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3rd Annual Mark Vann Foundation Benefit, Boulder Theater, Boulder, CO- 12/16

The passing of Mark Vann on March 4, 2002 after a six-month battle with melanoma was a shattering blow for Leftover Salmon, Salmonheads, the local Boulder music community, and music fans & friends nationwide. The impact of Mr. Vann as the musician who truly brought the rock to banjo is evident in today’s artists like Yonder Mountain String Band (YMSB) and Shanti Groove. While Noam Pikelny and Matt Flinner did an admirable job as successors, Mr. Vann was always missed, and that absence partially led to the current hiatus of Leftover Salmon.

Spearheaded by Leftover Salmon stalwarts Vince Herman and Drew Emmitt, the Mark Vann Foundation (MVF) was formed as a charity to both honor the memory of Mr. Vann and to aid charities for a number of music related causes. Included in those ventures are music lessons for children, not just locally but at the Van Go Mobile Arts Center in Lawrence, KS. The MVF also added to their palette this year by immediately donating a portion of their fundraising efforts to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina via the Tipatina’s Foundation Artist Relief Fund, Conscience Alliance and the Music Maker Relief Foundation. Another beneficiary of the MVF is the Steam Powered Preservation Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving old bluegrass recordings (and as one who has downloaded, enjoyed and shared some of those recordings, this music lover kindly thanks you folks!).

As a recent Colorado transplant, these kinds of events have become personal favorites to attend. Besides obviously supporting a most worthy cause, these marathons also serve as a showcase for the rich, vibrant and robust local music scene of Boulder and its encompassing towns of Nederland and Lyons. Further, the vibes are always warm and joyful, whether it is in the form of various collaborations from the stage or the friendly smiles from the audience. The most difficult thing to do at the cozy and classy Boulder Theater is to not have a great time!

‘Scramble’ Campbell creating a Mark Vann painting

Like the previous two years, the show featured a silent art auction of a gorgeous Mark Vann silhouette painting by talented local artist Paul “Scramble” Campbell, which raised a hefty $1,000. There was also a canned food drive raised for Conscious Alliance.

New to this year’s benefit were the offering of 2-CD sets, with three options for acts to choose from at $15 per 2-CD set (or $45 for all six CDs). Similar to the Instant Live program, you could order at the merchandise booth and receive a ticket with your noted options. At the end of the evening, you traded in that ticket for your 2-CD set. I opted for the set featuring Swing Set, Ben Kaufman & Jefferson Hamer, Shanti Groove and John McKay. The soundboard recordings of my copy were of fine professional quality, with plentiful bass response in particular. One suggestion: How about making downloads of the shows online at for similar costs, pricing per FLAC and 256k MP3 formats?

In a non-stop span of five hours and forty minutes, a dozen acts were showcased; a portion of these rare collaborations; the bonding link of several of these acts being Vince Herman, but musicians from Yonder Mountain String Band, Shanti Groove and several other local luminaries also were prevalent. Although Vince’s onstage persona would certainly give the impression of a free-for-all evening, he admirably kept the show’s program flowing; making sure all acts had an opportunity to play but maintain a respectable time limit.

Starting with a new group called The Barnes Burners, this Nederland-based band featuring Jake Schieps on banjo, local fixture Jon “Black Dog” Ridnell on guitar, and guitarist/lead vocalist Mike Cutler faithfully handled several Danny Barnes songs. Near their set’s close, the sextet were joined by Vince and YMSB’s Dave Johnston. They were followed by a talented local duo, Mumbouli, consisting of acoustic guitarists Doug Baker and Troy Clayton. Their set was highlighted by the Mark Vann-Larry Keel collaboration, “Journey.” No stranger to cameos, Vince also assisted on mandolin to close their brief set.

Pete and Joan Wernick

Dr. Pete Wernick a.k.a. Dr. Banjo is clearly the longtime cornerstone of this music community, having been a key influence and cause for musicians like Vince and Jeff Austin to originally move to Colorado from West Virginia and Chicago, respectively. Besides being the banjo master of the groundbreaking bluegrass quartet Hot Rize, he has also served as a mentor for many local musicians, including Messieurs Vann and Herman. Dr Banjo’s most recent venture was appearing as one of “Men With Banjos And Know How To Use Them” on Late Night With David Letterman, and also has a fine side band of his own, the jazz-flavored Flexigrass. In addition, his wife Joan serves as a DJ on Saturday mornings for the KGNU-FM program “Old Grass, Gnu Grass”.

As comfortable as that old mothball-ridden sweater you still love to wear, Pete & Joan casually ran through a handful of songs, the final two augmented by Vince on mandolin. Particular highlights for this listener included an earthy take of Flatt & Scruggs’ “Give Me Flowers While I’m Living”, with Joan’s honest vocals eschewing a back porch feeling; followed by Pete’s love song to Joan, “I’m Thinking About You.” Always graceful and real, Pete & Joan have been staunch supporters of the Mark Vann Foundation from the get go.

“I just moved to Boulder, and I’m freezing my ass off.”

So quipped Henry Butler, the blind pianist who recently relocated from the New Orleans area. Henry delighted the crowd with his gifted skills, effortlessly paying tribute to two New Orleans legends; Dr. John via his instrumental “Dr. James,” and Professor Longhair via “Got My Eyes On You.” Look for Mr. Butler to make a further impact on Colorado music, and his change of pace from all the stringed instruments was heartily welcomed.

