Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Falcon Ridge, 2008

This year was the 20th anniversary of the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in upstate NY. It also marked the end of a 6 year hiatus for my folk festival attendance. I discovered Falcon Ridge in 2000, when the good folks at WFUV put up a couple of tickets to the fest on their concert hotline. I’d enlisted an old friend from the Newport Folk Festival days (say, from 1993 to 1999), and we had a grand enough time to convince me that this is where I ought to be in late July every year. The next two summers, I attended with a constellation of friends from the Newport years and their people. I can’t say it was the 20th anniversary that convinced me to return to Falcon Ridge. More so, I just missed going to folk festivals. The lineup looked pretty good, and Newport is a shell of its former self—it’s gone downhill since Ben and Jerry’s sponsorship ended after the ’99 fest, an event that was preceded by the Unilever sale (for commentary on that, see http://www.commondreams.org/views/041300-106.htm). After that, the fest went through a series of sponsors, including Dunkin’ Donuts and Rhode Island’s own Newport Creamery. This year’s Newport lineup features the Black Crowes, Trey Anastasio, and Brian Wilson. Cool musicians, I suppose, but if that’s folk music, then I’m Ani Difranco’s love child. Anyway, what matters more is the Falcon Ridge vibe, which I recall fondly. Of course, that had as much to do with the company than anything else, but the music beckoned strongly enough to convince me that a return was in order.

I arrived in Hillsdale in Sandro’s car. Sandro is one of Matt Winters’ (http://soundofblackbirds.blogspot.com/) comrades from high school, and I’d heard plenty of good things about him. Now I can add my two cents: he’s a good guy, a good driver, and we share a dislike of having to go to sleep in leaky tents. Of course, I don’t know anyone who enjoys that, but I digress. We arrived on Thursday, mid-afternoon, and, not long thereafter, I found myself sitting with Matt and Sandro, listening to the two of them strum and pick their guitars and trying to harmonize when I knew the songs. I didn’t tell him this, but Matt’s singing voice is occasionally reminiscent of the young Chris Smither. When he sang Neil Young’s “From Hank to Hendrix” on Saturday night, I immediately thought of Smither’s version of “I am a Child” from I’m a Stranger Too! (1970). I bet Matt would kill on that one.

I’ve known Matt since I was a first-year graduate student at Columbia University, and I thought that I was the only political science student into folk music. But Matt was running the Postcrypt that academic year (1999-2000), and it wasn’t long before we were talking folkiedom and watching people like Ina May Wool, Jeff Cannon, Mark Teamaker, and others whose names I forget on the Postcrypt stage. The Postcrypt was my first exposure to the semi-famous, like Jack Hardy (www.jackhardy.com) and The Roches (www.roches.com), as well as the less-famous-but-still-awesome like Robert To’Teras and Laura Kemp (www.laurakemp.com). I was an irregular Postcrypt attendant, but boy was that a great place to hear music. And Matt, as I recall, was an excellent host, not to mention a knowledgeable someone I could ask questions of. It was an intimate enough setting such that I could occasionally exchange a few words with a performer. I remember chatting with LA-native Mark Humphreys (www.markhumphreys.com) about Loudon Wainwright’s History and the then-recently released Mary Gauthier breakthrough, Drag Queens in Limousines. I remember being too shy to even approach the bewitchingly sexy Laura Kemp, after a spur of the minute decision to go to the Postcrypt one night yielded a fabulous 50 minutes of this woman’s powerful voice and guitar playing. I remember leaving the Postcrypt, visiting an ATM to get cash, and going back to the Postcrypt to buy a copy of her short-player Alone. Getting back to Matt, I also remember once arriving at a Postcrypt show with a friend a bit late one night and finding a crowded room. We took seats at the end of the room that I thought were free, and I looked over at Matt, who was behind the concessions counter and looking over at me, rather bemused. After the set that we had walked in on had ended (was it Frank Tedesso? I think so: www.franktedesso.com), Matt emerged from his spot, and found a couple of other chairs to reserve. I only later realized that I had taken chairs that he was saving for someone else. After my friend and I had taken our seats, I glanced to my right and noticed a dude in a green velvet jacket, casually leaning against the wall. Had I just taken Jack Hardy’s chair? I never found out.

Thursday night at Falcon Ridge was a change from my last experiences at the festival. It used to be a Friday-through-Sunday event; not anymore. The Thursday evening lineup was a good one….

