Bluegrass is not the first genre that comes to mind when thinking about the local music community, but a West Coast bluegrass scene has existed, mainly centered around the stage at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage coffee house, for more than 50 years. Before the Freight opened on San Pablo Avenue in 1968, the bluegrass community played at various locations around the Bay Area, but had no place to call home.
“The Freight has been extremely important to the local bluegrass and traditional music scene,” said Laurie Lewis, Berkeley’s Grammy winning bluegrass singer, songwriter and bandleader. “It used to be our clubhouse. Locals could always find a gig there. They could try out new material and build an audience. Everyone was welcome, as long as you loved the music. It’s where I got my start. Nowadays, it’s morphed into a fantastic performance space, but it’s less open to the local community than it used to be. That’s why the Berkeley Bluegrass Festival is so important.”
“When the festival started in 2015, one of the ideas behind it was having a time, once a year, when we could get local bands on the stage and make a big thing of it,” Lewis said. “That’s why I got involved with it. I thought it would be fun to have a festival with locals and big names jamming in the lobby before performances, as well as giving workshops to explore the history of the music and demonstrate technique. We had an impromptu square dance in the lobby at the first festival. It’s possible that we’ll be having some free-flowing jam sessions with locals and professionals in the lobby this year as well.”
Not unexpectedly, the Covid pandemic put the festival on hold for the past two years. This year’s event, which starts on Friday, May 29, will be presented with masks and vaccination mandates in place. “It’s odd to perform in a mask, but it’s OK to play to an audience in masks,” Lewis said. “I’m just thrilled to have an actual audience again and glad the Freight is keeping us all safe. Hopefully, the more vulnerable members of the public will feel good coming out, because of all the precautions.”
This year’s lineup features Bay area favorites Lewis and The Right Hands, The Kathy Kallick Band and Windy Hill. National acts include The Grascals, Missy Raines & Allegheny and The Seldom Scene. It’s notable that there are women in seven out of the eight headlining acts. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to include women, but some of the best bluegrass bands these days have women in them. Kristin Scott Benson from the Grascals, joined me for a European tour when she was 22. She’s won the International Bluegrass Association’s Banjo Player of the Year Award five times. I love her musical receptivity and sense of time. Banjo players have to divide the tempo into 16th notes, to keep the music moving, so it’s important the timing be impeccable—hers is.”
Laurie Lewis adds: “Bluegrass is tied to a lot of Southern stereotypes of white male music, but it’s not the historical truth. It got started as an inclusive form of music. Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops has done some excellent sleuthing into the Black origins of much of the repertoire. Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, always gave credit to one of his inspirations, a Black guitarist named Arnold Shultz. They used to play dances together in Kentucky. There was a lot of cross-cultural appropriation on all sides. What started as Bill Monroe’s musical vision has become codified into a formula. I think it’s only a matter of time until there are more musicians of color interested in reclaiming the roots of this music.
“What I’m looking forward to is the NorthSouthEastWest Jam, a project put together by guitarist Michael Daves. I played a number of dates with them in New York, a few years ago. This time, we’ve got Missy Raines, fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves, Kristin Scott Benson, Michael and myself. We’ll get together that day for a quick rehearsal, which is as much fun as the gig. It’s not a highly prepared, mapped out in advance sort of thing, but we will have a set list, to give ourselves a head start. There will be a lot of jamming.”
The Berkeley Bluegrass Festival takes place at Freight & Salvage, 2020 Addison St., Berkeley, from Friday, April 29 to Sunday, May 1. Tickets and more information at thefreight.org