Henry Butler

Another Colorado transplant who is making his mark locally is guitarist Arthur Lee Land, the creator of an original new musical hybrid dubbed Afrograss Folk Rock. The Arthur Lee Land Band — Grant Gordy (mandolin, harmony vocals); Mark Diamond (acoustic upright bass); Ricardo Gonzales (congas/djembe/drum kit/percussion) and the lovely Alison Rapetti (harmony vocals) showed how much progress they have made in their two years of existence, playing as a tight ensemble with an abundance of positive energy, sound musicianship and African rhythms. The band shined throughout their set, with their final tune “In A Perfect World” augmented by birthday boy Jason “Mudflap” Flournoy of Shanti Groove on banjo, whose interplay with Arthur’s guitar lit its share of sparks.

Swing Set, the local swing-flavored project featuring YMSB’s Dave Johnston and Jon “Black Dog” Ridnell on guitar, followed with a set of crisp, lively instrumentals. Again, the community aspect took factor, as Dave broke a string on his banjo during one instrumental. Pete Wernick was sitting backstage, and loaned Dave his banjo; allowing him to finish the instrumental while Dr. Banjo himself changed the string on Dave’s banjo! Dr. Banjo, Dave’s YMSB bandmate Jeff Austin and local Nederland saxophonist Bruce Lish joined for the latter portion of the set. However, the set’s close contained a visual highlight that exemplifies what the MVF is all about: Two young pre-teen lads, one of them Vince’s son, joined in on the set’s final instrumental, receiving plenty of encouragement from Black Dog, their guitar teacher.

Dave Johnston

There are occasions at these benefits where you will see local musicians try new twists; such was the case for the following three segments. Vocalists Shawn Pace & Cody Wales offered an inspired R&B flavored vocal segment. Vince backed keyboardist Bill McKay, another Leftover Salmon alumnus, for a tribute to their fallen comrade with the soulful “Good Man Gone.” They were followed by the Ben Kaufman duo. Featuring Jefferson Hamer’s tasty chicken-picking on electric guitar and sound harmony vocals, the YMSB upright bassist strummed an acoustic guitar and sang heartily. Two of the three songs offered up were Ben’s rare and warm “Someday’s Reunion” and a fun & faithful take of the Beatles’ underrated “I Dig A Pony.”

In their handful of years in existence, Shanti Groove has been steadily making a name for themselves as a national jamgrass touring act. While events like this will always eschew a variety of subjective opinions, their set was my favorite of the evening; showcasing the results from a combination of relentless touring, hard work and their constant desire to improve both as an ensemble and as individual musicians. The aforementioned Jason “Mudflap” Flournoy has arguably become the torch-bearer of Mark Vann; his smooth-but-rocking banjo the catalyst for a hot set with plenty of fiery flat picking from acoustic guitarist Jason Scroggins, soaring acoustic and electric mandolins from John Heiland and the pulsating rhythm section of electric/upright bassist Juri Freeman & drummer Chris Carland. Leftover Salmon was referenced twice at the end of the set. Augmented by Vince on acoustic guitar and vocals, Bill McKay on keys and Jeff Austin on mandolin and vocals, the eight musicians simply played their collective hearts out on an inspired take of the Salmon standard, “Ask The Fish,” which included two Vince vocal teases of Iron Butterfly’s infamous “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and Heatwave’s disco hit “Boogie Nights.” Fueled with energy to burn and then some the eight musicians roared through a relentless, blistering workout of Mr. Vann’s “Funky Mountain Fogdown”, with Mudflap’s ripping effects-laden banjo gracefully and most appropriately leading the pack.

Jason Scroggins, Vince Herman and Jeff Austin

After John McKay (brother of Bill) premiered his solid new song “Jewel In The Rough,” Vince’s new band, Great American Taxi graced the Boulder crowd with a tasty mix of country-rock. A different entity itself from Leftover Salmon, Mr. Herman is clearly the band’s visual personality, but its aural side is really marked by Reed Foehl’s reflective songs, Jefferson Hamer’s country-flavored electric guitar and Eben Grace’s soothing pedal steel. Highlights of the set included a spirited take of Richard Thompson’s classic “I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight”, and the upbeat-yet-sarcastic “The American Way”, sarcastically dedicated to Donald Rumsfeld.

As with such events, the evening concluded with a 40-minute all-star jam, featuring many of the aforementioned musicians, plus a few more talented folks including KC Groves (guitarist/vocalist of Uncle Earl) and Todd Livingston (dobro player of Hit & Run Bluegrass). With two-dozen musicians spread over the Boulder Theater stage, it was impressive for that ensemble to maintain a strong level of tightness, particularly when Vince instigated a tasteful reggae-flavored groove that kept all players in synch. Given the Leftover Salmon history, the evening concluded with a 3-minute burst of punk rock that in its unique oddball fashion, appropriately placed a loving hug on another marathon tribute to Mark Vann.

Pete Wernick and Jeff Austin

For the lone sake of raising further funds for the MVF, this is also a rare case where I believe raising ticket prices for next year’s event is reasonably justifiable; as at $12 for an advance ducat (including service charge), this was a genuine bargain where local music fans received more than their share of bluegrass bang for the buck.

Wherever Mark Vann is picking now, I would like to believe that his Banjovi grin broadened widely on that cozy Friday night in Boulder. As displayed by Vince Herman and the thriving Boulder music community, Mr. Vann’s legacy could not be in better hands.

Many kind thanks to the kind folks at the Yonder Yahoogroups board, and particularly Phil Buck and John Klemy for providing bits of info in helping to create this article. Also, kind thanks to Andy Stonehouse of the Boulder-based publication Dirt for additional information on the Mark Vann Foundation. Thank you, folks! JW

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