The 14th Annual Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival Hits High Notes!
by Chris Bradshaw
How anyone can describe Sutter Creek’s 14th Annual Ragtime Festival without excessive hyperbole is beyond me! If it were an Olympic event, it would have earned a gold medal. If it were a movie, it would be a five-star Oscar-winning production. If it had been a school project, “Excellent Job” would have been stamped all over it. The 14th Annual Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival was over the top — definitely an A+ festival.
Even the daily temperatures managed to scream hot. As a side note, perhaps next year someone on the committee could have a chat with Mother Nature to reign in her enthusiasm a bit. But somehow, even in beastly hot daily temps, fans and performers rocked the charts.
Following tradition, Keith Taylor led off with a rousing countdown, opening the festival at precisely 4:00 p.m. in the Ice Cream Emporium. He then launched into a set of classic and modern rags that included an entertaining version of The Entertainer. Keith, along with Frederick Hodges, presented an enjoyable night of silent films. Both Keith and Frederick could be seen throughout the festival in solo sets. Frederick’s Fred Astaire set was a knockout, and following that with Waiting for the Robert E. Lee in multiple musical styles was a hoot. Frederick also joined up with friends Marty Eggers and Virginia Tichenor in the delightful Crown Syncopators sets and as an emcee.
Marty and Virginia also contributed greatly with solos of their own, performances together and with the Ragtime Skeddadlers. The Skeddaddlers, a string-band group featuring performers Dennis Pash, Nick Robinson and Dave Krinkel with their authentic ragtime sound, performed such pieces as Cottonfield Capers by William Christopher O’Hare and Ernesto Nazareth’s Dengozo from arrangements published during the ragtime era. Nice to hear these quiet, eloquent arrangements.
What makes a festival very special are not only the planned surprises but also the serendipitous happenings. On Saturday afternoon, there was a brand new Festival Sampler program — a kind of patchwork quilt of offerings highlighting the diversity of the festival. A real hit! The Bella Grace Wine Tasting Room opened its side garden for a pleasing outdoor venue. Their side porch made for a perfect stage where Larisa Migachyov performed during an evening pizza and wine gathering. Larisa also brought singer par excellance Candace Roberts into the festival’s finale concert, where she knocked our socks off with her stunning performance of a Cole Porter tune, Let’s Misbehave.
Sutter Creek welcomed new faces — youth performer John Reed-Torres, jazz performer Ray Skjelbred, and classic ragtime pianist/violinist Bob Pinsker — to the lineup this year. All welcome additions. Composer/performer Galen Wilkes was back after missing several years. Both Bob and Galen not only performed but they also presented educational and edifying seminars. Bob performed a little-known, unpublished number, The Untitled Fox Trot by Eubie Blake, which he found while researching ragtime-era compositions at the Smithsonian. Galen played not only his own beautiful compositions, and at one point even a series of them in a beautiful medley, but he also performed some little-known gems.
The biggest surprises of the festival were the youth performers. Among those showing great maturity not only in their masterful playing but also in stage presence was Will Perkins, whose stride performances have an easy-going loping feeling like he has been doing this for 50 years — but would you believe only five? Then there was Vincent Johnson, gracing and owning novelty piano, not only as a performer but also a composer. His Tiffany Lamp Rag is luscious. The same is true with newcomer Reed-Torres, whose performances of his own and period classic rags show that he gets the style. Tim Rotolo was also back not only performing his upbeat and energetic Disneyesque-styled pieces, but also showing musical maturity in his handling of the ballad Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? Then along came 13-year-old Diego Bustamante, affectionately known as “The Kid,” who performed not only on the Bradshaw and Ragnolia sets but also on the powerhouse youth concert with three stellar numbers. And if that wasn’t enough, later in the day, young Graham Messer, Frederick Hodges’ 10-year-old nephew, performed a nearly perfect Elite Syncopations. The youthful presence throughout the festival gave new lift and life to the spirit of the weekend. Ragtime is thriving in these youthful hands.
Squeek Steele, always a hit, had folks in chairs 45 minutes before her Sunday morning hymn fest. Word has it that fans were singing right along, enjoying every note. Squeek was joined on several of her sets by banjo-playing Gary Greenlund. Their playing of Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay was a great hit.
Coming from afar, we had Monty Suffern from Texas by way of five weeks in his native Australia, where winter was in full swing. According to his playing, we can say that he braved the heat quite nicely. Paul Stewart from North Carolina joined us again this year for some enjoyable classic rag playing. His performance of Solace in the Ice Cream Emporium was an added treat.
