A Balmy Caffeine and Carburetors

As MC Peter Bush, my partner in the WPKN Old Cars in the Driveway podcast, regularly puts it, nobody gets an award, and nobody is in charge–it’s the perfect formula for a successful auto show. Caffeine and Carburetors, in downtown New Canaan, Connecticut, brings together 1,400 or so cars of every possible description, from million-dollar supercars to handmade whimsy.

For instance, there was some kind of tacked-together car built on a Chrysler chassis for a Daughter of Bonnie and Clyde movie that was never released, McLarens. Rolls-Royces, Minis, art cars, a turqoise-and-white Metropolitan convertible with modern Mazda power, and anything else you could imagine. There are Porsche 911s for miles. Here’s a few highlights from the September 18, 2022 event:

This is a Ford GT, a descendant of the GT40 that famously won Le Mans. A guy standing next to it was telling the owner, “When I sold my Generation Five Viper….”
This Mercedes-Benz art car drew a lot of interest.
Parked next to the Benz was this over-the-top Buick Skylark. The owner has been working on it for 18 years–will it ever be finished?
The Kaiser Darrin, with doors that slide into the bodywork, sold in tiny numbers and are rarely seen. This example was beautifully restored.
A gorgeous Maserati 3500 GT convertible fronts a pair of Rolls-Royces. (You can’t see the Corniche, but it’s there.)
This Morris Mini Cooper had such go-faster accoutrements as wire headlight covers, leather bonnet hold-downs, and Minilite wheels.
The 1963 Dodge Polara had 426-cubic-inch Ramcharger power. I owned a 1963 Dodge, too, but it had a Slant Six that was half the size.
The only Saab I saw was this very nice 99 GL.

This is an ultra-rare Toyota Century, a Japanese-market-only executive car. They came with lace draperies for the seats.

This Valiant wagon from…1962? was on the move. The action starts early–and starts to break up early, too, around 10:30 a.m. or so.
The place was mobbed.

The next Caffeine and Carburetors is in Waveny Park in New Canaan, Connecticut October 23. It’s worth a trip from anywhere.

Upstate New York Meets New Orleans at Oldtone Lite 2022

HILLSDALE, NEW YORK—Every music festival has its discoveries, and at Oldtone Lite in Hillsdale, New York—an elegiac end-of-season gathering—it was one JP Harris. He’s not a new artist, and I’d already heard his first old-time album—but live he was a revelation.

Sophie Wellington on fiddle and JP Harris on homemade banjo at Oldtone Lite. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Harris was billed as offering a honky-tonk set as the closer on Friday night. Before that I’d seen him and four banjos in a delightful duo with Sophie Wellington (fiddle and dancing). The repertoire was much of Harris’ Don’t You Marry No Railway Man album, which is mostly another duo with Chance McCoy (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show).

Although Harris is relatively new to old-time, he’s already a master performer in the genre. He gets the blood and guts at the core of it. Old-time, at its best, is about as far from the cleaned-up college folk of the Kingston Trio and Burl Ives as you can get—it’s murder ballads, songs of tragedy, misfortune and hard times.

Wellington and Harris were magic together. Here’s proof:

Not convinced? Here’s more proof:

And even more:

I didn’t get any photos or video of Harris’ honky-tonk set, mainly because I was freezing. But also mesmerized. With an all-star band of fiddle, pedal steel, piano, guitar and bass, Harris, an Alabama native, ripped through a bunch of hard country music (the kind Merle Haggard, George Jones and Porter Waggoner used to play), most of it about drinking and lost love—and often the combination of the two. Harris, who will tour Europe next March, has made three fine albums in this vein. Especially check out I’ll Keep Calling.

Ferd! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Ferd, a beard-and-baseball-cap New Orleans band out the Hackensaw Boys featuring fiddler/vocalist/songwriter Ferd Moyse, played a rousing set, then came back and played on the between-set “Tweener Stage.” It’s a brilliant idea, because it means the music never lets up. But bathroom breaks are hard. “It’s All on Account of You” and “I Found My Own Today” were highlights of the Ferd set; at their best, they are reminiscent of the Holy Modal Rounders.  

The Bad Penny Pleasuremakers were good times personified. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The also New Orleans-based Bad Penny Pleasuremakers were simply wonderful, featuring Matt Bell and Joy Patterson of Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings—a perennial Oldtone favorite and at the earlier 2022 Oldtone show. Like Roochie Toochie, the emphasis is on early jazz—really early, like 1915 to 1920 early. This band isn’t quite as theatrical—no fezzes—but Patterson, also a fine singer, made great sounds on her little instruments. Highlights were “Nobody but My Baby” and a Jimmie Rodgers song, “Any Old Time.” How far back does “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” go? Apparently at least to a recording by Guy Lombardo in 1936.

Here are the Bad Pennies on video:

And again:

Also from New Orleans, and featuring some of the same musicians, was Tuba Skinny.

Tuba Skinny are New Orleans institutions, with more than 10 albums out. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Like the Pennies, the repertoire is trad jazz, Clarence Williams to King Oliver, but also jug band music, spirituals, country blues, string band music, ragtime, and New Orleans R&B. They are exemplars of the styles, and kudos to them for making the old 78s come alive. Here they are on video:

Moonshine Holler was heard in old-time duo and trio formats, playing ancient stuff like “Hop High the Ladies” and “Coming Across Texas.”

