Steve Kaufman Acoustic Kamp, 2005

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Well, that’s me back from two weeks at Kaufman Acoustic Kamp in Maryville, Tennessee.

I met Richard, a 7-time Kamper with a CA guitar and a mandolin, at Detroit airport on the Sunday morning on the way to Knoxville. We had a good chat and arrived at Knoxville feeling excited. There were several more folks with instrument cases out on the pavement awaiting the Kamp shuttle and the sense of excitement was palpable (as was the humidity!)

I got to Kamp and met my good friend Dave S. in the registration hall. The feeling was like nothing I’ve felt – travelling all that way on the recommendation of Dave to spend two weeks in what could only be described as acoustic heaven.

Registration dealt with, we headed to our dorm room in Carnegie Hall (yes, I’ve now played in Carnegie Hall!) The room was basic, but comfortable, and for all the time we spent in there, it was just fine. Thankfully there was an Ethernet port in the room so I could stay in touch with Lorraine on MSN and keep up to date on how Freya was getting on.

On the Sunday evening several folks gathered in Carnegie Hall’s lobby and the jamming commenced. That set the scene for the next two weeks. As a relative newcomer to flatpicking, I was having difficulty playing ‘up to speed’ but still attempted to take some breaks when I was given the nod. At no time was I ever made to feel like a beginner and received much encouragement. On a few occasions I was asked to call the tune and would start it off at my own pace. By the time it got back round to me again, the pace had doubled, but it was a great learning experience for me and I found that, by the end of the two weeks, I was a better and more experienced player than on that first Sunday night.

One picker who stood out head and shoulders above the rest (even when seated!) was Steve Kilby. A more unassuming and friendly player you could never hope to meet. And his picking was simply sublime. He makes a good role model for technique – his economy of movement on both hands is astounding and he never strays far from the melody. And man, when he gets going with those eighth notes, he’s like a machine gun, never skipping a beat but somehow keeping a huge amount of soul in the playing. His wife Penny was great fun, too. I spent a couple of mealtimes in the chow hall chatting to them both.

I won’t go into details about each class, as it would take too long; suffice it to say that the teaching was really good, but, in some senses, two hours with each instructor was not enough. On the other hand, the short sessions with each instructor gives you the opportunity to get instruction and advice from such a diverse group of players as Roy Curry, Beppe Gambetta, Dan Crary, Tony McManus and Slavek Hanzlik. Not one of the instructors had the same approach, although, naturally there was some crossover.

One of the points I’ve brought home with me is Dan Crary’s approach to learning the melody before attempting to play it, and moving away from the tablature. I’m pretty much a tab slave and, having learned Tony McManus’s King of the Pipers by ear, know the value that learning by ear can have, both in terms of achieving one’s own sound and in aiding memory retention.

I did a couple of masterclasses during the first week, one with Steve Kaufman and one with Roy Curry. Both picked up on similar technical issues and I am able to work on those right away. I believe the masterclasses were new for 2005 and they were a great idea.

Those who’ve never been before may appreciate an explanation of how Kamp is structured.

Breakfast is from 7.30 to 9.00. You’ll be there at 7.30 on day one (we actually got it wrong and was there at 7.00!) but, as Kamp progresses, you’ll either be running to make it at 5 minutes to 9, or will skip it all together.

From 8.30 to 9.15 there is an organised slow jam. This involves playing a bunch of well-known fiddle tunes at under 100bpm and is a good opportunity to learn the chords for rhythm playing or to practice your lead runs at a reasonable pace.

Classes run from 10 to 12 then 2 to 4. There is another slow jam at 4.15 or the chance to attend one of several focus panel discussions, masterclasses or one of the orchestras. The focus panel discussions were varied and interesting, such as a Celtic jam session with Tony McManus and Robin Bullock or learning to play by ear with Dan Crary. There are sign-up sheets for the masterclasses and classes are limited to eight students. This gives you the opportunity to play in front of one of the instructors and have your playing critiqued. This was invaluable for me. During the first week there was a guitar orchestra run by Beppe Gambetta. Practice sessions were during the 4.15 slot each day with the orchestra playing on the Saturday evening. It’s a shame that one has to make such tough choices every day about masterclasses, focus panel discussions, orchestra or slow jam, but there are only so many hours in the day.

