Dispatch from Common Ground’s bluegrass camp: Don’t you dare call it fantasy camp

Despite what you might have thought, Westminster is not in Western Maryland. It’s located sort of northwest of Baltimore and northeast of Frederick in some beautiful rolling hills. That fact was finally grudgingly acknowledged by the local institute if higher learning in 2002 when, after calling itself Western Maryland College for 135 years, it became McDaniel College.

Istanbul, Constantinople, either way it was a beautiful place to visit, or at least it looked that way as we rolled through the green countryside heading southeast from Gettysburg. And the campus sure looked inviting with its manicured lawns and old, brick buildings.

That impression came from a quick glance around before we before we joined the crowd entombed in a lecture hall on the first floor of Hill Hall. 

It was hot, but there was a nice breeze from the cold front that was expected to bring rain later in the day. The sky was blue, with a big helping of cumulus on the side. In weather like this, if the students were on campus, the law would be littered with blankets. Somebody would be tossing a frisbee. There’s usually a dog in the photos.

But the college kids are at home, or the beach, or somewhere other than on the hill McDaniel occupies at the edge of town. No, its like Facebook. The grownups have taken over. And they are a serious bunch.

At least the bunch in 110 Hill seems to be. There could be a naked juggler eating fire outside and nobody would notice. Nobody is looking out the window daydreaming in this class, not when its one of the best in the business sharing their expertise.

It’s Tim O’Brien’s mandolin class, fourth period at the D.C. Bluegrass Union’s bluegrass camp at Common Ground on the Hill. O’Brien is taking the class through a song, note by note, measure by measure, showing them, slowly, how it is played.

“If I wrote this now, I’d probably play it the lazy way,” he tells the class as he shows a fingering variation he likes.

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Professor Tim O’Brien takes to the whiteboard, drawing scales and tabs as he explains the progression of a song during his mandolin class at DC Bluegrass Union bluegrass camp at Common Ground on the Hill.

Common Ground on the Hill was formed 25 years ago. Housed at McDaniel, the non-profit’s stated objective is to use the art to bring people together. In addition to sponsoring an eclectic mix of concerts in Baltimore and Westminster throughout the year, each summer they host Traditions Weeks, featuring classes and lectures ranging from story telling to Klezmer music. Week three is Bluegrass Week.

It’s also known as the DCBGU’s camp, with pickers filling dorm rooms  for a week of classes from Bluegrass Banjo 1 to Bluegrass Singing stretching from 9 in the morning until early evening. You can guess what goes on after dinner, except for Thursday, when there is a staff concert.

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O’Brien plays the role of professor well. He is easy to follow, even for a non-musician. He explains things well, and finds the way to slow things down so his students can get it. He builds in layers, teaching the basics first, then showing a few ways a picker might want to improvise in a jam.

On the whiteboard mounted on the wall, O’Brien draws up a few bars of music. Then underneath it he draws tabs, showing the class where each finger goes for each chord. Before they try it, O’Brien plugs his phone into a portable speaker and plays a video of Bill Monroe doing the song.

It’s “Roanoke.” If you know the song, you know O’Brien was not exaggerating when he says to the class. “It’s pretty danged fast, isn’t it?”

“To play at that tempo, you have to practice it,” he tells the class. “you have to really know it.”

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Chris Kiehne, of Baltimore, plays the fiddle during a Thursday afternoon jam at Common Ground on the Hill. This was Kiehne’s “fifth or sixth” time coming to the annual bluegrass week gathering.

Don’t try to tell Chris Kiehne that Bluegrass Week at Common Ground on the Hill is like baseball fantasy camp. Kiehne will stop you right there and set you straight.

“There is nothing fantasy camp about it. At fantasy camp, those old baseball players are retired. Here, these guys are in their prime. This is like playing third base for the Yankees in a real game,” Keihne, a longtime fan of O’Brien, will tell you. “It’s like meeting Mick Jagger or Springsteen, if you like this kind of music, and then sitting down and taking a lesson from them.”

In addition to O’Brien, and his partner, Jan Fabricius, other instructors included Chris Luquette, from Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, and the four members of Che Apalache. The instructors don’t just teach classes. You’ll find them in jams with the students, often imparting additional wisdom in impromptu mini-lessons, usually in response to a “how did you do that?” question from one of the students.

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It doesn’t sound a whole lot like that Bill Monroe version when the 12 students in the class start trying Roanoke. They are using the sheet music O’Brien handed out, going through it deliberately, note by note.

By about the third time through, as they start to get familiar with the song, the pace starts to pick up. Nobody said a word. Nobody made any “let’s go faster” signal. It was like a young colt, naturally progressing from those first awkward steps to its first attempt to gallup.

“It’s hard to play slow, isn’t it,” O’Brien says, as he starts showing the class the sorts of improvisations they can add as they become more proficient before moving on to teach the rhythm part.

“What is special about it is to see someone like Tim O’Brien break down a song in realtime,” says Kiehne, a multi-instrumentalist who was toting both a fiddle and a mandolin when he came into the ground floor classroom that had been taken over for a jam. “It’s wonderful.”

