Wickenburg Bluegrass festival is actually a contest festival where there are only three bands interspersed with contestants throughout the entire weekend. This year marked the 37th year that Ben Sandoval has managed the festival.
It was the first time I’ve sat through almost all of the contests. I did run into the camper for lunch Saturday and we had to leave at noon Sunday. It was so enjoyable watching the expressions ranging from sheer nerves through careful attention to the performance to total confidence. And the looks on some of the faces when they placed or even won. A couple of the Jam Pak kids seemed thrilled when they placed – as they should have. I saw a banjo player who joined in the Vannoy/Piper campsite the night before where most of the jamming seems to go on. That banjo player took first place in the banjo contest and just couldn’t get over it! There were nine pickers in that contest ranging from beginner to accomplished. Later that day when he went back to the jam, he asked if a 1st prize winner could join the jam!
What I realized while watching the contests was that there seems to be a lot more work involved for the people who keep the show running smoothly than for ‘ordinary’ festivals. When you have several bands throughout the weekend, sound checks get the bands ‘dialed in’, MCs have info beforehand about the bands, the stage is set up for 45 minute sets.
However, the contests [about a dozen] had up to 10 competitors each that could generally play a maximum of four minutes. That meant ushering out the performers and beckoning to the next to come up the stairs at the back of the stage because they probably didn’t hear the MC announce them.
Then the microphones and sometimes chairs for seated musicians have to be arranged. Dick Pierle’s Old Blue Sound crew [Cate Plante, Paul Grinvalsky, Alvin Blaine] does all of that in addition to running the soundboard. Since, there are no sound checks for these individuals, I presume, Alvin must be very busy during the one or two songs per contestant. There are generally two or more musicians for each. How about getting the right sound reinforcement for a harp? Sometimes bands bring some of their own microphones and cables. Alvin uses his iPad [with a special app, of course] to get some of the sound set up while on stage during the sound check.
Then there is the MC work by a true Master of Ceremonies, Bill Breen. He had to ascend and descend those stairs up to 10 times for each contest. Bill does not saunter up the stairs – he zips right up there to keep the show moving. Also, the sun is on that side of the stage most of the day, so he didn’t get much relief from the sun as he watched the contestants.
Then, there is Ben Sandoval who organized the first Wickenburg festival in 1979. He is everywhere keeping an eye on the event. On Thursday, he was even out there with a hammer hanging the banner across the bottom of the stage. Here is his bio: http://www.bluegrassben.com/aboutben.html
Fran Cole Denoncourt
Old Blue Sound
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