Musical Discovery at the Summer Festivals, 2016

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

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas

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

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

Hat Fitz and Cara

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

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

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

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

Uncle Earl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suitcase Junket

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

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

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

Lula Wiles

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

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

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

Brother Brothers

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

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


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

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

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

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

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