When it came for the finale concert, Stevens Price (emcee and performer) kept the show moving right along. This is the program where performers take to the stage alone for a single number and then call up someone else to perform with them. Tom Brier, a festival favorite, was called up to the stage so many times that Stevens was right when he quipped, “No rest for the wicked.” (Note to Stevens: Next year just add an extra chair to the stage and park Tom in it.)
And speaking of the finale concert, Patrick Aranda, who had been playing alone and duos with Carl Sonny Leyland all weekend, outdid himself when that flashy red (and red-hot) plastic trombone came out of the case. Carl added some wonderful boogie and blues to the festival. Mighty fine playing!
The Sacramento Ragtime Society players were well represented. The Raspberry Jam Band, flautist Julia Riley’s wonderful group of troupers — Doug Davies, John Massey, Shawn McCoy, Kitty Wilson and Cheryl Woldseth — with super-star Tom Brier at the piano, performed on Sunday, with stalwart fans following them from venue to venue. Other groups included the Bradshaw Duo, The Ragnolia Ragtette and the Sullivans and Drivons performing lots of classic to contemporary rags. This year, Robyn and Steve Drivon had their own set of a singing and strumming Steve with Robyn providing the bass line on her tuba. Quite charming!
With this festival dedicated to the memory of Nan Bostick, festival tributes occurred throughout the weekend, including some from the Ragtime Skeddadlers, Galen Wilkes, the Ragnolia Ragtette, and a moving performance of Nan’s own That Missing You Rag in the gentle hands of Larisa Migachyov.
A festival of this magnitude can’t happen without performers and fans, but the big thank-yous need to go to those behind-the-scenes workers who have put in tons of hours before the festival even happened. Festival directors Marilyn Norton and Dan Lucas, you are the greatest! It was a fantastic festival, start to finish.
Plans already are under way for next year’s festival to be held, August 9-11, 2013. Mark your calendars now! Although we can’t promise a little cooler weather, we do want you to know that we are serious about having that little chat with Mother Nature.
Acknowledgments from the Festival Directors
First, we would like to thank the many volunteers for their tireless work on the 14th Annual Sutter Creek Ragtime Festival. We couldn’t have done it without them. Thank you Helen Lucas, Ron O'Dell, and Kathy Berg (and all the other volunteers). Special thanks to Lewis Motisher for again creating a handsome and very professional-looking program and T-shirt design. Special thanks also to Joe Bellamy for loaning us pianos, and let’s not forget Leggett Piano Service for supplying, moving, and taking care of the pianos.
Sponsors for this year’s festival include the Sutter Creek Promotions Committee, Roger Berger, Bub and Petra Sullivan, and the Sutter Creek Inn. Raffle prizes were generously donated by the West Coast Ragtime Society, Sutter Creek Wine Tasting, CINQUE, Chip Lusby, and Phil Schaap Jazz at Lincoln Center. Many thanks to you all.
Thank you John and Nadine Mottoros, Chip and Bonnie Lusby, and Gary and Diane Nelson for housing musicians.
Also many thanks to Pat Crosby for his work on the Sutter Creek website, Maureen Funk of the Amador Council of Tourism, and Lisa Klosowski, Director of the Sutter Creek Visitors Center. In addition, many newspapers, magazines and individuals helped publicize the festival. Elena Macaluso at Sacramento Magazine wrote a particularly nice blog about the festival, and Megan Wiskus of Style Magazine included an entry in their Summer Fun Guide. Thanks also to John Mottoros and Chip Lusby for their help all year long publicizing the festival, and to Chris Bradshaw for all her publicity work and work with youth performers.
Thanks to The Foxes for elegantly hosting us, Charlie Havill of BellaGrace for letting us invade his beautiful property, and Sara Hock for letting us use the Sutter Creek Ice Cream Emporium once again. In addition, thanks to Dennis and Julie Griffin and the American Exchange, and Byron and Laura Damiani of the Sutter Creek Theatre.
Special thanks to all the Sutter Creek merchants who bought advertising in our program and who support us in many other ways all year long.
And, of course, thanks to the wonderful musicians who, despite the hot, hot weather, came to share a weekend of their fantastic music! There wouldn’t have been a festival without them!
There are many others who help make this festival happen. Their efforts are needed and very much appreciated. The list is just too long for this space. Our apologies to those whose names we did not mention.
—Marilyn Norton and Dan Lucas, Festival Directors