A report from the field by Jerry James: banjo maker, musician, fireman and cartoonist.
What if you put on a party and everyone came? That is what the Portland Old Time Music Gathering felt like, and they know how to throw a party.
I have always wanted to visit Portland, but only seemed to pass through on my way to somewhere else. I liked what I had seen though, that combination of funk and industry, buildings, cranes and boats left me wanting to see more. So when my stars aligned for the POTMG I was excited to get the opportunity to see the town and play some music in what many folk consider the epicenter of the west coast old time music scene. It would be a chance for me to visit with two of the best banjo makers on the west coast, Brooks Matsen and Jason Romero.
First stop was Amity, Oregon where I got to visit with an old friend and red-hot zydeco accordionist/multi-instrumentalist Sam Bernardi of Bayou Cadillac. Like many a good Italian son, Sam was given an accordion in his youth so he could learn to “play like Myron Floren”. Fortunately for us, he stuck with it and branched out into Cajun music as well. Sam had been laid up from recent hip surgery, but was in fine spirits when I arrived. After catching up we got down to some banjo duets, then Sam broke out the button accordion and contrary to popular belief, we were able to put together some Cajun tunes on button accordion and clawhammer banjo. It was so much fun jamming with Sam, he decided to come up to the Old Time Gathering for jams on Saturday.
I rolled into Portland and got settled in the Jupiter Hotel near the Old Norse Hall, where the Gathering would take place. Wednesday night offered some great acts and I was sorry to miss them, but like all gatherings you need to make choices, and POTMG offers you plenty to choose from.
First, I needed a new banjo capo so I headed off to Pioneer Music. There I met with Curt Alsobrook. Curt said he was going to be leading a jam at the Moon and Sixpence that evening and that settled the venue for me. Curt, (on banjo) and Jason Dilg (fiddle) from the band High on the Hog, along with Foghorn alumni Kevin Sandri (guitar), Briand Bagdonas (bass) broke into a high energy rollicking jam that took off from the beginning and never slowed down. Here was a first-class string band in a friendly setting that created an all-inclusive session vibe that was hard to beat. A great start to what was going to be a fun weekend.
Jason Romero and Brooks Masten are two of the best banjo makers out there today. These innovative builders/luthiers/artists are at the forefront of what just may be a new Golden Age of Banjos. Both Jason and Brooks have studied the old ways. Not content to be copyists, they have pushed the art of banjo building into the future through their individual approaches that center around a genuine feel for the wood they use and a desire to move the art forward. They are both nice guys who were feeling weary from late night music when I caught up with them. Still they took the time to meet and talk banjo with me. Click here to hear three luthier geeks talk about the joys of banjo building.
Friday night was the Big Concert Night and the house was packed. Starting things off in the bar were The Tallboys. They set up in the corner of the bar and played a great foot-stomping set that left everyone smiling. Included were some songs from their upcoming CD which will hopefully be out soon. Joe Fulton (fiddle), Charlie Beck (banjo), John Hurd (bass) and Charmaine Slavin (guitar and buckdancing simultaneously) put out a full tight sound, and if you like their CDs, you will love their live act.
The main auditorium was the venue for the big concert. The opening act was Maggie and Patrick Lind, followed by the Blogtrotters, The Hurricane Ridgerunners, and finishing off with the duo of Greg Clarke and Lauren Sheehan. Then it was back to the bar for what seemed like a who’s-who of old time music.
Looked like a harmonic convergence of old time as people and instruments began arriving at the Norse Hall. Jams broke out like spot fires on a California wildfire. All of the workshop venues were packed, and you had to thread your way through all the people, jams and instrument cases everywhere. The concerts were well attended, and folks were raving about the good music.
After a break for dinner, everyone crowded back into the hall for the big dances. Tickets sold out so if you go next year, make sure you buy your tickets in advance, or you might lose out. If you weren’t dancing, there were serious jams taking place in every room, hallway and corner of the hall. I was lucky enough to sit in on a jam led by legendary fiddler Earl White that was as fun as it gets!
I had to leave on Sunday morning and sadly had to miss the Cabaret at the Mission Theatre and the Foghorn farewell at Moon and Sixpence. All in all, POTMG is a brilliant showcase of traditional music and good times. The concentration of everything into the Norse Hall gives it a more intimate party feeling. I will be returning next year for sure, and highly recommend it to anyone involved in traditional music.
For photos, set lists, and more discussion visit the Banjo Hangout.