Festival Season Winds Down

Festival season is in full swing, and I’ve been making an effort to get to as many as I can. The things I do for art! Recently I’ve been to the first annual Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots festival in Manchester Center, Vermont, and the Summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center in Olivebridge, New York. Let’s start with Green Mountain.

festival degroot and tuttle

Molly Tuttle (right) with Allison deGroot.

The weather was threatening when we arrived at the site, an accommodating city park. Matt Fliner was playing gentle instrumental pieces. Then came the Goodbye Girls, an international ensemble including a Swedish fiddler, Lena Jonsson. Doing most of the vocals and guitar playing was Molly Tuttle, who I remembered from a duo she had with John Mailander and a great performance at Fresh Grass (a festival I’ll have to miss this year, alas).

festival hargreaves and degroot

deGroot again with Tatiana Hargreaves (right).

Tuttle is a phenomenon, a great singer and an amazing flatpicker. In a later solo appearance she essayed her version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner.” You can catch a couple takes of her doing that song on Youtube. Flying fingers. There’s even a video entitled something like “Five Things Guitarists Can Learn by Watching Molly Tuttle Play White Freightliner.”

festival peter rowan

Peter Rowan did a wonderful make-up show, with colorful stories, the day after the rain.

The Goodbye Girls are great, too, with material all over the international map.

Jordan Tice, a performer I didn’t know, was subtly impressive on a country repertoire. He’s from a bluegrass family in Maryland, and has a stellar all-star cast on his latest album, Horse Country. Tice did a wonderful job later in the festival with a session devoted to the music of John Hartford. It was one of the best of such endeavors I’ve seen, involving nearly all the performers in attendance. But not everyone was with the program: Hartford was such a prolific composer that performing a Waylon Jennings song (even if Hartford recorded it) didn’t make much sense.

festival lula wiles

Lula Wiles, harmonizing.

One of the MVPs of the festival was fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves, who backed Tuttle, paid tribute to Hartford, and appeared in a duo with banjo player Allison deGroot (as seen in Bruce Molsky’s band).  I didn’t realize Hargreaves—a star fiddler and deep historian of the music—was such a good singer. She’s raw, loud and great. I especially appreciated her version of Leadbelly’s “Out on the Western Plain.” You bet there were female cowboys.

A powerhouse trio of Danny Barnes, Grant Gordy and Joe Walsh (no, not that Joe Walsh) was laid-back, with Barnes proving a strong country-type singer. Barnes told a story about the “gig of fear.” It’s 800 miles away, the audience is stinking drunk, the sign outside just says “live music,” and the pay doesn’t cover the cost of gas. I think I added that last one.

I am a big fan of Rachel Baiman’s voice. She’s half of 10 String Symphony, which has her fiddle paired with Christian Sedelmyer’s. They play other instruments, too, and write memorable songs. Sedelmyer was also frequently on the bandstand all weekend. I have to put this in. Sedelmyer has performed or recorded with:

Jerry Douglas, Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Vince Gill, Kacey Musgraves, Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle, Alison Brown, Sam Bush, Darrell Scott, Tim O’Brien, Bryan Sutton, Buddy Miller, Jim Lauderdale, Peter Rowan, Andrew Marlin, Steve Earle, Langhorne Slim, The String Cheese Incident, The Indigo Girls, Rayland Baxter, Kelsey Waldon, Caroline Spence, Sons of Bill, The Apache Relay, The Greencards, The DanBerrys, The Black Lillies, Eli West, Mac McAnally, Carolyn Martin (TX Western Swing Hall of Fame, The Time Jumpers), Jenni Lyn Gardner, Sally & George, and Nora Jane Struthers.

festival sierra hull

Sierra Hull, with mandolin, saying howdy.

Eli West is a sturdy singer and banjo/guitarist who performed solo on tunes that ranged from “Silver Dagger” to “Isle of France,” a ballad from the 1770s. He must have performed in Scandinavia recently, because he told us about BaconOst, a disgusting-sounding bacon/cheese combo that’s squeezed out of a tube.

festival baconost

I’ve interviewed both Rayna Gellert and Kieran Kane, so it was a pleasure to see them together for an easy-going set. Kane, who has a wry sense of humor, told us we were seeing the same set “we do in Vegas, but minus the dancers.”