Moonshine Holler with Paula Bradley and Pete Killeen. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Leader Paula Bradley was an MVP at Oldtone, also playing piano in JP Harris’ country band. Like him, she’s a scholar of the old music, and will tell you just which 78 was scoured for the song she’s going to do. But like Harris she also plays the honky tonks. Accompanist Pete Killeen is a very versatile musician.

The Downhill Strugglers were Jackson Lynch and Walker Shepard. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Like the festival, it was Downhill Strugglers Lite, with banjo player Eli Smith missing—he was probably off organizing the upcoming Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is October 20 to 23 this year. Never mind, Walker Shepard and Jackson Lynch were fine as a duo, offering oldies like “Big Ball in Memphis,” “Short Life of Trouble,” “Old Aunt Betsy,” “Utah Carol.” The latter, which Marty Robbins also recorded, is a fine tale about a cowboy saving a ranch owner’s daughter from a cattle stampede. “It’s sad and action-packed,” Lynch said.

The Lucky Five were the Lucky Four. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Lucky Five are another regular old-time jazz act at Oldtone, with the sound of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli as the base. Guitarist Kip Beacco is to be thanked as a main organizer of this peerless event. The Five were the Four at Oldtone, and not even on the bill, but they managed to get in a few numbers at the Tweener stage. Including this version of “Cuckoo,” captured on video:

Jesse Legé—another Oldtone regular—brought more of New Orleans to the Hillsdale stage, with the event’s only cajun music.

Jesse Lege and his mostly female band brought cajun music to the party. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And then there was the uncharacterizable Dumpster Debbie, featuring fiddling savant Wellington.

Dumpster Debbie! (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Debbies don’t sing much: the fare is mostly fiddle-based instrumental material, but it moved out.

The Tom Petty Project rocked my local park in Fairfield, Connecticut. (Jim Motavalli photo)

After the show my wife and I returned to Connecticut, where an exuberant Lincoln Parkapalooza was in progress, featuring music on my neighbors’ porches and an evening performance by the Tom Petty Project. It’s all music, isn’t it?

Rhythm & Roots is Back!

CHARLESTOWN, RHODE ISLAND—For a while, it looked like the illness of founding producer Chuck Wentworth was going to kill the much-loved Rhythm & Roots Festival in Rhode Island forever. Wentworth started the festival in 1998, and I’ve been attending since my kids were tiny.

Fortunately at the last minute Tyler Grill and GoodWorks Entertainment swooped in like Mighty Mouse to save the day. Grill, who started out booking big mainstream artists like Alicia Keys and 50 Cent, got into the Americana business in my home town of Fairfield, Connecticut, saving another institution in need—the Fairfield Theatre Company. The company also books shows at the Infinity Theaters in Hartford and Norfolk, Connecticut.

I interviewed Grill on WPKN before the festival, and asked what was changed from the Wentworth era. “Nothing,” he said, and that proved to be true. The setting, down to the precise placement of the banners and tents, was exactly the same as always. And the music mostly followed suit.

Rosie Newton and Paul Martin up front with Rose and the Bros. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The highlight for me wasn’t a headliner—it was Rose and Bros from Ithaca, New York, first encountered last year at Rhythm and Roots. Rose Newton, also half of the folk duo Richie (Stearns) And Rosie, is a musical force. She plays accordion and fiddle with equal assurance, and also sings beautifully—mostly cover songs and originals by her life and bandmate, Paul Martin (who’s also a farmer, owner of Sweet Land Farm in Trumansburg, New York (near Ithaca).

There’s an Ithaca sound, I think. It’s a relentless folk/cajun-inflected boogie groove. Accordions and fiddles and guitars in the front line. Ithaca-based Donna the Buffalo—who’ve had that sound for decades, and have built an audience through being great and relentless touring—were also at Rhythm and Roots, playing not once but twice.

Rose gets the groove going on accordion, Greg Evans kicks in on drums and Angelo Peters on bass, backed by Sally Freund on rubboard and triangle. Martin sings some, Newton sings some, and then they have these furious instrumental rave-ups—sometimes on twin fiddles. Steve Selin is the regular fiddle player, but with Newton doubling it’s an angelic noise.

Donna the Buffalo in full cry at Rhythm and Roots. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Donna was equally inspired in Rhode Island, honed on the road and with a lot of fine new songs to showcase. I’m sure they’ll show up on records soon. Tara Nevins—like Newton—often drives the band with her unusual electric fiddle or accordion. The last few times I’ve seen them, an extended fiddle solo—the Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Vassar Clements—was a real crowd pleaser. Nevins and guitarist Jeb Puryear come out of old-time music, and its’ spirit is alive in their music—no matter how hard-driving it gets. I’d love to see the Buffalo and the Bros touring together. ‘’

Here’s Rose and Bros on “I Must Be in a Good Place Now”:

And here’s Rose and the Bros doing Michael Hurley’s “Blue Driver,” an old one:

Cajun and zydeco music are king at Rhythm and Roots, centered on the dance stage. Cedric Watson, an erudite Cajun accordion and fiddle player, led his band Bijou Creole. Watson is a veteran of Dexter Ardoin and the Creole Ramblers and Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys, as well as another ubiquitous act at Rhythm and Roots, the Pine Leaf Boys. The songs ranged from antique Cajun songs from the earliest days of recording in the 1920s to “I’ve Got a Rag on Top of My Head” (he did, too) and “Lazy John.”

The versatile Cedric Watson knows his Cajun music history. (Jim Motavalli photo)

From a fiddle workshop with Watson and Pine Leaf Boy Chris Segura, I learned that when the accordion came into Cajun music it’s more basic abilities changed the sound forever—in some cases simplifying it. C and D accordions made it into Cajun music by 1925, just as the music was first being recorded.

