From the First Pew: The Brooklyn Folk Festival 2018

In chronological order, impressions from the 2018 Brooklyn Folk Festival—the tenth annual! St. Ann’s Church wasn’t always packed, but it was enough of the time over the three days to make a bigger venue seem sensible.

jackson lynch

Jackson Lynch, an MVP, playing jug band music and New Orleans R&B.

Eli Smith, who was everywhere over the weekend (as both player and organizer), doesn’t think that has to happen yet, but if the crowd keeps growing it will be inevitable. Remember, this is a packed house for…old-time country music! In New York!

birdman of rome

The Birdman of Rome: a street performer you won’t soon forget.

The crowds are a mix of young and old, fuddy duddys and the tragically hip. It bodes well for a future for this music, especially considering how young many of the performers were. I cornered comics legend R. Crumb, who was playing with the East River String Band, and asked this legendary pessimist about the human condition if he found the number of under-30 audience members and musicians inspiring. “Absolutely,” he said. “It’s uplifting. It makes me feel we can avoid the end of the road.”

downhill strugglers

The Downhill Strugglers, with (from left) Eli Smith, John Cohen, Jackson Lynch and Walker Shepard.

Speaking of young, they don’t come any younger (at least not on stage) than Little Nora Brown, who’s all of 12. She’s making steady progress, and can now legitimately open the Brooklyn Folk Festival. At 12! She invokes names like Roscoe Holcomb as inspiration, and conjures Uncle Dave Macon as she flays away on her banjo, clawhammer style.

east river string band

The East River String Band. That’s Mr. R. Crumb on the right.

Young Brown probably doesn’t really know what “Morphine” or “Half Shaved” are really about, but she still sings them with conviction. She even essayed some shape note singing, and offered a compelling duet with fiddle player Stephanie Coleman.

Little Nora Brown

Little Norah Brown last year at Old Tones, channeling Ola Belle Reed.

Mamie Minch and Tamar Korn were engaging, playing music written long before they were born. “Over the Garden Wall,” “Royal Telephone” (written around the time of the first transatlantic call), and such delights as “Ragtime Millionaire,” recorded by William Moore in 1928.

Mamie Minch and Tamara Korn

Mamie Minch, Meredith Axelrod, Tamara Korn and Craig Ventresco.

Every tooth in my head is solid gold/Make those boys look icy cold/I brush my teeth with diamond dust/And I don’t care if the bank would bust/All you little people take your hat off to me/Because I’m a ragtime millionaire.

 

Mamie has a gorgeous voice, an alto that even shades into tenor, and it rings out clear as a bell. She’s even better as a songwriter, on the evidence of her wistful ballad “No More is Love.” Korn, meanwhile, is a totally engaging performer, providing beautiful harmonies, dramatic arm movements and mouth instruments. The pair have a seven-inch record together on Jalopy, the in-house label for the sponsoring Jalopy Theater in Red Hook.

ever-lovin jug band

The Ever-Lovin’ Jug Band looking south from Canada.

I was entranced by the Ever-Lovin’ Jug Band from Waterloo, Ontario. Julia Narveson and Bill Howard are big fans of the Memphis Jug Band, Jim Kweskin and Memphis Minnie. Anything with a jug. “”Pretty much if you are into old country music and work backwards in time, you will hit jug band music at some point,” Narveson told her local paper in Canada. “I friggin’ love it so much.”

Both Howard and Narveson sing this south-of-the-border stuff with absolute conviction and authenticity, and they can play their asses off, too. This was my discovery of the festival. I liked the American jug band, the Steel City Jug Stompers (from Birmingham, Alabama), too. They understand this music is supposed to fun, and played with all-in energy.

king isto

King Isto’s Tropical String Band dreams of Hawaii.

