Now in its seventh year the Sugar Maple Festival is still going strong, and it continues to expand beyond the main stage. In addition to the workshops, dances and jams that go on around the park, a second stage features local and touring acts both days. This year the nice people at Sugar Maple turned one of the second stage time slots over to me for a sort of “Kiki’s House of Righteous Music presents” outside the basement. It only made sense that I would use it to book the performer who has probably played the most sets there.
Since moving to Minneapolis, Blake Thomas is not the familiar face around Madison he once was. He comes back every couple months, but hadn’t played here since a Tuesday night at Mickeys that was loud, crowded and seemed to have more set breaks than songs. Tonight was a different story, the crowd was small when he started his fifty minute set, but grew as people drifted over after Robbie Fulks finished his set on the main stage. Unlike a Mickey’s crowd, this group was silent during the songs and clapped appreciatively at the end. Sitting at a picnic table up front, I was surprised when I turned around to see how many people there were extending into the darkness around the park shelter that housed the stage. It was awesome to actually hear Thomas play for the first time since his Stoughton Opera House show last November, and it sounded terrific.
At first he thought he would play solo. Since he would be getting into town only a few hours before the show, he wouldn’t have time to work anything up with the players who usually accompany him. He should know by now that the usual suspects don’t need practice. In addition to Josh Harty on guitar and Chris Sasman on drums, his wife Mary Fox also played on half the tunes. The pair has been writing a musical (“Stay Tuned…” for Yellowtree Theater in Osseo, MN) and we were treated to one of the first songs from the production. In addition, they played a couple songs from the Our Town soundtrack they did last year for another play at Yellowtree they both starred in. That collection of old traditionals and Carter Family songs was perfect for the fest. Surprisingly with all the talent onstage, the show was stolen by an unexpected guest. Young Sage Ali (son of Shauncey) wandered over to the drum kit like he belonged there. Sasman scooped him up, set him on his lap and handed him a brush. He surprised no one by having perfect rhythm despite being only a year old.
Usually Saturday is the better of the two days at Sugar Maple but this year Friday had the edge. In addition to the musician of my choosing, there were also a few bands I would have chosen on the main stage. As I mentioned earlier Robbie Fulks was making his third Sugar Maple appearance. His next record is going to be a bluegrass collection and he brought along many of the players who will be on the record. A violin player friend of mine was amazed at the talent on stage, and he doesn’t even know Fulks or his frequent sideman Robbie Gjersoe. “Did you see who’s playing?” he asked me, wide-eyed, “those are some serious Nashville heavyweights up there.” And it did sound pretty amazing. Fulks has always been a man of many, in fact nearly all, styles of music, but bluegrass really gives him a chance to show off his fingerpicking skills. I only got to see half his set before heading over to the second stage. Blake urged me to head back, but I protested that I see Fulks more than I see him.
Earlier in the night the Tillers played a great set despite some pretty extreme technical difficulties. The microphones went out and they ended up doing half their songs from the middle of the dance floor. It is one thing to go completely unplugged in a small room like the Café Carpe, completely another under a big top sized tent. Even so, their strong voices carried well. All of the singing, as well as all the talking, is done by the guitar player and the fiddler while the upright bass player remains silent. If he ever did say something I expect it would be like Silent Bob or Ferb (of Disney’s Phineas and Ferb), short, profound, and to the point.
The Sugar Maple people are doing great thing out there, and I hope they have many more years of great music. Especially since the organizer said he hopes to make “Kiki’s House of Righteous Music presents” a yearly thing.
Eddie Biebel & AJ Srudas
Blake Thomas & friends