This is critical: “The Cajun Dennis McGee and the Creole Amedé Ardoin traveled together to New Orleans, recording together in 1929 and 1930, and in San Antonio, Texas, in 1934. ”Ardoin [accordion] was Black, McGee [fiddle] white—a highly significant meeting in that time and place.

The Pine Leaf Boys are another Louisiana-based band with great respect for the music’s traditions. Headed by multi-instrumentalist Wilson Savoy (son of famous Cajun accordionist Marc Savoy), the Pine Leaf Boys are inheritors of the tradition laid down by Ardoin and Iry Lejeune, among others. But there’s nothing academic about ‘em—a good time band.

The Sweet Willy Band, with Wilson Savoy on piano. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Savoy, in his capacity as Sweet Willy Allen, also led a swinging big band on piano, performing old rock, rockabilly and R&B classics. It was a first-time thing, he said, but they sure sounded rehearsed in a program that embraced Jerry Lee Lewis (a Savoy fave), Ray Charles, Hank Williams and Bob Wills. Scott Newman was a standout on the tenor sax.

And speaking of musical blends, Los Texmaniacs managed to fuse the Sir Douglas Quintet with Los Lobos for a rocking time at the Texas-Mexico border. Songs in Spanish or English, it didn’t matter to them.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas all the way from New Orleans. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And don’t let me forget Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, who’ve I’ve seen both in Rhode Island and in their native New Orleans. Nathan is a great front man and accordion player, which is best demonstrated on video here:

Bands that didn’t click with me for various reasons included Grace Potter, Willie J. Laws Band, the Superchief Trio, the Honey Island Swamp Band and the New Orleans Suspects. Sometimes too many ingredients don’t add up to successful stew.

So all in all it was a great time in Rhode Island, and I’m very grateful that this festival lives on.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road: A Test of Bridgestone’s DriveGuard Run-Flat Tires

During most of the automobile’s recorded history, cars carried spare tires—sometimes in the early days, several of them (because of frequent punctures) in twin sidemounts or out back. Along with the tires as standard equipment was a jack (often in several pieces) and a jack handle. Part of driver’s ed was learning how to change a tire—don’t forget to use the approved jacking points!

Bridgestone DriveGuard Plus tires are standard equipment on certain BMW models. (Bridgestone photo)

I mention all of this because spare tires and jacks may soon become part of history. Not only are today’s cars being shipped with temporary spares (good for 50 miles or so) but the jack has been largely jettisoned. These steps are being taken to save weight—which is particularly important in heavy electric cars. Many cars today have no spare or jack, and come with small air compressors that work in concert with spray sealant to temporarily repair a flat. Or that’s what is supposed to happen—I’ve never successfully used that combination.

And another reason why jacks will soon be seen only in thrift shops is the run-flat tire. As the name implies, run-flats resist deflation and can keep you on the road after a puncture. The idea goes back to 1934, when Michelin introduced a tire for commuter trains and trolleys that had a “safety rim” inside that could run on a foam lining after a puncture.

Passenger cars got run-flats in 1958, when Chrysler and Goodyear teamed up on Captive Air tires. In 1972, Dunlop introduced the Total Mobility Tire and it became standard on certain Rover models. In a typical self-supporting run-flat today, the reinforced sidewall stays rigid without air pressure—and (as with compact spares) you have 50 miles of safe driving ahead before they should be removed and repaired.

Ko Denhamer’s 2003 Saab 9-5 Linear wagon with DriveGuards installed. (Ko Denhamer photo)

Ian McKenney, a spokesman for Bridgestone, said in an interview that the DriveGuard line was launched in 2014 as the company’s first run-flat line, and has now been updated as DriveGuard Plus touring tires. Run-flats are generally 20 to 40 percent heavier, but McKenney said that running them eliminates the need to carry a spare—providing a 50-pound weight saving, plus the jack.

McKenney said that when a tire is punctured and goes to zero pounds per square inch inflation, rubber inserts in the tire keep its shape and stay on the wheel. “You can drive 50 miles at up to 50 mph,” he said. “It will get you home or to the tire shop. Driving any further than that is not recommended, because as the tire rolls it compresses and that compression generates heat—the enemy of rubber. The tire will lose its chemical integrity and soften.” Certain types of damage to run-flats—as in sidewall punctures—may not be repairable.

The DriveGuards ready to be installed. (Ko Denhamer photo)

Not many new cars come with run-flats, but Bridgestone has an arrangement with BMW, most of whose models are so-equipped. Cars that come with run-flat tires also have Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS) because otherwise you might not even know the tire was impaired.

The DriveGuards, with a 65,000-mile wear warranty, come in 19 sizes. “They’re an excellent touring tire that just happens to be run-flat,” McKenney said. Curiosity about Bridgestone’s DriveGuard run-flats led to this test. I have old cars with smaller tires, so the test DriveGuards went to my friend Ko Denhamer near Philadelphia, to try out on his 122,000-mile 2003 Saab 9-5 Linear wagon with manual transmission.

Ko reports putting close to 1,000 miles on the DriveGuards during the extra-hot July and August weather. The tires were inflated to 35 psi front and 32 psi rear, as per the Saab manual. Ko compares them to the Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 3 tires that were on the wagon previously.

“I’ve run the Bridgestones on a mix of running errands around town and twisty winding backroads as well as highway driving at temperatures of up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit and up to 80 mph,” Ko said. “We’re in a drought, so the roads were mostly dry, though there was occasional light rain. Some rough road surfaces were encountered.”

