One final bow

Redwood Bluegrass Associates ends 25-year run in Mountain View

For the past quarter century, Redwood Bluegrass Associates has been supporting and promoting top-notch bluegrass concerts on the Peninsula. Now, it's time to say goodbye. The nonprofit will present one last all-star show on April 22 in Mountain View.

The group, which goes by the acronym RBA, started in 1991 as an all-volunteer organization presenting live-music events outside of the summer-festival realm. Since 1992, bluegrass buff Peter Thompson has been heavily involved as RBA's publicist, secretary, stage manager, MC and merchandise-seller.

"It's a soulful, emotional music with songs that told good stories and musicians who were the real deal." Thompson explained. "Plus it was fun to try to play and sing ... I used to play guitar, but I married my favorite guitar player (local bluegrass musician Kathy Kallick) and I'd rather listen to her now."

There were multiple factors behind RBA's decision to end its long run.

"There's been a constant ebb and flow of interest in the music ... there are now fewer venues, fewer opportunities for emerging bands to pay their dues and hone their craft," Thompson said. "The types of concerts attracting younger bluegrass enthusiasts are not concerts like ours. The current board has little interest in hosting a festival or partnering with a bar, and we have been unsuccessful -- despite five years of trying -- in attracting younger volunteers to take responsibility for our concert presentations."

For many, RBA's shows served as an opportunity to connect with the local community. The organization often held pre-concert potluck dinners and jam sessions with musicians and volunteers.

"I think most bluegrass enthusiasts like me recognize that RBA has always tried to present music of the highest quality -- presented by musicians who were not frequent performers in California -- in an appealing environment for reasonable ticket prices," Thompson said.

Musicians set to perform at RBA's grand finale expressed gratitude for how it has fostered a positive, inclusive environment for musicians and listeners over the decades.

Northern California Bluegrass Society's seven-time Female Vocalist of the Year winner, AJ Lee (a 19-year-old musician with two solo albums and six RBA performances under her belt) said she has warm memories of working with the organization.

"I know with RBA shows ... I'd look forward to them every year. Those were honestly my favorite shows to play. I felt a lot of community there with the bluegrass people," she said.

Lee will perform three of her original songs at RBA's grand finale.

"It's honestly been a real pleasure supporting RBA and it makes me sad to know that it's gonna be the farewell show," she said. "I've had such positive memories there. It's been a really fun time for me."

In the local music scene, the Tuttle name is synonymous with bluegrass. Jack Tuttle, a music instructor who has taught thousands of students at Gryphon Stringed Instruments in Palo Alto, often performed at RBA events with Lee and his three children as The Tuttles with AJ Lee. Influenced by his family's passion for bluegrass, Jack's 21-year-old son Sullivan (who plays guitar and sings baritone) will join forces with bluegrass group The Faultliners as a special guest.

"(RBA) shows were always one of my favorite shows to play," Sullivan Tuttle said. "The audience was really attentive compared to a lot of the gigs we used to play. A lot of people I knew would come. I'm going to be sad to see it go."

27 Strings, a band comprising Jack Tuttle's music-class graduates from Gryphon, was named for the total number of strings attached to each instrument within the band: banjo, bass, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. Although this will be the band's first time performing at an RBA concert, members of the band have attended many shows sponsored by the organization.

Band member Greg Frees wears many hats as 27 Strings' mandolin player, guitarist and vocalist. Although he said he has been musically inclined since childhood, playing guitar and piano, it was the sight of a European-style mandolin in the window of an antique shop that piqued his interest in bluegrass music 11 years ago. After "plinking around" with the instrument, he decided to take mandolin lessons, where he met his bandmates: guitarist Tom Bull, bassist Howard Gage and two RBA board members, fiddler Rachel Gage and banjo player Hildy Licht.

"We've been playing as a band for about eight years now, which is a long time for any band," Frees said. "One of the things I like about 27 Strings is that we all love each other. We all enjoy hanging out with each other every Thursday night, playing music and (having) dinner together ... there's not a lot of drama in the band. Everyone gets along and that's not easy in a band."

Frees described past RBA shows as a relaxed, family-like community.

"It's really sad, because they bring in really top-notch bands," he said. "RBA has brought in some really big-time bluegrass talent. So that not being around anymore is going to cut down significantly on the top-name bands that we'll be able to go to see in a very intimate venue."

During 27 Strings' set at the grand finale, the audience can expect a blend of traditional bluegrass songs by Bill Monroe, modern bluegrass songs and an original song written by Frees and Bull.

The organization plans to end on a high note. "(We are) justifiably proud of what RBA has accomplished and meant, and are glad to dissolve the organization with no debts," Thompson said. "In fact, we expect to have a small surplus, which we'll donate to worthwhile bluegrass organizations for scholarships to music camps, assistance to musicians in need and the like."

What: Redwood Bluegrass Associates Grand Finale

When: Saturday, April 22; open jam session at 5 p.m., showtime at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Mountain View Masonic Lodge, 890 Church St., Mountain View

Cost: $10 advance/$15 door (ages 13+)

Info: Go to RBA


Like this comment
Posted by Slurpee king
a resident of Palo Alto Orchards
on Apr 23, 2017 at 1:15 am

Need the nectarine

Like this comment
Posted by Real kudos and tough love
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 24, 2017 at 9:14 am

Having been to many RBA shows, I find this a very sad thing. Driving to Berkeley for bluegrass is much harder than it used to be.

Hiwever, I feel I should probably say the last RBA show I attended was the first one at that Masonic Lodge. Very old and musty and since a lot of people have allergies and (like me) usually won't say something for fear of the usual ridicule, we just stop going. That hall needs some attentio, we all got so sick there. Even one member of the family who isn't that allergic didn't want to see a favorite band there recently.

A bit of advice about getting younger (and older) volunteers, that came from a wise civic leader who has grown organizations from nothing - if you can hire out the work that can be hired out/that no one wants to do, and let volunteers do the things they are really interested in doing, then do it. If people come with new ideas don't make it impossible by committe or culture for them to contribute. I'm not saying RBA is like this, I don't know, but often when there are older members with very strong opinions about how things should be and not open to new ideas or sharing "power", but who just want volunteers to control, it's a recipe for fewer volunteers. Again, I don't know if that applies, I'm just pointing it out since there actually seems to be a growing younger audience for bluegrass. I don't think there is quite as bifurcated a view of older and newer forms as this article portrays. Bluegrass probably has the friendliest fans of any musical form.

Thanks, RBA, for the wonderful concerts over the years! With all of our areas billionaires, I sure wish they would better support cultural venues. Look at the spectacular growth of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass because of one billionaire's generosity.

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