The New Tradition at Clearwater 2015

Musical tradition is alive and well at the Clearwater Festival, the second without founders Pete or Toshi Seeger. That’s good, but what’s even better is that the tradition isn’t stagnant, it’s growing and evolving, just as it’s already done.

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Dom Flemons with Brian Farrow: Respecting the tradition, but broadening it. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’m no fan of folk purists, who blanch at the sight of an electric guitar or a plug-in keyboard. For years, the only electric bass at some festivals I attended was employed by the zydeco musicians because, well, zydeco doesn’t work without electricity. Clearwater today has an open-ears booking policy, and that’s why you see younger people among the many tie-died, ponytailed greybeards who show up, even on soggy weekends like this one was.

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Environmental action at Clearwater. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Dom Flemons, late of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is known for unearthing the hidden history of the black string bands, but on his latest album he’s branching out stylistically into R&B, country (a Roy Acuff song!) and more, as well as original songs like the celebration of east Nashville cuisine that is “Hot Chicken.” Flemons brought a trio to Clearwater’s Hudson Stage on Saturday, with Brian Farrow on bass and fiddle, and Dante Pope on drums.

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Expect the unexpected at Clearwater. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Dom’s booming, theatrical voice has brought a lot of old 78s to life–who knew that “Polly Put the Kettle On” was a cool song with English roots? But these days he’s after bigger game.

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Guy Davis in full song. His originals are future mainstays of the tradition. (Jim Motavalli photo)

You could say much the same for Guy Davis, whose big, rich baritone, paired with fluent guitar and a wailing harp, provide him all the tools he needs to recreate bluesmen like Robert Johnson (who he once played onstage). But Davis, who had to fight off rainstorms as Flemons did, is similarly painting with a broader palette these days. The original “Kokomo Kidd” is about white bootleggers using black bagmen during Prohibition, but it moves on to document political payoffs in the present day.

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Sam Amidon: Don’t let the banjo fool you–he’s an avant gardist. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Sam Amidon has no limits as a musician, and boy does he tell funny (and surreal) stories. He’s steeped in the tradition—as the son of traveling folk musicians, he haunted these same grounds as a kid—and became a prodigy fiddle champion, but what he’s doing these days is a unique blend of public domain songs and modern electronica, as in a “Walking Boss” with a steady funk rhythm from the brilliant keyboard man Thomas Bartlett, a childhood friend. Banjo and beats made an unlikely but happy marriage. Check out Amidon’s latest album, recorded with jazz guitarist Bill Frisell in (somehow appropriate for bedrock American songs) Iceland.

Amidon is evolving into a showman. During a keyboard interlude he jumped off the stage and gave us 24 pushups, and a solo showcase for fiddle featured squawkings that the late Ornette Coleman would probably reject as too out there. The set included a song Amidon said he’d “heard on country radio a few days ago,” but he made it his own. Anything could happen, and did.

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David Crosby: It’s still 1972. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The same could not be said of a set by CS&N’s David Crosby. Looking healthy and in fine voice as a solo musician, Crosby nonetheless stuck to a set that—at least in the part I heard—never ventured past the early ‘70s. He must perform “Guinnivere,” “Déjà Vu” and “Cowboy Movie” in his sleep. He also revisited old love with a passable version of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free” (never mind that he’s been slagging her off in the press lately).

Crosby lives in the past; Neil Young celebrates today, and that explains their relative popularity.

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Joseph Arthur: The guitar didn’t make him a folkie. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Joseph Arthur was also solo, but just standing there with a guitar didn’t make him a folkie. Arthur is always adventurous with found sounds on his album, and at Clearwater he looked sleepy and disheveled but nonetheless turned in a fine set with colors from effects pedals and sampling. “The Ballad of Boogie Christ” sure got them listening. And the Talking Heads’ “Naïve Melody” was a good cover choice, especially since I’d also heard it covered by Shawn Colvin in the car on the way up.

