A few weeks ago when I was corresponding with the Savannah Music Festival’s communications and operations director Ryan McMaken about shows I planned to attend, I asked him which ones he would especially recommend.
Just for the record, I spend several hundred dollars each year on SMF shows — ones that I know I want to attend and want to enjoy with friends. This year, that list included (with links to reviews and reactions): Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance at the Lucas Theatre; the Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Richard Thompson show at Johnny Mercer; The Wailers at Trustees; Dr. John at the Lucas; and Charles Bradley at Trustees. As a regular Savannah Morning News columnist and a blogger here at Savannah Unplugged, I also typically get a press pass that gets me into venues without assigned seating, if space is available, plus I sometimes request a few seats to shows that I wouldn’t otherwise attend.
All that to say that I trust Ryan McMaken’s judgment and asked him to give me a press ticket to last night’s “Stringband Spectacular” — the final showcase for the festival’s Acoustic Music Seminar, which brought 16 young musicians to Savannah for instruction and collaboration from April 1st through 6th.
First off, these aren’t just randomly chosen kids. As seminar leader Mike Marshall noted repeatedly, “This is the next generation of great acoustic musicians.” The list of guest instructors included some of the best string players who appeared at this year’s festival.
Aged 15 to 22, the 16 musicians accepted to the seminar hailed from across America, plus one from Scotland and one from New Zealand. A number are attending Berklee College of Music and other prestigious institutions.
Each musician arrived in Savannah with either an original composition or an original arrangement. Each song was rehearsed for an intensive two hours over the course of the week, with students divided into combos ranging from a duet to an octet. Marshall or Lage played guitar on some of the numbers.
So, as “Stringband Spectacular” began, all 16 students and both instructors were sitting on the Lucas stage with their instruments. Between songs, some would sit, some would stand, a new song would be introduced — and we were off on another short adventure. The early portion of the program could have used a little a few more uptempo selections, I thought, but it’s hard to design a perfect program when 16 talented musicians from around the globe converge after already having selected pieces.
The one-sheet program detailed the songs, the order, the composer or arranger, and all the musicians — a concise and indispensable resource both for following along and remembering today.
I’m generally aware of SMF offerings and programs, but I was completely unprepared for the talent on display at last night’s performance. The light turnout for the show suggests that many others are unaware of this tremendous program too. As I sat there, amazed by the sheer artistry on stage, I couldn’t help thinking that the Lucas should be packed. It seems inevitable that such a tremendous concept and program will attract more attention in the future.
Given the wall-to-wall excellence of the musicians and the individual numbers, I’ll just list a few standouts here to give you a sense of the breadth: violinist (fiddler?) John Mailander’s “Song for John”; violinist Chase Potter’s “Letting Go”; guitarist Matthew Taylor’s arrangement of the traditional “Back Home in Indiana”; guitarist and vocalist Molly Tuttle’s “You Didn’t Call My Name”; and bassist Ethan Jodziewicz’s Iranian-inspired “Trousers at Birth”.
That’s just five of the 16 songs plus two encores in the program. I suspect that another attendee’s list would begin with pieces I left out — that’s how consistent the quality was in the 2-hour program.
OK, I know we’re not supposed to take photos at SMF shows, but by the time all 16 students plus Lage and Marshall were playing the encores, the audience was on its feet and quite a number of people were taking crappy cell phone pics. I had my camera with me since I had taken shots earlier in the day of Swamp Cabbage and the Ogeechee Riverkeeper fundraiser at Moon River Brewing Company. So here are a couple taken during the encore from more or less where I was sitting:
UPDATE: For images and videos from the week of rehearsals and the performance, check out the Acoustic Music Seminar Facebook page. Here’s a pic embedded from that page of seminar participant Matthew Witler and the great David Grisman: