Fun at the Festivals, 2014

It’s festival time again, and I’m getting to as many as I can, including Clearwater (the first one without Pete and Toshi Seeger) and the Caramoor American Roots Festival. Both had their delights.

bruce molsky

Bruce Molsky at Caramoor (with Michael Daves partially obscured). He’s also a threat on guitar and banjo. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I relished the chance to finally connect with Bruce Molsky at Caramoor. He was debuting a new trio with banjoist extraordinaire Tony Trischka and guitarist Michael Daves (whose new album is a duet with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek). This was only their second time playing live, but Bruce told me there’s been a lot of offers so expect them to pop up somewhere else.

cricket tell the weather

Cricket Tell the Weather rips it up at Caramoor. (Jim Motavalli photo

I consider Bruce our finest solo old-time music guy, now that Mike Seeger’s passed, and it was wonderful to see him live, especially with such stellar company. He’s singing a lot, too, with “The Blackest Crow” and “Jawbone” my favorites. There’s a video of him singing that with Scottish singer Julie Fowlis.

joe crookston

Joe Crookston (left) in the sunken garden. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Highlights of Caramoor for me included seeing the new, slimmed-down Cricket Tell the Weather, a group that’s making giant leaps forward in material and stage presentation—with singer/fiddle player Andrea Asprelli out front. “Remington,” which they did early, is an award-winning Asprelli song about the days when gun manufacturing ruled the Connecticut economy.

miss tess

Miss Tess at the hootenany, channeling her inner Pete Seeger. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Miss Tess and the Talkbacks aren’t folk exactly; more like a soul stew of Americana styles. Miss Tess has a swinging style that enlivens whatever genre. As I’ve pointed out, she’s also known to revive some forgotten gems.

Caramoor has a tradition in which all the performers gather in a beautiful grove and take turns getting everybody singing along to folk songs. Matt Turk, Miss Tess, Andrea Asprelli and Jason Borisoff of Cricket, Bruce Molsky and Mark Miller of Spuyten Duyvil all took turns in a set loosely based on Pete Seeger songs. In the waning light, it was magical.

laura cantrell

Laura Cantrell: Country roots without Nashville glitz. (Jim Motavalli photo

In the evening, Rosanne Cash took us on trip through the South with the very strong (and strongly autobiographical) album The River and the Thread. Performing the album in its entirety (plus a few greatest hits), she exhibited the kind of major label, moving-right-along smoothness that mainly eludes the genial, laid-back performers earlier in the day. That’s not to criticize them at all—I like it relaxed.

rufus wainwright

Rufus Wainwright: Great, but consider the audience, man! (Jim Motavalli photo)

The only dud of the day was the Lone Bellow, a mainstream “country” act that put everything wrong with Nashville music on full display. It was telling that mandolin player Kanene Pipkin’s instrument was all but drowned out in the blare. They got the “bellow” part right.

Speaking of country, I loved hearing Laura Cantrell at Clearwater. She’s a keeper of the flame for classic country, and played deep tracks from Bakersfield and the Deep South in a radio career on WFMU. But she’s no purist–look to see her touring with pop band Camera Obscura this summer.

Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson: The world’s greatest one-man orchestra. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Richard Thompson was absolutely stunning as a solo act, because it brings his unrepeatable guitar playing to the fore. Like Jerry Miller of Eilen Jewell’s band (and the Sacred Shakers) he manages to distill every great Americana style into each note, but then adds Celtic flavoring as well. Rufus Wainwright was utterly distinctive, too, but seemed unaware that Clearwater has a rather different audience than cabaret night at a New York bar. With those parents, he’s got an inner folkie somewhere.

Guy Davis, who’d just lost his amazing mother, Ruby Dee, was great in several contexts. He’s one of our best blues guys. Kids should be following him around.

Guy Davis

Guy Davis: A rootsy treat in several contexts. Here he is on the family stage. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I love festivals for new discoveries. At Caramoor, it was balladeer Joe Crookston, who has both a strong voice and great songs—including one called “Blue Tatoo” about Holocaust survivor Dina Jacobson that grew into a documentary film.

At Clearwater, I stopped by the dance tent and was introduced to Jesse Lége and Bayou Brew. Jesse’s a veteran of 40 years of Louisiana dance halls, and it’s lucky for us he now lives in New Jersey. I don’t know the name of the song in this video, but bass player Evelyn Schneider told me Jesse’s got a huge repertoire and is apt to spring unknown songs on his band.

Catch these folks if you can, and maybe get a Cajun dance lesson as part of the experience.

close indian point

We all hate fracking and nukes near cities, but are renewables ready for the prime time? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Finally, I love the anti-nuke and anti-fracking signs all over Clearwater. Yes, the stages are solar powered, but I’m not sure New York is really ready to unplug from both nuclear power (the nearby Indian Point) and fracked natural gas. New York Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins things we can, since the flyer I was handed calls for banning fracking, phasing out nukes and having 100 percent clean energy by 2030. I’m all for it, sure, but let’s see the actual blueprint for keeping the lights on with intermittent power.

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