Celebrating Roots Music in Caramoor’s Gardens

I’ve seen the Carolina Chocolate Drops four times, and Rhiannon Giddens under her own name three. You could say I’m a fan, of both the group and of Rhiannon as a solo act. Her show at New York’s Caramoor this year, ending a near-perfect day of outdoor shows and jams as part of the American Roots Music Festival, was an ideal balancing act.

caramoor 2017 rhiannon giddens

Giddens (above) isn’t a cult favorite anymore; she’s gone mainstream. A capacity audience jammed the Venetian Theater, and gave her standing ovations before she was even halfway through. The turning point was a luminous public performance of Odetta’s song “Waterboy,” and her 2015 album Tomorrow is My Turn, produced by T-Bone Burnett. It’s a fine album, but by showcasing her (stellar) vocals, it presents an incomplete picture of what Giddens can do.

Rhiannon Giddens

Giddens was on fire, and she covered all her bases. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A show I saw in Brooklyn promoted the Tomorrow album, and as such left me somewhat frustrated—she hardly touched her banjo or fiddle, though she’s a virtuoso on both. The situation reminded me of the experience of the brilliant Nat King Cole, whose skills as a pianist were pushed in the background after that magnificent foghorn of a voice hit the pop charts—and stayed there. Cole even made an album as a singer with George Shearing at the keys—a shame.

But solo Giddens is stretching her huge wings, and the Caramoor show was unreservedly great, with the full range of her talents on display. She’s already on her way to becoming a major star, and she couldn’t be more deserving of it. Between the opening “Spanish Mary” (taken from Lost on the River/Basement Tapes album of unrecorded Bob Dylan) to Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman” encore, she was simply on fire.

Highlights included a furious fiddle duet with ace collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, who keeps the traditional fires burning; a string of great original songs centered on the African-American experience of slavery (taken from this year’s Freedom Highway, co-produced by Powell); an intense give and take with Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins on the spiritual “Go Where I Send Thee”; a master vocal class with Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” and even a Cajun interlude.

Cole Quest

Cole Quest (left) is walking in Grandpa Guthrie’s footsteps. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There was so much music at the American Roots Music Festival it’s hard to do justice to all of it. Spuyten Duyvil, favorite sons (and daughter) here, were their usual boisterous selves (and lead the Grateful Dead-song social hour later). Cole Quest is Woody Guthrie’s grandson, and Arlo’s nephew. His band the City Pickers was a mainstay of the event, mixing it up with nearly everyone there. Quest plays dobro and does justice to Grandpa’s songs.

Kaia Kater

Kaia Kater (right) was a bit subdued, but well worth seeing. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I loved banjo player Kaia Kater’s album Nine Pin, released last year. In performance with a bass player, she was a bit subdued, but still compelling. She later turned up with Giddens, and the two of them make a convincing case that African-American folk music is back, and that women are in the vanguard.

I missed Eddie Barbash’s set, but heard him blow sax in one of the jams, and was amazed that an alto sax can be turned into a credible bluegrass solo instrument. Barbash was a member of Stephen Colbert’s band, and played with Chico Hamilton, Yo Yo Ma, Lenny Kravitz and Parliament. But now he’s leading an eponymous band and “playing American Roots music on alto sax.”

The Mammals

The Mammals are Mike + Ruthy with their old name back. Don’t miss their Summer Hoot in August. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Michaela Anne has a great singing voice, a fine band, but no songs that really stuck at Caramoor. I enjoyed River Whyless more simply because they were so unexpected. They looked like a roots band, but made virtually none of the genre’s clichéd moves—the roots were sprayed with day-glo paint. There were elements of jazz, psychedelic rock, and more. The experimental edge helped them stand out during a crowded day.

Michaela Anne

Michaela Anne (left) had everything but a tackle box for the hooks. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Lonely Heartstring Band, which started out covering a seminal Beatles album that turns 50 this year, was less adventurous, though I loved what they did to “Graceland.” Who knew that made a good bluegrass song?

