Notes from the Road – Will McLean Festival 2009 The kick off for the festival year here in the State of Dreams is the annual Will McLean Festival held near Dunnellon, FL the first weekend in April. It has been my privilege to perform at the festival for many years now and it is one of my true favorites. Conceived by Margaret Longhill to honor the memory and music of Will McLean, the festival features Florida’s best musicians and songwriters in a three day celebration of our roots, history and heritage. Including an award to honor the best new song written about Florida, which goes this year to my good friend Garrison Doles (I was thrilled to win the award back in 1997), the festival is a gathering of good friends, fans of the music and lovers of the State in an idyllic setting overlooking the beautiful Withlacoochee River. This year is its twentieth anniversary and, as always, the line up is truly stellar. Thursday, April 2, 2009 Now, the festival doesn’t actually start until Friday and its less than two hours from home, but I’m anxious to get on site, get the camper set up, start chillin’ with good friends and start pickin’ some tunes. So, we got things organized at home, got the camper loaded and headed out by late afternoon. We were halfway there when I realized we had left my performer’s packet with my tickets, etc. at the house – figures. Well, hopefully someone will know me at the gate and I won’t have to pay to get in! The wind was annoying all the way to Dunnellon – gusting and blowing the camper around on the road like a big metal sail hooked to my bumper. Passing semis and buses was exciting to say the least. But, we managed to get there without sideswiping anything. The Roadside Revue gang (Ron & Bari Litschauer, Dawn DeWitt and husband Charles, Stan Geberer and companion Cathy) had saved us space in their enclave along with Clyde and Lorelli Walker – great group of folks. We were soon settled and immediately into the social activities. Ron quickly provided me with a plastic cup with a good three finger measure of amber liquid. Hello’s, hugs, laughter and friendship all around. There is traditionally a potluck on Thursday night for the early arrivals, but we didn’t come prepared for that so we repaired to the camper for a meal of leftovers from home. Then the guitars began to pop out. We had a great circle from dusk on with Ron. Bari, Dawn, Stan, Clyde and me and we were soon joined by Keith Hope and Mindy Simmons. I had a warranty issue with the cup Ron had provided me – the silly thing would not retain the liquid that had been poured there. Seemed like every time I turned around the darned thing had let the precious amber leach away into the night, so I had to keep rooting around in Ron’s camper to refill it!! Quite mysterious. Suddenly, right around 11 p.m. a few ominous drops of rain fell and we all scrambled for guitar cases and cover. Time to turn in anyway. What a great beginning. Friday, April 3, 2009 I don’t perform until Saturday, so Friday is a free day to relax. I had to run some errands in the morning, but got back in time to catch Clyde Walker on the Crypress stage accompanied by Ron Litschauer and Stan Geberer – great set. They were followed by the wonderful harmonies of Hannah’s Whirl (Tami & Paul, my friends from Tampa). I’m starting to feel a little tickle in my throat, but I think its dust and irritation from stopping by my folks’ house (mom’s a smoker). So, I think I’ll head back to the trailer, practice a bit and perhaps sip a little of the old home remedy to clear the vocal chords. I plinked and plunked, thought about a song list for Saturday, chatted with the passers by and generally soaked up the beauty of the campground here on the banks of the Withlacoochee. No rain in the forecast until maybe Sunday, so that seems promising. Judy came back and went down for a nap so I went for a walk about. I checked in my CD’s at the FOFF booth, bought Judy a Willfest T-shirt and checked out the vendors a bit. I’m still feeling that tickle in the throat and its starting to worry me. Back at the Roadside Revue enclave I chatted with the various inhabitants and relaxing in the afternoon breeze. It was soon supper time and we were feasted on burritos with the best chipotle sauce I’ve had in some time. Roadside Revue was scheduled on the main stage at 7:30 so I made Judy and I some coffee, took our chairs and headed that way. These guys, besides being dear friends, have always been some of my favorite performers on stage. Not only is the music great, but the chemistry they have together is simply awesome. I’m never sure who is having more fun – those of us listening or them on stage. Clyde Walker added his fingerstyle wizardry to a tune or two and the half hour passed much too quickly. However, during their rendition of Steve Blackwell’s “Gravel Road” I realized, unmistakably, that disaster has struck – I have a cold and it’s starting in my chest! I was singing along and noted to my great dismay that the high notes simply weren’t there – DAMN!! While I had planned to stay for the night’s line up on the Magnolia Stage and then play around the camp fires to the wee hours I took the safer course and headed to the trailer to begin