Ko says the tires are similar to the Michelins in providing a comfortable ride, as well as the same quiet operation. “Good cornering, and I think the Bridgestone DriveGuard Pluses may actually feel slightly more planted and solid. All in all, great handling and comfort I really wouldn’t know they’re run-flat tires if I hadn’t mounted them myself. There’s not a trace of hard handling or stiffness. They’re really a good all-around tire with the benefit of run-flat safety built in.”

Ko also notes that when he removed the Saab’s now-unnecessary spare “it had zero tire pressure. The valve stem had failed. With run-flats I won’t have to worry about that.”

Run-flat tires won’t be for everyone, but in an auto environment where weight is critical they’re likely to have a future. The next step is solid tires with no air in them at all—Michelin showed such a VISION tire at its Movin’ On event in Montreal in 2019, but actual commercial production is still in the future.

Great Music Around Connecticut

If you’re alert and pay attention to the calendar, there’s lots of great music around—and much of it is free! I would have gone to even more long-form events—very sorry to have missed the Oldtone Festival this year—but COVID reared its ugly head.

But both before and after getting the virus I saw three fine shows, detailed here.

I never miss an opportunity to see Bill and the Belles, a unique country music ensemble, now a trio consisting of singer/songwriter/musical historian Kris Truelsen on guitar, fiddler Kalia Yeagle and banjo/banjo-uke player Aidan VanSuetendael. On August 2, they were at the Levitt Pavilion in Westport—free! The venue has 60 free shows a year.

Bill is Kris Truelsen (center) with Kalia Yeagle (left) and Aidan VanSuetendael.

Truelsen is a scholar of early country music, and hosts shows at Radio Bristol—based at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, Tennessee. He and the band are also the hosts of Farm and Fun Time, a television show that celebrates the music and agricultural heritage of the South. It’s been on PBS stations in just the Southeast, but it’s going nationwide—stay tuned for more information.

Ridgefield, Connecticut is home to the (also free) CHIRP concerts, a creation of the redoubtable Barbara Manners—who has excellent taste in music. A lot of the shows are on Tuesdays, when I have my WPKN show, so I don’t get to as many shows as I’d like. But I did make it to see Slade Cleaves—on my birthday, August 4.

Slaid Cleaves.

Slade is an heir of Merle Haggard, if the latter played at folk venues. He celebrates the working-class blues. He writes devastating songs, often set in bars, about despair. “I’m not an innovator. I’m more of a keeper of the flame,” he says. Here’s a bit of the lyrics of “Broke Down”:

Sherry had a pawn shop band of gold
A sink full of dishes and a love grown cold
Along came a boy, pretty as the devil
She took his hand, the whole thing unraveled

There’s no turnin’ round, it’s broke down

Billy took the ring, jammed it in his pocket
Drove down town and tried to hock it
Down at the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain
There’s a love note carved inside a wedding ring

Here’s the video:

I also went to an excellent jazz show at the Torrington Historical Society. In the garden of an old mansion, we listened to a one-off group consisting of leader Adam Nussbaum (a Connecticut native) on drums, saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, Larry Ham on piano and Dave Santoro on bass. They played one standard—“Alone Together”—and then mostly Santoro’s tunes.

Jerry Bergonzi in Torrington. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Nussbaum and Bergonzi are old friends, and both celebrated jazz musicians. They both played with consummate authority. Nussbaum—who’s on hundreds of records—is a fount of energy, and Bergonzi creates his own thing from the legacies of bebop, post-bop and swing. It was fun. Pianist Ham was perhaps a bit subdued for the company but he really added to the ballads.

Bergonzi will be on my WPKN radio show August 23 at 9 p.m.

Tatiana Eva-Marie with guitarist Dennis Pol in Westport. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And finally I saw, August 14, Tatiana Eva-Marie and her Avalon Jazz Band, again at Levitt Pavilion. Fascinating band, channeling the music of Django Reinhardt, but with Eva-Marie adding vocals and her own lyrics to a lot of the tunes. Mostly, she sang in French (she is originally from Switzerland, now in Brooklyn) but English for songs like Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby” and the Gershwins’ “Lady be Good.”

She’s a fine, expressive singer and a lively MC who acts out her songs with spirited hand gestures. And the band was stellar—Dan Rosenbloom was on accordion and Dennis Pol (who has his own acoustic quartet) on guitar. Berklee grad Seoyeon Im was on violin (Stephane Grappelli’s part) and she was superb, as was bassist Wallace Stelzer. It was the first time Eva-Marie has played with Im, but you’d never know. More will be heard from her. Here’s Tatiana with a completely different band–she gets around:

Paul is a fine guitarist, but comes out of more modern players like Wes Montgomery as much as Django himself. No harm done there. Classics such as “Nuages” and “Djangology” were played, as well as obscurities such as “Sweet Chorus”—now with new lyrics.

Eva-Marie is soon to appear in a new movie, Swing Rendez-Vous, which she co-wrote with French director Gérome Barry. It’s coming out in February 2023. So she and Truelsen have something in common—they do well on screen.

In Search of Parse Nelson

At the Friends of the Jacksonville [Florida] Library resale bookstore recently, I bought for $2 Tennessee Traditional Singers: Tom Ashley, Sam McGee and Bukka White (University of Tennessee Press, 1981, edited by Thomas G. Burton).  It’s a very good book, undoubtedly hard to find now. But Amazon, which has five million more popular books, will sell it to you for $9.45.  

The story of three legends.

