Author: Campbell, Bruce

Returning to Brookdale

This weekend, I will be playing at the Brookdale Bluegrass Festival, and it will have some poignancy for me. Brookdale was the first festival I ever played, back in 2003. I remember it like it was yesterday….(here’s where I stroke my chin thoughtfully and the scene begins to blur into reminiscence mode…)

In very early 2003, I was asked to join The Alhambra Valley Band after being “discovered” at a jam session over the 2002 holidays. I had been really only playing bluegrass for about 6 years, principally as a guitar player, with some banjo. I really enjoyed the music, but hadn’t really dived headlong into the “scene” yet. I had never been to the Father’s Day Festival, although, oddly enough, I had been to 6 consecutive Wintergrass Festivals.

In retrospect, I think the AVB saw me as a reliable stopgap, rather than a bass monster savior. They had gone through a situation where their bass player and banjo player had left the band, and there were festival bookings looming in the near future. “Reliable” has always been my middle name, so since I knew my way around the fretboard, could keep time, and displayed a desire to grow into the role, I alleviated the crisis at hand.

But honestly, this was a challenge. The repertoire was heavy on originals, with odd keys and complex arrangements. Lynn tended to shout out chords by their finger position (with capo) than what they really were, or by numbers, so I had to learn VERY quickly to transpose in the time an instruction went into my ear and traveled

to my hands. I’m not throwing Lynn Q under the bus – lots of guitar players think of a C shape as a C chord regardless of capo position. Adding to my terror was other new bandmate’s (Craig Fletcher) ability to learn these songs and melodies with seemingly no effort at all. I hung on, trying to keep up, but waiting for the ax to fall…

In the meantime though (and this is what kept me going), I was a working part of an ensemble with power and precision like I have never encountered before. I felt like my feet were actually levitating off the ground as we worked these songs out. It was like having the very best seat in the house at a wonderful concert – I would sometimes forget that I was 1/5 of this sound. I learned so much about how each instrument (each voice, too) had a space in the arrangement. Meticulous attention was paid to every aspect of the arrangement – the beginning, the solos, the fills, the ending. It had to not only be in tune, and in time – each part had to serve the feel and mood of the song.

But the ax didn’t fall. As March approached, so did my public debut with the band. I felt confident in my command of the material. I was satisfied that I would not be exposed as a fraud. But then Lynn threw me a curve! “I’ve arranged for Pete Wernick to listen to us and critique the band!” she announced. I was terrified. I could fool a mellow, happy festival audience for two 45 minute sets, but what was going to happen when the full attention of a professional is focused on the band in a private setting for the sole purpose of criticizing us? Oh, he was going to have a field day with me.

I pictured Mr. Wernick, sitting in a chair, listening intently, his chin resting comfortably on a steeple formed by his fingers, eyes shut as we played some songs. As the last song ends, he sits, up, hands on his knees. “Well”, he begins. “Obviously, you’ll have to get a real bass player.” I anticipated a long, humiliated drive home. I hoped the AVB would let me play both sets, at least, so I could say I’ve played a bluegrass festival…

As it turned out, the session with Pete Wernick went fine. He did listen intently, and he did offer many helpful suggestions, but “dump the dope on the bass” was not one of them. We ended up having a very fun set in the main lodge, and that night, Pete himself joined us in our room for an EPIC jam that went till nearly sundown (I have a photo on my desk from that night, timestamped 4:15AM), and then we did a gospel set an hour two later. It was official – I had played a bluegrass festival! Life was beautiful! It will be a lot of fun to return to the scene of that glorious time – and I hope I see you there. Incidentally, when I look at photos from that weekend, I see lots of folks that are now familiar friends.

Posted:  12/1/2010

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