Letting its Light Shine: The Ninth Annual Brooklyn Folk Festival

BROOKLYN, NY—It’s not possible to have a better time at a music event than I had at the Ninth Annual Brooklyn Folk Festival. Maybe if Mississippi John Hurt, Dock Boggs and Woody Guthrie were reincarnated and appeared as a song-swapping trio I’d be happier.

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Five hours of the 300-year-old song “Queen Jane”? Why not? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Let me do this chronologically. I got to the festival Saturday afternoon. I’d have liked to see Anne Waldman read her poems, bask in the harmonies of Appalachian mountain duo Anna & Elizabeth, and swing to the Tennessee Stiff Legs, but life had other plans.

Instead, I walked in to Martha Burns doing old-time songs. Alas, she didn’t remember them all that well, but when she was on she was very good.

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Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues, embracing “KC Moan.” (Jim Motavalli photo)

I love jug bands, especially when they’re doing the Memphis Jug Band’s “KC Moan.” And since I’ve never seen a jug band that didn’t do that song, I’m very happy. The BFF actually has two “house bands,” and this was the bigger one, Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues. Both have Jackson Lynch, who’s a triple threat as guitarist, fiddler and vocalist. Equally good singers are Ernesto “Lovercat” Gomez and Ernie “Papa” Vega. Arturo “Jugman” Stiles is, well, on the jug. A highlight of the set was a great “Richland Woman Blues” by guest singer Samoa Wilson, who’s often seen with 60s jug pioneer Jim Kweskin.

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John Cohen: fresh memories of Clarence Ashley. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The tribute to banjo great Clarence Ashley (who brought Doc Watson to New York) was excellent, and held in conjunction with the Jalopy label’s release of the late performer’s first-ever live album. John Cohen, a member of the highly influential New Lost City Ramblers and a folklorist and photographer of note, was on hand to remember the 1961 Friends of Old-Time Music concert he helped promote (and at which he took the album’s cover picture).

Peter Siegel recorded the live album at Gerdes Folk City in 1963, and he was on hand, too, to play (very credibly) “I’m the Man Who Drove the Mule Around the World.” Another highlight was Willie Watson’s “Little Sadie.” Watson got his own set later, and he’s a man to watch in the old-time repertoire. I liked his “Hills of Mexico,” an old song with many variants.

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Little Nora Brown: The next generation lines up. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Brooklyn has the Parish Hall stage going along with the main stage, and I enjoyed seeing Little Nora Brown—who couldn’t have been more than 10—wailing away on some mountain classics. We’ll see her, all grown up, at the 19th Brooklyn Folk Festival.

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Bill and the Belles: 78s reborn. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Bill and the Belles should be better known, and now that they’re getting out of Bristol, Tennessee that probably will happen. Kris Truelsen is a music historian with a master’s degree in Appalachian Studies. He produces Radio Bristol at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, but he’s no mere archivist. As a singer he’s more pop than country, but we’re talking the popular music of the 1930s. He’s a 78 come to life, and has the style down pat.

Kalia Yeagle and Grace Van’T Hof are the Belles, and their harmonies give the band’s sound a richness that I haven’t heard elsewhere, plus Kalia is a killer fiddle player. If you missed them in Brooklyn, catch them—and lots of other great stuff—at the Oldtone Roots Music Festival in September.

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Amythyst Kiah: Odetta meets Nina Simone. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A mashup of Odetta and Nina Simone would produce Amythyst Kiah, a major find for me. She is a vocalist for the ages, and you’re going to thank me for telling you about her. Accompanying herself in a repertoire that ably skipped around the music world but included the Mississippi Sheiks, Riley Puckett and the Reverend Gary Davis, the presentation was a bit spare (she also appears with the Chest of Glass band) but there was no denying that she possesses a world-class voice and knows how to use it.

I love versatility and the Texas-based Calamity Janes had three singers and three fiddle players. Plus a great sound.

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Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton is a quadruple threat live performer. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’ve written about the glories of Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton before, and he’s fine on recordings but amazing as a solo live performer. He plays piano, guitar, fiddle and banjo, all with dazzling authority. And he’s a fine singer, too, with a suitably offbeat repertoire. I’d never heard “The Cat Came Back” before, but it’s a song written by Harry S. Miller in 1893. Funny, too. Here’s a version on video:

The day ended—for me, the festival continued on its merry way—with Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir, a group that wraps its activist message in some of the best gospel singing around. It’s like some kind of cosmic collective.

