A Relaxing Time at the Summer Hoot 2017

One of the highlights of my music festival season is the Summer Hoot, run by Ruth Unger (daughter of Jay) and her husband, Michael Merenda. Maybe their rugrats help, too.

downhill strugglers

The Downhill Strugglers featured John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers, fiddler/singer Jackson Lynch and guitarist Eli Smith. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Hoot, held at the Ashokan Center not far from Woodstock, New York, keeps getting better. There have been five Summer Hoots, and I’ve been to three of them. The audience keeps building, as the word of mouth about a really fun, low-cost, low-pressure and eclectic Americana festival.

Avi Salloway

Avi Salloway of Billy Wylder. Influences included U2 and African music. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The acts are, pretty much, stuff Mike and Ruthy (now known again as the Mammals) like, and it ranges from the African-inflected rock of Billy Wylder to the Pete Seeger-era protest folk of Hoping Machine.

Hoping Machine

Hoping Machine: Pete would have approved. (Jim Motavalli photo)

My problem with events like Falcon Ridge is that they don’t change much, year to year. The Hoot evolves, and doesn’t have much carry-over—except for some of the children’s performers. On that front, this year benefitted from multiple performances by Sara Lee Guthrie (daughter of Arlo). I particularly like her adaptation of her father’s lyrics, especially “Go Wagaloo.” Here it is:

The funny thing about that part of New York State is that in August it’s hot during the day, then gets freezing at night. So I was wrapped in towels when Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers came out. I knew nothing about them, but I have since learned much. Hunt, from Texas but now in Brooklyn, has hooked up with an ace backing band there. The great playing complements her powerful voice and strong songs (fiddle, too).

Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers

Phoebe Hunt and the Gatherers take on a Pewter Session. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Just as good, and with as strong a band, was the Sweetback Sisters. I first heard them in the “Band in the Box” feature in the Performance Hall, backing up volunteers from the audience essaying classics like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Faded Love” (the latter with a 12-year-old fiddle player).

The Sweetback Sisters

The Sweetback Sisters were aces. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Standing out was an Ohmigod guitarist named Ryan Hommel. Like Jerry Miller in Eilen Jewell’s band, Hommel can play any style of American music—he’s a walking encyclopedia of classic guitar styles. Hommel’s a master of the pedal steel, and traded riffs with Rob Stein of the Mammals.

The Sisters were great, too, and previewed a bunch of country swing songs from their new album, King of Killing Time. Both Emily Miller and Zara Bode are great singers, and Miller’s songs are both clever and smart. If she was born a few decades earlier, she’d have been selling tunes to Patsy Cline. Here’s a Sweetback video:

Lily and Duncan, both of whom play fiddles and sing well, were interesting. But Lily’s somewhat challenging songs could use a few more entry points. Didn’t they call them “hooks” at one point?

The Bunkhouse Boys, local to the Hudson Valley, played traditional Cajun (in French) rather well. Here they are with “Country Playboy Special”:

The Mammals were, not unexpectedly, warm and wonderful in a family-friendly kind of way. Ruthie’s fiddle tune, backed by Michael’s blistering banjo, was a highlight. If I have any issue with this group—which I’ve seen a half-dozen times recently—it’s that their sets don’t vary all that much from one gig to another. They have a stellar catalogue that should get some exercise.

Rhett Miller, the leader of the Old 97s, made a manic and literate solo performer. His best song was about having to compete for his partner’s love with Jesus—a hard act to follow.

One of my favorite acts was the Downhill Strugglers, featuring a veteran Americana artist–John Cohen of the highly influential New Lost City Ramblers. Eli Smith runs the much-loved Brooklyn Folk Festival, and plays and sings beautifully, and Jackson Lynch should be a star.

Geoff Muldaur

Geoff Muldaur: relaxed blues influenced by Mississippi John Hurt. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And I particularly enjoyed a solo set by Geoff Muldaur, the last performer I saw this year. He was there in the 60s, ran into Mississippi John Hurt, and was never the same. You may know him from the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and he just made a duo album with Kweskin. Actually, both Muldaur and Kweskin have aged well, and their talent is intact.

Muldaur plays a relaxed blues that owes a lot to Hurt and other pre-war country blues artists, and he tells a great story. He recently moved to Kingston, so he fit right in to this ultra-laid back festival.





The Worst Gig Ever

I’m reading a book called The Worst Gig, and it’s quite amusing. Musicians do it for the love, not the money, and definitely not for the luxurious dressing rooms and detailed tour riders. (Did you see Arcade Fire’s fake rider? Vegan hot dogs are involved.)

the whispering tree

The Whispering Tree got stiffed at a death metal bar–in Belgium. (Whispering Tree photo)

I’ve seen shows in bars where management declined to turn down the blasting TV in the room, as a folkie struggled to be heard. I’ve been to concerts where the folks on stage outnumbered the audience. (Dr. John, faced with this, said, “You’re a small crowd, but you’re a mighty crowd.” That’s the power of positive thinking. )

Highlights of the book include the group Eisley getting stuck in a huge snowstorm—in Texas, where it never snows; and The Screaming Sirens showing up for a gig in St. Louis where the booking agent who’d signed them had been fired. “Screaming Who?” the club owner said. This was after they got a $75 speeding ticket and sent all the money they had on ahead. They slept in their van, though eventually played the club for the Supertramp after party.

Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch played a gig to the bartender, then had to turn the PA off. (Gillian Welch photo)

Here’s Gillian Welch on her worst gig:

In Nashville, before we ever had a record out, I decided I wanted to play this writers’ night. I went down there by myself and waited like three or four hours to play. They kept me waiting and kept me waiting as the crowd thinned out. Finally, the guy who had been playing his own songs between every three writers, he got up when there were about three people left and played three more songs. Then he said it was my turn. There was literally nobody left in the place but the bartender and the MC. The MC said, ‘Okay, you can play now. Will you turn the PA off when you’re done?’ So I got up and played a couple songs to the bartender, then I walked over and turned the PA off.

Michael Merenda of the Mammals has a story he tells in his sets, describing traveling eight hours to West Virginia for a “house concert” that ended up being in an abandoned house without electricity in the middle of nowhere. It was on the weekend, and the West Virginia university students go home on weekends. One fan from his mailing list showed up, and the show was punctuated by the sound of gunfire from the target practice that was going on upstairs.

On my radio show, I hosted The Whispering Tree (quiet dream pop) and asked them for their worst gig. “Our worst gig ever was this show in Belgium at a death metal bar. We walked in and they were blasting death metal and there was a woman behind the bar wearing a swastika earring. We ended up playing to two (completely uninterested) people in the basement—it was painful. The only reason we kept playing was because it was a paid gig. Then we found out that the owner had run off before we’d finished our set and was refusing to pay us.”

It’s got to be unique that your worst gig ever is in Belgium.