Oldtones and New Tones Close Out the Festival Season

NORTH HILLSDALE, NY—When I told people I was going to an old-time music festival, they asked me who might be playing that they’d know. “Bill and the Belles,” I said. “Anna and Elizabeth. The Foghorn String Band. Big stars all.”

cohen and brown

Little Nora Brown and John Cohen. There’s no generation gap at Oldtone. (Jim Motavalli photo)

They certainly are to me, and to a widening coterie of fans who make the trek up to the rural three-state region (Connecticut and Massachusetts are minutes away), even braving the cold to stay up late into the night—when honky-tonk, Cajun and square dancing rule.

foghorn string band

The Foghorn String Band were everywhere over the weekend. (Jim Motavalli photo)

If you don’t know these acts, you may soon. Move over, Beyonce. Let’s start with Anna and Elizabeth, who are ballad singers and tradition explorers, but also a great deal more than that. Along with fellow adventurers Sam Amidon (from Vermont) and House and Land (from North Carolina) they aren’t afraid to add an electronic sheen to their music—at least on record, at Oldtone it was shivery pipe organ and fiddle that added the effects.

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Esther Rose (foreground) on the Tweener Stage. Singer-songwriters were welcome. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Elizabeth LaPrelle has been described as the best ballad singer in America, and I second that, with a nod to June Tabor, who’s the best ballad singer in England. LaPrelle sings with a sense of high drama, and I absolutely love that. Murder ballads are, after all, about murder—something that gets lost as bluegrass folks rush to show off their hot licks.

anna and elizabeth

Anna and Elizabeth, going for the dramatic. (Jim Motavalli photo)

At Oldtone, Anna and Elizabeth made each song a dramatic event. They used tools (some centuries old) such as the pre-movie “crankie”—painted scrolls that tell a story—to heighten the effect. On one song, Anna Roberts-Gevalt started out playing a frantic banjo part, which got more and more percussive until she was pounding on it and screaming. Believe me, it worked.

On another song, “Margaret,” Elizabeth held up a laptop and played a scratchy 1940 Margaret Shipman recording from the archives of Vermont’s Helen Hartness Flanders. Then they played the song themselves. That worked, too. Just before I left, I heard Elizabeth sing an eight-minute version of “Pretty Saro” accompanied only by two sax players providing drones. Check out the results here:

Providing effects was fiddler/organist Cleek Schrey. A highlight was his luminous fiddle tune, with Anna dancing and Elizabeth providing wordless vocals. Schrey is the perfect tour partner, an almost avant-garde folkie.

tamar korn

Tamar Korn on the Tweener stage. She played novelty and ancient Yiddish songs with great vivacity. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The first act I saw at Oldtone was Run Mountain, sadly lacking the multi-talented old-time pioneer Bill Dillof, who died this year. His wife, Paula Bradley, bravely carried on without him, in a duo with Vermont-based fiddler and singer Jim Burns. They were wonderful. Did you know that the “Diamond Joe” in the song of the same name is a steamboat? I didn’t, either, but as Burns said, it makes sense of the song.

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Cedric Watson made the hills reverberate with his resonant voice and accordion/fiddle playing. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There’s a nice tribute to Dillof (1948 to 2018) in the Oldtone program book. He said that with music “I just get lost in the rhythms and the chord changes, the hum and the resonance all around you…It’s as strong as the need to eat when you’re hungry to sleep when you’re exhausted. You just float right into the music. That’s what I do…I’m a musician.”

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Paula Bradley and Bill Dillof performing as Moonshine Holler at the Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, Connecticut. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Cedric Watson was ubiquitous at the festival. It’s great to see young musicians so capable. He played Cajun, blues and folk stuff on accordion and fiddle and sang in a resonant voice that made the cows perk up. He was mostly solo, but sounded great with a band on some things.

frank wakefield

Bluegrass old-timer mandolin player Frank Wakefield gets his photo took by the Afghan Photo Studio. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’ve been closely following the Foghorn String Band since seeing Sammy Lind and Nadine Landry at The Hoot recently. Along with fellow Foghorns Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms, they were the festival’s MVPs, playing in every conceivable combination. Lind, who’s an incredibly versatile fiddle player with a voice that doesn’t get used enough, was on the bandstand half the time with various combinations.

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The Downhill Strugglers: ragged but right. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Downhill Strugglers were ragged but right. I’ve written so much about them via the Brooklyn Folk Festival that suffice it to say they make the pre-war music come alive. John Cohen, an original New Lost City Rambler, was in good voice, and Jackson Lynch and his fiddle were on the bandstand when Lind was not.

An Oldtone innovation is to offer between-set acts on the small “Tweener” stage, and it was there I heard a darned nice newcomer named Esther Rose. The festival is not averse to singer-songwriters, though it’s not the regular fare.