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Peter Stampfel’s 2017 version of the Holy Modal Rounders is called the Ether Frolic Mob. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Fiddler/vocalist Hilary Hawke of Dubl Handi led an amicable slow old-timey jam to launch day two. You can’t go wrong with “Cumberland Gap” and “Soldier’s Joy.”

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Hilary Hawke led the informal slow jam. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The other house band is the Downhill Strugglers, featuring not only Lynch but also Eli Smith, the festival’s main organizer and also its master of ceremonies.

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The Downhill Strugglers: A house band with a new album (and veteran John Cohen). (Jim Motavalli photo)

John Cohen is a Struggler, too, and the band has a new album called The Lone Prairie. The album has the spirit of those old Holy Modal Rounder dates, and sounds like it was recorded through one of those horns favored by the RCA dog. The Rounders’ Peter Stampfel was on hand, too.

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A great festival find: Meredith Axelrod. Don’t think the 40s, think the 20s. (Jim Motavalli photo)

OK, another great find: Meredith Axelrod. She came out looking like a 40s belle, but when she started singing the clock was set rather farther back. Like Paxton, she featured a song from the pre-recording era—1911. “The Hypnotizing Man” was deeply weird, and Axelrod gave it exactly the dramatic reading it deserved. So when she swung into “Come Take a Ride in My Airship,” it was par for the course.

Axelrod, who made a great live album of duets with Jim Kweskin, is a true original. Not just a singer, she’s a fine actor. See her live.

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Queen Esther was country-tinged. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I didn’t know Queen Esther, but she was cosmically wonderful. Imagine Valerie June with a distinctly country edge and you’re close. She’s working on a song cycle about Cathay Williams, the black woman who somehow passed as a man in the Union Army after the Civil War—and then had the temerity to demand a pension for her work. Jeff McLaughlin, who accompanied her, is a fine guitarist.

Finally—for me—there was the Locust Honey String Band, one of my favorite old-timey ensembles, featuring the songwriting and harmonies of Chloe Edmonstone and Meredith Watson. Here’s a new song by Watson:

They were fresh from Merlefest, and have a new album coming out in June. Here’s a video of a Watson song that will be on it, with a title like “I Was Making Plans for Nashville, and You Were Making Plans for New Orleans.”

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The Locust Honey String Band are one of my favorite old-timey groups. (Jim Motavalli photo)

As I was leaving I stopped by the Workshop Stage, where three singers–Anna Roberts-Gevalt, Elizabeth LaPrelle and Tim Eriksen—were performing five hours of the same 300-year-old song, “Queen Jane.” That would be a singular event anywhere else, but it was just part of the magic at the Brooklyn Folk Festival.

PS: Rick Massimo, author of I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival, was in attendance though we somehow missed each other. Never mind, I got the book and will have him on my radio show. Newport has a rich history, and if you want to go this summer, buy your tickets now.

Dirk Powell and Rhiannon Giddens: Made for Each Other

If ever two musicians were destined to meet—and adore each other—it’s Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell. They’re both hugely committed to old-time music, and the history that created it. And they’re both great singers, as well as multi-instrumentalists who can play anything they touch.

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Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell, in a rare when they weren’t moving too fast to blur the camera. (Jim Motavalli photo)

In a sublime show at Hartford’s Infinity Tour, the last stop on their tour, they fit together like peanut butter and jelly. Giddens has been great forever (you need to own the Carolina Chocolate Drops albums), but with the release of her first T-Bone Burnett-produced solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, she’s really connected to the public.

Giddens was the BBC’s Folk Singer of the Year, and she got the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, as well as induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. The Hartford show was sold out.

Powell is just as great (as artist and producer). He’s definitely up there with Bruce Molsky as a solo old-time performer—on any instrument. Let’s see, between them, Giddens and Powell played banjo (both), fiddle (both) accordion (him), piano (him), guitar (both) and voice (both). Here’s a video from the show, “At the Purchaser’s Option”:

If ever two musicians were destined to meet—and adore each other—it’s Rhiannon Giddens and Dirk Powell. They’re both hugely committed to old-time music, and the history that created it. And they’re both great singers, as well as multi-instrumentalists who can play anything they touch.
In a sublime show at Hartford’s Infinity Tour, the last stop on their tour, they fit together like peanut butter and jelly. Giddens has been great forever (you need to own the Carolina Chocolate Drops albums), but with the release of her first T-Bone Burnett-produced solo album, Tomorrow is My Turn, she’s really connected to the public.
Giddens was the BBC’s Folk Singer of the Year, and she got the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, as well as induction into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. The Hartford show was sold out. Here they are with a Cajun medley:

Powell is just as great (as artist and producer). He’s definitely up there with Bruce Molsky as a solo old-time performer—on any instrument. Let’s see, between them, Giddens and Powell played banjo (both), fiddle (both) accordion (him), piano (him), guitar (both) and voice (both).

