a short review of the Savannah Music Festival’s “Stringband Spectacular”

A few years ago, my friends Jackie and Ken Sirlin raved about the Savannah Music Festival‘s annual Stringband Spectacular, the finale show for the Acoustic Music Seminar, a key program in the festival’s ongoing educational efforts. So I checked the show out that year, and I’ve been plugging it every chance I get ever since.

I know, education, blah, blah, blah. It’s hard to market educational programs as concerts worth attending on a Friday night — especially on day 16 of the marathon 17-day festival.

But Stringband Spectacular really is one of the highlights of the festival. Many SMF programs appropriately feature established artists who are closer to the end than to the beginning of their careers, but the AMS finale fills the stage with 16 stellar musicians aged 22 and younger.

Who knows which will establish great careers and return to the SMF in the decades ahead? Who knows which might change course and pursue other things?

Of course, there are some adults involved in this production, including Jenny Woodruff, the SMF’s education director. The awesomely talented Mike Marshall is the AMS associate director; he was joined this year in running the program by Casey Driessen and lead clinician Julian Lage. I gather there were also sessions with a number of other visiting performers.

In the middle of this year’s Stringband Spectacular, mandolinist Marshall, guitarist Lage, and fiddler Driessen joined forces for a stirring rendition of “Gentle on My Mind” which segued into Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”. As good as those two songs were, the show was rich enough just with the work of the seminar participants. In fact, I think my favorite thing about the instructors’ performance was the opportunity to watch the delight on the faces of the young people behind them.

In a stroke of genius, SMF staff decided years ago that all 16 seminar participants would be seated in a semicircle on stage throughout the show. They just bring their instruments forward to the microphones when they are ready to play. Friday night’s show featured 14 songs either written or arranged by the participants, and there were typically about five musicians per song. By the time the applause had died down from one tune, the next ensemble was ready to roll.

Before I continue, here’s a list of this year’s AMS attendees:

Sam Armstrong-Zickefoose, 20, Santa Fe, NM (Banjo)
Bella Betts, 14, Boulder, CO (Mandolin)
Joseph D’Esposito, 21, Ithaca, NY (Violin)
Caleb Dostal, 21, Missoula, MT (Banjo)
Grant Flick, 16, Bowling Green, OH (Violin)
Wilhelmina FrankZerda, 16, Blodgett, OR (Violin)
Mike Gaisbacher, 21, Charleroi, PA (Bass)
Noah Harrington, 18, Lexington, MA (Bass)
Jake Howard, 20, Munroe Falls, OH (Mandolin)
Gordon Neidinger, 20, Pittsburgh, PA (Mandolin)
Mike Robinson, 22, Boulder, CO (Guitar)
Ethan Setiawan, 17, Middlebury, IN (Mandolin)
Gabe Terracciano, 22, Portland, ME (Violin)
Josh Turner, 22, Indianapolis, IN (Guitar)
Joe Vilardi, 21, New York, NY (Guitar)
Jacob Warren, 19, South Lyon, MI (Bass)

The evening began with mandolinist Jake Howard’s arrangement of David Grisman’s “Dawg Patch” — the ensemble included Driessen and four other musicians. It was a polished performance that set a high bar for the rest of the evening. How hard did the musicians have to work to craft that song in less than a week? (Howard, who was among the young performers who has already established a professional and charismatic stage presence, played on seven other songs throughout the night.)

From there, the seminar participants — all casually dressed and seemingly at ease before the Lucas Theatre audience — tackled both covers and originals with skill and passion.

Some of the most memorable songs included vocals. Guitarist Joe Vilardi’s “Song of the Redwood Tree” — adapted from an evocative Walt Whitman poem — was one of the more ambitious and affecting. Josh Turner’s presentation of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” was immeasurably beautiful. (Turner can play, Turner can sing, as evidenced by the millions of views on his YouTube channel.) Gabe Terracciano’s arrangement of Bruce Cockburn’s “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (also covered by Barenaked Ladies) brought the show to a rousing finish.

The night was full of instrumental gems too, like Armstrong-Zickefoose’s composition named for his grandmother Mona and Setiawan’s “Untitled 8”.

Really, though, I could go on and on, and I suspect that another reviewer would focus on songs that I didn’t even mention here.