All three profiles are worth reading, but I was struck by a passage in Sam McGee’s story. He was born around 1894 in Williamson County, Tennessee, on a farm near the town of Franklin. It was a rural upbringing in the days before recorded music, but there was still plenty of it around. I.

n later years, McGee—half of the McGee brothers, composer of “Buck Dancer’s Choice” and a noted guitar accompanist of the great comic banjo player Uncle Dave Macon—knew hundreds of songs, but one he half remembered dogged at him.

McGee’s early teacher, maybe around 1905 or earlier, was a local man. “Tom Hood taught me a lot, taught me songs, too,” McGee said. “One of his numbers was an old song called ‘Parse Nelson,’ which started out:

Parse Nelson was a bully;

He bullied all his life.

He bullied all over the wide world

With a ten-cent Barlow knife.

I don’t remember any more of it. I can’t even find anyone that knows anything about that song, and I ask everyone about it. It must be about 150 years old.”

OK, so a song that’s now more than 200 years old the (the book was published in 1981, and McGee died in a freak tractor accident in 1975) is hanging on to life by the thinnest of threads. I tried Googling the song “Parse Nelson” and got only the Burton book.

But another U of Tennessee book, Folk Songs of Middle Tennessee by the late Charles K. Wolfe (who also wrote the McGee section of the other volume), opines that “Parse Nelson” could be a version of a song called “Leslie the Gambler” that “may have been reasonably well known in Middle Tennessee around the turn of the century.” If so, the song doesn’t have much of a paper trail now.

But we do have lyrics to “Leslie the Gambler”:

Leslie was a gambler,

And dead up to the times,

‘Twas him that killed Parson Nelson,

And didn’t have to pay no fine.

Refrain:

Told you once, told you twice,

Told you if I told you the third time,

I’d be bound to take your life.

Oh my baby,

Why don’t you come home?

Hmmm, now Parse (obviously short for Parson) Nelson is a murder victim, and no one was too sad about it. Leslie the gambler did him in. Goes with the bullying, don’t you think? It’s impossible to tell where or when this murder occurred, or even if it did. Ample research shows us that many murder ballads, such as “Knoxville Girl,” originated in England and then changed locations once they made it across the Atlantic.

This appears to be about as far as I can go, because I can’t find a record of a long-ago murder of a Parson Nelson. But at least now if you Google “Parse Nelson,” more things will come up! And maybe Sam McGee is resting a little easier in his grave. Here’s Sam and Kirk McGee playing “Buck Dancer’s Choice”:

Two Summer Festivals, Caramoor and Green River 2022

KATONAH, NEW YORK and GREENFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS—When you go to two Americana festivals in two days you hear quite a lot of music. And that was certainly the case for me at the Caramoor American Roots Music Festival in Katonah and Signature Sounds’ Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts. But two performances were so luminous I have to lead with them. 

Brennen Leigh was glorious. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Molly Tuttle has been making a lot of waves, and rightly so. Guitarists lined up to see her version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues,” because the fingerpicking is amazing. More than one million views! But it took until her new album Crooked Tree that the full range of her songwriting, singing and guitar playing came together on disc.

Leigh’s solo set was joined by members of Asleep at the Wheel. (Jim Motavalli photo)

On that new record, Tuttle writes songs in the bluegrass tradition, very suited to her band’s virtuosity. Her biggest influence here is probably Gillian Welch, but that’s not a problem! Songs like “Dooley’s Farm” definitely tap into her well. What’s interesting here is that Tuttle grew up in Palo Alto, far from those bluegrass hills. But that’s true of Gillian Welch (born in New York City!) also.

Molly Tuttle with bassist Shelby Means–who sings, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

 Crooked Tree is amazing, but it pales in comparison to Tuttle live at Caramoor’s open-air Venetian Theater. The energy level was incredibly high—imagine a metal band plugged into a towering Marshall stack. There wasn’t much room for balladry, but a huge amount of did-they-really-just-play-that wizardry. On “Sleepy-Eyed John” alone I thought the room would levitate, or at least the instruments catch fire. The group deserves to be identified by name: Molly on guitar and lead vocals, Dominick Leslie on mandolin, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on fiddle, Kyle Tuttle (no relation) on banjo and Shelby Means on bass and occasional vocals. 

Molly Tuttle and killer band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It’s not enough just to buy the album. This group really needs to be heard live.

Over at Green River, I was eagerly anticipating the Brennen Leigh set on the strength of her last two albums, and she did not disappoint. Just out is Obsessed with the West, which is a collaboration with Asleep at the Wheel. Given that group’s predilection and 50-year commitment to the music of Bob Wills, it’s safe to say that the album is country swing. But instead of rehashing the overly familiar—but brilliant!—Wills repertoire, Leigh had the effrontery to write an entire album of songs in that vein.

It would have been wasted effort if the music didn’t measure up, but it does! At Green River, Asleep at the Wheel was also on the bill. Leigh’s own set was backed by Wheel’s rhythm section and one of the two fiddle players, and they did a great job of interpreting mostly songs from Prairie Love Letter, the album before Obsessed.

What’s fascinating is that Tuttle does a great job with a tradition from hills that are a long way from where she grew up, but Leigh revisits her youth in North Dakota farm country with cinematic clarity and great poignancy. “John Deere H” is seen through her father’s eyes, when he was eight year old and got to drive the family’s 1943 tractor for the first time. “He listened to it, and said it sounded like he talked,” Leigh said. “Billy and Beau” is about a chaste same-sex obsession that takes place around a 4-H farm competition.

