The festival started on Thursday 23 September with a 6:00 p.m. performance by Welsh singer-songwriter David Llewellyn. With a strong and pure voice, David sang two sets of mostly original songs. A month later, the two that stick with me most are "Lover's Spoon," about an intricately carved spoon made (as apparently the tradition goes) to give to your beloved, and "Silent Aberfan," about the disastrous collapse in 1966 of a pile of runoff from a coal mine in Wales that covered a school, killing 116 children.
In addition to the Welsh musician, Jan Chandler, the owner of the Heartland Gallery, where the concert was being held, also had acquired some simply magnificent Welsh cheeses -- one with mustard seeds and one with horseradish. Insofar as the gratis cheese and cracker spread became my dinner, I was most grateful.
The Mean Lids, the Duke of Uke and Those Darlins
The rest of Thursday evening took place at the Independent Media Center and featured The Mean Lids, the Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra and Those Darlins.
The Mean Lids are a terrific trio featuring Ben Smith, mostly on fiddle, Matt Turino, mostly on guitar, and Miriam Lawson, on "flute, kazoo and ticky tackys" (and she's not kidding about the ticky tackys). I think that these guys are great. They mash together lots of different folk styles -- there's Matt Turino click-clacking his feet in Quebecois style alongside an Irish-sounding fiddle tune that's actually an original and on which Miriam Larson will play some nose-flute. (Seriously -- that's what it's like.)
The band members take turns singing, and when I walked into the IMC, they were singing John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery," and that's a pretty great song. My favorite moment though -- as was my favorite moment when I had seen them a few weeks earlier at the Iron Post -- was when Ben Smith picked up an electric fiddle that sounds like a cello and laid down this low groove while Matt Turino fiddled away on a more traditional violin: just great stuff played fully in the pocket. Highly recommended.
The Duke of Uke and His Novelty Orchestra put on a solid set of groovin' good time music with uke-man David King sweatin' away while Lorene Anderson alternated between pumpin' tuba and grab-you-by-the-hair vocals with additional help on vocals and tenor sax from Anna Hochhalter.
Those Darlins came out like the Ramones with their blaring brand of cowpunk. I was expecting a little more cow and a little less punk and so wasn't prepared (e.g. no earplugs), so only being able to take so much, I had to make a break for it after a few songs. I hear that the set was killer, and that I missed out on some stage-diving by the band.
I was quite excited to see Andy Cohen play. When I was a kid growing up in the dirtpile and muddy streams world of the Old Songs Festival, Andy Cohen was one of those bluesmen who grabbed me by the collar (in a metaphorical way -- he was on stage, and I was in the dirtpile) and said, "Listen, kid, you need to learn about the Rev. Gary Davis." (There were no hyperlinks at the time either.) So he was definitely one of a handful of performers who convinced me to dig out and give some spins to dusty old blues vinyl that I found in the basement box labeled "Blues." (Thanks, Dad, for the good labeling.)
He played some Rev. Gary Davis, and he played his dulceola, and he did a raucous version of "Hard Luck Blues," and he complimented me on my singing-along on "Johnny Booker" over at the cheese and cracker spread. It was great to see him again, and amazing to watch his fingers bounce around that fretboard and great to hear some of the history of the music that he had to share.
In 1999, a bluegrass band out of Fort Collins, Colorado, came screeching out onto the national scene. Called Open Road, those guys played the music the way that Jimmy Martin and His Sunny Mountain Boys used to -- blistering tenor harmonies, string-scorching mandolin solos and really sad songs played faster than your momma would allow. Sadly, they stopped touring in 2006.
The Henhouse Prowlers are maybe picking up their torch. They acknowledge the debt -- they played the Open Road original "Mandy Jane." They also acknowledged their country forebearers with a strong version of "Pick Me Up on Your Way Down," the Harlan Howard song that Charlie Walker, Faron Young and Hank Thompson all had hits with. They did a screamin' version of the bluegrass gospel song "I Know How It Feels" (which Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time have a great recording of). During a broken string fix, they pulled out Guy Clark's "Homegrown Tomatoes."
All of those songs were quite strong. The first of two highpoints though was the magnificent transition from the fiddle standard "Back Up and Push" into Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues." If I were to say that it was the best version of "White Freightliner Blues," I'd be going up against New Grass Revival, Steve Earle and a ton of other people, but ... it was pretty damn hot. The second was an original by banjo player Ben Wright. Based on his encounter with a 75-year-old man who had just robbed a bank and was waiting for the Metra at the Ravenswood Stop and then his subsequent encounter with several armed police officers, it was called the "Ravenswood Getaway." I'm not sure how I would feel about the tune without the story, but with the story, it was a great ride to go on.
These guys were really solid, and I hope that I get to see them again soon.
Over at the Iron Post that night was Irish fiddler Liz Knowles. She was joined by Pat Broaders on bouzouki, and then Johnny Connolly on button accordion and Kieran O’Hare on the uilleann pipes. This set was straight-ahead: one fiddle tune after another, names invented as necessary to keep the crowd on its toes.
The set didn't quite have the intimate energy of Liz Carroll's set from last year, but it was solid. Toes were tapping, people were clapping. The band seemed to be enjoying itself. No complaints.
Hot Club of Cowtown
Wow. I mean, wow. I mean, hot damn wow.
Elana James, Whit Smith and Jake Erwin showed up at the IMC to play, and they near about blew the roof from Urbana to Champaign. Jake Erwin's slap-bass solos are definitely on the list of 100 Things You Need to Hear Live Before You Die -- every time around, he went thumpeta-thumpeta-thumpeta-thumpeta at a whiplash-fast speed, and the crowd went wild. It was pure energy and incredibly skillful.
They got us with "Ida Red"; they got us with "'Deed I Do"; they got us with "Chinatown." It was one after another.
And then -- when they encored -- they got me with "Orange Blossom Special." And that might not seem like much, but I've adopted the reaction to the classic tune that the late Doug Tuchman taught me at a Rhonda Vincent show once: "Grrrrooooaaaaannn... Who wants to hear this one again?" But Elana James fiddled the hell out of it -- playfully, modally, jazzily, swingingly and then just horsehair shreddinly' good. It was a great version -- one of many great tunes that they played over the course of the night. They were having fun; we were having fun; and it felt like it could have just kept going.
So my thanks to the organizers of the festival for another great year. Looking forward to next fall's edition already!