Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, 2011

A superb weekend of music at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival came to its conclusion Sunday afternoon, albeit not without a touch of sadness. Ever since Dave Carter passed away nine days before he and Tracy Grammer were scheduled to perform at the 2002 festival, the Falcon Ridge mainstage has been marked by souls departed. Curiously, Tracy’s stage presence on Sunday was upbeat and cheerful, with a little off-color humor and insular banter with her bandmates. I say “curiously” because the news had slowly been filtered to the festival goers by various sources that both Amy Winehouse and Bill Morrissey had passed away over the weekend. While Winehouse was not a part of the folkie scene, Morrissey certainly had his fans at Falcon Ridge, and there were plenty of solemn faces in the Sunday afternoon audience. Combine these strands with the loss of Jack Hardy, whose songs were honored in a workshop performance early Saturday evening, and a web of wistfulness was woven into the musical architecture of the weekend.

In years past, the New Artists Showcase has been a pleasure to behold, as the novices try to make good, but I barely caught any of it this year. My late arrival combined with the blistering heat meant that my slow, staggered efforts to set up camp happened out of sight of the mainstage. Not out of earshot, however. Among other things, I heard Occidental Gypsy’s catchy updated gypsy jazz, a song from I’m-not-sure-who that mentions trains and was co-written with Brooks Williams, a percussion-heavy trance/trip-hop performance by Bulat Gafarov from Moscow (who I now see has a pretty impressive resumé), Paul Sachs from Jack Hardy’s crew who sang with a strong and clear voice and was accompanied by Mark Dann on bass, and a band called ilyAIMY that sounded catchy. After nine or ten performers, I walked down the hill to peruse the vendors, drink lots of water, and wait for fellow Sound of Blackbirds bloggers Matt Winters and Allan Roth to arrive.

While waiting, I stumbled on a tent devoted to Jack Hardy. In attendance was Angie Page, Jack’s partner for many years, and the mother of some of his children, including Morgan, a former student of mine. There were dozens of photographs of the great man, along with LPs and CDs of his music and of the Fast Folk recordings, and plenty of other goodies. Some of it was on display only for educational purposes, but some of it was on sale to help pay for some of Jack’s outstanding medical bills. There were two photographs of particular importance: one of Jack with Tom Waits and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, which was just plain cool, and another of him with Matt Winters and Matt’s dad. As I later heard Morgan say to Matt’s dad, “you’ve been hanging on my dad’s wall for years!”

A little after 2:00, Matt and Allan arrived with Matt’s friend, Mandy, and we made our way up to the campsite to play some guitar together—for me, a Falcon Ridge first—and, eventually, head down to the mainstage to enjoy the rest of the new artists and explore.

Another Falcon Ridge tradition is the Friday night song swap. This year, we were treated to Red Horse, the trio comprising John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky, and Eliza Gilkyson. After opening with Neil Young’s “I Am a Child,” the remainder of the set consisted of each musician singing a song written by one of his or her bandmates or, toward the end, by him- or herself. So, John sang Lucy’s “Don’t Mind Me,” Lucy sang John’s “Blue Chalk,” and so forth. Each member of Red Horse also played 45 minute sets the following day on the mainstage, one after the other, with each singer inviting bandmates to join him/her for various songs, including ones recorded for the Red Horse album. In the context of the festival, blurring the individual and group concepts worked just fine, as the communal spirit of the festival and the folk music tradition seemed to be reflected in the combination of the properly rehearsed and the casually offhand.

Although I think of Eliza Gilkyson as being my favorite of the three Red Horsers, both as group participants and as individual performers, I now find myself thinking more about Lucy Kaplansky’s set. She began it with “Manhattan Moon,” from one of her recent albums that I’ve yet to listen to from beginning to end and made me want to revisit all her albums. Later on, she invited her 8 year old daughter onto the stage to show off her drumming lessons on a few songs, including “End of the Day” and “Don’t Mind Me.” “Written on the Back of His Hand” is one of her best melodies, and she even found time for Loudon Wainwright’s “Swimming Song.” As for Eliza, I missed the first half of her Saturday solo performance, unfortunately, but I returned in time for “Dark Side of Town,” which Matt had requested at the top of his lungs from the seat next to me. Finally, John Gorka, who began the mainstage performances at noon on Saturday, played eight or nine songs of his own and others’ and kept my attention. The most memorable moment of his set was his performance of Tim Hardin’s “The Lady Came from Baltimore,” which fit the contours of Gorka’s warm voice just right. And, pretty much for the first time at a folk festival, I found myself hooked by some of John Gorka’s own material. Not so much the newer “Where No Monument Stands,” but older stuff like “I’m from New Jersey,” “Writing in the Margins,” and “Semper Fi.” A pleasant surprise.