The Horse Flies (www.thehorseflies.com) opened the festivities. I hadn’t heard of them before, although I now learn that they are a veteran band. Their sound was bluegrassy, but not authentically so. Their website mentions a punk influence; I can’t really hear it. They definitely hinted at Eastern melodies and textures, with a wailing/droning vocal part duplicating the fiddle part in a tune that I later learned was called “Rafting.” I also sensed a jam band aesthetic at their core, as if jamming might be in their blood but being held back by something (like, say, a 50 minute time limit). In that respect, they reminded me a bit of Railroad Earth, who played on Sunday and who I saw a couple of years ago, opening for Hot Tuna in New York City and, if I recall correctly, who played Falcon Ridge in ’01, or was it ’02? They played a cool version of “Iko Iko,” but I thought they really took off with one of their faux-Eastern ensemble pieces that seem to spiral up into the air like a prayer on the wind. I don’t know the name of that one, but I want to find out. A solid set to start off the festival.

Next up was Red Molly (www.redmolly.com), a trio that first formed at Falcon Ridge in 2004. They won me over immediately by opening with their arrangement of “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning.” Actually, apart from the opening verse, it bore little resemblance to either the Reverend Gary Davis or Hot Tuna renditions, but I still liked it just fine. They played a couple of Gillian Welch tunes, including the murder ballad “Caleb Meyer,” very good, and harmonized superbly. I also give them the Falcon Ridge 2008 award for Best T-shirt By an Artist: a simple white logo over a plain red background. I didn’t buy it, but that’s a shirt I can imagine actually wearing. So much of artists’ clothing merchandise is stuff that seems cool in theory but that I’d never actually make use of. Anyhow, Red Molly’s set was lovely.

The Jason Spooner Trio (www.jasonspooner.com) was third, and I say Jason Spooner is someone to look out for. He’s a Maine-based singer-songwriter, and boy do I wish I’d known about him when I lived in Maine. His voice sounded a bit like Don Henley (in a good way), a bit like John Mayer (again, in a good way), and maybe even a touch like the young Chris Smither’s (which wasn’t bad and would eventually become extraordinary). His band’s sound was quite full, impressive for an acoustic guitar-bass-drums setup, and I couldn’t help but notice that his bass player looked like Sammy Hagar (which I didn’t and don’t hold against him, I promise). And, while paying attention to lyrics in a festival setting is always a tricky thing (as Matt mentioned to me later that evening), I heard a few things that made me look up, especially on the title track to their latest CD, The Flame You Follow. And that brings me back to the band’s sound, which was inviting, both in terms of being pleasant and making me want to hear more of the music and in terms of making me want to know more about what the singer had to say. As I write this, I’m looking at the guy’s webpage, and I’m not surprised to see some thoughtful reflections on songwriting in the “Artist’s Bio” section. With his soulful (overused compliment, but the shoe fits, I swear) voice and excellent band, his foot was already in the door. But he barged into the room with a country-flavored cover of Neil Young’s “For the Turnstiles,” Red Molly harmonizing at his side. Watch for him.

Crooked Still (www.crookedstill.com) was my first “wow” moment of the festival, definitely my favorite of the Thursday night performances. Another roots band that contains bluegrass but more than that (and less: no mandolin!), they had a dense, infectious sound that left just enough breathing room for some soloing, most notably from their banjo player and their fiddler. The banjo player, Dr. Greg Liszt, was positioned stage left, a good few feet from his quartet of bandmates. There were, I learned as I watched, two reasons for this. First of all, his mannerisms during his solos were such that someone could have gotten hurt had they stood too close. The man solos with his head a-boppin’ and one foot rising up and down. Second of all, the man needs his own mike, since, while he never sings harmony, he sure has a lot to say in between songs. I learned from Matt’s blog that his strange and off-topic comments are nothing new, but I loved it. His banjo playing was good-not-extraordinary, but his banter was great-not-good. Among other things, he announced a mud wrestling contest after show (as far as I know, it never materialized). The fiddler, Brittany Haas, was excellent, both in her solos and in her accompaniment. A couple of months ago, I saw her sister Natalie perform on cello with Alasdair Fraser on fiddle, but I hadn’t known about Brittany. I was happy for the introduction; she’s super. The singer, Aofie O’Donovan, shone on a song called, I think, “Did You Sleep Well” (yup, just verified that on their website). And their playing, both ensemble and solo, hit a peak on a something called “The Absentee.” Not sure what the song is about but, during the performance, I could have cared less. They also turned the Robert Johnson song “Come On in My Kitchen” into a slow, slinky vehicle for some tasty solos, and it was hooked around a descending pattern that the performers periodically copied in unison. I wonder what possessed them to want to do this song. The significance of the Robert Johnson catalogue is very much in question these days, IMHO. Maybe at some point, I’ll write an extended essay about that. Anyway, Crooked Still is a band worth checking out. Strange note: while I bought a bunch of CDs at Falcon Ridge this year, I skipped over this band. I’ll probably check out their iTunes offerings and make my own little compilation of favorites.

Thursday night ended with Lori McKenna (www.lorimckenna.com). Paper Wings and Halo was her first album, back in 1998, and a couple of songs from it appeared on a 1999 15-song promotional compilation for Gabriel Unger Artist Management called Fresh Tracks. Lori McKenna’s contributions, “As I Am,” and “Hardly Speaking a Word” are highlights, and Fresh Tracks was also my introduction to Erin McKeown, Jeff Lang, Rose Polenzani, Jess Klein, Mark Erelli, Beth Amsel, Kris Delmhorst, and on and on. Anyway, Lori McKenna recently put out an album on Warner Brothers called Unglamorous, and Christgau wrote a positive review (http://music.msn.com/music/consumerguide/oct07/), so I was curious to see what I’d find. At Falcon Ridge, I discovered that Faith Hill has covered her songs, that she’s toured with her, and that she’s found her home in the world of country music. Her songs speak to the country tradition somewhat, but her band was more rock than country. Her songwriting seems to be detail-oriented; the title track to Unglamorous included lines about her five kids “in shorts,” and “peanut butter on everything.” She’s from Stoughton, Massachusetts and she’s happily married. Neither of these qualities is known for being the fountain of great country songs and, really, I wouldn’t call her country. Instead, she rocked out with her band. It was basically straight up rock, with her lead guitarist breaking out a couple of rock star solos. They were good. And McKenna can really belt when she wants to. She covered “Dream a Little Dream” with a bit more subtlety, thank goodness, and, for her encore, she did “It Makes No Difference,” a country song if I ever I’ve heard one. Rink Danko’s vocal on the original recording of that song can bring tears to my eyes. Lori McKenna’s rendition didn’t quite do that, but I was glad to hear her sing it. And that concluded the Main Stage performances for Thursday night.

Friday continued a Falcon Ridge tradition: the New Artist Showcase. The Showcase consists of nearly 4.5 hours’ worth of independent musicians’ performances. Basically, each performer does two songs; I think one or two folks managed to fit a third song into their allotted time. I caught about 20 of the 23 performers. My favorites were Danny Schmidt (www.dannyschmidt.com), from Austin TX, Lucy Wainwright Roche (www.myspace.com/lwrlwr) from Brooklyn NY, and a band called Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers (www.bmuz.net) from Boston, MA. I encourage readers to check them all out. During the dinner period, 5:00-6:30, the Main Stage was dormant, but a Beatles workshop got going on the Workshop Stage. I stopped by for about half an hour, but my attention was wandering. The only thing I saw that was notable was the opening performance, which featured a whole bunch of musicians, including Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, performing “A Day in the Life.” Pretty cool, but then my attention began to stray.

The Main Stage resumed business with Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience (www.terrancesimien.com). They were fun. I really don’t know much about Zydeco music and don’t listen to it much one way or the other, but they were high energy and had a bunch of people up dancing. Matt was a part of that bunch and, in return for showing his boobs, Terrance Simien through him some Mardi Gras beads. Terrance Simien really overdid it with those beads. He threw out string after string after string of them. I find that sort of pandering exasperating; a little of it goes a long way, and a lot of it goes nowhere fast. But the beats were catchy, the singing decent, and they even threw in a rendition of “The Weight.” Not bad.

Next up: the Folk Brothers, consisting of Jack Hardy (www.jackhardy.com) and David Massengill (www.davidmassengill.com), along with a couple of backing musicians. I will not write at length about Jack Hardy. If you don’t know this man’s music and his story, you owe it to yourself to find out about it. Check out his website and, by all means, go out of your way to attend his gigs. Of his easily available CDs, the ones to start with are Omens (2000) and his most recent, Noir (2007). Massengill is a still a puzzle to me. His set at Falcon Ridge 2002 was great fun, including a tune about having his knuckles rapped by his grade school music teacher (“Ouch, ouch, ouch”) called “Culture Hurts.” And he did write “On the Road to Fairfax Country” which appeared on the Roches’ Robert Fripp-produced 1982 album, Keep On Doing. On the other hand, I once saw him play a show with Jack Hardy at the now-defunct C-Note in the East Village, and I thought his songs fell flat. Did I really need to hear a 10 minute-long song about Jack and the Beanstalk? No, I didn’t. But I knew he was an old friend of Jack’s and I was ready to be wowed. Their performance was good, but not great. Their harmonies weren’t particularly smooth and, as Allan and Matt pointed out, David’s dobro playing just didn’t mesh very well. Matt asked what the point was: the duo format didn’t add anything, and why not just have Jack sing his songs and David sing his? He’s right to ask what the point was, and I think that attentive music listeners should ask that question more often, whether the performance begs it or not. I could have asked the same thing about Crooked Still’s “Come on in My Kitchen,” but that’s a topic for another essay. I will add two things, more positive. First of all, the songs really were good: Dave van Ronk’s terrific “Losers” from Going Back to Brooklyn (1991), Jack’s “Maeve,” David’s cute “Ode to a Mouse,” a decent Bush-bashing tune from Jack, the aforementioned “On the Road to Fairfax Country” from David, and versions of “Peggy-O,” “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” and “Saint James Infirmary Blues” that reminded me of Jack’s serious devotion to the folk music tradition. Also, having now listened to their new album, Partners in Crime, I think whatever problems I had with their set were a question of the performance, not the idea of their duets. On record, the laid back feeling and offhand harmonizing work nicely, and their version of “Peggy-O” is really good.

The next act was one I really feared coming in to the festival. They’re called The Strangelings (www.thestrangelings.net/). They are made up of Pete and Maura Kennedy who, as The Kennedys, have been an uptempo treat at previous folk festivals, a handful of folks I’d never heard of, and Chris Thompson. I was not impressed at all with Chris and Meredith Thompson at previous folk festivals. Their big, self-involved voices reminded me of the worst sort of histrionic melodrama that you can find in this particular music genre. I remember their performance of “Tanglewood Tree” at the Dave Carter tribute in 2002, and it was a travesty. Chris Thompson repeated the travesty as part of The Strangelings in 2008, singing an overblown lead on that song. But that was the only false move in their set. In this context, which is full of rocking and Pete Kennedy’s electric sitar and some screeching, eerie violin, Chris Thompson made sense. The set reached a peak with “Matty Groves,” with Thompson (Chris, not Richard, although I couldn’t help but think of Fairport and Sandy Denny) wailing and snarling into the microphone, “I’ll kill you if I can!” And they delighted me with a cover of “White Bird” that sounded astonishingly like the band that originally recorded it, It’s a Beautiful Day. I just watched the performance of “Matty Groves” that’s on The Strangelings’ MySpace page, and it’s not as good as what I heard at Falcon Ridge. Really, they were slamming on Friday night. It was a fine dose of physical, electric music for the Main Stage and, while I’m not positive I would seek them out to see again, I would be happy to see them at Falcon Ridge next year.

Bill Evans’ Soulgrass (http://www.billevanssax.com/) performed next. They were my least favorite act of the evening. What I heard was a bunch of virtuosos showing off. Bill Evans and his bandmates (but mostly Bill Evans) treated each song as an excuse to solo. They all have some fearsome chops, but so what? After about 10 minutes, I grew bored.

The Friday night song swap concluded the evening. This is also a Falcon Ridge tradition: a quartet of singer-songwriters take the stage and perform round robin. Our contestants this year: Vance Gilbert (www.vancegilbert.com), John Gorka (www.johngorka.com), Patty Larkin (www.pattylarkin.com), and Eliza Gilkyson (www.elizagilkyson.com). I won’t go into all the details here, but I ought to begin by saying that I was not, nor have I ever been, particularly moved by either Gorka or Larkin. With the exception of Larkin’s song “Beg to Differ,” which I can remember her playing at previous Falcon Ridges and hearing on WFUV when I lived in NYC, neither of these musicians touched me. Patty Larkin can play some guitar, no doubt, but her songs don’t really move me. And John Gorka leaves me cold. He may well be a great songwriter, but nothing about this performance, or any other performance I’ve seen of his, projects any kind of musical necessity. Why is he doing what he’s doing? Is there any kind of vision here? His singing is relaxed, a bit too relaxed. Is he really performing songs, or simply reciting them? Maybe I need to get to know his songs a bit on CD before seeing him again. Then again, I didn’t know either Jack Hardy’s or Chris Smither’s songs before seeing them live for the first time, the first at the Postcrypt and the second at Falcon Ridge, and they both moved me tremendously.

