Saturday, July 18, 2009

Signature Sounds 15th Anniversary Celebration @ The Green River Festival, Greenfield, MA, July 17th, 2009

A lovely evening of music last night in Greenfield, MA....The original plan had been to attend the Carsie Blanton CD release party @ Club Passim this evening and skip out on the Signature Sounds 15th anniversary festivities in Greenfield last night. In the end, the opposite happened. After discovered that Matt would be there (and would most likely not make it to Falcon Ridge), I got in the ole' rental car and moved on up to Greenfield. I thought at the time that I would make it to Cambridge tonight but, after an afternoon of sitting in front of a computer without getting a lick of work done on my book, I've decided to stay in tonight. I'm writing this blog entry, and then I'll be a busy beaver all night long.

So, then. Signature Sounds has been the home for a lot of my favorites over the years. I was happy to see a former SigSounder, Erin McKeown, hit the stage for a song or two last night. Knowing then that even former SigSounders were welcome, I held out hope for a Brooks Williams sighting. No such luck. One wonders why anyone would leave as cool a label as Signature, but I digress.

The festival began with the house band jamming on a few tunes. I was happy to see David Goodrich and Jim Henry playing guitars, and Mark Erelli joined them too. Paul Kochanski, who plays with the Nields from time to time I think, was on the drums. Didn't catch the bassist's name, but I learn from Matt's review of the show that the dude's name is Jason Beek (I promise, by the way, that everything that follows is being written without consulting Matt's blog; just wanted to get that detail right). They were solid. The opener was a jam on an instrumental Peter Mulvey song. Then they moved on to something called 28th of July, with Tracy Grammer, looking lovely and upbeat, joining in on fiddle. After yet another instrumental, a special guest arrived.

Erin McKeown is special indeed, special enough to get her own paragraph. Her first album for Signature was Distillation (2000), and it's one of the best pieces of singer-songwriter product of the past 10 years. I think I discussed it a bit in my review of her Iron Horse show from last year. At any rate, she played "Blackbirds" from that album, with the drummer producing a slightly off-kilter rhythm to the song that fit the tune just right. She showed up again later to sing some harmonies.

What followed was a series of short sets, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 minutes for the first five or six acts, followed by longer sets for the final four performers. There was a second stage too, but I never made it there. Hence I missed Rani Arbo with Daisy Mayhem, the Winterpills, and a few others.

Up first was Tracy Grammer with Jim Henry. It occurs to me that Jim has now been playing with Tracy longer than Tracy played with Dave Carter, a sad thought in a way. But the music was lovely. She opened with "Crocodile Man." The performance was good, but there were sound problems that would persist for the first few performances. Buzzing in the monitors, and an overall sound that was too bass heavy. Anyway, the first song sounded good, although it signaled to me that Chris Smither probably wouldn't be playing that song in his set later that night. After that came Carter's greatest song, "Gentle Arms of Eden," and a cover of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," very good. Tracy mentioned, with a laugh, that that was the song that brought last year's Falcon Ridge Folk Festival to a rather disastrous conclusion (see here). They finished with Tracy's own, "Verdant Mile," a line from which became the title of Matt Winters' blog.

Next up was Mark Erelli. I don't know this guy's songs, but I've seen him live a few times before, and I always enjoy him. He has a Steve Forbert-ish singing voice, and he's comfortable with a band, and last night's band in particular. The highlight was Tracy Grammer's assistance on Erelli's version of Dave Carter's "Cowboy Singer." Back in 2002, this is the song that Mark Erelli did at the Falcon Ridge tribute to Dave Carter, about 9 days after Dave's death. His version of it sparkles.

Third: Caroline Herring, who I'd never heard before. She opened with "Long Black Veil." When I mentioned to Matt that this was the first song I ever learned how to finger pick on the guitar, Matt told me that I probably played it better than Caroline Herring. Ouch. Next up came Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors," an interesting pick. But then the singer redeemed herself with two originals, one called "Wise Woman," with reference to a number of folks that Herring met while traveling in southwestern Mississippi, and another, whose title I forget, about a southern artist. Both were good songs, performed smoothly.

Jeffrey Foucault performed next. The main thing I recall about the performance was the rockingness of the band, featuring some distorted rockish guitar solos from Goody Goodrich. I have yet to be really impressed by Foucault. He's far from bad, but he doesn't blow me away. He didn't play anything from the one CD of his I own, Stripping Cane.