I love what Steve Earle said about Powell: “”Dirk Powell is a badass. To the bone. He is, in addition to being the greatest old-time banjo player alive, a graduate student of both mountain and Cajun fiddle styles and diatonic button accordion, an instrument that fights you back, take it from me, I’ve tried. He is a singer, songwriter, producer, recording engineer, and all in all an artist of unique vision and unbending integrity. As far as I can tell there is no genre of American roots music that Dirk doesn’t understand, no primordial mode he can’t master, no polyrhythmic code he can’t crack. He also cooks the best sauce piquante I have ever tasted. Be forewarned: Dirk Powell and I WILL make a record together someday.”

Sorry, Steve, Rhiannon Giddens beat you to it. He’s all over her second solo album, Freedom Highway, as both musician and co-writer of some of the tunes. From that album, here’s the harrowing “Julie”:

In Hartford, the duo roamed far stylistically, and in a wonderful way. They played Cajun medleys with Powell on squeezebox and vocals, and Giddens on fiddle—sounding as if she was born on the bayou. They played sophisticated Quebecois fiddle music, stomping old-time standards (“Georgia Buck,” “Motherless Children,” “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”), and one-offs—a take on Elton John’s “The Border Song” for an Aretha Franklin tribute the next night, an original torch song for a maybe-happening TV show set in Maine in the 30s, even a Mexican number “Mal Hombre,” which Giddens sang with aplomb—and acted out, too.

Maybe Steve Earle actually will make a duo record with Powell before Giddens does, since Freedom Highway is a many-splendored affair featuring Hubby Jenkins and Leyla McCalla from the Drops, as well as Powell and many more. Somebody certainly should. The best idea would be for one of the Giddens/Powell shows to be recorded and a live album released from that.

Both these performers are incredibly busy, so the tour may not happen again soon. But it was clear from their interplay on stage that a lifetime bond has been formed. Giddens said she feels “very blessed” to have found Powell, and from his reaction to that, the feeling is mutual.

Django Lives! At Sarah’s Wine Bar in Connecticut

The initial impression was modest: three tiny amps sitting on a bare stage at Sarah’s Wine Bar in Ridgefield, Connecticut. But the trio that eventually arrived with their instruments—Frank Vignola and Olli Soikkeli on hollow-body jazz guitars, and Jason Anick on violin—didn’t need big Marshall stacks—theirs is a subtle craft.

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From left, Vignola, Soikkeli, Anick, Pete Anderson. And that’s the bell of Will Anderson’s saxophone. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I have to say that the food and wine served upstairs at Sarah’s combined with the artistry of those three to create one of the nicest evenings of music my wife and I have ever had. This was gypsy jazz, featuring tunes by and the influence of the great Django Reinhardt. It’s a robust genre that has never gone out of fashion, and it’s enjoying an especial renaissance now—with Hot Clubs sprouting up even in unlikely places. Does Detroit have one? You bet.

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Will Anderson solos–to everyone’s great pleasure. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’m a huge fan of both Vignola (whose two Frank and Joe Show records I particularly treasure) and Berklee professor Anick (certainly one of the best jazz violinists today), but the Finland-born Soikkeli I knew only from the Rhythm Future Quartet. He looks no more than 20, but he’s been playing for a decade and is a monster on his instrument, offering blistering solos (and duets with Vignola), and lovely ballad playing. The two guitarists have done some work as a duo and their interplay was exciting, and virtually telepathic.

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Jason Anick blurs the camera, while Vignola and Soikkeli try to keep up. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This group hasn’t worked together all that much, but because they share a common language—chasing Django—they communicated beautifully. Vignola made a joke that Soikkeli “doesn’t speak a word of English” (he’s actually fluent and lives in New York), but it wouldn’t really matter if he couldn’t talk to his bandmates—they speak through their instruments. Here they are on a popular Django tune, “Swing 42.”