But the other performers were a different story. Eliza Gilkyson is a powerful singer, and she can write. I first saw her in August of 2007 at an outdoor concert in NYC, along with Mary Gauthier, someone who I really miss seeing live. Anyhow, she was superb at that show, which included a simple but effective cover of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” Her highlight from this evening was the title track from her newest album, Paradise Hotel. Lovely stuff. Vance Gilbert, meanwhile, was a riot. He has an energetic stage presence that often veers into the politically incorrect. I’ve seen him several times, most notably at Makor in NYC back in 2001 (with Erin McKeown opening), when he asked a woman in the audience if she wanted to know why she was at the show alone—ouch! The man can sing, play, and write at a pretty high level, and he puts his talents to excellent work. This time, he played songs from his latest album, which I bought the next day, Up on Rockfield. Songs included “Goodbye Pluto,” “Whatever Louise Wants,” and, best of all, “Old Man’s Advice,” which he intentionally wrote in the style of Tom Waits. All in all, it was a very fine evening of song swapping. It ended around quarter of 1:00 in the morning, with the quartet joining together for a final sing-along.

That was not the end of the evening’s music. That afternoon, our friends Marie, Allan (http://rattlemycage.wordpress.com), and Ellen (http://www.myspace.com/motherbanjo) had arrived and, after the song swap, the six of us headed back to the campsite. We wound up congregating in a neighbor’s tent for some late-night picking (or, in my case, harmonizing and whistling). A lovely time was had by all.

Saturday was a combination of Main Stage excellence, Workshop Stage excellence, and me trying to find a shady place to nap (we won’t get into that last one).

Patty O and the Hip Hooligans started things off on the Main Stage with a set of very light jazz. Chamber jazz…? Way too mellow. It was pleasant but forgettable, Ellen and I agreed.

Vance Gilbert was up next. His set focused on his newest album, 11 songs written self-consciously in the style of some other songwriter. He repeated some of the ones from the previous night’s song swap. Another standout was “Judge’s House,” which evoked the Bruce Springsteen of Nebraska. He also played one of his concert staples, “Taking it All to Tennessee,” which I never get tired of, and the title track to 2005’s Unfamiliar Moon, which I’d never heard before and was happy to be introduced to. A Vance Gilbert performance is incomplete without plenty of talk in between songs, and he found opportunities to praise the sign language interpreter on stage (and make a rather inappropriate comment about the sizes of their respective waist lines), yell at the pedestrians crossing in front of the stage (to sit down!), and respond to an audience member’s song request with the comment that he won’t play any song that he can’t make any money off of. As always, a class act.

I only caught part of the Most Wanted Song Swap, and I skipped Lowen & Navarro’s set entirely due to hunger pangs and exhaustion. One of last year’s Most Wanted was a guy named Joe Crookston (www.joecrookston.com), who actually sat next to me on Thursday night for the Main State performance, along with his wife and their adorable little daughter. He struck me as a nice guy and, from what I heard, the guy can write and play. He’s got a sense of humor too; the man’s first song was a cover of Supertramp. Randall Williams (www.randallwilliams.com) was another one of last year’s Most Wanted. He seemed a bit bombastic to me, although I confess I wasn’t paying as close attention as I should have been. Lindsay Mac (www.lindsaymac.com) is a cellist who strummed and plucked her instrument as if it were a guitar. I was reminded of Matt’s question about the Folk Brothers: what’s the point? Again, it’s possible that the songs were the point; I didn’t notice. In any case, I have to wonder if there was anything about the songs that required her to play the cello the way that she did. The previous day, at the Beatles workshop, she’d played “Blackbird” on the cello, and I admit it sounded real good, but isn’t that a function of the song? Ah, the greatness of the Beatles. That’s food for thought for some other essay. Oh, and I don’t think I noticed a thing about Anthony da Costa (www.anthonydacosta.com) although I heard great things about him.