A couple of the class slots were taken up by class scrambles. This gave everyone the chance to visit a class outside of their own timetable, e.g. flatpickers could attend fingerstyle classes, guitar players could go to mandolin classes, etc. That was a great idea. Wednesday had a class scramble in the morning and a workshop in the afternoon with the bluegrass band Hiwassee Ridge (who also ran sound for the evening gigs impeccably). That offered up a chance to have a break and catch up on some sleep, some email or simply relax in a jam somewhere. During that afternoon of the second week, I joined a small circle outside the Kamp store where we were treated to a couple of tunes by Tony McManus. What a treat! On the first week, I spent that same time jamming with Rolly Brown!

There were a few classes on theory and chord substitution which I found really interesting. Rolly Brown explains this very well and, whilst it can seem somewhat overwhelming at first, he was only too happy to explain it further. I took his class twice and recorded it so maybe by next year I’ll be making chord substitutions successfully! I missed August Waters’ class, which was a shame as I’m told he explained some more theory really well. I was just too tired and something had to give.

As with Rolly, all of the instructors were only to happy to sit down and talk to you outside the classroom and help you out with any queries. I asked John Carlini to explain minor keys to me outside the cookhouse and had Tony McManus join us midway through. If you want to know anything about any aspect of music theory, John Carlini’s your man. I still walked away feeling as if I’d asked Einstein to explain the laws of physics, but nevertheless, I’m sure I learned something, even if I don’t yet know what it is!

Each evening saw a programme of concerts from the instructors, starting out with an open mic from 7.00 to 7.30. I performed once each week and really enjoyed it, particularly so as I was joined in my second performance by Tony McManus! That was a dream come true. One of the great things about performing at the open mic is the support and congratulations that you get from everyone afterwards. It really does one’s ego good and both inspires and encourages to a great degree.

The concerts were structured in such a way that each performer had a 20-minute slot with no encore. That meant the concerts were done by 10.30 and we could go and get some jamming done while we were feeling fired up.

Every concert was as good as the last. One of the things I found about Kamp is that the outside world fades out of existence and all the barriers that one might erect during the course of one’s every-day life simply disappear. That left me in that magical place of being open, feeling vulnerable and sensitive and it made the music so powerful that I was in tears at the concerts every night. There were too many performances to review them all, but one of the standout ones had to be Jim Hirst and Missy Raines. I’ve never seen a standup bass played like that in all my life, and the two of them went so well together. Likewise Stephen Bennet (guitar, harp guitar) and Bill Gurley (fiddle). There’s was the first of many performances to receive a standing ovation. They did one tune called The Beautiful Sky that would move a grown man to tears, and indeed it did.

Following the concerts each evening, there was an open mic in the café, Isaac’s, which ran from 11 to 1.00 during week 1, and 10.30 to 12.30 during week 2. This was a great opportunity to sit down and have a burger and listen to some great performances, or as a practice ground for performing at the open mic on the big stage.

Between the two weeks, Dave and I took a trip to see Bill Warmoth of Artisan Guitars in Franklin, TN. His store is really nice and I urge you all to visit and support Bill in any way you can. We also met Joe Carpenter there, a player that I met at an RMMGA gathering in the UK a few months ago. It was kinda weird to go somewhere I’ve never been and meet up with an old friend. Playing guitar really is starting to make the world smaller! Bill put Dave and me up at his home and treated us to some of the best hospitality I’ve ever had the good fortune to receive. He and his family are great people and I shall treasure that memory for many years. I hope I can return the hospitality one day, Bill! It did us both good to get away for the weekend and get a break from Kamp and the road trip gave us a great opportunity to listen to the various CDs we’d bought at the Kamp store.

I recall walking to the cookhouse on the first day and being simply overwhelmed by the whole thing. There I was, back on a college campus but, instead of tired looking students carrying their essays and library books to class, there were people with instruments everywhere you looked, either walking with them to class or sitting in little groups on the grass in the shade of a tree jamming away. It really made it feel like acoustic heaven.

The jams were terrific and went on long into the night. And they were everywhere: in people’s rooms, in hall lobbies, out on the grass, in every corner of the campus. There were bluegrass jams, the ubiquitous fiddle tunes, and songs of all kinds (well, except for rap and that grungy yelling that seems to popular these days – am I getting old?)

Spending time with Dave was a good thing for me. He and I roomed together for the duration and we became firm friends during our time there. I thank you Dave for all those good times spent in the room together with our guitars and a cooler-full!

So, I shall finish off now. I could write the same again but shall refrain from doing so.

In short, my camp experience has changed my playing for good. (and my CD collection, too) If I remember any important stuff that I’ve omitted to mention, I’ll pop back and let y’all know.

Cheers a’body