I asked Anick about his influences, and he led off with Stephane Grappelli (of course), but then he cited saxophone players. That makes sense, because he’s got a sound that’s at once delicate and—when needed—as muscular as a Blue Note blowing session.

As Django did, the repertoire mixed standards—“Sunny Side of the Street,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” “Stars Fell on Alabama,” Moonglow,” “It Had to be You,” “Sweet Georgia Brown”—with the gypsy’s originals, including his classics “Nuages” (with a young guest from the audience) and “Swing 42.”

Special mention should be made of the Anderson twins, Pete and Will, who came out of the audience to deeply impress on clarinet and tenor saxophone. Playing in pre-bop fashion that was old before they were born, these two are going places. If you don’t here Benny Goodman and Ken Peplowski when Pete plays, you’re not listening, and Will brings Coleman Hawkins to mind. Here they are with the group essaying a swinging version of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

Random Notes on Music and Musicians

An episode in the first season of HBO’s Deadwood ends with an instrumental version of Michael Hurley’s great song “Hog of the Forsaken” playing over the end credits. I hadn’t heard it without words, but the song is unmistakable. A sample of the missing lyrics:

The Hog of the Forsaken he ain’t like you and I,
With bones always breakin’ and no place to go an’ lie,
He’s in the box so dark and wet, he got so much time,
He ain’t even worried yet, the Hog of the Forsaken,
He is the Pork of Crime.

Here’s the video:

I have a huge LP record collection, but mostly listen to digital files on my computer. With that cold fact staring me in the face—and the growing value of LPs—I decided to see what I could raise from some vintage jazz (which I have doubled on CD) at the Princeton Record Exchange.

It turned out all right. Two grocery bags of LPs yielded $178 and a nice pile of unheard music on CD. Still, I’m going to miss a few of them, irrational as it seems. I probably haven’t specifically listened to that copy of Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage on Blue Note for 20 years or more, and I’d painstakingly digitized my vinyl copy of Dizzy Gillespie on Bluebird, but it had such a beautiful cover. And who can resist the song “In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee,” with music by Mary Lou Williams, lyrics by Milt Orent and vocal by Joe Carroll?

I met a beautiful princess in the land of OoBlaDee
She smiled and said OobaDidela meaning you appeal to me
I said Oobadideaabendue with pride
Oobadideaabendue let’s take a ride
In the land of OoBlaDee OoBlaDee

She drove me straight to her castle in the land of OoBlaDee
And there I met her two sisters Blooeyda and Dooeyblee
Blooeyda without a doubt was twice my size
Dooeyblee the other sister had three eyes
And the two had eyes for me Oobladee

Here’s the video:

One of the CDs I picked up in Princeton was a gospel album by the diminutive Little Jimmy Dickens. I tend to buy bluegrass gospel albums when I find them, because they often contain their author’s most expressive singing. Dickens was pint-sized, but he had a big, and very country, sound that went instantly out of fashion when Chet Atkins and others started with the modern Nashville “countrypolitan” (strings and horns) sound.

Dickens didn’t go out of fashion with me, though. Here’s a great video. He’s little but he’s loud, and he’s “countrified” and doesn’t care who knows it:

A new album that arrived in the mail yesterday is making quite an impression. It’s Tugboats, an EP by the Brother Brothers, David and Adam Moss, whose music I enjoyed at the Summer Hoot last year. I’m a twin, so it’s nice to see twin acts. Do their voices blend? Do you have to ask? They’re both monster talents as songwriters and singers, and collectively play fiddle, guitar, cello and more.

The only thing wrong with the EP is it’s too short, and doesn’t have enough of their songs on it. Here’s “Cairo, IL” on video:

Other new things I’ve heard and really like:

  • The Maja and David fiddle duo. She’s Danish; he’s French Canadian, and their music seamlessly combines the two folk traditions.
  • Saturn’s Spell, the new album by the Organic Trio on Jazz Family. They take the familiar soul-funk organ trio—organ, guitar, drums—and bring it into the 21st century with, as the notes say, “just the right amount of grease.”
  • The Jason Anick (violin) and Jason Yeager (piano) record United (Inner Circle Music). I don’t know Yeager’s work, but Anick is a brilliant, fiery fiddler, and these two have a solid bond. Also check out Anick’s work with the Rhythm Future Quartet.
  • The hushed music of Allysen Callery, a Providence-based chanteuse.
  • Rayna Gellert’s Workin’s Too Hard (StorySound). Like the Brother Brothers EP, this one should be longer. I loved Gellert’s fiddle playing and singing in Uncle Earl, and was frustrated by her mostly instrumental albums, great as they might be. This one is starting to show her true potential in front of a band. It sounds better every time I hear it.

