers from Different Mothers, which actually is pretty good too. When they came out with their tribute to the Statler Brothers I was enough of a fan to say, ok, that’s fine, it’s good for what it is.

Do your brain a favor - play some music When you listen to music, multiple areas of your brain become engaged and active. But when you actually play an instrument, that activity becomes more like a full-body brain workout. What's going on? Anita Collins explains the fireworks that go off in musicians' brains when they play, and examines some of the long-term positive effects of this mental workout.

By Anita Collins, Educator
TedEd: Lessons Worth Sharing

If you need more evidence that Boston is one of the cutting edges of the new string band sound, you only need to drop Cold Chocolate's self-titled new album onto your choice of media player for confirmation. Billing themselves as a fusion of roots and bluegrass with a touch of funk, a couple of listens to the album finds the emphasis on old-time and even a touch of jazz to go along with some of the 'grass. "Roots" is indeed an apt description. If rock hadn't already grabbed "Americana" as a genre, I would surely have applied it for this band.

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