I saw Peter Mulvey for the first time in Newport about 10 years ago, a performance that I don't remember in the slightest (although I have the photo of him that I took back then). He also enjoyed rocking out a bit with the band, and two of his songs from last night were memorable: "Some People," which sounded like a second-rate version of Chris Smither's "Hey, Hey, Hey" (and that's no dis), and "Sad, sad, sad, and so far away from home" (or something like that), for which Jeffrey and Erin (and Kris? can't remember) came back out to sing, and Mark Erelli came back out to play some electric slide guitar. They sounded fabulous together, even if the sound system really pounded the music out a bit too loud.

By the way, speaking of Foucault and Mulvey and Smither, have you seen this?

Anyhow, up next came Kris Delmhorst, Jeffrey Foucault's wife. I think I saw her for the first time at the new artists' showcase at Falcon Ridge. I also saw her at the Postcrypt, with Joanna and Marisa, back in 2001 or thereabouts. She's really cute, and she can write. The memorable moment from her set was a song called "1000 Reasons" that featured the Winterpills, another Signature Sounds band that I once saw open for Erin McKeown, backing her. I was hoping for "North Dakota" but no such luck. Her husband came onstage to sing harmonies for a song or two, but I can't remember the particular songs.

After a short break, the festival performers went from the very good to the great. Richard Shindell played alone onstage, sitting front and center with his guitar. He opened with "Clara," a song from his most recent album that I had not heard before. On the basis of that song, and one other from his new album, something about a balloon man, I think the album is probably great. Richard Shindell is an excellent songwriter, a strong guitar player, and an expressive singer. He played a brand new song, "Abby" (or "Abbie"?), about a dog, a song which he reports having written while in Florence (Italy, not Massachusetts). "There Goes Mavis" was from Vuelta. James Kellaghan's "Cold Missouri Waters" and Shindell's own "Transit" were the highlights. Both of them were spellbinding. After "Transit," all I could think about was Falcon Ridge in 2001, where I heard Shindell play that song on a workshop stage. I remember that it was a songwriting workshop and, after Shindell played, it was Dave Carter's turn to play. But before he did, he glanced at Richard Shindell and said, into the microphone, that that was one of the greatest songs he'd ever heard. I know what he meant.

Finally came the performance I'd been waiting for, the one that I suspected (correctly as it turned out) would be the highlight. Chris Smither performed solo, which is what I like best. The last two times I'd seen him, he had a couple of backing musicians (including David Goodrich on guitar). But he doesn't need them, not with his foot-tapping and his incredible guitar playing. He opened the show with the song he's played to open each of the past four or five shows of his I've seen: "Open Up." The opening lines are, "I don't think for pleasure / it's just hard not to do / my thinking is a measure of / how much I need a clue" and that alone, along with Mississippi John Hurt-ish guitar playing and a rich, full, deep, weathered voice, got me hook, line, and sinker. Not much he could do to screw up after that. I mean, I think of that song as one of his more ordinary songs, but it beats the pants off of 90% of the other performers I see at folk festivals. With his second song, "Link of Chain," it's more like 98%: "can't you see / i can't explain / i'm a little like a link of chain / just a ring around another / running in and out again." The rest of the set was devoted to new songs, which I imagine will appear on his new album, due out in September. There was a song about his new adopted daughter called, I think, "I Don't Know" that wound up not being about his daughter at all. There was a topical song called "Surprise, Surprise." And there were two others, both in the mold of "Mail Order Mystics" or "Drive You Home Again," that sort of thing. And if you don't know either of those songs, you're missing out....Once again, Chris Smither shows what 40+ years of writing, singing, and performing experience will do for you. The highlight of the evening.

That's not to say Crooked Still didn't knock my socks off too. They did, particularly by opening with a cover of Neil Young's "Harvest Moon" before doing one of my favorites of their originals, "Lula Gall" (or "Hop High," as I know it). Really, this is a great band. Their performance was hot, and it featured some dynamic interplay between bass, cello, and fiddle, with the banjo occasionally asserting itself in some wild solos. They finished up with their version of "Shady Grove" and invited us to sing along, which we did.

We left before the final performance, by someone named Eilen Jewell, who I've never heard (of) before.

So that was that. Looking forward to Falcon Ridge, coming up this Thursday.

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