Back to the John Gorka/Patty Larkin thing. I have to return to it, you see, because they were the next two performers on the Main Stage, and I missed all of Gorka’s set and all but the last two songs of Larkin’s. Matt and Ellen both told me later that Gorka’s set was great. I don’t doubt that his fans were happy…but could the man win over people who didn’t already know his material? I don’t know. I wasn’t there to find out for myself, and I didn’t interview any audience members. I should note, however, that I arrived back at our blanket to hear Patty Larkin play “Wolf at the Door,” one of about three songs I can identify upon hearing as a Patty Larkin song. I can only do that for two John Gorka songs, and I forget both of them (just kidding!). Anyway, “Wolf at the Door” is a good song. One reason it’s a good song is that it’s catchy, with a cool melody and some nifty guitar playing. The singer’s voice even takes on different tones, as she moves from refrain to verses. Those sorts of qualities are acts of generosity toward her listeners, and they make me more interested in what she has to say. In this case, the song is commentary on the music business, and the star system in particular. Does she say anything truly original here? No, but her interest and enthusiasm are palpable. I have yet to hear these qualities in John Gorka although, again, I don’t really listen to his CDs. I should give them a chance before I pass judgment. His live performances (all at folk festivals) have been disappointments. When I was at the CD tent over the weekend, I didn’t even really look for Gorka CDs. But I was curious to know more about Patty Larkin’s work. I noticed two things. First, she plays all the instruments on her new album. Second, I noticed that, on a couple of previous albums, she recruited Michael Manring (www.manthing.com) to play bass. My brother used to be a fan of this guy’s work; I believe there was a CD called Thonk that he really liked. Apart from his session work, Manring has released some albums full of instrumental music that features his bass playing. I find them basically unlistenable, but I can still appreciate the man’s talent. Anyway, moving on…. WAIT!! Before I go on, I just now saw that Manring’s website notes that he was scheduled to play with Gorka at Falcon Ridge! I need to ask Matt about that.

So, instead of attending the Main Stage for these sets, I attended the Workshop stage, where “The Blues is Still the News” was the theme. The program was great, although, as usual with these things, it wasn’t a workshop. The performers were Jason Spooner, the great Chris Smither, Eliza Gilkyson, and, the MCs of the program, Eddie from Ohio. Spooner led things off with “For the Turnstiles” and, once again, Red Molly was there to help out. The highlight of Eliza Gilkyson’s portion of the show was “Dark Side of Town,” a real crowd-pleaser. Chris Smither has been steeped in the blues ever since he first started recording in the late 1960s. I still remember Smither at the 2002 blues workshop, when he performed Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candyman” and an old Little Feat song, “Rock n’ Roll Doctor.” This time, he stuck to his own songs: “Link of Chain,” “Diplomacy” (a political song that had the crowd cheering), and “Can’t Shake These Blues.” Finally, Eddie from Ohio stole the show. I don’t know the titles to the songs they played, but Julie Murphy Wells sang her pretty ass off on a song full of sexual double entendres. And the bass player, Michael Clem, introduced their final tune by describing their encounter with Chris Smither that morning. They accosted him and begged him, “Mr. Smither! Mr. Smither! Can we please play your song?” To which he responded, “And you are…?” The song was, no surprise, “Love Me Like a Man,” made famous by Bonnie Raitt on her 1972 album, Give It Up. Diana Krall did a version of it too, a few years ago. Eddie from Ohio did it proud, with Julie Murphy Wells flexing her pipes, Jason Spooner adding harmonica, and Smither himself soloing a bit on the guitar. Throughout the performance, I kept looking over at Chris Smither, wondering how it felt to have his song performed right in front of him like that. He looked cool as a cucumber. The song is almost 40 years old now, and it really isn’t representative of the kind of the thing the man writes. Listen to his first album, I’m a Stranger Too! (1970), and the song really sticks out, sandwiched in between “Homunculus” and “Lonely Time,” both of which suggest very different concerns than “Love You Like a Man,” as it was originally called. By the time he rerecorded them for Another Way to Find You (1991), his voice had deepened and filled out, and his performance of “Homunculus” on that album is haunting and oracular.

After the dinner break on the Mainstage, I settled into a lawn chair on our blanket for the Chris Smither performance, the one I’d been waiting for all weekend long. I can’t say enough good things about this guy. As a singer, guitarist, and songwriter, he blows most other solo performers off the stage. His 2002 performance at Falcon Ridge was my introduction to the man’s work; before then, I knew the song “No Love Today,” but that was all. He had played the song swap that year, and he was the best on a stage that included Susan Werner, Greg Brown, and Erin McKeown, none whom is a slouch when it comes to writing, singing, and playing. Wouldn’t you know it, just as he took the stage Saturday evening, 2008, the rain began. Up went my umbrella, as the man launched into his opening number, “Open Up,” the lead track from his most recent disc, Leave the Light On (2006). For about half the set, the rain came and went, and it was pretty heavy at times. But the performer carried on, basically as if nothing was wrong. The performance was standard Chris Smither, a fact that Ellen pointed out later that night. She’s right: if you’ve seen the man enough times, you learn that he plays a set that doesn’t vary much from gig to gig unless a) a new album has just been released, or b) he’s been working on new material. Not much improv, not much banter in between songs. I didn’t write down the setlist in order, but he played two other songs from Leave the Light On: “Father’s Day” and, the high point of the set, the crowd-pleasing “Origin of Species.” Great stuff, and I noticed Ellen smiling when he launched into “Train Home.” Me, I was happier still that he played “Hold On” and “Drive You Home Again,” two extraordinary songs about freedom and selfhood, respectively. More extraordinary Chris Smither songs from that performance: “Never Needed It More,” “Lola,” and “Help Me Now,” along with Dave Carter’s “Crocodile Man,” which Smither introduced as a Chris Smither song that Dave Carter wrote before he, Smither, got around to it. I have a recording of the 2002 festival’s Dave Carter tribute, and Smither’s performance was the only one that had the audience cheering and wowing after the first couple of verses. And that was before he’d had much of a chance to practice the song. This past Saturday night, it sounded effortless, and it was beguiling. So there you go: a standard Chris Smither performance is still spellbinding.

