I returned from Falcon Ridge earlier this afternoon. After a few days worth of music and camping out on Dodds Farm, I decided around 10:30 this morning that I’d had enough. I ducked out during the Gospel Wake Up Call. With some help from some twenty-somethings, pushing my car through some mud, I made it out of the Lower Pasture and onto the muddy path leading past the mainstage and out to the main road. As I passed the mainstage, I heard a performer announce that they were going to play a Patty Griffin song, which turned out to be “Mary,” just as I was leaving the festival grounds. I momentarily thought about parking somewhere and wandering back to see some more of the show, but exhaustion and lack of enthusiasm about the Sunday afternoon performance schedule and a vaguely melancholy feeling that Patty Griffin would never again record an album as great as Flaming Red won the day. There would be some good stuff happening on the workshop stage, it looked like, but not good enough to induce me to go back. Actually, the Gospel Wake Up Call, usually one of the festival highlights, didn’t do much for me; what I heard of it, anyway. Really, without Eddie from Ohio or the Nields or Vance Gilbert or any of the other Falcon Ridge stalwarts, I couldn’t muster much enthusiasm. And as for this afternoon’s mainstage…Wild Asparagus, Dan Navarro, Hickory Project, Cliff Eberhardt, N+K Nields, Ellis Paul, and Mecca Bodega: I salute you. Hope to see some of you sometime.
There you have a large part of the story of this year’s Falcon Ridge: a lot of the regulars were absent. And there were a number of newcomers to the festival, along with a number of folks who had been away for some time. Given the destruction from last year, the festival promoters had seriously considered not putting the show on this summer. A friend told me yesterday that Anne and Bub were a bit distressed by the audience turnout this year: through Saturday evening, the crowds were smaller than they had been last year.
This summer’s folk fest was historic for me: it was the first time I’ve ever attended a music festival on my own. Matt Winters and company had other business, and the crowd that I used to folk out with a decade ago have either scattered all over the country or faded away. About twenty minutes after I put down my tarp, however, I discovered that my next door neighbors were Jessica and her mother and their friends. Jessica is the woman who drove me to the Ani show at the Pines last summer, and she also showed up at Falcon Ridge ’08. She is also part of the scene, acting as a manager (or street coordinator or something like that) for Girlyman, who were a big deal at this year’s fest. We caught up with each other and shared blanket space. So I had some company.
On to the music….
Thursday evening began with Kim & Reggie Harris and Magpie. These are two duos who date back to the 1970s, literally, and play 1960s-style commercial folk music. That is, they perform a lot of political music, clearly inspired by the songs of the protest singers of that time. In tone, spirit, and overall sound/feel, this was political music in the vein of Peter, Paul, and Mary or Joan Baez or Pete Seeger (as opposed to, say, Randy Newman). Pretty innocent stuff, for the most part. Kinda bland, but with one standout exception. Magpie performed one song without the Harrises, and it was a great one: “Barons of King Coal,” about mountain top removal in Appalachia. The four singers finished up with Phil Ochs’ “When I’m Gone,” and their harmonies took on that choral quality that I associate with the protest music that thrived during the era of the Civil Rights Movement and late as (beginning of) the sexual revolution (should that be capitalized? Yes). Throughout, they were backed by Mark Dann on bass, a Jack Hardy bandmate, and a part of the Falcon Ridge house band. Overall, an entertaining, if unspectacular start to the festivities.
Next up came John Flynn, another singer in the same mold, although he only dates back to the 1980s. He’s more in the vein of someone like Arlo Guthrie (who he’s travelled with), or maybe Steve Forbert. Some political stuff, but more like social commentary and topical tunes. His performance gained power as it progressed. An opening song that referenced “two wolves” was a like a bad Dave Carter song, but when he dumped the metaphors and took on concrete realities, his songs (and his performance) improved. He has a warm stage presence and made a couple of jokes and gently teased Arlo G’s harmonica playing. A couple of his more recent songs, “Semper Fi” and “America’s Waiting” were genuinely touching. He got a standing ovation from the Falcon Ridge audience. It was a step up from the opening act, and I felt like we were really underway.