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Mike and Ruthy getting funky. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And two thumbs up for Mike + Ruthy. They’re Clearwater royalty, having performed in the Mammals with Pete’s grandson, Tao Rodriguez Seeger. And Ruthy is, of course, the daughter of stage mainstay Jay Ungar and folk singer Lyn Hardy. But their set was anything but traditional. The highlight of the new album Bright as You Can is Mike’s song “Rock On Little Jane,” and the performance at Clearwater retained the soulful horn section that appears on the album. And Ruthy really belted that song out, with the video proof right here:

Later, both Mike and Ruthy were in the rocking backing band of ex-B-52 Kate Pierson. Is that the way Tom Paxton would have done it? Actually, Paxton rocked it up now and then, too. Catch more like-minded music at Mike + Ruthy’s Ashokan, New York Summer Hoot in August.

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Los Lobos: A taste for classic rock. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’ve always wanted to see Shelby Lynne, but she phoned in sick. A reshuffled Los Lobos was just great, showing an unexpected talent for playing not only their own songs but some well-chosen classic rock—“Rattlesnake Shake” by Peter Green-era Fleetwood Mac, “40,000 Headmen” by Traffic and “Bertha” by the Grateful Dead. Did they end with “La Bamba”? You bet, but it worked.

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Thomas Wesley Stern: close harmonies and fine originals. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Folk festivals are also great places to make unexpected discoveries, and mine at Clearwater was a young band from south Jersey called Thomas Wesley Stern. They played not any of the festival’s five stages but in some kind of natural foods tent. I loved their version of “Cumberland Gap,” which they correctly pointed out dates to the Civil War. It’s a pretty big band, with twin fiddles and not one but three strong singers who excel at close harmonies.

The self-released Never Leaving is a strong debut album. I was worried when I saw it was all originals—weak material is the bane of a lot of new bands—but I should have had more faith. The album is strong from first note to last.

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Angelique Kidjo borne aloft on highlife guitar. (Jim Motavalli photo)

African singer Angelique Kidjo (she’s from Benin) was also a great Clearwater addition. An internationalist who’s covered a lot of stylistic ground as a solo artist, her tree-trunk-strong voice anchors everything. At Clearwater she gave us a rootsy show, with highlife guitar and plentiful percussion keeping her rocking.

I actually didn’t hear anything bad in a full day of listening, and that’s high praise. Neko Case was in good spirits and that classic country voice of hers pierced the clouds. If I could offer her a brief bit of advice, though, it would be to spice things up a bit. She performed only original songs in the same mid-tempo, and some of them didn’t stick in the mind. It was good to see a favorite singer, Kelly Hogan, backing her up.

Neko Case

Neko Case: That voice cuts through the fog. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kate Pierson, also singing well, could use some stronger material, too. The Chapin Sisters harmonized exuberantly, and I loved the Everly Brothers songs—but maybe a few deeper tracks than just the big Top 40 hits? I’m sure there was great stuff I missed, and not mentioning it here probably just means I didn’t see it.

But this a strong day of festival music, thanks to an adventurous booking policy. I didn’t camp, but I’m a happy camper, anyway.

Old-Time Rules at the Traveling Man Bluegrass Festival

It’s all a blur to some people, but there are some pretty significant differences between what’s called “old-time” country music and bluegrass. Listen up students, because as you may well know the countrified Bill Monroe listened to popular music and jazz (one and the same thing in the ‘40s) and melded them into something entirely new. Bent one way, the fusion produced the country swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Twisted another, bluegrass was the result.

Old-time, which made the mainstream with groups like the Carter Family, never went away, of course, and thrives today—even in places like New York, where the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook, Brooklyn is a haven.

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Two thirds of Dubl Handi (Hilary Hawke and Brian Geltner) at Traveling Man. The beer tent was next door. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Traveling Man Bluegrass Festival, in Tappan, New York June 15, did indeed include some bluegrass—the Jersey Corn Pickers and Buddy Merriam and Back Roads certainly qualified. But it also featured my old friends Cricket Tell the Weather, for whom bluegrass is just one arrow in the quiver—and new favorites Dubl Handi, who are old-time to the core.

Dubl Handi on stage, making it clear they love to play together. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Dubl Handi on stage, making it clear they love to play together. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Brooklyn-based Dubl Handi is Hilary Hawke on banjo and lead vocals, Jon Ladeau on guitar and Brian Geltner on washboard, suitcase and about half a drum kit. Hawke is out front, and she’s a hugely talented banjo player (steeped in Dock Boggs, Earl Scruggs and Mike Seeger, as well as young turks like Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka and Noam Pikelny).