I’ve written much about the Mammals (formerly Mike + Ruthy) that I don’t have to reiterate it here. If you have a chance to see this husband-and-wife act, do. Like Rhiannon Giddens, they have it all–dynamic performances, stellar singing (solo or in harmony), and both instrumental and songwriting skills in abundance. Their native habitat is the Summer Hoot in Ashokan, New York.

I caught five minutes of Jefferson Hamer (who made a great album of trad ballads with Anais Mitchell), and he was especially fine on “Old Churchyard”) recently covered by The Decembrists with Olivia Chaney).

The Brother Brothers

The Brother Brothers are Adam (left) and David Moss. You’re going to hear more from these identical twins. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’m an identical twin, so probably predisposed to love a twin act, but I’d heartily endorse The Brother Brothers if the two were entirely unrelated.

Adam Moss (who also worked with Anais Mitchell) excels on fiddle, is a very strong singer, and haunting songwriter. David Moss has the songs, the singing and killer cello chops.

Together, they’re a modern Everly Brothers in terms of harmonies, so it wasn’t surprising they did two songs from Phil and Don. They’re funny too, and from Peoria. Check out their Tugboats EP.

Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz was fine, if a bit studied and subdued. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The evening concert featured Sarah Jarosz, the enfant terrible of bluegrass who’s mostly grown up now. With Anthony da Costa on colorful guitar washes and the absolutely ace base player Jeff Picker, she was fine, very tasteful, and sang her lovely songs well. But I prefer her records.

Sarah Jarosz and Adam Moss

Sarah Jarosz (right) with Adam Moss of the Brother Brothers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Live, Jarosz’ raps were a little too scripted, her instrumental skills were muted in favor of the singing (which won her Grammys), and she could have used a little of Rhiannon Giddens’ fire. But, then, you could say that about almost any performer in the world.

Clearwater is Back for 2017

CROTON ON HUDSON, NEW YORK—At the Clearwater Festival, which came back this year after taking a breather in 2016, it’s either beastly hot or pouring rain. But on June 17, the day I could attend, it was cloudy, with only a couple hours of rain. Remembering the search for shade (which made the dance tent more tempting), it was actually better to be getting wet.

suitcase junket

Matt Lorenz, a/k/a Suitcase Junket, in full flight at Clearwater. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And it was worth it, because the music was so good. I had The Suitcase Junket, a/k/a Matt Lorenz, on my radio show a few days earlier, and he confirmed that he found his guitar in a dumpster, cleaned the mold off, and has been playing the thing ever since. The program described him, accurately, as a “throat-singing, slide guitar-playing, one-man band.”

I’ve been reading Robbie Robertson’s Testimony, the section about the Basement Tapes, and it was a pleasant surprise when Mr. Junket performed “Tears of Rage.” As you may recall, Dylan wrote the song with Richard Manuel of the Band, who is remembered so well in the Mammals’ song “The Ghost of Richard Manuel.” I’m happy because I’m seeing the Mammals this coming weekend at the wonderful Caramoor American Roots Music Festival (along with Rhiannon Giddens, Sarah Jarosz and a whole lot more).

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams had the good. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Larry Campbell wooed Teresa Williams with a Louvin Brothers mixtape. “And it worked,” she said. The Louvins’ “You’re Running Wild” was a highlight of their set, but really it was all good. Both are strong singers and songwriters—Teresa is a classic country belter, and Campbell is paging Johnny Cash. Add to that the fact that Campbell is a truly great guitar player, who references all of country history (as does Jerry Miller, the incomparable guitarist in Eilen Jewell’s band).

These two are the Porter Waggoner/Dolly Parton of their age, but Nashville no longer rewards such partnerships, alas. Classic country belters play at bluegrass festivals.