A highlight of the excellent Jimmy C. Newman tribute (organized by Klauder and Willms) was a song called the “H. Brown Shuffle.” Newman composed it for a local auto parts store to finance the release of the flip side, “Cry Cry Darling.”

bill and the belles

Bill and the Belles, with banjo player Helena Hunt. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’d just seen Bill and the Belles at the Hoot, so was surprised to see a new banjo player, Helena Hunt. She seemed to know all of Grace Van’t Hof’s parts. But maybe she was just filling in. Of course, they brought alive a tradition that never really existed but should have. What if 1930s crooners had loved the Carter Family and classic jazz? Absolutely nobody sings like Kris Truelsen. He’s a 78 come to life.

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Jill Turpin of the Green Mountain Festival in Vermont acquited herself well on the stage. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It was a pleasure to see Jill Turpin up on stage during Nadine Landry’s gospel feature on, of course, Sunday. She just promoted the very first Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival, but she can sing very credibly, too! It figures, since you have to do these events for love, not money.

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Hubby Jenkins read from his little book of ghost stories. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Oh, and don’t let me forget Hubby Jenkins, who triumphs in the art form known as the solo set. Not only did he do a song written by a white guy from the perspective of a black guy regretting the end of slavery (and put it in context), but he read a suspenseful ghost story—with chapters after each song. What a showman! He played fine banjo and slide guitar, as well.

Little Nora Brown was a delight, as always. She’s more mature—in her banjo playing and backwoods singing—every time I see her, even if the interval is mere months. I love her song patter. She gets tied in knots sometimes trying to explain her love for this music, but it’s sincere and charming.

As usual, the cows seemed to enjoy the scene. Cool Whisper Farm must be more placid the rest of the year. Here’s Elizabeth LaPrelle with saxophones, performing “Pretty Saro”:

And here’s one more Anna and Elizabeth video. their performance of “Margaret,” using the original field recording:

Festival Season Winds Down

Festival season is in full swing, and I’ve been making an effort to get to as many as I can. The things I do for art! Recently I’ve been to the first annual Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots festival in Manchester Center, Vermont, and the Summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, New York. Let’s start with Green Mountain.

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Molly Tuttle (right) with Allison deGroot.

The weather was threatening when we arrived at the site, an accommodating city park. Matt Fliner was playing gentle instrumental pieces. Then came the Goodbye Girls, an international ensemble including a Swedish fiddler, Lena Jonsson. Doing most of the vocals and guitar playing was Molly Tuttle, who I remembered from a duo she had with John Mailander and a great performance at Fresh Grass (a festival I’ll have to miss this year, alas).

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deGroot again with Tatiana Hargreaves (right).

Tuttle is a phenomenon, a great singer and an amazing flatpicker. In a later solo appearance she essayed her version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner.” You can catch a couple takes of her doing that song on Youtube. Flying fingers. There’s even a video entitled something like “Five Things Guitarists Can Learn by Watching Molly Tuttle Play White Freightliner.”

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Peter Rowan did a wonderful make-up show, with colorful stories, the day after the rain.

The Goodbye Girls are great, too, with material all over the international map.

Jordan Tice, a performer I didn’t know, was subtly impressive on a country repertoire. He’s from a bluegrass family in Maryland, and has a stellar all-star cast on his latest album, Horse Country. Tice did a wonderful job later in the festival with a session devoted to the music of John Hartford. It was one of the best of such endeavors I’ve seen, involving nearly all the performers in attendance. But not everyone was with the program: Hartford was such a prolific composer that performing a Waylon Jennings song (even if Hartford recorded it) didn’t make much sense.

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Lula Wiles, harmonizing.

One of the MVPs of the festival was fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves, who backed Tuttle, paid tribute to Hartford, and appeared in a duo with banjo player Allison deGroot (as seen in Bruce Molsky’s band).  I didn’t realize Hargreaves—a star fiddler and deep historian of the music—was such a good singer. She’s raw, loud and great. I especially appreciated her version of Leadbelly’s “Out on the Western Plain.” You bet there were female cowboys.

A powerhouse trio of Danny Barnes, Grant Gordy and Joe Walsh (no, not that Joe Walsh) was laid-back, with Barnes proving a strong country-type singer. Barnes told a story about the “gig of fear.” It’s 800 miles away, the audience is stinking drunk, the sign outside just says “live music,” and the pay doesn’t cover the cost of gas. I think I added that last one.

I am a big fan of Rachel Baiman’s voice. She’s half of 10 String Symphony, which has her fiddle paired with Christian Sedelmyer’s. They play other instruments, too, and write memorable songs. Sedelmyer was also frequently on the bandstand all weekend. I have to put this in. Sedelmyer has performed or recorded with:

Jerry Douglas, Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Vince Gill, Kacey Musgraves, Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle, Alison Brown, Sam Bush, Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Bryan Sutton, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Peter Rowan, Andrew Marlin, Steve Earle, Langhorne Slim, The String Cheese Incident, The Indigo Girls, Rayland Baxter, Kelsey Waldon, Caroline Spence, Sons of Bill, The Apache Relay, The Greencards, The DanBerrys, The Black Lillies, Eli West, Mac McAnally, Carolyn Martin (TX Western Swing Hall of Fame, The Time Jumpers), Jenni Lyn Gardner, Sally & George, and Nora Jane Struthers.

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Sierra Hull, with mandolin, saying howdy.

Eli West is a sturdy singer and banjo/guitarist who performed solo on tunes that ranged from “Silver Dagger” to “Isle of France,” a ballad from the 1770s. He must have performed in Scandinavia recently, because he told us about BaconOst, a disgusting-sounding bacon/cheese combo that’s squeezed out of a tube.

festival baconost

I’ve interviewed both Rayna Gellert and Kieran Kane, so it was a pleasure to see them together for an easy-going set. Kane, who has a wry sense of humor, told us we were seeing the same set “we do in Vegas, but minus the dancers.”

Gellert is one of the best fiddle players in the world, and Kane one of the best songwriters, and together they are magic. Kane’s songs are full of wisdom and hard-learned truths, and if you haven’t heard them, you owe yourself. Look especially for the several records he made as Kane Welch and Kaplin. Kane also sang a song by David Francey, an undiscovered genius from Canada by way of Scotland.

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This was the first-ever Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots festival, but there will be another next year.

The bass player and lead singer in the Lonely Heartstrings Band looked like the same guy, so I wasn’t surprised to learn they are twin brothers Charles and George Clements. Amazingly enough, they were raised in the same town, in the same house, with the same parents. Even their birthday is the same! But one sings and the other doesn’t.

Alas, the threatening skies finally delivered on their promise, and it began to pour rain. Peter Rowan and Donna the Buffalo were rained out, but fortunately Rowan turned up the next day and did a fine set that included quite a lot of history, from first meetings with Carter Stanley (resulting in his great song “Carter Stanley’s Tears”) to the founding of Earth Opera with David Grisman.

Sierra Hull is a curious case. She burst on the scene as a precocious mandolin talent, and has matured into a major star and a mature singer. She has a very talented young band that shined in the instrumental pieces. The issue, though, is two-fold. She insists on singing her own songs, which are weak and without distinguishing features, and offers on-stage patter that is superficial and slick.

I wrote down, “Sierra Hull could be the next Alison Krauss if she just sang other people’s songs.” It worked for Linda Ronstadt! I have this same problem with Chris Thile’s band, Punch Brothers. The original songs just sit there, something that can’t be helped by even the most stellar musicians. And Punch Brothers are that.

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Sam Reider (on accordion) brought the bracing compositions from his album Too Hot to Sleep.

Mipso was also rained out, and it was the second time I missed seeing them, but I hope to make up for that. Members of the band shined on a song at the Hartford tribute, and the songs I’ve heard online are very nice.

Lula Wiles have recently signed to Smithsonian Folkways, and at Green Mountain they were as engaging as ever. They delivered a strong version of a Dolly Parton song I didn’t know, “The Pain of Loving You.” And Isa Burke and Ellie Buckland both had lovelorn new songs.

Mandolin Orange were headliners of a sort, and are big stars on the North Carolina music scene. Andrew Marlin, who looks like the Tim Hutton around the time he starred in Ordinary People, is a wizard on the mandolin, as he especially proved during a later gospel set. In Mandolin Orange, with Emily Frantz, he mostly plays his very philosophical songs—some of which were better than others. But they have a lovely sound.

Organizer Jill Turpin told me, “Jim, not in our wildest imaginations could we have ever planned something so magical. We were definitely blessed by some amazing force of nature and somehow, the rain was a magical momentum that bonded everyone, audience and artist alike. We are still glowing. Now the big problem of…how do we top that next year?”

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Mike and Ruthy, going through the Hoot logistics.

OK, let’s journey south a bit to the Summer Hoot, the oasis of a festival put on annually at the Ashokan Center by Mike and Ruthy, a/k/a the core of the Mammals. Ruth Ungar is the daughter of Jay Ungar, who’s been organizing music camps and workshops at Ashokan for 30 years. (And, yes, he wrote “Ashokan Farewell.”)

The Hoot is something of a family affair, as Mike and Ruthy’s kids are much in evidence, Ungar plays with his wife Molly Mason, and also with his ex-wife, Lyn Hardy (Ruthy’s mother). Got all that straight?

festival gongs

The Hoot wakes up to love waves from the gongs.

If you think festivals have gotten too expensive, check out the Summer Hoot. A night in the bunkhouse is only $25, and it covers breakfast! No price gouging at the Hoot, where you can go for a nature walk along the Esopus Creek, and then make it back for the music on the gentle slope of Hoot Hill.

Billy Wylder is a curious band, influenced by the music of Mali. Wylder himself, a dynamic performer, reminds me a bit of Johnny Clegg. He’s not African himself, but he did tour with Bombino, the breakout Saharan guitar star. The band is very multicultural, and they put on a good performance. Wylder’s best song had a title something like “Restless Mutineer,” but not all of the material was of that quality.

festival bill and the belles

Bill and the Belles have a unique pop/old-time sound.

The festival isn’t strictly a folk event—the music is too wide ranging for that. Take Bill and the Belles. The band, the brainchild of Kris Truelsen, is an enchanting mashup of 1930s pop with old-time and swinging gals like the Boswell Sisters. It’s very listenable. Truelsen perfectly recreates what a period singer in thrall to Bing Crosby might have sounded like, if he had both old-time and jazz obsessions.

Aiding in the effort are the Alaska-bred fiddler and singer Kalia Yeagle, and banjo player Grace Van’t Hof, harmonizes with Yeagle. “We quickly discovered our mutual love for rich vocal harmonies and simple catchy melodies,” Truelsen said. “We picked out a few songs we’d been throwing around in various settings that were from the early commercial recording era and it clicked.” Don’t miss DreamSongs Etc, their latest album.

I was also quite taken with the duo of Nadine Landry and Sammy Lind, who can also be seen with their Foghorn String Band at the Oldtones Festival September 6-9. If you can make one more festival this summer, make it that one.

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Sammy Lind and Nadine Landry mix up the old time and the Cajun.

Landry is Acadian, and learned to play Cajun music in Alaska (of all places). Lind is a multi-instrumentalist very strong on old-time music, but also Cajun—which he essayed on banjo as well as fiddle. Landry sings nice and loud, which reminds me what Cajun dances must have been like before microphones. Oh, and Landry sang another heartfelt Dolly Parton song I didn’t know, about a guy who wants to leave as much as you want them to stay.

I saw two fine singer-songwriters at the Hoot, and one of them was Huck Notari, who reminded me of a rural Jesse Winchester. Not that Jesse himself wasn’t rural, in his way. Notari told corny jokes. Here’s one: “What did the chick pea say to the garbanzo bean when it work up with a headache? I falafel.” I liked a song called “Bird’s on the River,” which had no other lyrics other than those.

Of course, the Mammals were wonderful. Playing home base, with their kids and family all around, they were both relaxed and very dynamic. Ruth Unger is an increasingly powerful singer, Like Rhiannon Giddens, she might benefit from a solo album that showcases that side of her talent.

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Little Nora Brown, at 13, does grown-up sets, and her love for the music shines through.

Kudos to Little Nora Brown, who at 13 did an entirely grown up set. I love her between-song patter, which shows both that she’s still a kid but also a serious student of old-time music. She’s the Sierra Hull of her time. Sammy Lind and Nadine Landry sat in on a tune, and they made natural partners. Brown even did a bit of solo shape note singing.

Amber Rubarth was the other good singer-songwriter I heard. She writes crafty little tunes with thoughtful lyrics, and they stay in your head. “What if our hearts were colored glass, and wars were games?” she asked. If you can, catch her starring role in the dramatic film American Folk, which was screened at the Hoot. She’s very natural; her character is just like Rubarth in person.

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Amber Rubarth. We had a (modest) movie star in our midst.

Guy Davis was a first-timer at the Hoot, though I’ve seen him many times (particularly at Clearwater). Mark Murphy was an occasional bass foil. Davis kicked off with Reverend Robert Wilkins” “Prodigal Son,” which the Rolling Stones stole and claimed to have written. “Like Sonny Did” is an affectionate tribute to Sonny Terry.

Let’s see. Amalia had a nice jazzy sound, but weak songs and a pretty bad sax player. Elizabeth Mitchell was fine, also bringing her family into the act. I could listen to her sing anything.

As we were reluctantly leaving, a band called Max’s New Hat was just starting up, with spirited wedding music from the Balkans. They’d be great in some little Brooklyn club, but at a Balkan wedding, too.

Let me add here that I also attended an end-of-summer show at Concerts on the Hill in Easton, Connecticut featuring my friend Danny Tressler. The band is called Amber Anchor, the latest of a string of ensembles Danny has been in. This one featured Andrew Whitten on bass and Jeff Smith on excellent dobro, guitar and mandolins.

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Dan Tressler on fiddle with Jeff Smith (center) and Andrew Whitten.

They did mostly the classics: “Angeline the Baker,” “Jambalaya,” “Hesitation Blues,” “Little Birdie,” “A Pallet on the Floor.” But also curve balls such as Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow.”

I could hear Danny Tressler sing anything, and he’s a superb player also, especially on fiddle but also mandolin and guitar. Smith is also a good singer, and a wizard on dobro and guitar. Maybe this is the group that will hit the big time. Here’s some video, with the group playing Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner” (the same song Molly Tuttle did):

These festivals are still coming up:

Oldtone Roots Music Festival, September 6-9.

Rhythm and Roots, August 31-September 2.

Brooklyn Americana Festival, September 20-23.

Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival

I’m always looking for summer music festivals that celebrate old-time music, and so far my favorites are Oldtones (September 6-9), Caramoor’s American Roots Music Festival (in June) and the Brooklyn Folk Festival (April 5-7 next year).

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Donna the Buffalo go on at 10 p.m. Friday night.

But now there’s a new kid on the block, the Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival in Manchester Center, Vermont. This is the first year, and it’s coming up this weekend. Learn more about it here.

Here’s why I think it’s great: The lineup is a mix of bands I love and bands with great names I don’t know at all–but know will be great. Jill Turpin told me about her enthusiasm for this music, and she has great taste.

Mandolin Orange

Mandolin Orange has great word of mouth.

Among the bands: Mandolin Orange (headliners), Peter Rowan’s Carter Stanley’s Eyes, Sierra Hull, Mipso, Donna the Buffalo, Molly Tuttle, 10 String Symphony (whose Rachel Baiman told me about the event), Upstate Rubdown, Mile 12, Eli West, Rayna Gellert and Kieran Kane (both radio guests of money), Lula Wiles (recently signed to Smithsonian Folkways), Allison de Groot (of Bruce Molsky’s band), Jordan Tice, Twisted Pine (seen several times; they’re great), Matt Flinner Trio, Saints & Liars, Green Mountain Playboys and Carling & Will.

Carling & Will

Check out Carling & Will’s instrumental duets. He makes the instruments, too.

The latter are Will Seeders Mosheim and Carling Berkhout, and I had them on WPKN this week to talk about the festival. They’re native Vermonters, and they told me enthusiastically about a small but enthusiastic old-time scene in the Green Mountain State. Will also makes instruments, including many of those that will be on stage.

The music is spread out over four days, and it sounds very laid back and fun. And in a very nice part of the world. Here’s some Carling & Will video:

 

Danny Schmidt, the Songwriter’s Songwriter, Does it Again

The song is called “Standard Deviation,” and it’s from the stellar singer-songwriter Danny Schmidt’s album of that name, which is forthcoming next year.
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I get sent a lot of troubadour records, and it’s rare that they rise above the just-OK. Schmidt is a clear exception, and he creates story-songs that are wise, insightful and—this is crucial—melodic. On paper, the songs have to many words to be good songs—they read more like short stories. But Schmidt wraps them around some catchy compositions.

I had Danny on my WPKN radio show a while back, talking about his Detroit/Henry Ford song, “Southland Street” (from Enjoying the Fall).

Henry was a man of steel/He built his cars in twos and fours/With a Motown sort of soulful feel/And phatter than before

The factory was made of gold/And all the workers loved him so/And thirteen hour days are slow/But they kept the children fed

Every year at Christmas time/He’d send em home with pork and wine/So sound the horn and ring the chimes/It’s Christmas time again

Refrain: They had it all til it all went south to Southland St./They had it all til it all went headin’ south/Hammer fall and strike the steel and bend the beat/They had it all til it all went headin’ south

Well, he’s done it again with “Standard Deviation.” It’s a song about theoretical physics, string theory, quantum mechanics—and love. A woman with chalk on her nose (calling Madam Curie) doesn’t get taken seriously by the boy’s club. But then she meets a female kindred spirit and, boy, are they attracted to each other.

danny schmidt standard

They touched in ways that no one else could see/The girl’s eyes lit with fire, like milk and kerosene/It was the smartest thing she’d ever heard and the hottest thing she’d seen/So she grabbed her by the brainstem and she threw her to the floor/And they kissed like their equations had never balanced quite before/Cause every lonesome thesis just describes the unobserved/There’s always one who’ll fall upon the tail of every curve/There’s so many locks, so many doors, so many twisted keys Within the standard deviation from the mean.

Here’s the video:

Schmidt swears it’s not simply a feminist song, though it certainly is that. “It’s about two people with very esoteric passions, and most people don’t understand them very well,” he said. “When they meet, it’s incredibly alluring. And, of course, it’s also hard for women to be taken seriously in a male arena like theoretical physics.”

Schmidt compares the encounter to a meeting he had at a songwriter’s conference with a singer who shared his love for college football. OK, well, maybe that wasn’t quite so passionate.

danny schmidt with maizy and carrie

The album should be out in February. Schmidt is currently on the road, in Denver, with his songwriter wife Carrie Elkin (they have a 22-month-old, Maizy; her new album is The Penny Collector). “Standard Deviation” is the first single.

Schmidt is quite successful on Kickstarter, and he raised $27,115 to produce and release the new record. “I’m thrilled to be back in the studio working on a new record,” he told his supporters. “This has been an interesting period in my life, learning to balance music-making with baby-making, and finding a new comfortable rhythm now that Maizy has come into our world. It’s been incredibly humbling, incredibly joyful, incredibly exhausting, and incredibly inspiring. I can’t even remember what I imagined it might be.  But it’s certainly exceeded the foggiest memory of my wildest imagination.”

Caramoor and Clearwater

Let’s start with Clearwater 2018, because I went there first. I’m no dewy teenager myself, but I’m increasingly convinced that music festivals need to skew younger. The 60s were a half-century ago, and it’s time to recognize that festivals that stick to Woody’s (and Pete’s) children won’t be around for that much longer.

Besides, there’s an incredible variety of great new music that would fit comfortably at a folk festival, so why simply hire the usual suspects? The Falcon Ridge festival is a prime offender here, each year offering essentially the same lineup. I’m not putting the performers down, but it certainly kills my enthusiasm about attending.

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River Whyless: bringing youthful energy to Clearwater 2018. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Fortunately, Clearwater, held in the lovely Croton Point Park, isn’t like that. I attended on Sunday, and was pleased to see River Whyless and Mipso among the greyer beards.

In fact, River Whyless was the highlight of the festival for me, because I love discovering new groups. Blessed with three lead singers, the Asheville, North Carolina-based group presents a sort of electronically enhanced Americana. It’s all down to the strength of the songs, but Ryan, Halli, Daniel and Alex deliver one earworm after another. Plus, they’re incredibly tight on stage.

juggler

What’s Clearwater without jugglers? Didn’t see any mimes, though. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’m saying this about them despite the fact that Ryan blew me off for a WPKN interview this week. We’ll reschedule. He’ll grovel, and we’ll get over it.

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Rhiannon Giddens, force of nature. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Rhiannon Giddens is a force of nature, and was separately entrancing on the workshop and Rainbow stages. Solo, as she was in the workshop, is one of the best ways to catch her. She’s funny, tells interesting stories, and can do amazing things with a banjo and fiddle, not to mention unaccompanied voice (as in the Gaelic tune she essayed brilliantly).

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Political displays are part of Clearwater. Pete’s legacy. (Jim Motavalli photo)

With her band, she led off with a couple of generic numbers, and I started to get worried, but things improved when she offered a searing fiddle tune, and let ex-Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins take the spotlight for “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Oh, and she played “Water Boy” and that great old John Hurt song, “Louis Collins.”

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Dave Alvin sneaks a smoke before hitting the Rainbow Stage. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Dave Alvin have a new album together, Downey to Lubbock (their hometowns), and they brought it to Clearwater. They’ve been friends for 30 years and it showed in their ultra-relaxed performances, also on the Rainbow and workshop stages.

Jimmie Dale and Dave

Alvin and Jimmie Dale Gilmore join forces for some music making. (Jim Motavalli photo)

While at the latter, Gilmore told a long, amusing but ultimately pointless story that prompted him to quote Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, “Jimmy Dale Gilmore’s train makes all the stops.” Or “maybe none of them,” the artist added.

Also cool was a mini-set I saw of Mike + Ruthy, a/k/a the Mammals, playing with her father and mother. Ruthy sang the hell out of an Etta James song. She could actually get more popular by making an album as simply a belter (as, basically, Giddens did), but it’s not necessarily the right move.

terrance simien

Terrance Simien keeps the kids entertained. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Cajun artist Terrance Simien was a cool children’s performer.

Over to Caramoor, where for something like the fifth year in a row I enjoyed the American Roots Music Festival.

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Valerie June: A vivid presence. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The headliners, Valerie June and Aimee Mann, were spot on. Both offered strong sets and chatted amiably with the audience–June, cosmically, and Mann, wittily.

It’s too bad that the acoustics in the Venetian Theater (essentially, a big tent) make it difficult to hear all the words, because both of these women are consummate lyricists.

Rain threatened the whole day but fortunately never arrived. Some of the afternoon performers–Anthony da Costa, Front Country–lacked strong material. His songs sounded all the same, and hers melted into an undifferentiated mess, but she could sing and he could play (electric guitar). Hooks? Choruses?

caramoor

The Caramoor grounds are gorgeous. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I liked Ryanhood, a male duo. The story of how they got together was amusing, and also produced their strongest song. They’re kind of a Simon and Garfunkel act, minus the Simon rancor and contempt for his partner. They should have left the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” alone, though.

Night Tree

Night Tree: they could play. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Also pretty darned good was Night Tree (introduced as “Night Train”). They’re refugees from the New England Conservatory of Music, and all really accomplished players. The sound is like chamber Celtic, if that’s a thing, with the novel addition of an alto/baritone saxophonist, Zach Mayer.

hunter & seamons

Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons fit well together. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons are an easygoing but politicized blues duo. The two are evenly matched.

Amythyst Kiah has a voice as powerful as Odetta’s but I haven’t heard her do a whole lot with it. I seem to remember that she sang the same songs, including “Jolene,” the last time I saw her. And she needs more accompaniment than her own rudimentary guitar.

Also fine, though I saw them only briefly, were Americana artists Lily Henley (who adds a touch of Israel in there) and Ali Dineen. I’d like to hear more from both of them.

If you’re interested in catching the festival bug, there’s some great ones coming up. I’m excited about the Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival August 16-19 in Manchester, Vermont. The lineup includes almost every young band I like, including 10 String Symphony, Lula Wiles, Donna the Buffalo, the Stray Birds and Rayna Gellert with Kieran Kane.

Also the Newport Folk Festival July 27-29 (wish it didn’t sell out almost immediately every year), the First Acoustics House Concert series (featuring The Levins, Abbie Gardner, Eric Andersen, Goodnight Moonshine and others) in Brooklyn, Pleasantville’s Music Festival July 14, CT-Folk Fridays in New Haven (with a festival featuring Martin Sexton, Alternate Roots, Upstate Rubdown and the Jesse Terry Trio September 8).

Here’s some video of Dave Alvin singing Merle Haggard’s “Never Swim Kern River Again,” with Jimmie Dale Gilmore on second guitar:

The Horse-Eyed Men Invade New England

Fresh from their triumph at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, Providence-based family band The Horse-Eyed Men will barnstorm New England for the first week of May, opening up for retired preacher and acrobat Willy Mason.Oh, he’s a consummate songwriter, too.

horse-eyed men

The Horse-Eyed Men are looking for truth in New England.

The bill’s first stop will be The Space Ballroom in Hamden, Connecticut on May 1 at 8 p.m. Led by brothers Noah and Dylan Harley, the Horse-Eyed Men valiantly, if ill-advisedly, attempt to mash classic country, surf, and a wee bit of Captain Beefheart into a coherent sound, mixing the best of the Louvin Brothers with the worst of The Kinks.

Horse-Eyed Men

Willy Mason: Weirdly related to the Horse-Eyed Men, but worth seeing anyway.

“We recently completed a 23andme exam which proved once and for all that we are actually related, and we have been wanting to play with Willy for a while,” says Noah Harley, the elder of the two. “We planned the tour with Mason in grateful celebration of our confirmed fraternity, and also of spring.” The Horse-Eyed Men will offer proof of their shared genetic material in the form of close harmonies and the sort of petty, incessant banter that only siblings are capable of. As the headliner, Willy Mason is a singer and songwriter from Martha’s Vineyard known for his broad, generous baritone and smart, sensitive songs. Mason has toured with numerous luminaries including Death Cab for Cutie, Radiohead, Mumford & Sons, and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. After taking a siesta off from the bizarre, serpentine world of the music industry Mason has begun to tour again regionally, returning from a sold out U.K. tour in March 2018. Tickets are on sale, come and sing in spring with us! Here’s the Horse-Eyed Men on the B-Side TV show with the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Hubby Jenkins as host:

From the First Pew: The Brooklyn Folk Festival 2018

In chronological order, impressions from the 2018 Brooklyn Folk Festival—the tenth annual! St. Ann’s Church wasn’t always packed, but it was enough of the time over the three days to make a bigger venue seem sensible.

jackson lynch

Jackson Lynch, an MVP, playing jug band music and New Orleans R&B.

Eli Smith, who was everywhere over the weekend (as both player and organizer), doesn’t think that has to happen yet, but if the crowd keeps growing it will be inevitable. Remember, this is a packed house for…old-time country music! In New York!

birdman of rome

The Birdman of Rome: a street performer you won’t soon forget.

The crowds are a mix of young and old, fuddy duddys and the tragically hip. It bodes well for a future for this music, especially considering how young many of the performers were. I cornered comics legend R. Crumb, who was playing with the East River String Band, and asked this legendary pessimist about the human condition if he found the number of under-30 audience members and musicians inspiring. “Absolutely,” he said. “It’s uplifting. It makes me feel we can avoid the end of the road.”

downhill strugglers

The Downhill Strugglers, with (from left) Eli Smith, John Cohen, Jackson Lynch and Walker Shepard.

Speaking of young, they don’t come any younger (at least not on stage) than Little Nora Brown, who’s all of 12. She’s making steady progress, and can now legitimately open the Brooklyn Folk Festival. At 12! She invokes names like Roscoe Holcomb as inspiration, and conjures Uncle Dave Macon as she flays away on her banjo, clawhammer style.

east river string band

The East River String Band. That’s Mr. R. Crumb on the right.

Young Brown probably doesn’t really know what “Morphine” or “Half Shaved” are really about, but she still sings them with conviction. She even essayed some shape note singing, and offered a compelling duet with fiddle player Stephanie Coleman.

Little Nora Brown

Little Norah Brown last year at Old Tones, channeling Ola Belle Reed.

Mamie Minch and Tamar Korn were engaging, playing music written long before they were born. “Over the Garden Wall,” “Royal Telephone” (written around the time of the first transatlantic call), and such delights as “Ragtime Millionaire,” recorded by William Moore in 1928.

Mamie Minch and Tamara Korn

Mamie Minch, Meredith Axelrod, Tamara Korn and Craig Ventresco.

Every tooth in my head is solid gold/Make those boys look icy cold/I brush my teeth with diamond dust/And I don’t care if the bank would bust/All you little people take your hat off to me/Because I’m a ragtime millionaire.

 

Mamie has a gorgeous voice, an alto that even shades into tenor, and it rings out clear as a bell. She’s even better as a songwriter, on the evidence of her wistful ballad “No More is Love.” Korn, meanwhile, is a totally engaging performer, providing beautiful harmonies, dramatic arm movements and mouth instruments. The pair have a seven-inch record together on Jalopy, the in-house label for the sponsoring Jalopy Theater in Red Hook.

ever-lovin jug band

The Ever-Lovin’ Jug Band looking south from Canada.

I was entranced by the Ever-Lovin’ Jug Band from Waterloo, Ontario. Julia Narveson and Bill Howard are big fans of the Memphis Jug Band, Jim Kweskin and Memphis Minnie. Anything with a jug. “”Pretty much if you are into old country music and work backwards in time, you will hit jug band music at some point,” Narveson told her local paper in Canada. “I friggin’ love it so much.”

Both Howard and Narveson sing this south-of-the-border stuff with absolute conviction and authenticity, and they can play their asses off, too. This was my discovery of the festival. I liked the American jug band, the Steel City Jug Stompers (from Birmingham, Alabama), too. They understand this music is supposed to fun, and played with all-in energy.

king isto

King Isto’s Tropical String Band dreams of Hawaii.

Another discovery was King Isto’s Tropical String Band, who invoke the islands (but live and freeze in the tri-state area). A husband (brilliant guitarist and singer Christopher White, a/k/a Isto), a wife (Ellen), another guy (Steve, I think)—and pure magic (especially “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”). Influences include “King Bennie Nawahi, Sol Hoopii, The Moe Family, and other Hawaiian musicians from the 1920s and 1930s.”

Molsky's drifters

Bruce Molsky’s Mountain Drifters: a musical peak.

Jackson Lynch is one of most valuable players at the Brooklyn fest every year, sitting in with everybody. In addition to his usual spots with the Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues and the Downhill Strugglers (which also includes former New Lost City Rambler John Cohen and promoter Smith) he appeared this year fronting Jackson and the Janks. New Orleans R&B.

steel city

The Steel City Jug Slammers from Alabama had the energy down.

And it was damned good, with Lynch out front (minus his fiddle, but with a guitar). The band featured a bass saxophone (doing the horn parts), drums and a lap guitar for the solos. Unorthodox, but it worked.

Clifton Hicks, an archaeologist and Georgia farmer when he’s not making banjos or music, was also a revelation. He’s a musical historian, and presents old songs—from “Pretty Polly” and “East Virginia” to “Big Stone Gap”—as carefully curated bulletins from the past. But it’s totally alive, not archival. And he really sings clearly, as well as being a brilliant banjo player. How have I missed him?

Axelrod and Ventresco

Meredith Axelrod and Craig Ventresco. The view from 1905.

I’ve seen Molsky’s Mountain Drifters before, about a year ago, and they’ve only gelled since then. Their set was flawless. They all sing and play well, but Molsky himself is in a class by himself—maybe our greatest living old-time country singer and musician (banjo, guitar, fiddle). “The Little Carpenter” was it for me.

Jerron Paxton is a prodigiously talented—on piano, fiddle and guitar. I hate to keep throwing out superlatives, but it’s just true. He needs to be known nationally. I enjoyed seeing the dawn-of-the-20th-century-oriented Meredith Axelrod again, this time with partner Craig Ventresco. He’s superlative on anything with strings. I like this bio:

Craig Ventresco plays a repertoire of songs from the brief but fecund era of acoustically recorded music. Like Fred Van Eps—the gifted banjoist who recorded hundreds of cylinders and 78 rpm records between 1897 and 1927—who mastered his instrument by listening to earlier recordings, Mr. Ventresco has developed a repertoire of songs learned by listening to wax cylinders and shellac records of the acoustic era. For over twenty years, San Franciscans have heard Craig Ventresco’s evocative guitar playing on street corners and in cafes. He has performed and recorded with Bo Grumpus and Janet Klein.

Pokey LaFarge

Pokey LaFarge: A return to the Brooklyn Folk Fest, solo this time.

Michael Daves and Chris “Critter” Eldridge (from the Punch Brothers) offered jaw-dropping guitar duets and a lot of Stanley Brothers. Their obvious joy in playing together was very infectious. “I never get to play bluegrass!” Eldridge said.

Daves and Eldridge

Michael Daves and Chris “Critter” Eldridge:. They loved playing together.

I can’t write about it all—the music sprawled across three days!—but it was well curated by Smith. As usual, there was great international music that emerges out of the melting-pot diaspora of New York. Women’s Raga Massive, Radio Jarocho and Zenen Zeferino (from Mexico), Bulla En El Bario (Afro-Colombian), Seyyah (Turkey) and Elizabeth Mitchell doing Spanish songs with Suni Paz. I liked all of it.

In the workshop room, I caught some of the ‘60s hippie film Gold, which was almost too inept to be camp (though copious nudity probably won it some followers) and stopped in for a workshop on Alan Lomax’ Global Jukebox.

The only thing on the negative side of the ledger is a stiff back from those too-upright church pews. By the way, the music continues all year–at the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook. Check out Roots & Ruckus on Wednesday nights, because they’re a festival in one night. Jalopy now has a burgeoning record label, and all sorts of worthwhile projects, including lots of music instruction.