Exhaustion led me back to my tent after the song swap, so I missed the night cap—Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson and The Magic Rockers—which sounded great from my tent, and I’m sorry I missed them. Friday night’s music was dominated by two up-tempo acts: Professor Louie and the Crowmatix and The Honeycutters, neither of whom I’d heard of before this weekend. Professor Louie was a colleague of the Band’s and worked closely with them on their post-Robbie Robertson records, like Jericho, a song from which the band played during their set: Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.” Their overall sound was very similar to the Band’s, with Professor Louie himself playing keyboards and accordion, singing Levon Helm-ishly, and talking about the late Rick Danko in between songs. The Honeycutters played country music, medium-to-fast, without any aggressiveness of rhythm or attitude, but plenty of assurance and poise. The feel of the band was more Tennessee Three than Garth Brooks. There were some mandolin solos, but they punctuated the songs rather than distracting from them. And some of the songs were very good, like “Lillies,” sung from the perspective of a colonist fighting the redcoats who dies after taking a bullet to the chest, or “Firebreathing” which includes the line “you’ve got no business on the wild side,” thereby summing up a folk festival audience, including the drug-addled participants in Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams’ Saturday night dance party. One of the best acts of the weekend.

I also missed all but the final two songs from the Most Wanted Song Swap, another Falcon Ridge tradition, wherein the most popular of the previous year’s new artists return for a round robin-style performance. I’m sorry I missed it too, because what I heard from The Folkadelics and Spuyten Duyvil sounded great.

The Saturday event I was most looking forward to was the Jack Hardy tribute on the workshop stage. I’ve been working on an essay about the great man for this blog, and the events of this past weekend have stoked my interest in finishing it. Since he died, I’ve been listening to his music more often, and I sense, perhaps without good reason, that more and more people have become aware of his songs and his contributions to the music scene in New York City and beyond. The initial plan had been to leave the mainstage at around 4:30, about halfway through Mary Gauthier’s set, to make sure I didn’t miss anything. But as so often happens at these festivals, plans got derailed; I wound up missing the first 10 minutes or so. And for a damn good reason. Matt and Allan weren’t around for Mary Gauthier’s set, but Matt’s friend Mandy was, and she and I sat spellbound by an artist who was so supremely in command of her gifts as a performer, that I couldn’t imagine leaving her for anything. I’ve heard part of her newest album, The Foundling, and it sounds wonderful, but she only played one song from it on Saturday afternoon. Instead, her set emphasized the material that first put her on the map. Three of the first four songs were from her excellent 1999 album Drag Queens in Limousines, and she also treated us to the three best songs from Mercy Now (2003): “Mercy Now,” “Prayer without Words,” and “Wheel Inside the Wheel,” the last of which sounds like Chris Smither’s “Train Home” with celebrities doing the “graveyard dancing.” In between songs, she talked earnestly about the folk music tradition, emphasizing the need to tell stories, and she told great ones in her songs, about the death row convert to Christianity, Karla Faye Tucker (“Karla Faye”), the man once elected king of the hobos, Steam Train Maury (“Last of the Hobo Kings”), the dirty sugar business in Thibodaux (“Sugar Cane”), and herself (“Drag Queens in Limousines”). With Tania Elizabeth backing her up tastefully on violin and harmony vocals, the performance was also musically astute, each melody perfectly formed and each violin lick and harmony vocal perfectly deployed. Sometimes her music even became rhythmically propulsive, like on "Prayer without Words" and “Wheel Inside the Wheel.” The singer threw out the emotional fishing rod with her opening drawl, “I hated high school / I prayed it would end,” and had us caught on the line by time she hit the climax: “sometimes you’ve gotta do / what you’ve gotta do / and pray that the people you love / will catch up with you.” Best act of the festival, by far.