Here’s Dubl Handi playing “Lost John”:

Hawke is also a great, expressive singer, with her craft honed in acts like the M Shanghai String Band (saw ‘em in Yonkers once), The Me-Oh My-Ohs, and many more. One of my beefs with bluegrass sometimes is that the vocalists seem to be tonelessly ripping through the vocals (even on real weepies!) to get to the hot, many-note solos. Old-time playing serves the song. Geltner, whose background is in all kinds of music, including rock, has figured out how to play drums—rare in this music—without overwhelming the soloists.

Here’s the band again with “Ida Red”:

“Hilary and I started out just friends,” Geltner told me. “She would just accompany herself. Then we started to get together to play at farmer’s markets and places like that. It sounded so good we decided to record it. That was 2011 or 2012, and we came out with our first album, Up Like the Clouds.”

Once more, with “Walking in My Sleep”:

The new one, Morning in a New Machine, came out June 10. It’s hard to pick a favorite. Both are exuberant celebrations of everything that’s great about old-time music—where the feel matters more than how many notes you play.

You were wondering about that name? “It comes from the Columbus Washboard Company’s Dubl Handi washboard from the 1800s,” Hawke told me. “It might be nice to mention also that we were named the number one bluegrass band of the year by the Village Voice last November.”

Of course, they’re not a bluegrass band, but as I said these distinctions are all a big blur to people anyway. I wish I could recommend some Dubl Handi gigs but Hawke has her summer booked playing banjo in a production of “Oklahoma” at Bard College’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. Click here for details.

This was the fourth annual Traveling Man Bluegrass Festival, and the very reasonably priced event was a benefit for such worthy causes as the Shriners Hospital Transportation Fund, the Association for Metro Area Autistic Children and the CJ Foundation for SIDS Counseling. The German Masonic Park is a really great venue, an old-fashioned music “grove” with permanent beer halls for the Oktoberfests and grills to make the kielbasa for the polka parties. The audience sits in the shade at picnic tables.

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Cricket Tell the Weather, with Andrea Asprelli up front. (Jim Motavalli photo)

It was also a treat to reconnect with Cricket Tell the Weather as a quartet in their new incarnation, with fiddler/vocalist Andrea Asprelli clearly in charge and up front. Doug Goldstein is on banjo, Jeff Picker on guitar and Sam Weber on bass. Asprelli’s writing a ton of new songs, including this one, “If I Had My Way,” which is a smart adaptation of the old standard done by Blind Willie Johnson, the Reverend Gary Davis and others. The folk process at work!

Horse-Eyed Men: Like a Rhinestone Cowboy

I had a singular encounter with the band of brothers known as Horse-Eyed Men at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, and since then I’ve had them on my WPKN-FM radio show.

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Dylan and Noah Harley are the Horse-Eyed Men.

They have the energy of the Avett Brothers, but with songs that are far more slyly subversive. A case in point is this one, “Come on Cowboy,” which isn’t about the usual macho man bar encounter.

The Horse-Eyed Men – Come on Cowboy from Horatio Baltz on Vimeo.

The Horse-Eyed Men are Dylan and Noah Harley, originally from Providence, Rhode Island. Dylan wrote “Come on Cowboy,” and here describes how he conjured it into being:

I wrote Cowboy on my birthday, July 5 in the summer of ’13. It might have been that fresh mountain air, the burly road crews of Vermont or the pop country radio pumping the airwaves full of hetero-normative schlock, but somewhere between Rutland and Brattleboro, the atmosphere thickened into a song.

Most of the words were written in my shorts by the pool, picturing my Caballero: one part mystery, two parts musk, a deep voice and thick eyebrows. Who doesn’t want to be swept off their feet by a supreme gentleman crooner? What’s more macho than two men in love? What percentage of Brad Paisley’s fan base isn’t “just a guy”? Come on Nashville. Come on America. Come on Cowboy.

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The Horse-Eyed Men at the Brooklyn Folk Festival recently. (Jim Motavalli photo)