The Fretboard Festival, an annual celebration of Kalamazoo’s stringed-instrument history, returns to town on March 23 and 24. The free festival provides an opportunity to meet instrument designers, learn about their trade, attend workshops for a variety of stringed instruments, and hear live performances from area musicians.
The event begins with a concert by Ninth Street Bridge at 7 p.m. Friday, March 23 at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum. The folksy, country-rock tunes by Ninth Street Bridge give audiences a story to think about and some southern-fried, lead-instrument interplay.
The festival continues on Saturday, March 24 with performances and workshops beginning at 11 a.m. Ren Wall and Friends, (Richard Butler, Donald Bradford, and Rod Wall), will perform at the museum’s main stage at 11 a.m. The Kalamazoo Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra performs next door to the museum, at Anna Whitten Hall, at 11:30 a.m. The Kalamazoo Mandolin and Guitar Orchestra was founded in 2003 by Miles Kusik and Jackie Zito to bring the plucked string orchestra tradition back to Kalamazoo. The KMGO is comprised of talented area musicians and is based on the mandolin orchestras that were extremely popular in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s. The orchestra’s musicians play the mandolin, mandola, mandocello, guitar, and bass.
The Turnips, this year’s Play-In Contest winners, perform at 12:30 p.m. on the museum’s main stage. The Turnips have been busy playing and recording with prominent members of the Michigan Folk Scene and have emerged to cultivate a great new sound.
Gerald Ross takes the stage at 1 p.m. at Anna Whitten Hall. Ross blends the sounds of jazz, blues, and swing and has created a guitar style uniquely his own. He has the rare ability to transmit an infectious good humor to his audience through a tasteful combination of outstanding instrumental talent and an eclectic repertoire.
At 2 p.m., Dragon Wagon performs at the museum’s main stage. This band is described as “Bluegrass Folk Rock with a shot of Irish whiskey.” The combination of mandolin, fiddle, banjo, guitar, bass, and drums guarantees an infectious energy that gets every crowd dancing.
At Anna Whitten Hall’s main stage, Treading Bleu performs at 2:30 p.m. Treading Bleu is composed of a handful of seasoned musicians who came together with the common goal of creating great music that they truly enjoy playing. This Kalamazoo band is inspired by the rich heritage of the city's vibrant music scene. Their sound crosses many genres but coalesces in strong melodies, committed musicianship, and emotional songwriting that strikes a chord with audiences of all ages.
In the museum’s Mary Jane Stryker Theater, Celtic Roots performs at 3:30 p.m.
Joel Mabus also performs at 3:30 p.m. Find him at the museum’s main stage. Mabus is a maverick in the folk music world. He defies an easy pigeonhole. He picks a mountain banjo to accompany an ancient ballad, sings a witty song about modern life, plays a sweet Irish melody on guitar, swings a hot jazz number, and then reaches deep for a soulful expression of values in a troubled world. He tops it all with a fiddle tune or old Carter family song -- all skillfully blended into a seamless flow. One fan said, “It’s music from the heart that hits you right between the eyes.”
The Bronk Brothers, fronted by brothers Heath and Brian Bronk, take the stage at Anna Whitten Hall at 4:30 p.m. They describe their show as a "Rockin' Hillbilly Extravaganza"—an out of control, pedal-to-the-metal, in-your-face musical journey. The duo uses a mixture of classic country, new country, and classic rock to create their own original music and sound.
The Kalamazoo-based band Who Hit John? plays at 5 p.m. at the museum’s main stage. The five members of Who Hit John? all take a hand at singing and songwriting, and the outcome is eclectic and honest. The band has evolved from their beginnings as an old time string band playing on the street corner for tips. Now weaving gypsy jazz and swing flavors into an assorted collage of barnstorming old time originals and traditionals, they blend music of the past with a new, vibrant breath of excitement and soul. Expect fanciful fiddle and trumpet melodies over a thick core of acoustic rhythm from this band.
The festival’s workshop schedule runs concurrently with performances. At 11 a.m. in the Mary Jane Stryker Theater, Curator of Research for the museum, Tom Dietz, presents “The Life and Legacy of Orville Gibson.” Gibson was one of the most prominent contributors to Kalamazoo’s musical legacy. His efforts to improve the quality of mandolins led to the establishment of the Gibson Guitar and Mandolin Company. Dietz will talk about Gibson’s background, why he came to Kalamazoo, and other facets of his life and contributions to Kalamazoo’s 19th century music scene.
Michael Busto of Dragon Wagon talks about the upright bass in an 11:30 a.m. workshop in Anna Whitten Hall’s room 328. At 12:30 p.m. in room 308 at Anna Whitten Hall, Troy Radikin of Dragon Wagon gives a banjo workshop.
Patricia Pettinga presents “What’s in a Song?” during a 12:45 p.m. workshop in room 309 at Anna Whitten Hall. This workshop is for anyone who is curious or confident about the basics of songwriting. Pettinga will demonstrate some techniques, and the group will write song verses and maybe even a group song.
Laura Sprague will offer the workshop “Health Techniques for Musicians” at 1 p.m. in room 328 at Anna Whitten Hall. Also at 1 p.m., local musician Joel Mabus will take his audience through the evolution of fretted instruments. Mabus will talk in the museum’s Mary Jane Stryker Theater.
Jim Kuch presents “Art and Music” at 2 p.m. in Anna Whitten Hall’s room 308.
Pettinga presents a second workshop, “String-a-Song,” at 2:15 p.m. in room 309 at Anna Whitten Hall. Pettinga and friends will use various stringed instruments to arrange and re-arrange songs into different styles and genres, say reggae Autoharp, blues ukulele, bass, and two guitars, too.
Kathy Nichols from the Great Lakes Acoustic Music Association will offer a slow jam workshop at 3:30 p.m. in Anna Whitten Hall’s room 308. This workshop is perfect for those who may never have played in a jam, might be just learning an instrument, or like to play slower tempo songs. All you need is a tuned instrument and the ability to play a few chords such as G, C, D, and A. Lyric sheets with the chords will be provided, and Nichols will also discuss jamming etiquette.
Gerald Ross gives a Hawaiian lap steel guitar workshop at 3:45 p.m. in Anna Whitten Hall’s room 309. This instrument has often been called the “signature sound of Hawaii.” Ross will demonstrate and discuss its music and history.
For more information about the Festival, call the Kalamazoo Valley Museum at 269-373-7990.
Fretboard Festival is sponsored by the Kalamazoo Valley Community College Foundation.