Let’s start with Clearwater 2018, because I went there first. I’m no dewy teenager myself, but I’m increasingly convinced that music festivals need to skew younger. The 60s were a half-century ago, and it’s time to recognize that festivals that stick to Woody’s (and Pete’s) children won’t be around for that much longer.
Besides, there’s an incredible variety of great new music that would fit comfortably at a folk festival, so why simply hire the usual suspects? The Falcon Ridge festival is a prime offender here, each year offering essentially the same lineup. I’m not putting the performers down, but it certainly kills my enthusiasm about attending.
Fortunately, Clearwater, held in the lovely Croton Point Park, isn’t like that. I attended on Sunday, and was pleased to see River Whyless and Mipso among the greyer beards.
In fact, River Whyless was the highlight of the festival for me, because I love discovering new groups. Blessed with three lead singers, the Asheville, North Carolina-based group presents a sort of electronically enhanced Americana. It’s all down to the strength of the songs, but Ryan, Halli, Daniel and Alex deliver one earworm after another. Plus, they’re incredibly tight on stage.
I’m saying this about them despite the fact that Ryan blew me off for a WPKN interview this week. We’ll reschedule. He’ll grovel, and we’ll get over it.
Rhiannon Giddens is a force of nature, and was separately entrancing on the workshop and Rainbow stages. Solo, as she was in the workshop, is one of the best ways to catch her. She’s funny, tells interesting stories, and can do amazing things with a banjo and fiddle, not to mention unaccompanied voice (as in the Gaelic tune she essayed brilliantly).
With her band, she led off with a couple of generic numbers, and I started to get worried, but things improved when she offered a searing fiddle tune, and let ex-Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins take the spotlight for “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Oh, and she played “Water Boy” and that great old John Hurt song, “Louis Collins.”
Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Dave Alvin have a new album together, Downey to Lubbock (their hometowns), and they brought it to Clearwater. They’ve been friends for 30 years and it showed in their ultra-relaxed performances, also on the Rainbow and workshop stages.
While at the latter, Gilmore told a long, amusing but ultimately pointless story that prompted him to quote Rolling Stone’s David Fricke, “Jimmy Dale Gilmore’s train makes all the stops.” Or “maybe none of them,” the artist added.
Also cool was a mini-set I saw of Mike + Ruthy, a/k/a the Mammals, playing with her father and mother. Ruthy sang the hell out of an Etta James song. She could actually get more popular by making an album as simply a belter (as, basically, Giddens did), but it’s not necessarily the right move.
Cajun artist Terrance Simien was a cool children’s performer.
Over to Caramoor, where for something like the fifth year in a row I enjoyed the American Roots Music Festival.
The headliners, Valerie June and Aimee Mann, were spot on. Both offered strong sets and chatted amiably with the audience–June, cosmically, and Mann, wittily.
It’s too bad that the acoustics in the Venetian Theater (essentially, a big tent) make it difficult to hear all the words, because both of these women are consummate lyricists.
Rain threatened the whole day but fortunately never arrived. Some of the afternoon performers–Anthony da Costa, Front Country–lacked strong material. His songs sounded all the same, and hers melted into an undifferentiated mess, but she could sing and he could play (electric guitar). Hooks? Choruses?
I liked Ryanhood, a male duo. The story of how they got together was amusing, and also produced their strongest song. They’re kind of a Simon and Garfunkel act, minus the Simon rancor and contempt for his partner. They should have left the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing” alone, though.
Also pretty darned good was Night Tree (introduced as “Night Train”). They’re refugees from the New England Conservatory of Music, and all really accomplished players. The sound is like chamber Celtic, if that’s a thing, with the novel addition of an alto/baritone saxophonist, Zach Mayer.
Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons are an easygoing but politicized blues duo. The two are evenly matched.
Amythyst Kiah has a voice as powerful as Odetta’s but I haven’t heard her do a whole lot with it. I seem to remember that she sang the same songs, including “Jolene,” the last time I saw her. And she needs more accompaniment than her own rudimentary guitar.
Also fine, though I saw them only briefly, were Americana artists Lily Henley (who adds a touch of Israel in there) and Ali Dineen. I’d like to hear more from both of them.
If you’re interested in catching the festival bug, there’s some great ones coming up. I’m excited about the Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival August 16-19 in Manchester, Vermont. The lineup includes almost every young band I like, including 10 String Symphony, Lula Wiles, Donna the Buffalo, the Stray Birds and Rayna Gellert with Kieran Kane.
Also the Newport Folk Festival July 27-29 (wish it didn’t sell out almost immediately every year), the First Acoustics House Concert series (featuring The Levins, Abbie Gardner, Eric Andersen, Goodnight Moonshine and others) in Brooklyn, Pleasantville’s Music Festival July 14, CT-Folk Fridays in New Haven (with a festival featuring Martin Sexton, Alternate Roots, Upstate Rubdown and the Jesse Terry Trio September 8).
Here’s some video of Dave Alvin singing Merle Haggard’s “Never Swim Kern River Again,” with Jimmie Dale Gilmore on second guitar: