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.

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