March 31, 1998
By David Duckman [David Royko]
Special to the Tribune
Like most major bluegrass festivals, the fourth annual Northern Illinois
in Naperville Bluegrass Music Festival, held last weekend in the ballroom of
Naperville's Holiday Inn Select, offers two distinct yet related forms of
entertainment. What draws many first-timers and festival veterans alike is
the music on stage, and with a lineup boasting grassy glitterati such as Del
McCoury, Eddie Adcock, Doyle Lawson, Rhonda Vincent, Lynn Morris, Rarely
Herd, the Warrior River Boys, and mandolin master Don Stiernberg, the
near-overflow attendance was no surprise.
But equally alluring is the bluegrass festival experience, which is
virtually unique among various types of music festivals in the degree of fan
participation. Walking through the lobby of the hotel and down the corridors
past conference rooms, one could see and hear scores of impromptu
all-acoustic jam sessions, the air alive with the crystalline jangling of
banjos and mandolins.
From rank beginners who started taking lessons as a New Year's resolution
to amateurs in name only with instrumental and vocal technique that could
make many professionals blush, the common bond was a love for playing and the
typical attitude "come one, come all."
Sunday's fiddle contest, where the winners walk away with a little cash
and a lot of bragging rights, is where the on- and off-stage worlds meet.
Junior Division champ Aaron Weinstein and Open Division victor Kenny Stone
are terrific players, though the spirit of the contest and the festival in
general was perhaps best exemplified by the father who, before turning in a
performance that only a mother could love, announced that he had entered
because he told his young daughter that, if she agreed to compete, he would
too. His efforts were met with enthusiastic applause.
As for the pros, it seems nobody can top the Del McCoury Band these days.
The beauty of McCoury's accomplishment is that he now heads an all-star band
that has won more International Bluegrass Music Association awards than can
be easily counted, not because he put together a group of superstars, but
because his band members have all become all-stars under his leadership.
Surrounded by the enormous heft of Jason Carter's fiddling, the granitic
strength of banjoist Rob McCoury and the brilliant mandolin soloing of Ronnie
McCoury, Del McCoury's intensely expressive voice cut through his ensemble's
sound like a jet through the eye of a hurricane.
Lesser only in voltage was the Sunday set by mandolinist extraordinaire
Don Stiernberg and guitarist John Parrott, who delivered a diverse program
highlighted by several "golden era" pop and jazz standards.
A protege of the late mandolin giant Jethro Burns, Stiernberg's
improvising tickled the ear with unexpected but delightful changes of
direction, somehow maintaining a feathery swing while manipulating the inner
rhythms in a wholly personal fashion.