There were other fine moments. The Jack Hardy tribute, of which I only missed the first song (John Gorka’s version of “Potter’s Field”), had some good stuff in it. My favorite was probably David Massengill’s version of “Tree of Rhyme” from the Landmark (1982) album, and I also liked the way that Dan Navarro put his full, deep voice into “I Oughta Know.” Mary Gauthier had made her way over to the stage after her set was over and quietly climbed onto the stage with her fiddler. When it was her turn, she damn near stole the show, first by talking about what great stories everyone was telling about the man (or was she talking about the stories in the songs?), before recapping her belief in the power of songs to tell stories, which she had just been talking about on the mainstage, and then wowing us with Jack’s unrecorded “Ain’t I a Woman,” sung from the perspective of Sojourner Truth. Then, after the dinner break and a fine set of bluegrass music from Dirty Kitchen, Greg Brown played a leisurely, laid-back set of songs, peppered with some self-amused chatter and augmented with Bo Ramsey’s electric guitar. “The Poet Game” is a great song, and I was happy to hear it, and I was also happy to hear “Let the Mystery Be,” written by his wife, Iris Dement. “She’s funny,” he said off-handedly, practically to himself, as he mumbled about his wife, accounting for one of the funniest moments of the weekend. “Freak Flag” and “Tenderhearted Child” from the new album, Freak Flag (2011), both sounded great, and “Fat Boy Blues” made me laugh out loud. The Sunday morning gospel wakeup call, another Falcon Ridge tradition, featured some great stuff from Susan Werner, particularly the decidedly un-gospel “Probably Not,” and Red Molly’s take on “Come on In My Kitchen.” And there was a Band tribute on the workshop stage, led by Professor Louie and Terry Kitchen, which was a lot of fun, particularly when Professor Louie himself led the way through the songs. I smiled to see Katryna Nields with her two lovely children on hand to enjoy the Band tribute. And during their own set and during the gospel set, a trio called Bro Sun offered some soulful singing.

I only caught a few minutes of Susan Werner's set, and I sense I missed out on something great. And by leaving during Sunday afternoon, I also missed the featured act, Mary Chapin Carpenter, who I haven’t seen live since a beautiful, understated performance at the Meyerhoff in Baltimore sometime in the late ‘90s.

Finally, there was Tracy Grammer, one of the acts I was most excited to see, and someone who will forever be linked, for better and for worse, to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. I remember quite clearly how moved I was by her performance with Dave Carter in 2000 and 2001, when they upstaged acts like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, among others. And Dave’s workshop stage appearances, and his warm stage presence, and the 2002 tribute to him, with Erin McKeown’s “Gentle Arms of Eden,” Chris Smither’s “Crocodile Man,” Mark Erelli’s “Cowboy Singer”…I could go on. Now, 9 years after Dave Carter’s death, Tracy Grammer has long since come into her own as a performer. This time around, she appeared with a five-piece band that included Massachusetts folk scene stalwarts Dave Chalfant and Ben Demerath. Her set included a Decemberists’ song that I didn’t know, the instrumental fiddle feature “28th of January,” and a series of Dave Carter songs, including “Gentle Arms of Eden,” his greatest, and “Shadows of Evangeline,” which benefited more than the other songs by the presence of the band. I also took note of her concluding song, “The Verdant Mile,” which gave this blog its name, and also hinted at the deaths that hung over the festival—“it’s everything and nothing / when the spirit cracks the sky”—even as it embraced life which, with her chipper stage presence and happening band, Tracy seemed to be doing. She mentioned Amy Winehouse and Jack Hardy in some between-song moments and joked about her band’s name, “The Hot Nuts,” in others. And as if to verify the power of positive, life-enhancing music, the very next act, the last act I stayed for, was a Zydeco band, whose danceable rhythms and soulful vocals pretty much epitomize life. In other words, it got people up and dancing. I was about halfway up the hill, on my way back to the car, when I had to stop and listen almost to the end of their set, as a searing electric guitar solo cut through the air, splitting through the polyrhythms.

Looking forward to next year already.


Ellen Stanley said...

Thanks for the update, Nick! Wasn't sure if you knew, but Mary Gauthier's song "Wheel Inside the Wheel" is inspired by and dedicated to Dave Carter so very appropriate she sang it there. Also, I had forgotten that Tania Elizabeth was playing with Mary these days...haven't seen her since her Duhks days!

Matt Winters said...

Great summary of the festival, Nick! And you definitely earn your bonus points for "a web of wistfulness was woven."

Nick Toloudis said...

Thanks, you two! Looking forward to next year.