Gellert is one of the best fiddle players in the world, and Kane one of the best songwriters, and together they are magic. Kane’s songs are full of wisdom and hard-learned truths, and if you haven’t heard them, you owe yourself. Look especially for the several records he made as Kane Welch and Kaplin. Kane also sang a song by David Francey, an undiscovered genius from Canada by way of Scotland.

festival crowd

This was the first-ever Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots festival, but there will be another next year.

The bass player and lead singer in the Lonely Heartstrings Band looked like the same guy, so I wasn’t surprised to learn they are twin brothers Charles and George Clements. Amazingly enough, they were raised in the same town, in the same house, with the same parents. Even their birthday is the same! But one sings and the other doesn’t.

Alas, the threatening skies finally delivered on their promise, and it began to pour rain. Peter Rowan and Donna the Buffalo were rained out, but fortunately Rowan turned up the next day and did a fine set that included quite a lot of history, from first meetings with Carter Stanley (resulting in his great song “Carter Stanley’s Tears”) to the founding of Earth Opera with David Grisman.

Sierra Hull is a curious case. She burst on the scene as a precocious mandolin talent, and has matured into a major star and a mature singer. She has a very talented young band that shined in the instrumental pieces. The issue, though, is two-fold. She insists on singing her own songs, which are weak and without distinguishing features, and offers on-stage patter that is superficial and slick.

I wrote down, “Sierra Hull could be the next Alison Krauss if she just sang other people’s songs.” It worked for Linda Ronstadt! I have this same problem with Chris Thile’s band, Punch Brothers. The original songs just sit there, something that can’t be helped by even the most stellar musicians. And Punch Brothers are that.

festival sam reider

Sam Reider (on accordion) brought the bracing compositions from his album Too Hot to Sleep.

Mipso was also rained out, and it was the second time I missed seeing them, but I hope to make up for that. Members of the band shined on a song at the Hartford tribute, and the songs I’ve heard online are very nice.

Lula Wiles have recently signed to Smithsonian Folkways, and at Green Mountain they were as engaging as ever. They delivered a strong version of a Dolly Parton song I didn’t know, “The Pain of Loving You.” And Isa Burke and Ellie Buckland both had lovelorn new songs.

Mandolin Orange were headliners of a sort, and are big stars on the North Carolina music scene. Andrew Marlin, who looks like the Tim Hutton around the time he starred in Ordinary People, is a wizard on the mandolin, as he especially proved during a later gospel set. In Mandolin Orange, with Emily Frantz, he mostly plays his very philosophical songs—some of which were better than others. But they have a lovely sound.

Organizer Jill Turpin told me, “Jim, not in our wildest imaginations could we have ever planned something so magical. We were definitely blessed by some amazing force of nature and somehow, the rain was a magical momentum that bonded everyone, audience and artist alike. We are still glowing. Now the big problem of…how do we top that next year?”

festival mike and ruthy

Mike and Ruthy, going through the Hoot logistics.

OK, let’s journey south a bit to the Summer Hoot, the oasis of a festival put on annually at the Ashokan Center by Mike and Ruthy, a/k/a the core of the Mammals. Ruth Ungar is the daughter of Jay Ungar, who’s been organizing music camps and workshops at Ashokan for 30 years. (And, yes, he wrote “Ashokan Farewell.”)

The Hoot is something of a family affair, as Mike and Ruthy’s kids are much in evidence, Ungar plays with his wife Molly Mason, and also with his ex-wife, Lyn Hardy (Ruthy’s mother). Got all that straight?

festival gongs

The Hoot wakes up to love waves from the gongs.

If you think festivals have gotten too expensive, check out the Summer Hoot. A night in the bunkhouse is only $25, and it covers breakfast! No price gouging at the Hoot, where you can go for a nature walk along the Esopus Creek, and then make it back for the music on the gentle slope of Hoot Hill.

Billy Wylder is a curious band, influenced by the music of Mali. Wylder himself, a dynamic performer, reminds me a bit of Johnny Clegg. He’s not African himself, but he did tour with Bombino, the breakout Saharan guitar star. The band is very multicultural, and they put on a good performance. Wylder’s best song had a title something like “Restless Mutineer,” but not all of the material was of that quality.

festival bill and the belles

Bill and the Belles have a unique pop/old-time sound.

The festival isn’t strictly a folk event—the music is too wide ranging for that. Take Bill and the Belles. The band, the brainchild of Kris Truelsen, is an enchanting mashup of 1930s pop with old-time and swinging gals like the Boswell Sisters. It’s very listenable. Truelsen perfectly recreates what a period singer in thrall to Bing Crosby might have sounded like, if he had both old-time and jazz obsessions.