Robbie Fulks should have won that Grammy for Upland Stories.

Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon by Peter Ames Carlin is well-written, and it paints a none-too-nice picture of the brilliant auteur. Why couldn’t he just enjoy his success, be nice to people, and give credit where it was due?

A more amiable read was Neil Young’s book about cars, Special Deluxe. Wouldn’t Long May They Run be a better title? The book is so Neil Young, rambling, anecdotal, funny, obsessional. He likes old rides, buys them compulsively, and only occasionally fixes them up. The rest go to a kind of vintage junkyard at his northern California ranch.

I’d love to talk old cars with Neil Young some time. We could talk about music, too.

Old Tones in the Mountains

NORTH HILLSDALE, NEW YORK—It’s taken me a month to have enough of a work breather to write about the wonderful time I had at the Oldtone Roots Music Festival in North Hillsdale, New York. This is where three states—New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts—all come together, and it’s a festival hotspot, with the region home to Falcon Ridge and Grey Fox.

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Bruce Molsky (center) with his Mountain Drifters. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Oldtone is the newcomer, and thanks to the energies and enthusiasm of Kip Beacco and his many volunteers, it grew to a full multi-day festival this year. But expect it to become a perennial. Though the genre is decidedly healthy—with loads of devoted young bands—there aren’t many festivals devoted to old-time music (not bluegrass).

If your idea of an old-time festival is a bunch of septuagenarians in suspenders playing their fiddles between spits of tobacco juice, think again. Most of these performers—many of them new to me—are under 30. But they’re as devoted to the form (based on collective playing, not flashy solos) as anyone could be.

I was thrilled to see Molsky’s Mountain Drifters for the first time. Here they are on video:


Bruce Molsky is, to my way of thinking, the finest living old-time musician—adept as a vocalist, a virtuoso on banjo, fiddle, guitar and anything else with strings, and an historian par excellence.

In the Mountain Drifters he’s ably supported by Stash Wyslouch of the Deadly Gentlemen on guitar and Allison de Groot. It’s a fine band, with a new CD out, too, and the only drawback is that, of necessity, Molsky stuck to his fiddle. For the full experience, see him solo.

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Tony Trischka (left) and Michael Daves show just how much music a duo can make. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Foghorn String Band have eight albums out, and play widely, but somehow I’ve never seen them until now. I was clearly missing something; they’re a tight unit, in service to the songs.

Run Mountain

Run Mountain is the trio version of Moonshine Holler. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Moonshine Holler and Run Mountain are variations of the same band, centered on husband-and-wife team Bill Dillof and Paula Bradley. Add Vermont fiddler Jim Burns and Moonshine Holler becomes Run Mountain. Either way, they celebrate front-porch old-time, and mine the rich seam of country music that emerged on record in the late 1920s. Bradley, by the way, plays in a dizzying assortment of bands; I last saw the Uncle Earl veteran in an all-girl country swing outfit called Girl Howdy, and don’t forget Miss Paula and the Twangbusters.

Here’s Run Mountain with “Goodbye Boll Weevil”:

The Two-Man Gentleman Band doesn’t get together all that often these days, and that’s a shame. They’re an absolute hoot, the Smothers Brothers of old-time. Andy Bean, who sings his own (mostly comic) songs and plays banjo in a style that dates to the 19th century, is joined by his straight man,  the Councilman, on bass.

This stuff would be deadly if Bean couldn’t sing, or his songs were weak, but neither is the case. Plus he’s a killer banjo player, inhabiting a genre very few others are keeping alive. He’s apparently making music for a new cartoon series now, while the Councilman plays base with the Legendary Shack Shakers. On hopes the reception they got at Old Tone will keep the Two-Man dream alive.

I enjoyed sets by Hillary Hawke, Michael Daves and Tony Trischka, Bear Minimum (great singer), Bradford Lee Folk and the Farwells. Jesse Lege and Bayou Brew were ripping it up in the dance tent. I’m sorry I missed artists who played on other days, including Brooklyn’s Downhill Strugglers, mainstays of the Brooklyn Folk Festival. And the Hayrollers and the Easy Ridin’ Papas sure sounded interesting.