consuming cold remedies and get some rest – we’ll see what happens. I HATE colds!! Consequently, I missed the rest of the evening main stage line up. The word I got was that the Mayhaws, in particular, were exceptional. I emerged from the camper again at about 10 p.m. to let folks know that I wouldn’t be out and about that evening. Everyone leaped to my aid, of course, insuring I had whatever I needed to fight off this dastardly cold. One of the vendors was close by (I hope I’m remembering his name right, Tom Brown) whose specialty is a wide variety of hot sauces, pepper jams and pepper glazes – really good stuff. He made sure I was equipped with the right pepper stuffs to keep my sinuses clear (not yet the problem) and provided me with honey and limes to go back to the camper and make a good old fashioned hot toddy (I had the whiskey, of course). I said my good nights and hot toddying I went, fingers and toes crossed for a good result. Saturday, April 4, 2009 Not a good start – I am VERY deep of voice this morning and my first attempts to make musical sounds come from my vocal chords sounds more like a really bad attempt at producing sound from an out of tune fiddle. I load up on more zinc, Echinacea, green tea extract, vitamin C, B-12, Mucsinex, Zicam, Advil, eye of bat, toe of newt (yeah, I’m at the desperate point for sure). I mixed another hot toddy (who cares if its 10 a.m.) to supplement my coffee and the heat does soothe my throat loosening it just a little. Judy headed on out to catch some of our favorites on stage leaving me to wrestle the vox gremlins. I restrung my guitar while imbibing the warm liquids and made my first attempts. It was immediately obvious that singing in my usual key was out of the question so I began a chordal Easter egg hunt looking for a key that my limited range would allow on certain songs. Assuming I’m able a accomplish this it complicates the performance because I will need to be mentally converting chords and changes to different keys than what I’m used to playing without really even thinking about it. A large task for a pea brain such as I. I knew certain songs were out due to the range they require regardless of where you start. I wanted to have Ron & Bari Litschauer and Dawn (d’Otter) DeWitt join me on Teppintine, Steam Train and Hemingway’s Hurricane so I worked those out first – very deep, Barry White sounding versions I might add. Then I attacked a couple of other tunes that I could open with before they joined me on stage. Armed with a battle plan, I went over and ran the tunes a time or two with the gang in the new keys. It seemed to go reasonable well. However, I did notice that as I was singing in that low range my voice appeared to be loosening a little. They went off to attend to other tasks and I went back to the camper and continued working the tunes. My voice was getting a bit more high range! However, it was also losing low range. Uh oh – time to change keys again!! Back to the drawing board. I readjusted, staying with the same somgs and about 1 p.m. I went over and shared the news with the guys that we were changing keys. They are professionals, but not above complaining! So we ran another little session in the new keys. Now, I didn’t go on the main stage until 4 p.m., but I had agreed to MC the stage from 2 – 3:30. I did my shtick making announcements and pattering while the stage reset between performers and then intro’d the acts as they came on. All the while I’m noticing changes in my voice – not getting normal, but changing in pitch and range. Oh boy! About 10 minutes before we hit the stage I broke the news to my compadres that, yet again, there would be changes in key. With doubtful and somewhat trepidatious looks they focused on my directions, said silent prayers and off I went to open my set. As we set up my sound my friend Raven Stands Alone recited a powerful poem, I Am Florida, which made a great introduction to the songs I had chosen. The moment of truth. With a little warning to the crowd that I may sound like a frog caught in car door at times I launched into Withlacoochee Dreamer – a few little vocal “yodels” but not too bad. I followed that with Yellow Butter Moon – again, no real catastrophe. At that point I hauled they guys out on stage. The energy you get playing with a band tends to transcend your preconceived notions of limitation and I started to push the old voice and give in to the music. What a fun set! We worked those three tunes for all they were worth and I let the voice growl through those points where I might have otherwise babied it – caution to the wind. Stan Geberer even jumped in on the closing number, Steam Train, and added that magnificent harmonica punch he carries. Judging from the crowd response it was a huge success and my thanks to the guys & gals for backing me so gamely and professionally – what a thrill! However, I knew with the closing notes of Steam Train that my vocal chords had just taken a serious beating and if I had to sing one more line I wouldn’t have made it. I let it all out there on the stage on that one and clearly put my set on Sunday in serious doubt. Again we’ll have to wait and see. Roadside Revue followed me on the Magnolia stage (which