Aiding in the effort are the Alaska-bred fiddler and singer Kalia Yeagle, and banjo player Grace Van’t Hof, harmonizes with Yeagle. “We quickly discovered our mutual love for rich vocal harmonies and simple catchy melodies,” Truelsen said. “We picked out a few songs we’d been throwing around in various settings that were from the early commercial recording era and it clicked.” Don’t miss DreamSongs Etc, their latest album.

I was also quite taken with the duo of Nadine Landry and Sammy Lind, who can also be seen with their Foghorn String Band at the Oldtones Festival September 6-9. If you can make one more festival this summer, make it that one.

festival landry and lind

Sammy Lind and Nadine Landry mix up the old time and the Cajun.

Landry is Acadian, and learned to play Cajun music in Alaska (of all places). Lind is a multi-instrumentalist very strong on old-time music, but also Cajun—which he essayed on banjo as well as fiddle. Landry sings nice and loud, which reminds me what Cajun dances must have been like before microphones. Oh, and Landry sang another heartfelt Dolly Parton song I didn’t know, about a guy who wants to leave as much as you want them to stay.

I saw two fine singer-songwriters at the Hoot, and one of them was Huck Notari, who reminded me of a rural Jesse Winchester. Not that Jesse himself wasn’t rural, in his way. Notari told corny jokes. Here’s one: “What did the chick pea say to the garbanzo bean when it work up with a headache? I falafel.” I liked a song called “Bird’s on the River,” which had no other lyrics other than those.

Of course, the Mammals were wonderful. Playing home base, with their kids and family all around, they were both relaxed and very dynamic. Ruth Unger is an increasingly powerful singer, Like Rhiannon Giddens, she might benefit from a solo album that showcases that side of her talent.

festival nora brown

Little Nora Brown, at 13, does grown-up sets, and her love for the music shines through.

Kudos to Little Nora Brown, who at 13 did an entirely grown up set. I love her between-song patter, which shows both that she’s still a kid but also a serious student of old-time music. She’s the Sierra Hull of her time. Sammy Lind and Nadine Landry sat in on a tune, and they made natural partners. Brown even did a bit of solo shape note singing.

Amber Rubarth was the other good singer-songwriter I heard. She writes crafty little tunes with thoughtful lyrics, and they stay in your head. “What if our hearts were colored glass, and wars were games?” she asked. If you can, catch her starring role in the dramatic film American Folk, which was screened at the Hoot. She’s very natural; her character is just like Rubarth in person.

festival amber rubarth

Amber Rubarth. We had a (modest) movie star in our midst.

Guy Davis was a first-timer at the Hoot, though I’ve seen him many times (particularly at Clearwater). Mark Murphy was an occasional bass foil. Davis kicked off with Reverend Robert Wilkins” “Prodigal Son,” which the Rolling Stones stole and claimed to have written. “Like Sonny Did” is an affectionate tribute to Sonny Terry.

Let’s see. Amalia had a nice jazzy sound, but weak songs and a pretty bad sax player. Elizabeth Mitchell was fine, also bringing her family into the act. I could listen to her sing anything.

As we were reluctantly leaving, a band called Max’s New Hat was just starting up, with spirited wedding music from the Balkans. They’d be great in some little Brooklyn club, but at a Balkan wedding, too.

Let me add here that I also attended an end-of-summer show at Concerts on the Hill in Easton, Connecticut featuring my friend Danny Tressler. The band is called Amber Anchor, the latest of a string of ensembles Danny has been in. This one featured Andrew Whitten on bass and Jeff Smith on excellent dobro, guitar and mandolins.

festival dan tressler

Dan Tressler on fiddle with Jeff Smith (center) and Andrew Whitten.

They did mostly the classics: “Angeline the Baker,” “Jambalaya,” “Hesitation Blues,” “Little Birdie,” “A Pallet on the Floor.” But also curve balls such as Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow.”

I could hear Danny Tressler sing anything, and he’s a superb player also, especially on fiddle but also mandolin and guitar. Smith is also a good singer, and a wizard on dobro and guitar. Maybe this is the group that will hit the big time. Here’s some video, with the group playing Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner” (the same song Molly Tuttle did):

These festivals are still coming up:

Oldtone Roots Music Festival, September 6-9.

Rhythm and Roots, August 31-September 2.

Brooklyn Americana Festival, September 20-23.

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