The Nields (www.nields.com) were up next. I’d seen them maybe five or six times before, at festivals and at First Night in Northampton. But here’s the thing: not since Newport 1997 had I seen them with the full band, with Dave Chalfant and company. I’d always seen them as a duo, or with Erin McKeown at First Night. This night, with the full band backing the sisters, they smoked. They played old tunes like “Best Black Dress” and, with Dar on stage, “I Know What Kind of Love This Is.” They played new songs, whose titles I don’t remember, but which were catchy and fun. The only thing missing was “This Town Is Wrong,” but I only thought of that the next day, so it clearly wasn’t much missed. Their set was high energy folk-pop, and the sisters are open, friendly performers.

Next up: Dar Williams (www.darwilliams.com). I don’t remember the first time I saw her, but I’m pretty sure it was in Newport, maybe ’96 or ’97, and I remember going through a brief Dar fixation which only ended when I heard Cry Cry Cry. With that album, the Dar fixation ended abruptly, and the Richard Shindell fixation began. Saturday night, she played a fun set, bookended by crowd-pleasers: “The Babysitter’s Here” opened the show and “When I Was a Boy” closed things. “Spring Street” is a song that doesn’t do much for me on CD, but it sounded real good Saturday night. She played a new song called “Buzzer” about the Milgram obedience experiment at Yale University in the 1960s that seemed a bit preachy to me. But the highlight of the entire festival came, just as it did at Falcon Ridges past, when she led the sing-along on “Iowa.” By the time Dar hits the stage, it’s always dark, and “Iowa” always produces the cigarette lighters and flashlights from the festival-goers and, before you know it, the hillside is lit up like a midsummer Christmas tree. It’s always a lovely sight, and the thousands of harmony singers on “Iowa” lift that song into the stratosphere. It’s a wonderful thing, and you really need to be there to experience it. But this time, there was something even more special planned. Dar had Nerissa and Katryna Nields come on stage with their children, Patty Larkin with hers, along with Dar’s own son, and Dar spoke directly to them, telling them that no matter what bad things go on in the world, that there are also a lot of people working to make the world a better place here at Falcon Ridge. She had us turn off our lighters and then turn them back on, all at once, so that the kids and everyone else on stage could see us. It was really moving, a moment when the feeling of community was palpable and made even more real by the presence of the children on stage and Dar’s words directly to them that created a different kind of relationship between audience and performers. For that briefest moment, all of the clich├ęs about feeling “one with the performers” were made real.

The Farewell Drifters couldn’t help but be a letdown after that and, anyway, I was wandering around during most of their set. What little I noticed sounded like an all too polite set of bluegrass songs, well-played to be sure, but not extraordinary.

I was really looking forward to Eddie from Ohio (www.efohio.com). At festivals past, this was always an opportunity to dance, and Matt, his girlfriend Sarah (who’d arrived that afternoon), and Ellen and myself all walked down to the front of the stage, off to stage right, to twirl and jiggle and jump around a bit. They played a few of their more recognizable songs, like “Old Dominion” and “Candido” (which I misrecognized as “Number Six Driver,” which they didn’t play). They played a cover of an old Shawn Colvin song called “Cry Like an Angel.” They played some new material. Eddie did his drum solo. Really, I wasn’t paying attention to the subtleties with this group. I was just having fun, and why not?