Later that day, Leigh got on stage with the Wheel and did her “Texas with a Band.” The video is above. Ray Benson, the group’s leader, was in fine form. I’m sure he’d agree with her song “If Tommy Duncan’s Voice was Booze (I’d Stay Drunk All the Time).” Tommy Duncan was the Wills’ vocalist, though many people thought it was Wills himself hootin’ and hollerin’.

Leigh is a powerhouse singer and guitarist, too. Check her out. Asleep on their own were damned good, too. The pedal steel guitarist is from Rome, though you’d never know it. Like jazz, country is a universal language.

These were music festivals, so there were a lot more performers than just those two. Here are a few highlights:

Black Opry Revue was a huge hit at Caramoor. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Black Opry describes itself as “a home for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk, and Americana music.” The Black Opry Revue came to Caramoor with four of its members doing a concert in the round. I was especially taken with Riki Stevens (from Norwalk, CT, where I was born) and Tae Lewis. The latter played a separate show in the sunken garden, where Lewis unveiled his song “We’ve Got a Lot to Drink About.” It’s a goodtime party song for hard times, and Lewis—with a deeply soulful voice—is a Bill Withers for our time. Stevens has both strongly emotive songs and a really flexible, expressive voice. Roberta Lea did a very warm family song about introducing kids to genius—in the car with fried chicken, “Dinner, Sunset ad Nina Simone.”

Suitcase Junket’s reunion tour at Caramoor. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The motor-mouthed one-man band Suitcase Junket is always fun to see. He writes darkly quirky and rootsy songs with bluesy guitar grooves. “Just Another Human Disaster” was one. I think I heard him singing about “black holes and overdoses.” He said that band arguments sometimes escalate, and that he was on “the reunion tour.”

Kittel and Co. go for diversity. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kittel & Co. are a three-piece folk-classical ensemble led by violin player Jeremy Kittel. Their music was inventive and well-crafted, albeit not very emotionally involving. The material ranged from Bach interpretations to a Django/Grappelli-adjacent version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” with some Tom Petty thrown in.

Rebecca Haviland and Whiskey Heart didn’t make much of an impression. Her strongest song was “Black Dog,” a Led Zeppelin cover. Over at Green River, the Green Sisters got by on their sibling harmony, and some good covers of Gillian Welch’s “Red Clay Halo,” Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” and Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.” Dustbowl Revival was a bit spotty, but the highs were fairly high.

Matthew Fowler and his horn section at Green River. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Florida-based Matthew Fowler is new to me, but I liked his voice and songs, and his two female accompanists who doubled as the horn section (clarinet and oboe).

Waxahatchee (a/k/a Katie Crutchfield). Is folk-rock ok? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Waxahatchee (a/k/a Katie Crutchfield) was punchy and compelling onstage. Her expressive voice glided over the strong folk-rock arrangements, which featured a killer drummer. My guess is she’d reject the folk-rock tag (in favor of something punkier), but maybe not—she’s a big Lucinda Williams fan, and covered one of her songs (“Fruits of My Labor”) onstage.

Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for Allison Russell. I like her solo albums, and her work with Birds of Chicago. At Green River she seemed to be talking and speechifying as much as singing. Deva Mahal was best when singing covers. She has a powerful voice like Odetta’s, and is Taj Mahal’s daughter.

Deva Mahal in full cry. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And then there was the Young@Heart Chorus, who had a prime-time slot. You have to be 75 or older to join. My wife was reduced to tears by their version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” But all their material isn’t so folkie. They do the Ramones’ “I Want to be Sedated.”

Many other festival weekends coming up. Stay tuned.

Jake Blount and Nora Brown: Some Common Ground

“Now I’m going to do some old depressing songs to offset the nonstop thrill ride that is life in 2022,” said Jake Blount during the concert he did with the young Nora Brown at Common Ground in Westchester, New York May 14.

Jake Blount: Something was bugging him.

He was true to his word. The lyrics of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” include this couplet, “Hard times is here and everywhere you go/Times are harder than ever been before.” Blount was in very good form, and is a unique and intriguing instrumentalist on guitar, fiddle and banjo, exploring songs he said mostly came from African-American and indigenous sources.

But something was clearly bugging him, and it became clear toward the end of his segment. With COVID continuing to rage—a fact brought home by the solid phalanx of masked faces in the audience—Blount said it’s near-impossible for musicians to make a living these days. He blamed irresponsible officials and, presumably, mass disinformation campaigns.

Who can deny the truth of Blount’s words? COVID is a perfect storm for musicians. Right as CD sales plummeted (and weren’t really replaced by LP sales), streaming fed musicians only a trickle of revenue. And then COVID shut down live venues—the only means many musicians have to produce revenue. It’s also been the primary source of CD sales.

Nora Brown and Jake Blount at Common Ground.

Unless supported by touring, CD releases and download availability might as well not exist. The Zoom concerts have been a brave attempt to circumvent COVID realities, but they’re not a long-term or ultimately satisfying alternative to live music.

The bright spot here, however tentative, is that live music has started up again. Blount is leaving for a tour of Great Britain, with nine gigs over there, before coming back for the Philadelphia Folk Festival June 11.

Here’s Blount’s latest single, “The Man Was Burning,” old-time gospel with a modern touch:

Nora Brown has stayed amazingly true to the sound first heard by festival audiences when she was 12. She learns old-time songs not from records, but from the masters themselves—John Cohen, Lee Sexton, Alice Gerrard, Anna Roberts-Gevalt, Sammy Lind, Courtney Hartman, and on and on. She gives them full credit, too. Catch her in duets with Stephanie Coleman and Jackson Lynch.

At the end of the show, Blount and Brown sat down for a luminous duet. It was a brief respite, a shaft of light, in an increasingly demented world.

The Greg Packham Group Rehearses

The sessions take place in the jazz guitarist Greg Packham’s basement in Fairfield, Connecticut, accessed through the dark garage. The Greg Packham Group, formed in 1973, has been rehearsing here every Tuesday evening almost as long, since 1976.

Greg Packham, have Telecaster, will play. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The group has made two albums, Action-Reaction and Into the Flying Pan (with Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones), both recorded at the late Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey.

My radio show on WPKN happens to be at exactly the same time as the rehearsal, so it’s been quite some time since I’d dropped in on a session. But I was off February 15 and so I became a socially distanced fly on the wall.

The band in full cry. At this point, Martha Lind has replaced Mike McGrath on keyboards. (Jim Motavalli photo)

When I arrived, they were already playing. All the musicians can all sight-read, which is good, because the Packham book numbers 600 original compositions. When I arrived, they were playing “Friday Night at the Club.” The bass player was Jason Frangenes, an eighth-grade science teacher at my alma mater, Staples High School. On keyboards was Mike McGrath, a music teacher at Middlebrook School in Trumbull, Connecticut. Nick Rodriguez was on Latin percussion, and Ray Field on drums.

Hard Knocks. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The personnel shifts due to availability. Players move away, and a few have departed our Earth. Alto sax player Vince Montalli was out of town. While waiting for new tenor sax player Malin (pronounced MAWL-in) Carta to show up, the band ripped through a version of “Mr. Moto,” which is about, well, me. It’s bebop with a lot of stops and starts.

McGrath on keys this time. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Packham was playing a black 1978 Fender Telecaster with a tray of effects pedals, some of which he’s had since he was a California seventh grader. The band played another song, “Eternity,” on the ballad spectrum but fairly sped up. Everything was being recorded through the 24-track board, direct to CD. The balance in the room was misleading—headphones showed how it was actually going down.

Carta and alto player Vince Montalli are the two-horn front line. (Greg Packham photo)

Some 45 minutes in, Carta arrived. She’s by far the youngest (and newest) member of the band, and a recent music performance graduate of Western Connecticut State College in Danbury. She studied with Grammy-nominated saxophonist Jimmy Greene. In the band, she plays tenor and flute, but she’s also a pianist singer and educator.

She opens her sax case, extracts a reed, dampens it, and inserts it into her mouthpiece. In minutes, the tenor is ready to go, but the next tune is “Floating Leaf,” and it needs her flute. Carta has never seen the piece before—none of the members have—but with their eyes fixated on some dense notation they play it without a hitch.

Packham and his all-stars in Woodland Hills, California when he was all of 10. (Photo courtesy of Greg Packham)

“Floating Leaf” is extremely catchy, and distinctly Asian. Packham says he’s been watching a lot of Japanese movies lately, and recommends Toshio Matsumoto’s 1969 Funeral Parade of Roses. Packham has an ear for melody, in whatever style—and the band covers a lot of ground, from reggaeton to funk, bebop, blues, Latin, Cape Verdean and more.

Carta has only been playing flute for about a year, but she sounded strong and assured on the instrument—which can sometimes melt into the background. I recommended she check out another Connecticut flute player, Ali Ryerson, and asked if it is a challenge to record songs on the first take, and she said, “At times it can be a little difficult.”

At that point, bassist Frangenes left, but it didn’t cause a problem. Pianist Martha Lind took over from McGrath, and on the Hammond B3 that’s a perennial in the studio she could play bass lines with one hand. On they went, with “Hard Knocks,” a loping bop tune with Carta back on tenor, exploring the bottom end of that instrument.

Packham is a chameleon, and his own solos reflected the needs of his compositions—some of which still had wet ink on them. But he plays a lot of guitar, no matter the occasion. By next week, he’s very likely to have another four or six songs ready to go. The band is likely to start playing out soon, so stay tuned to that Facebook page linked above.

Keeping it Weird at Oldtone 2021

The Oldtone Roots Music Festival is one of the few summer celebrations that’s fully devoted to old-time country music. “That’s like bluegrass?” people say to me. Not really. Old-time—bedrock weird Americana before Bill Monroe got his hands on it, is produced by musical collectives that exist to serve the song. Monroe, inspired by the jazz that was the basis for popular music in the 1930s and 1940s, introduced the soloist to country, sped it up, made it into a virtuoso display.

Paula Bradley and the new lineup of Moonshine Holler.

Old ballads, murder songs, tales of longing for Appalachian mountains—they lose something when translated into bluegrass. With a few exceptions (Monroe himself being one, Lester Flatt and Roy Acuff two more) they often sound like they’re rushing through the lyrics to get to the fast-fingered mandolin player. That doesn’t really do when the song is a tale of homicidal infamy like “Little Sadie” or “Omie Wise.”

The popularity of bluegrass could have killed off old-time, but it didn’t—just as TV didn’t kill off radio. In fact, we’re in something of a renaissance of the form, and Oldtone 2021—a one-day event instead of the usual weekend—celebrated it with performances mainly by younger practitioners. The organizers are to be commended—they got the pigeon-poop-covered stage up in record time. All was well at Cool Whisper Farm.

Moonshine Holler featured longtime member Paula Bradley with two younger players, Pete Killeen and Marco DePaolis. Bradley’s late husband and bandmate Bill Dillof is much missed, but it’s heartening to hear these young banjo and fiddle players enthusiastically embracing the music that was old in their grandparents’ day. Are some of the songs from the 18th century? Yes indeed, and sometimes translated with new lyrics when they made their way across the Atlantic.

Roger the Jester was a class act, and wowed the kids–all without speaking.

Bradley is an enthusiastic musicologist, as Dillof was, and that’s why instead of “Pretty Polly” we got songs sourced from old 78s like “Chase the Devil Down” and “Tie Hacker’s Number Two.” The latter apparently refers to workers who cut railroad ties by hand. This music is preserved from a very brief period in time, basically 1926 to 1930, when rural workers had money and the industry realized they’d pay for records. If the tunes were more slowly paced than you’re used to, well, that’s what bluegrass did to the music. This ain’t Hee Haw.

Dumpster Debbie is a New England old-time collective featuring Sophie Wellington, Zack Meyer, Andrew Stearns, Dan Bui, Will Seeders Mosheim and Mike Harmon. They play the music with drive, spirit and enthusiasm. Wellington may not be named Debbie, but she’s an ingratiating and outgoing frontperson. Also a keen fiddle player. There’s fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass but no real singer, though Wellington hollered a bit on “Cumberland Gap.” There’s was but one of many versions of the song.

Dumpster Debbie prove that there’s life in the old form.

Dumpster Debbie was actually formed at Oldtone in 2019. Where else are you going to find simpatico roots musicians? They have an album out, which they sell at gigs for $20.

The Downhill Strugglers: The New York side of old-time country.

The Downhill Strugglers have played Oldtone a number of times, in recent years with John Cohen—a founding member of The New Lost City Ramblers. Thus did they connect their New York City-based take on old-time with similar impulses from the Ramblers back in the 1060s. “We played with John at every Brooklyn Folk Festival since the beginning, as well as at every Washington Square Park Folk Festival, many shows here at the Jalopy Theatre and many more all across the country, including at the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, the Newport Folk Festival and more,” the Strugglers say.Y

Now a trio, the Strugglers are Jackson Lynch on fiddle and vocals, Eli Smith (who also runs the aforementioned Brooklyn Folk Festival, on in November) on banjo and Walker Shepard on a variety of instruments. They’re all musicologists, too, and Lynch unearths some real gems. “I know “Big Ball’s in Cowtown,” but “Big Ball’s in Memphis”? He has a penchant for long and mordant ballads, such as (if I got the title right) “The Ballad of Utah Carroll.” There are variants on this story—a cowboy is killed saving a little kid from a raging bull/stampede. In this case she’s the boss’ little daughter.

One song the Strugglers did, “Ain’t Gonna Lay My Armor Down,” is one of just two recorded by the team of McVay and Johnson back in the 20s. Hey, you can look it up. It’s on Columbia, with unknown musicians aplenty, and recorded October 17, 1928 in Johnson City, Tennessee. Finding these old 78s is what the Ramblers did, searching dusty general stores rather than the Internet.

Another song they did, “Wimbush Rag,” by Theo and Gus Clark, was also one of the only two the performers recorded. Here it is:

Cole Quest and the City Pickers are also New York-based. Cole is Woody Guthrie’s grandson, and is definitely carrying on that tradition. Their set was a mix of old-time songs and some new compositions. Quest is aided by a very talented group: on guitar (Christian Apuzzo), banjo (Mike Mulhollan), harmonica (Matheus Verardino), and bass (Larry Cook).

Cole Quest (second from left) with the City Pickers.

Many of the bands played several times, which was all right with me. I was particularly keen to hear from Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings on three separate occasions. This is a band that, in many ways, prefigures not only bluegrass but also recorded old-time music. The focus is on songs from the very beginning of recorded music, make that 1910 to 1925. Is anyone else reviving Rudy Valee these days? Their only recording is on Edison wax cylinders!

Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings turn the clock waaay back.

This is accurate: The group turns a “recorded repertoire of antique novelty tunes into a fantastic stage show that puts a capital ‘S’ in showmanship. When you see the Ragtime Shepherd Kings you’ll witness: fancy fiddling, dueling Hawaiian guitars, ukelele wizardry, flashy lap-steel guitar, a menagerie of toy instruments, vocal harmonies that sound as if they were polished by hand, a musical pig ‘porkestra,’ scandalous dancing—and that’s just the intermission!”

The fez-wearing group—Timmy Findlen on ukulele, Lindsay McCaw on fiddle, vocals and the scandalous dancing, Matt Bell and Joel Jackson on guitars and Joy Patterson (little instruments)—is simply unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The show makes me very sad about never having seen vaudeville. It’s a show. No flannel shirts and grim expressions.

The Lucky Five adding a swing jazz element.

And finally there was the Lucky Five. It was getting cold, but I was so glad I stayed. The group features Oldtone organizer Kip Beacco on guitar and smooth vocals, and it’s old-time swing jazz with some French flair. The roots aren’t quite in Django/Grappelli, though—it seemed from a more romantic era.

The musicians are Beacco on guitar/vocals, Jonathan Talbot on violin/vocals, Carolyn Dufraine on vocals/trombone, Matt Downing on bass/vocals, and Tom Parker on drums. Collectively, they’ve been part of the Hunger Mountain Boys, Lauren Ambrose and the Leisure Class, and in performing/recording/trio settings with Neko Case, Iris Dement, Bobby Previte, Del McCoury and Jim Lauderdale.

But what comes out sounds nothing like any of them. Dufraine sings only in French, and the band sounds like what you’d hear in Paris in 1923. Maybe with an expatriate American in the band. Isn’t that what James Reese Europe was all about? They were really swinging, believe me.