Another discovery was King Isto’s Tropical String Band, who invoke the islands (but live and freeze in the tri-state area). A husband (brilliant guitarist and singer Christopher White, a/k/a Isto), a wife (Ellen), another guy (Steve, I think)—and pure magic (especially “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”). Influences include “King Bennie Nawahi, Sol Hoopii, The Moe Family, and other Hawaiian musicians from the 1920s and 1930s.”

Molsky's drifters

Bruce Molsky’s Mountain Drifters: a musical peak.

Jackson Lynch is one of most valuable players at the Brooklyn fest every year, sitting in with everybody. In addition to his usual spots with the Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues and the Downhill Strugglers (which also includes former New Lost City Rambler John Cohen and promoter Smith) he appeared this year fronting Jackson and the Janks. New Orleans R&B.

steel city

The Steel City Jug Slammers from Alabama had the energy down.

And it was damned good, with Lynch out front (minus his fiddle, but with a guitar). The band featured a bass saxophone (doing the horn parts), drums and a lap guitar for the solos. Unorthodox, but it worked.

Clifton Hicks, an archaeologist and Georgia farmer when he’s not making banjos or music, was also a revelation. He’s a musical historian, and presents old songs—from “Pretty Polly” and “East Virginia” to “Big Stone Gap”—as carefully curated bulletins from the past. But it’s totally alive, not archival. And he really sings clearly, as well as being a brilliant banjo player. How have I missed him?

Axelrod and Ventresco

Meredith Axelrod and Craig Ventresco. The view from 1905.

I’ve seen Molsky’s Mountain Drifters before, about a year ago, and they’ve only gelled since then. Their set was flawless. They all sing and play well, but Molsky himself is in a class by himself—maybe our greatest living old-time country singer and musician (banjo, guitar, fiddle). “The Little Carpenter” was it for me.

Jerron Paxton is a prodigiously talented—on piano, fiddle and guitar. I hate to keep throwing out superlatives, but it’s just true. He needs to be known nationally. I enjoyed seeing the dawn-of-the-20th-century-oriented Meredith Axelrod again, this time with partner Craig Ventresco. He’s superlative on anything with strings. I like this bio:

Craig Ventresco plays a repertoire of songs from the brief but fecund era of acoustically recorded music. Like Fred Van Eps—the gifted banjoist who recorded hundreds of cylinders and 78 rpm records between 1897 and 1927—who mastered his instrument by listening to earlier recordings, Mr. Ventresco has developed a repertoire of songs learned by listening to wax cylinders and shellac records of the acoustic era. For over twenty years, San Franciscans have heard Craig Ventresco’s evocative guitar playing on street corners and in cafes. He has performed and recorded with Bo Grumpus and Janet Klein.

Pokey LaFarge

Pokey LaFarge: A return to the Brooklyn Folk Fest, solo this time.

Michael Daves and Chris “Critter” Eldridge (from the Punch Brothers) offered jaw-dropping guitar duets and a lot of Stanley Brothers. Their obvious joy in playing together was very infectious. “I never get to play bluegrass!” Eldridge said.

Daves and Eldridge

Michael Daves and Chris “Critter” Eldridge:. They loved playing together.

I can’t write about it all—the music sprawled across three days!—but it was well curated by Smith. As usual, there was great international music that emerges out of the melting-pot diaspora of New York. Women’s Raga Massive, Radio Jarocho and Zenen Zeferino (from Mexico), Bulla En El Bario (Afro-Colombian), Seyyah (Turkey) and Elizabeth Mitchell doing Spanish songs with Suni Paz. I liked all of it.

In the workshop room, I caught some of the ‘60s hippie film Gold, which was almost too inept to be camp (though copious nudity probably won it some followers) and stopped in for a workshop on Alan Lomax’ Global Jukebox.

The only thing on the negative side of the ledger is a stiff back from those too-upright church pews. By the way, the music continues all year–at the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook. Check out Roots & Ruckus on Wednesday nights, because they’re a festival in one night. Jalopy now has a burgeoning record label, and all sorts of worthwhile projects, including lots of music instruction.

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