The venue is just fine, the working Cool Whisper Farm. We were warned not to approach the bull, and after getting a look at him I didn’t need to be told twice. There was plenty of good food available, and it was affordable, too. The crowd wasn’t huge, but this was the first year. I expect great things from this festival next year and forever after. Next year I’ll stay longer.

Musical Discovery at the Summer Festivals, 2016

I’m having a great summer, with as many weekends as I can manage at festivals. I intend to make it three in a row. Two down, one to go!

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, seen in the Rhythm and Roots dance tent, are the goodtime band par excellence. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Just concluded is the Rhythm and Roots Music and Dance Festival, held every September in Ninigret Park, Charlestown, Rhode Island. I haven’t missed this one for years, and it keeps getting better. Two thousand sixteen was the year of Hat Fitz and Cara. I know, you’re not familiar, and unless you were in Ninigret Park you missed them—it was their first U.S. appearance, and so far their only one. Last year they couldn’t get visas.

Hat Fitz and Cara

Hat Fitz and Cara got a huge response–and signed tons of CDs. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Drummer/Otha Turner-influenced fife player Cara is (very) Irish (from Belfast), and guitarist Hat Fitz (a/k/a “Fitzie”) is Australian down to the bush hat—he looks like a rougher version of Mel Gibson, who’s Australian too. Together they’re a combustible hands-across-the-ocean mix, but it comes out as high-energy country blues, via influences like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Dorothy Love Coates. Here’s video:

Given the instrumentation, the White Stripes might come to mind, but I like this duo interpretation much better. For one thing, Cara is a great belter of a singer, reminding you of Bonnie Raitt one moment and Mahalia Jackson the next. And Fitzie doesn’t have Jack White’s Led Zeppelin fixation, preferring the source material that LZ ripped off. He told me that he stopped playing the Reverend Robert Wilkins’ “Prodigal Son” for a decade or more because people asked him about the “Rolling Stones cover.”

Hat Fitz and Cara have two albums (one of which I found in a Dublin, Ireland Oxfam shop) and a third on the way. Don’t waste another day not knowing about them.

Uncle Earl

Uncle Earl had a timely reunion at Rhythm and Roots. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I was also enthralled with two reunions—Geoff Muldaur with Jim Kweskin (they made the 60s much livelier) and the women of Uncle Earl. The latter broke up almost a decade ago, and banjo player Abigail Washburn has gone on to big things with husband Bela Fleck (they won a Grammy!) Here’s Muldaur/Kweskin video:

I’d missed them in their heyday, and never seen fiddle player extraordinaire Rayna Gellert in person, so this was a treat. It was like they’d never broke up. This was a one-off gig, but I’ll be there will be more down the road.

Donna the Buffalo were reliably great, though a short Saturday slot isn’t really their métier. Jeb Puryear hardly had time to warm up his guitar. They made up for it by debuting a bunch of wonderful new songs—one of which seemed to be called “You Better Look Both Ways (Before You Cross My Heart”). I should have seen them Friday night, when they played for two hours.

Morgan Eve Swain is the Huntress. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Morgan Eve Swain is the Huntress. (Jim Motavalli photo)

My old friend Morgan Eve Swain is back, after the tragic death of her husband and partner in Brown Bird, Dave Lamb. The Huntress and the Holder of Hands is Morgan Eve’s show, and focuses on her upfront vocals and spiky songs. It was just fine, with strong bowed bass and cello adding to the rich mix, and Morgan Eve is a very capable leader, but I missed her virtuoso playing—of guitar, fiddle, bass, and everything else with strings. We did get a nice turn on ukulele.

This was my first time ever seeing Lucinda Williams, believe it or not, and these days she’s heavy on the guitar—from a spectacular player named Stuart Mathis. I appreciate a good shredder, but I’m not sure I want to hear it on every one of Williams’ songs—even the slower ones. Did I count seven guitars on Mathis’ stand? I prefer what Jerry Miller does in Eilen Jewell’s band—it’s more in service to the song. But did I mention that Mathis is a fantastic guitar player?