The Folk Arts Quartet consist of four classically trained Berkley College of Music students playing music that they call “chamber grass.” What does that mean? What I heard reminded me of seeing Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas last year: fairly staid melodies, tight arrangements, and entertaining enough for a short time. Special kudos to Ivonne Hernandez, who showed off some toe-tapping and step dancing that, in conjunction with the music, was a lot of fun. Hannah Read hails from Edinburgh, Scotland, and has a charming stage presence. All four of them were all smiles. Very clean cut, a bit perky, great musicianship. Not much more to say, really. What do you think?
I decided to call it a night after that, and I wish I hadn’t. By the time I’d returned to my tent, Oneside had begun. I heard something really uptempo and fun-sounding. I heard a rollicking version of Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues,” and I sang along as I set up my sleeping bag. So I missed out. And, rumor has it, Kathy Mattea put on a fantastic performance. Oh well. I got a good night’s sleep by Falcon Ridge standards, and I was ready for a full day of music on Friday.
I made it to the Workshop stage at 11:00 for something called “Heart & Soul,” with the Falcon Ridge house band (including Mark Dann and, does the guy ever get a break?, Jim Henry), Tracy Grammer (with Jim Henry, as usual), N+K Nields, Jon Vezner, and Dan Navarro. Navarro, the workshop MC, sang a song about songwriting, and it was witty and, yes, soulful. When John Vezner sat down at the piano a bit later for his second tune, he introduced himself as Kathy Mattea’s husband and proceeded to play a song that, from the opening line, made the Nields’ heads perk up, and they began to whisper excitedly to each other and to Jim and Tracy. It turns out that Jon had played whatever song it was on the Today Show about 15 years ago. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Jon Vezner has been a songwriter for a long time, working mostly for country singers. On the basis of what I heard at the workshop stage, the man not only can write, but he can sing too. A little while later, Nerissa Nields made a point out of not having met Jon until shortly before the performance and only now realizing that she was a fan. The Nields were charming, as usual, and they were very attentive to the other performers when they were on. In particular, they paid close attention to Tracy and Jim, who played David Francey’s “The Waking Hour” and, a bit later, “Gentle Soldier of My Soul” from Drum Hat Buddah. Tracy mentioned that, if she had learned what the title of the workshop was going to be a bit sooner, she would have learned how to play “Magic Man,” which elicited joyful laughter from the Nields and from a lot of the audience. The Nields did their classic “This Town is Wrong” and “The Endless Day,” from Sister Holler, a recent album of theirs which I enjoy more than anything of theirs (that I’ve heard) since their fantastic If You Lived Here You’d Be Home Now (2000).
As usual, Friday afternoon’s mainstage was devoted to the Emerging Artist Showcase. I caught maybe 16 or 17 of the 24 acts and, on the basis of those, I’d say this Showcase topped last year’s. I was surprised to discover more than half a dozen acts I would love to see back. I really enjoyed the openers, Colleen Kattau & Some Guys, who opened with a kind of faux-Irish dance-chant. Later, Sean Rowe sang in a Greg Brown-ish voice and turned Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” into a soul tune, beating the crap out of Johnny Cash’s version. I finally got to hear chuck e. costa, who I’ve been hearing about for a long time, and I was pleased (though more by the delicate guitar playing than by the songs). A woman named Emily Elbert (who I’ve since learned is only 20) sang like an angel, although I can’t remember her songs. The Brilliant Inventions opened with a hilarious song about a dream the singer had had about someone’s girlfriend…a dream which did not involve sex, he assures us in the refrain. And I got to see Jenny Goodspeed for the second time. Someone out there thinks she’s pretty special; Jim Henry was there to play some guitar for her. While I confess I liked her performance more than the first time I saw her, I remain underwhelmed. When it came time to vote on who should return, my selections were: Angelo M. (a fifty-something blues singer who played a couple of sharp songs and played some mean guitar), John Elliott, and, one of my favorite acts of the entire weekend, Swing Caravan. Swing Caravan are a four-piece group—two guitars, stand-up bass, and “kitchen percussion” (including washboard, a couple of pans, and a spit bucket)—that plays “gypsy jazz,” in the style of Django Reinhardt. Their two songs concluded the Showcase, and they were fantastic. All four musicians are hyper-talented: the ensemble playing, the solos, and Matthew Ruby Shippee’s understated singing were all treats, and the material was choice. And much to my delight, during the 5:00 dinner break, the group set up next to one of the food tickets booths to play, and play they did, for a little over an hour. As it turned out, they had some competition: about twenty feet away, a circle of six or seven folks, featuring the young Anthony da Costa, had gathered for some picking and singing, and they attracted quite a crowd. Between 5:00 and 6:30 or so, I wandered between the two acts, but I really spent most of the time with the Caravan, which really knocked my socks off. They popped up again for another hour or so of performance Saturday afternoon, around the dinner hour again. As it turns out, this group has a regular gig in Northampton, MA (where they are based) at the Yellow Sofa Café through the end of September, and I’ll be sure to catch them.
Between 4:30 and 5:00 (that is, after the Showcase ended but before the dinner break), Sarah Lee Guthrie (daughter of yes-you-guessed-it and granddaughter of you-know-who) and Johnny Irion performed on the mainstage. Their performance began with Sarah Lee stepping up to the mike and, without introduction, performing “Birds and Ships“ (a you-know-who lyric recorded by Wilco and Billy Bragg for the first Mermaid Avenue album) a cappella. Then, Johnny Irion basically took over. He was the frontman, as it were, and he had a gentle, comforting stage demeanor. They concluded their set with a lyric that, Sarah Lee explained, was sent to her from her “Aunt Nora” in NYC, who works for the you-know-who archive. Her proceeded to tell us about a snippet of dialogue that you-know-who had recorded toward the end of his life in which he talked about songwriting. I play my G chords and my D chords, Sarah Lee quoted the man (trying to imitate his voice), “but every once in a while I throw in a C chord to impress the ladies.” With that, they went into “Folk Song.”
After the dinner break, I positioned myself on Jessica’s blanket, center stage up close, with a friend of her mom’s to watch the Doc Scanlon Trio. Doc Scanlon sang and played stand-up bass, and his bandmates played guitar and clarinet. Their set was made up of old jazz and blue tunes. Blues as in Sinatra, of course, not as in Howlin’ Wolf. The highlight came when Doc invited Jonathan Russell, a 14 year old jazz violinist, to join them. He did, and they tore into “Sweet Georgia Brown.” On that tune, and on a couple of others, the kid violinist smoked. Doc called out for him to solo on the couple of other tunes they played together. Impressive stuff. Not exactly the kind of thing I expect at a folk festival, but it was a nice bit of energy.
I only caught the very first and very last songs of Karen Savoca’s set, as Jessica returned to the blanket and asked if I’d like to take a walk with her, which I did. Actually, what I heard of Karen Savoca made me want to hear more. I might seek her out at some point.
On the way back to the blanket, though, a friend of Jessica’s stopped to inform us that a major storm was coming. Memories of 2008 immediately flashed through my mind, and I packed my belongings and hustled back to my tent. Just in time: a drizzle began…and it turned into steady rain with thunderstorms about a minute later. Eileen Ivers & Immigrant Soul were slated to go on next, but they didn’t. Instead, I later heard, they gave an impromptu performance at one of the other tents. Sorry I missed it; it was supposed to have been great. The Refugees set was cancelled, although they apparently were given a slot to perform on Sunday sometime, I think. And the traditional Friday Night Summer’s Eve Song Swap was cancelled altogether. Bummer. I hid out in my tent, reading Chuck Klosterman essays, until around midnight when I went to sleep, with the rain hammering my tent. There were some song circles going on that night, but I decided to get some sleep.
The good news: I woke up the next morning completely dry. My brand new tent did its job.
Saturday began at 11:00 with Stonehoney. This is a four piece band—three guitars and bass—and they also performed with an accordion player whose name I forget. They were flat-out great. Their arrangements were really tight, and their harmony singing was outstanding. Their sound was basically country-rock—sample lyrics: “walking hand in hand / alone with you,” “I’m stoned again / if it’s a sin / i just don’t care,” “could have turned right but I turned wrong / now I’m here and here’s as good as gone,” and “two years gone in the city of angels / two years down [or “alone”? not sure].” Their songs are hooky and propulsive. I sensed that they were dying to have a drummer on-stage to power them over the top. There isn’t a lick of originality in Stonehoney, but tons of energy and commitment, and I loved hearing them as the opening act on Saturday. I now see that you can get a bunch of their songs on iTunes—for free! Sitting here at my computer, they still sound pretty darn good.
For the next act, Tracy Grammer with Jim Henry, I once again moved down to position myself on Jessica’s blanket, once again positioned center stage up close. Tracy and Jim sat alone on stage and opened with “Gentle Arms of Eden” and “Crocodile Man.” With that, Tracy announced that they would perform the set that they had planned to do last year, eliciting cheers from the audience, many of whom had clearly been around for the destruction last summer. Jim took up the electric guitar for “Shadows of Evangeline,” from Tracy’s album of previously unrecorded Dave Carter songs, Flower of Avalon, produced by Mary Chapin Carpenter and Jim Jennings. Without the glossy production, the song’s basic weirdness was even cleared than it is on the recording. The antiwar song “Travis John” came next, followed by Jim Henry’s lead on “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Then came “28th of January,” which I heard at the SigSounds show last week. Before the next song, “Dirty Little Town” (from Tracy’s The Verdant Mile album), Tracy explained that she was from southern California and, “like,” grew up with smog days (as opposed to the snow days of the northeast—much more fun). “The Mountain” came next, a song that Dave Carter wrote specifically for Tracy to sing; Jim Henry sang the Buddhist blessing toward the end of the song. Then came “The Verdant Mile.” And, to finish the set, a great version of Townes Van Zandt’s “Poncho and Lefty.” It was a lovely set of music. Tracy’s banter was charming, and occasionally off kilter (like when she told us to put sun screen on because, she assured us, skin cancer was no fun). And Jim Henry is awfully funny. When Tracy introduced the final song by mentioning that it was about a couple of outlaws, “much like Jim and myself,” her bandmate said, in his best outlaw growl, “gimme a double lat-te…whole milk!”
The Most Wanted Song Swap took up the 1:00-2:00 time slot. Two of my three picks from last year were there—Lucy Wainwright Roche (LWR hereafter) and Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers (BMUZ hereafter)—along with Abi Tapia and Amy Speace, both of whom played at least one song that I actually sort of remembered from the previous year. LWR played entirely new material, including one called “The A & E,” about a date that she went on in England which ended with her spending the night with her date in the emergency room, after he had what in the end turned out to be a collapsed lung. Amy Speace probably had the most impressive singing voice (although I’m still partial to LWR). Her best song, a really great one in fact, was hooked around the line “the only thing I’ve learned / is that i haven’t learned a thing.” Abi Tapia, a very cute woman, was my favorite. She sang three superb songs “Another State Line,” about her inspiration for what she’s done with her life, the catchy “Let the Lover Be,” and the ready-for-country “Hand Over Your Heart.” Watch for her. Finally, BMUZ were also superb. Their sound is a difficult to describe, something I bet their press agent, if they have one, would love to hear. But really, they sounded like a cross between Crooked Still and Bartok’s string quartets—there were some bright melodies, but they were undercut by dissonance and a kind of eerie quality that made me pay attention. There was some singing too, but I was paying more attention to the instruments: two fiddles, guitar, and nyckelharpa. It’s an enticing sound, and I would love to see them again.
I skipped Susan Werner and Jon Vezner to walk around, eat, and rest back at the tent. I came back to the mainstage for Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams. Their set was high energy, as always, and I had fun. But I think the enthusiasm of the audience played a big part in my enjoyment of their performance. I like ‘em just fine, but I am not that impressed. If it’s the instrumental stuff that people like, then I wish they’d pay more attention to folks like BMUZ (pushing boundaries) or Swing Caravan (above average neo-traditionalism). If it’s the danceable rhythms, then why are they at a folk festival, and why not get one of those bouncy country or bluegrass groups to the fest? And why wasn’t Eddie from Ohio there this year? And I’m sure there’s an explanation for all the umbrellas going up for the final song that has nothing to do with the weather, but I’m not sure what it is.
I missed almost all of Lisa Haley & the Zydekats and, based on what I heard at a distance, there might have been something there worth hearing. In fact, I was attracted back to my tarp by the sound of a guitar solo. But, by the time I was back, it, and the rest of the set, was over.
Pamela Means played next. A graduate of the Ani Difranco school of guitar playing and writing (but not, unfortunately, singing), her performance was forceful, if nothing else. But she opened with a preachy song about New Orleans that had me pining for Ani’s “Red Letter Year” and thinking that, if this performer really was a Difranco graduate, I’d give her a B for guitar and a C for writing and maybe something in between for singing. She preceded the next song by asking, “where my bi-racials at?” She listened to the smattering of applause, announced “this is for both of you,” and went into the next tune. She told a story about fixing her car’s muffler with some guitar strings while on the road in Wisconsin, where she’s from, before playing a song about Maine. She played a jazz tune. She got my attention with a song I later learned is called “Maybe You Should” in which she told a “drunken swine” to “shut your face and drink your beer.” That was more like it. Maybe the Ani comparisons aren’t fair, but that’s all I could think about during her set. That said, she was okay.
Bob Malone won the Emerging Artist Showcase over 10 years ago and now played the mainstage. I knew nothing about him coming on, and I was impressed. He leads a 9-piece band, including 3 horns and 2 back-up singers, one of whom is his wife (and the subject of what I thought was the best song he played). The sound is a Memphis soul-type deal with some great piano, courtesy of Mr. Malone, and some simple but effective horn arrangements and soloing. The back-up singers danced and sashayed around their corner of the stage and, if anything, didn’t sing enough. Because the one weakness I heard was in the singing. It sounded like there were some good songs, and the instrumentation was hot, but Bob Malone’s singing voice simply doesn’t cut it. The guy is clearly pretty talented, but this kind of music absolutely requires a singer capable of putting over this kind of material. I thought of Taj Mahal singing with the Phantom Blues Band, and I tried to picture Malone’s band, with Bob himself at the keys, and Martin Sexton handling the mike. That would be something. At is was, I enjoyed the set quite a bit and found myself a bit put off by the fact that a lot of the same people who were up and dancing for Gandalf Murphy a few hours earlier had their asses planted on the ground for what was, I thought, a much more danceable set of music. Maybe everyone was tired.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the festival came next. I’ve seen Janis Ian a couple of times at festivals over the years, but I’ve never been as impressed as I was Saturday night. With the sun having set, the stage almost completely bare, and a big crowd assembled at their blankets, the performed was announced. Then, she stepped up to the microphone and, without any guitar accompaniment, began singing “Jesse.” After a few lines, she began to pick and strum, quietly. She had me completely and, by the end of the song, I semi-consciously realized that she had everyone. There was huge applause. Then she played a song called “Through the Years” that, from another singer, might have sounded mawkish and embarrassing but, from this woman, in this context, opened up a torrent of emotions in me (the short version being that I felt very intensely single by the end of the song). From there, she had me (and, it seemed, the rest of us) in the palm of her hand as surely as Chris Smither did during his nighttime performance at the 2002 fest. She told us a harrowing story about performing “Society’s Child” on a California stage when she was 15 years old and booed off the stage to the cries of “nigger lover” and how, after running off stage and crying and being convinced to return, the majority of audience, who was there to hear her after all, physically forced the racists back into their seats, racists who eventually “slunk” out of the theater, to use Ian’s word for it. Then she played the song, a song I’ve heard before, but never with the effect it had Saturday night. The tragedy of the song seemed unusually clear; this was a young teenager’s song, written during a very different time (something Ian herself mentioned when telling the story). It occurred to me that I would not be sympathetic to a white teenager who didn’t have the courage to stay with her black significant other…but then I thought some more about my own contact with racism, and I thought some more. Anyway, the point is that Janis Ian’s performance was transcendent, both for her music and for her talk. And it was more notable still for her announcement that the crew had to shut the generators down and that she had to leave the stage! No shit: she walked off and Claudia Marshall, the WFUV dj who’d introduced her, told us that we might have to wait for 25 minutes before she returned. It wound up being something under 20 minutes, during which some folks sitting a few yards in front of me began singing. First, there was Dar’s “Iowa.” Then, a bit later, “This Land is Your Land.” Miraculously, when Janis Ian returned to the stage, the spell resumed, as if it had never been broken. There was more chat, there were more songs: “At Seventeen” and a funny song about her autobiography. She was forceful, poised, confident, funny, and the highlight of the festival, interruption and all.
At that point, I made a spontaneous decision to call it a night. So, I skipped Girlyman and Ryan Montbleau. As I wandered around the campgrounds, I could hear Girlyman, and I’m not convinced that I missed anything too special. But I promise I’ll give them a chance some other time.
So…my personal highlights were Janis Ian, much to my surprise, and Swing Caravan, also to my surprise. Beyond that, I’d check out anyone from the Most Wanted Song Swap if any of those acts came anywhere nearby (which, given the Pioneer Valley, is pretty likely), and maybe Stonehoney too. And about half a dozen of this year’s “Emerging Artists” were darn good as well.
Special thanks and notice are due my tent, which held up under some pretty heavy rain on Friday night....See you next year!