was very convenient since they were already set up to assist me) and put on yet another bang up show. As part of this set they introduced a new Dawn DeWitt song, Withlacoochee Way, that she literally wrote on Thursday – quite brave to test drive it on stage so soon. It’s a great song and I predict will be a hot contender for the Will McLean award next year. Mission accomplished for the time being, we repaired to the Roadside Revue enclave for some vittles. Sweet and sour chicken, roast pork, rice, black beans (with some of that great hot sauce from our friendly next door vendor), salad, brownies – we eat better camping that most folks eat when they have friends over for supper! Of course, libations began to be consumed. Ron & Bari remained more conservative as they had additional duties later backing Frank Thomas in his set and Amy Carol Webb in her Will McLean tribute set. Sated with food and drink we trundled back to the main stage to catch Frank Thomas (the grand master), Grant Livingston and others leading up to Amy Carol’s slot. I confess that I missed much of the music as I kept getting pulled aside by this one and that to chat and catch up. And, I kept slipping back to the coffee concession to keep some warm on my throat. However, I knew that I was not going to recover and did not want to bail at the last minute leaving the stage slot tomorrow morning up in the air. So, I went ahead and gave the news to Margaret that I was bowing out of my Sunday performance. Jackson Creek (Joe & Katie Waller) will fill in ably. I’m disappointed, but at the same time glad to have performed well on the main stage today and not have the pressure of waiting out my vocal condition over night. Amy Carol Webb’s set was awesome, as always. She has a well perfected stage persona that energizes the crowd like few I’ve seen. In keeping with the “tribute” these of the performance she was variously assisted by Jeanne Fitchen, Mindy Simmons, Ron & Bari, Annie Wenz, Grant Livingston and others throughout the show. A magnificent set followed by another one from Rod MacDonald, one of the few with the chops to hold a crowd after Amy gets done with them. Obviously, campfire singing and playing is not in the cards for me tonight, so I settled into the role of appreciative listener. Judy opted for crashing early, so I left her behind with her book and bed and wandered to this fire and that hearing new tunes and saying hello. I got to hear a new song from Doug Purcell that really is going to do well. I saw my pals Mike & Goody Haines. Wandering down towards the river I passed the Cypress Stage which, after hours, becomes a well lit song circle with Tom Ellis at the helm and I could see Glenn Smith in the group as I sauntered by. I was looking for the Blackwell / Still Friends compound and on the way ran into my buddy Ally Smith who was hanging at a campfire of mostly the sound crew entertaining them with her wonderful voice. And then I found the Still Friends crowd. Lots of good friends and folks I hadn’t seen in some time. I heard, unfortunately, that Carrie Blackwell was similarly afflicted as me and had retired early. But the rest of the crowd was there and kickin’ it proud. But, finally, the cold and aching throat dragged me away and to the camper. I dosed up yet again and set to the task of dreaming next to my bride. Sunday, April 5, 2009 Good call on giving up my slot – I’m sick as a dog. I couldn’t sing if my soul depended on it. I’m afraid that the Singer’s Saving Grace I was squirting in my throat yesterday simply numbed it up (it’s largely alcohol) and deadened the pain letting me sing when I really shouldn’t. That’s the thing about pain – it has a purpose and when you mask it artificially you expose yourself to greater injury. In any event, my throat feels tight and swollen and my chest is turning into a brick. So, we’ll probably just go ahead, pack up a little early and head on home. It has been a wonderful festival though. Terrific weather, warm but not uncomfortably hot during the day and cool at night. The rain has stayed away this year (it poured on us Saturday night last year). It has been an ideal 20th anniversary of this great festival and I’m already looking forward to the next one. As always, the entire staff has done a magnificent job under the direction of Margaret Longhill with the assistance of her sister Chris Lyle and a cadre of others. A production of this size is no small endeavor and they pull it off without a hitch. We went ahead and got things organized to depart, then headed over to the main stage to catch Still Friends, Larry Magnum and Mike Jurgensen before hitting the road. It turns out I’m not the only one ailing – Carrie Blackwell – Hussey also lost her voice as did Clyde Walker. So, the crud is going around, watch out! After great sets from Still Friends, Larry Magnum and Mike Jurgensen we finished our preparations, said our goodbyes and hit the road. Judy and I celebrate 25 years of marriage this month (April 21st) – it has been 25 wonderful, happy years for me (though only about 4 for her!). We will take a week to get away to the Caribbean to relax and reflect. Next stop musically is the Barberville Spring Frolic – hope to see you there!