It’s a two-way street, says O’Brien. The students are not the only ones who benefit from the process. Part of it is sort of spiritual. O’Brien didn’t have the benefit this sort of learning opportunity when he was starting out. 

“It’s a way of giving back. The music has given me a lot,” he says. “I didn’t have a chance to go to things like this when I was young.”

At the same time, O’Brien says teaching like this helps make him a better musician.

“I try to do one of these a year,” he says. “It’s good for me to get my head around, coming back at the music from another direction.”

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Fiddle class is in session at Common Ground on the Hill during Week 3 of their annual Traditions Weeks. Week 3 is also the DC Bluegrass Union’s bluegrass camp.

Some of the other sessions available during the third week of Traditions Weeks included “learning Arabic,” “Unfurling Western Notions of Nature,” and lessons on making “Beaded Chains and Balled Wire Accessories.”

We first run into Chris Luquette in O’Brien’s lecture hall. A bit of a mandolin picker himself, Luquette spends most of the period attentively tuned into O’Brien before he has to be elsewhere.

A little later we catch up to Luquette in that ground floor jam room. Like a seasoned camp counselor he splits the too many guitars in the group and sends half of them to a room down the hall that he and O’Brien claimed after a storm kept the late afternoon jams from spilling outdoors.

“If I have a chance, I like to take other classes at camps. At Common Ground, because the programming is so vast, I have two periods open each day so I get to go to a lot of other things,” Luquette says. “It’s a camp unlike any other. That’s why when Walt Michaels invited me, I didn’t hesitate.”

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Chris Luquete, on mandolin, leads group of campers through Midnight On the Water during a jam at Common ground on the Hill’s bluegrass week.

A young lady playing mandolin is a part of the jam circle. When her turn comes, she wants to play one of her David Bromberg favorites, Midnight on the Water, but she is not certain she remembers it.

Luckily, Luquette does. Quickly he runs through the chords for those who might not know the song. The bunch runs through the chords two or three times and Luquette shifts gears, teaching the melody. Next thing you know, this bunch — four guitars, two mandolins, a bass and a fiddle, sounds like they’ve been playing the song for years as the solos circle the room.

They finish and we interrupt. This is not something we normally do. We try to stay in the background and record what we see and hear. But we had to know. “How many of you knew that song before you just played it?”

Two hands went up. “Sort of,” says one of those guys. Two others say they had heard the song before. It was new to the rest, yet they knew it in no time. It’s one of those amazing things about bluegrass music that baffles us-non musicians.

The bass player laughs and pulls a book out of his case. “Bluegrass Fakebook,” it is entitled.

“The title is redundant,” says the bass player.

“Somebody, though, does have to know the song,” laughs Kiehne, who has joined the circle with his fiddle.

Chris Luquette leads a Jam at Common Ground on the Hill’s bluegrass week.

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That same ability to quickly learn new songs was on display later in the evening at the staff concert, when a band of staff members came together to back two of the camp’s songwriting instructors Dawn Kinney and David Morris as they performed one of their originals.

We’re sitting in the hallways chatting when Morris stops to tell Luquette he is going to perform a new song he just wrote. They plan to meet in the green room to run through it before the show. That night it sounds as if they’d rehearsed it for days.

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Tim O’Brien, on mandolin, Jan Fabricius, guitar wiz Chris Luquette, and other camp instructors teamed up for a few numbers during Thursday night’s staff concert.

There is still another day left in the camp, but Thursday night’s concert is a highlight of the week. It starts with O’Brien and Fabricius, who play for about 35 minutes. The full Tim O’Brien Band will be on hand Saturday for the Common Ground On the Hill Roots Music and Arts Festival.

“I’d like to introduce the band,” jokes O’Brien, “but they’re not here.”

Among the highlights, a beautiful “He Lifts Me (with his strong arms)”, dedicated to the lady who wrote it, the late Eileen Carson Schatz, who passed away this week. She had been scheduled to teach clogging at the camp.

O’Brien and Fabricius were followed by the “staff band” with the songwriters and Luquette’s solo version of “Home to You,” off his forthcoming solo album, before O’Brien and Fabricius joined them.

Che Apalache, the “Latin-grass” fellas from Central America and North Carolina, was up next, playing a freaky set that included their bluegrass instrument traditional Japanese music, with North Carolina native Joe Troop singing in Japanese.

if you are thinking that sounds like the sort of thing Bela Fleck might play, you’re not far off. Fleck produced their latest album, due out soon. It was recorded at Fleck’s home.

“It’s okay. He knew we were there. We were invited,” says Martin Bobrik with a laugh. Bobrick, the band’s  mandolin player, and guitarist Franco Martino are from Argentina. Mexican Pau “Frijol de cuerda” Barjau  handles the banjo.

Known for their “Latin-grass,” Che Apalache showcased some diversity in their set, which definitely showed Fleck’s influence. The band, which also will be playing Saturday’s festival, closed their set with a beautiful acapella cover of The Stanley Brothers arrangement of “Gloryland,” dedicating the song to Schatz.

A full crew version of “Sitting On Top of the World,” sent the crowd, mostly campers, dancing into the night.