I've mentioned that I went to see Audra McDonald in the afternoon on Sunday, and that it was a long day. That's because in the morning I drove out to Agoura Hills (which is about 40 minutes west of me) for the 49th annual Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest. I know this isn't for everyone, but it's so different from expectations that I suspect a lot more people would enjoy the day than think so.
I don't go every year, in large part because it's a drive to get there. Also, it's a fun thing to do with others and I just haven't usually been able to get others to join me. (Go figure.) Though sometimes. So, usually I head out on my own. But this is something I love. Hey, I even took banjo lessons! I think I've probably forgotten it all, but the trusty fellow is sitting there in the corner, and every once in a long while I take it out an strum away and annoy the neighbors. (I have a wooden device that mutes the sound, and it does that well. The problem is that it makes the banjo sound like a guitar. And if you're going to play the banjo, the Whole Point is that it sounds like a banjo...)
Once upon a time getting to the Topanga Banjo and Fiddle Contest was much more convenient. The early years were held on the athletic field at UCLA, not far from me. The first time I went was probably around its 10th year. A lot of fun, though it was mainly just the main stage music, along with a few booths, and it has expanded greatly since then. Initially, they moved to another college athletic field, which wasn't that great, but eventually wound up in Agoura Hills at the Paramount Ranch, fairly near Topanga, so it's not only a terrific venue for the event, but now an appropriate one, at last. They've probably been there for about 30 years, give or take.
What's best about the current location is that you're in the middle of Malibu Creek State Park, so you're surrounded by trees, which not only adds a wonderfully more-rich atmosphere than dormitories, college buildings and an athletic track, but there's also now shade around the outskirts of the main field, (if you choose to wander in them or take a hike), which believe me helps A LOT some years, when the sun pounding down can be brutal, especially if you stay there all day, which can about nine hours.
But also what's nice is that the Paramount Ranch has been a location for a lot of movie and television filming, most notably as the town for TV series, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. And that too is part of what makes the area so good for the festival -- what with the Western town structure, it has an old-timey feel.
The thing about the TB&FC is that while once upon a time it was mostly just that main stage for the contest, it's now really turned into a festival.
The contest itself is made up of a massive range of categories -- divided into instruments, solo or group, singing, backup and more. And they further divide things according to level of performance: beginner, intermediate and advance. In the past, all those were mashed together, which was fairly fun to see, though the quality got a bit ragged. Now, though, they've gotten more clever -- they realized that they have all these structures, so the lower levels of beginning and intermediate have their own areas. That breaks things up wonderfully and lets you wander around more for variety. The main stage is for advanced.
(I'm going to post a bunch of videos I took, but not to worry, none last more than 30 seconds. So, if you're not big into this kind of music, it's just for flavor.)
Much of the fun of the festival transcends just what's on the stage. There are so many areas to explore. Lots of booths for arts & crafts. An area of food trucks, including some good aromas for barbecue. (I brought my own food, but maybe next year...) And one of my favorite things -- the jamming areas, where musicians gather together and start playing with one another.
Much of the fun of the festival is that they also have performance areas that have nothing to do with banjo and fiddle. Rather there are structures for things like the Cowboy Storytelling competition, or Western dancing competition or Cowboy singing, or things like that. This was the latter --
When I wandered into the barn to take a look at the dancing competition, they were on a break, however another feature of the festivities is that there are professional groups performing throughout. And the group on stage were extremely good --
Good as these small, professional groups are, one of the highlights of the day is that – to break up the contest on the main stage (where the advanced musicians perform), they have serious professionals, some with national reputations, performing every few hours, maybe four times or so during the day, doing half-hour sets. I think the reason for this isn’t just to add variety, but it gives the judges some much-needed time off.
When I was there, they had Jenna Moynihan and Mãiri Chaimbeul from Boston, who played celtic fiddle and harp. They were absolutely terrific, and charming with their banter. (At one point, Ms. Moynihan said they'd be singing a song by a wonderful singer-songwriter and asked the crowd if they knew of him. There was total silence. And after a proper beat, she added, "So, I'll take that as a Big No.") Here's only a very short 30-seconds of their playing, but if you want to hear more, you can find their new CD, One Two, which they were selling at the event, here.
The day was great – and the weather (which is often blistering) cooperated lovingly and was in the upper-60s. I was sorry not being able to take full advantage of that, but as I said I had an hour drive back into the city to meet up with Mark Evanier so that we could go to the Audra McDonald contest. Er, I mean, concert.
It's a joyful festival, beautifully organized, and they've been doing this long enough that they've got the thing down to a T, running impeccably, a fine bit of cooperation between festival folk and the park rangers. If there's a part of it you're not enjoying, or have heard enough of one kind of music for the time being, you just walk around the spacious grounds to find something else.
For those interesting in knowing more about the Topanga Banjo & Fiddle Contest, and live in the Los Angeles area (or plan to be there next year in late May…), and you might want to see it live, it’s a joy and you can find the link to it here.
Plink, plank, plunk...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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