Suitcase Junket

Suitcase Junket: the guitar was found in a dumpster, and his baby shoes play the drums. He’s sitting on the suitcase. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also wonderful was Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas—Nathan enthralled the dance tent by walking amongst ‘em with his wireless accordion rocking all the while. It was also good to see Dave and Phil Alvin—Dave shreds, too—and Suitcase Junket, first encountered at the Summer Hoot last year.

Speaking of the Summer Hoot, it was even better in 2016 than in 2015. It’s Mike and Ruthy’s small but impeccably curated event at the Ashokan Center (founded by her father, famed fiddler Jay Ungar) in Olive’s Bridge, New York, near Woodstock.

Lula Wiles

Lula Wiles in full song at the Hoot. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Aside from being an incredible bargain, with two stages going constantly for a relaxed crowd, great food vendors and even affordable accommodations, it’s a place of musical discovery. I didn’t know half the acts performing but I do now. There’s jugglers, too.

I was glad to make the acquaintance of the Ladles, a female harmony trio that very much complemented the also-appearing Lula Wiles (whose take of Keith Whitley’s “I’m Over You” was a showstopper). Singing together, the Ladles get that otherworldly sound going—a beyond-themselves vocal blend so celebrated by Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Brother Brothers

The Brother Brothers: Terrible name, but a great group–of identical twins. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The other big discovery was the badly named The Brother Brothers. They are, in fact, identical twins (like my brother and I), and a more perfectly balanced duo could not be found. They both write like angels, sing great, and are aces on fiddle and cello.

Gongs

Gongs started the morning at the Hoot–and they had young fans. (Jim motavalli photo)

A great aspect of the Summer Hoot is the workshops, and at this year’s celebration of the banjo North Carolina player Paul Brown (who made a great album with Mike Seeger) held forth on its origins as an African instrument. He also played a persion of “Polly Put the Kettle On” that harked to its beginnings in the late 1700s.

Another true historian, Dom Flemons (late of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, which he co-founded) was also on hand to offer nuggets. He’s working on a record about black cowboys for Smithsonian Folkways. I could listen to Flemons talk for hours, but that’s not the point when he plays so well (this year with the incredible bassist/fiddler Brian Farrow). Here’s a video of them playing together:


There’s a Winter Hoot in February, too. Buy your tickets now.

One more event, the Oldtone Roots Music Festival, is this coming weekend in North Hillsdale, New York, where that state comes together with Connecticut and Massachusetts. The ultra-great Bruce Molsky is playing, and I’d drive 300 miles for that. See you there?

Porchfest Comes to Black Rock

Porchfests, launched in the college town of Ithaca, New York in 2007, are catching on. The concept has quietly spread—without my ever hearing about it—until one finally appeared next door, in the Bridgeport, Connecticut neighborhood of Black Rock. Porchfest came off without a hitch, I’m happy to say, and everyone involved says it’s going to become annual.

That Virginia

That Virginia livens up a summer day at Porchfest 2016 (Jim Motavalli photo)

The music was local, including strumming folksingers, singer-songwriters, and slumming alter-ego groups playing covers. The sound was universally decent, food trucks lined up next to homeowner-provided lemonade stands, and dogs were welcome. There were lots of dogs.

reaganomics

Porchfest is a neighborhood thing, and it’s about the people. Reaganomics (the band) got about 200 people out and talking. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I heard three different sets, including one my friend Lys Guillorn, and another by a band featuring a friend’s son. It was all very relaxed, and relaxing. Neighbors who probably rarely see each other caught up. Bridgeport’s mayor (back from prison, and improbably re-elected) was there, but you’d expect that.

watchers

The smart ones brought lawn chairs. (Jim Motavalli photo)

People ask me what Woodstock was like—did you see all the heavy groups? I say yeah, yeah, but it was more about the people—the sense of community. Ditto Porchfest.

Lys Guillorn

Lys Guillorn on the porch. (Jim Motavalli)

C’mon, how often do you actually talk to your neighbors, other than to wave hello? At Porchfest, one ear is on the band and the other is catching up with the people next door.

scooter

You could walk to the next Porchfest gig, but a scooter came in handy. Performer Lys Guillorn is at right. (Jim Motavalli photo)

We need more low-pressure, local music—neighbors entertaining neighbors. We need fewer big-deal stadium shows with distant views from the nosebleed seats and scalper-inflicted ticket prices.

If there’s no Porchfest near you, well it’s time to organize one. Won’t your porch look better with a band on it? By the way, you can still make it up to the original Porchfest, in Ithaca. It’s on September 18.