One fiddler meets another: Ben Powell with Natalie MacMaster

From one fiddler to another: Ben Powell with Natalie MacMaster

Greetings from sunny San Francisco! Since touching down on Wednesday, the sun has been shining and the temperatures have been beautiful with gentle cool breezes…. Welcome, Dr. Magpie. After checking into hotel TOMO! in Japantown, Rob Hayes and the six members of the band (including me, the violinist) ventured to a local Johnny Rockets to kick off the trip!

After a solid day of rest and relaxation on Wednesday, the Magpies were ready to perform their first performance Thursday evening, in Alamo, CA, a beautiful neighborhood north of San Francisco. John and Dorothy McDonald hosted a wonderful evening in their stunning home. The backdrop to the home concert was the setting sun over the northern Californian mountains… wow. The first performance was warmly received by the many guests of the McDonalds. President Roger Brown, Steven Webber, Rob Hayes and Peter Gordon were also in attendance.

Another beautiful day welcomes us on Friday morning. Rob, Eric and myself drive south of the city for our on-air radio interview starting at 1pm. KCSM is one of the last remaining jazz radio stations in the San Francisco area. Chris Cortez, our host for the hour, asked insightful questions and kindly played four tracks of Dr. Magpie over the air.

Back to the hotel to pick up the rest of the band, and we’re off to the St. Francis Yacht Club for an evening of social, dining and performing! Rusty Williams, a member of the board of Berklee College of Music, was kind enough to set this evening up for the band to perform in the Golden Gate Room in St. Francis Yacht Club, of which he is a member. Another intimate setting and receptive audience allowed the Magpies to captivate the crowd with their dynamic playing and diversity of styles. After a standing ovation, select guests and the band retreated to a private dining area with a view of the Bay to wine and dine. A very memorable evening had by all. . . .

Now the big day. Saturday morning greeted us with yet another blue sky. The band were primed and pumped to get in the thick of it from the get go. By the time the Magpies arrived at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park at noon, there must have already been a good 50,000 people in attendance. That number would double as more and more people flooded to the free festival throughout the afternoon. After collecting our artist passes, we efficiently secured onstage seats for Tim O’Brien’s set on the Banjo Stage. We could have asked for no better inspiration in preparing us for our set later that evening.

Much of the afternoon was spent backstage at our venue, the Porch Stage. With the likes of Natalie MacMaster warming up and working around, it became more and more apparent what a thrill it was to be on the roster at this enormous festival. Preceding the Magpies were the Duhks, a roots based band from Winnipeg, Canada. While the crowd settled and the Magpies took to the stage, the wind swirled and the sun set behind the looming trees that overhang the many performing venues in the park. Despite the wind and cooler temperature, the crowd stayed vigilant and eager to what the Magpies had to say.

After a flashy opener, “Fou Rire,” a fast triplet-based melody of eighth notes, the crowd were sold on the Magpie sound, and the set progressed smoothly. Despite one or two heavy gusts of wind swirling dust across the stage, the set was a total success, culminating with an unexpected rendition of “Some Skunk Funk” sending the crowd home to a “hardly strictly bluegrass” beat….


Ben Powell