Leyla McCalla

Leyla McCalla and band explored her Haitian heritage. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Leyla McCalla, the cellist/singer I first saw with The Carolina Chocolate Drops, is now on her own, and mixing Americana with Creole songs from her Haitian ancestry. She also had a crack band, and one of the highlights of the set was a fascinating duet with her fiddle player.

McCalla is a historian and a folklorist, so she does what any self-respecting cultural ambassador would do—explain the songs, put them in context, and translate the lyrics.

Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe was riveting, with just a guitar in hand. A new man in black? (Jim Motavalli photo)

I heard someone describe Nick Lowe as “Britain’s Johnny Cash,” and while that isn’t entirely accurate, they both dress in black and write and sing like geniuses. With just a guitar, Lowe was riveting—he was really singing well, and took us through “Heart for Sale,” Cruel to be Kind,” “When I Write the Book,” “Heart for Sale” and other modern classics. It wasn’t “folk,” it wasn’t “punk” or “new wave,” it was just good songs, very effectively delivered.

Guy Davis

Guy Davis is keeping the country blues tradition alive–and what a storyteller! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Guy Davis is a folklorist, too, though he finds fertile ground in the country blues. But rather than mining the old 78s, he writes great songs in that tradition—often with lots of contemporary flourishes.

The son of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, he could probably tell Hollywood stories if he wanted, but instead we’re set down on the crossroads somewhere. He’s an incredible guitarist and harp player, and one of my favorite singers. Good storyteller, too.

Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter was happy to be at Clearwater. Just happy in general. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Josh Ritter appears to be entering a fertile period. At Clearwater, he played a lot of newer songs. (My favorite was “Cumberland,” which is on his Sermon on the Rocks album.) And he appeared unbelievably, unconquerably happy to be doing what he was doing. With a broad grin that never left his face, he kept thanking the audience for being allowed to play at Clearwater.

The fans reciprocated. During the set, which I watched from behind the stage, I saw two women, with their children, mouthing every word of the lyrics. Later, I asked one about her love of Josh Ritter. “He’s brilliant, poetic, and he has a way of getting across political messages without being overtly political.” I’ll agree with that. He can sing “Girl in the War” for 30 minutes and I’d be happy. After the show, he agreed readily to an appearance on my radio show, so I’ll hold him to that. He was still grinning.

Stilt walking

How’s the weather up there? Stilt walking is a lost art, except at folk festivals. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Some of the show is offstage at Clearwater, and I enjoyed a lady on stilts and Nate the Great, who juggled flaming torches and played a song on a sliding board.

Nate the Great

Juggling three flaming torches? Why not, all in a day’s work for Nate the Great. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I finished the night with two ace zydeco performances in the dance tent. Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas are black, and Jesse Legé and Bayou Brew are white, but their music has plenty in common. I’ve been fascinated recently not only by zydeco and Cajun music, but by the process that created it.

Here were these French people expelled from Canada’s Atlantic provinces by the conquering British in the 18th century, exiled to France, then resettled in—of all places—southern Louisiana’s swamps and bayous.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas. Their version of stage diving is a gentle stroll through the audience. (Jim Motavalli photo)

What a shock to the system! And yet they adopted and, influenced by the rich alternative traditions around them, created both a very appealing culture (French culture plus crayfish equals Cajun cooking) and incredible music.

Nathan is an extremely genial presence, given to strolling through the audience, furiously playing his accordion all along. I noticed Jesse Legé sitting at stage right, rapt, for Nathan’s entire set. The Cha Chas are the best there is right now, and if you can see them, don’t miss it.

Legé and his band, featuring three women, was on the same plane. They build up a huge head of steam on uptempo numbers, and get the dancers moving on ballads, too. They’re from Louisiana, but it appears they’re in New England and New York for most of the summer—the festivals come that thick and fast.

All in all, an excellent return for Clearwater. There was an air of celebration in the air, because Indian Point nuclear plant is shutting down, and the usual political and cultural activism was in the air. My favorite sign said: “Group Mime! Sing-a-Longs! Join Us on the Working Waterfront.”