Martin Sexton (www.martinsexton.com) closed the show on Saturday night. I hadn’t seen him since Irving Plaza, 2001. I actually learned while at Falcon Ridge that that very show I saw had been recorded; I saw CDs of the show on sale in the merchandise tent, but I left without buying one. Anyway, I have fond memories of that show. I just remember him having one of the biggest, most pliable voices I could imagine, and his guitar playing was clearly a second voice that he played to harmonize with his pipes. And for songs, how about “Glory Bound,” “Diggin’ Me,” “Hallelujah,” “Beast in Me,” “Black Sheep,” and, from his newest album, “Happy.” He played these songs with a kind of jazzy elasticity, and his voice is a wonder of nature. I said jazzy but, as Ellen mentioned, it really felt more like gospel music. He crooned, he whispered, he scatted, he moaned, he roared. When he closed the night by proclaiming himself a patriot and singing “America the Beautiful,” he had me believing.

If I had to choose a favorite performance from Saturday night, I think Martin Sexton’s has to win the prize. There are other artists whose records mean more to me and that I’d rather listen to. I don’t think there was a single more affecting moment than Dar’s performance of “Iowa.” The Nields’ high energy set was pure up, as was Eddie from Ohio’s. And I admired the Chris Smither performance quite a bit, particularly for the man’s coolness in the face of Mother Nature. But no one puts on a show like Martin Sexton, and I can’t imagine any setting—festival, coffeehouse, theater, amphitheater, club, or stadium—in which he couldn’t win a crowd over. Maybe after multiple performances, his act would seem as rote as Chris Smither’s, but I don’t think so. The song and the performance are two different things and, while Smither’s songs may be some of the best of the last half century, Sexton is one of the best performers I’ve ever seen.

Unfortunately, the post-Main Stage events of Saturday night curtailed my Falcon Ridge experience. I had been planning to stay through until Sunday night, but, at around 1:00 AM Sunday morning, the rain began again and, this time, it didn’t let up until around 5:00. My tent couldn’t withstand the storm and, within fifteen minutes, there was water entering the tent from the sides and from up above. The temperature that night had actually been a bit milder than during previous nights but, as I became wetter, I became colder. I didn’t sleep at all that night. By the time the rain ended, most of my clothes had been drenched, what was left of the food I had brought was ruined, and the sun had already begun its ascent. I was freezing and unhappy, and I decided to take out my frustration on my tent. It probably wasn’t fair to blame the tent for having gotten wet; after all, there were some much sturdier tents around me, and I learned that a lot of the folks in them had gotten wet too. But there was no convincing me, and I vowed that, as part of my preparations to leave the festival grounds, I’d throw the damn thing in the trash.

I did stick around for Sunday morning’s Falcon Ridge tradition: the gospel set. The Strangelings, Vance Gilbert, Eddie from Ohio, and The Nields shared the stage. I was a bit out of it, but they played with energy that probably would have been infectious if I’d been able to catch a few hours of sleep the previous night. The Nields didn’t play “Keys to the Kingdom,” a surprise. But EfO did play “Great Day,” which is a Sunday morning staple at Falcon Ridge. I love that song; it shows off the band’s vocal chops better than anything else they do.

After the gospel set ended, Sandro and I looked at each other and nodded. The festival was over for us. I would have to miss Tracy Grammer’s set, which is too bad, along with Eliza Gilkyson and Railroad Earth and a few others, including the headliner, Janis Ian. Sandro and I said our goodbyes, packed up, threw out my tent, and headed off, just as the rain picked up again. Not only did it pick up, but it became a torrential downpour. I later learned that, back in Hillsdale, the rain turned to hail, and disaster ensued. After Tracy Grammer finished her set, the festival ended. I’ll leave it to Matt to post something about that on his blog or elsewhere. In the meantime, there is this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjGjqmQhiTk. Be sure to read some of the comments to the video; Tracy Grammer makes a couple of contributions.

So things didn’t end as beautifully as they’d begun, which is a shame. If I’d actually been around Sunday afternoon, I’d probably be cursing out the festival right now instead of praising it, vowing never to return. But those feelings would have evaporated pretty quickly, I’m sure. The festival was more tiring than it was 6 years ago but, then again, I’m 6 years older, and the darned thing is a day longer than it used to be. I suppose it’s a good sign that I’m already eager for next year’s event. In the meantime, I’ll be living in Pioneer Valley, and there’s plenty more live music to be seen. The first order of business, then, is to start buying concert tickets.

The second order of business is to buy a new tent.

1 comment:

Matt Winters said...

So I finally just read all of this. (Sorry. Bad blogging karma.) And I had never heard the story about you stealing Jack Hardy's seat before! That's a great one!