KATONAH, NEW YORK–Cellist Kaitlyn Raitz (half of Oliver the Crow with fiddler Ben Plotnick) went to SUNY Purchase, which is just down the road from Caramoor and just as bucolic, so she must have felt totally at home playing outdoors as part of the American Roots Music Festival at Caramoor June 22.
This is a festival that (like the similar jazz event coming up July 20) uses all of Caramoor’s beautiful groves and clearings in the woods for unamplified sets that merge with bird song and the sighing of the wind. If you want it loud, stay close to the main stage.
Oliver the Crow were wonderful, combining really strong singing and songwriting with virtuoso work on their instruments that never grandstanded and complemented all of the above. That’s the key to great music right there. The debut CD Oliver the Crow is out now. Plotnick quipped that Raitz, who has a Master of Music Performance degree from McGill University, “is wildly overqualified to play with me.” But in fact they’re evenly matched—and about to get married.
At Caramoor, OtC (now based in Nashville) combined original songs with traditional material such as “Bury Me Underneath the Willow Tree.” Almost all of the performers did that, in fact, and it’s a winning combination. OtC also played some very credible songs from people they know in Nashville, where every Uber driver is trying to make it as a musician.
The Porch Stomp Revue featured artists from the event of that name, which took place on Governor’s Island the day after the Americana festival. I haven’t been to that one, but I loved the Porch Stomp we had closer to home here in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Black Rock section. What’s not to like about free music (singer songwriters and Americana bands) in the neighborhood, in people’s yards and on their porches?
The New York version of Porch Stomp featured Matheus Verardino on harmonica, vocals and foot stomps, plus the Nick and Luke duo (better on covers than on originals) and fiddler Cleek Schrey. There were dancers, too.
Youth in a Roman Field (New York by way of Chicago) is new to me, a vehicle for ambitious songwriter Claire Wellin. The songs, which were nicely arranged by a well-rehearsed band (with three female singers), lacked hooks and catchy choruses and were somewhat obscure lyrically, but still went down easily. Wellin is a good frontwoman. She described one song, “Town Hall,” as written in Cleveland “about life cycles I hope don’t continue to be life cycles.”
I loved the Bumper Jacksons, featuring the big voice of Jess Eliot Myhre and banjo player Chris Ousley. Myhre herself plays clarinet, and she hooked up with trumpet player Joseph Brotherton for a rough-and-ready horn section that gave their Americana music some meat on its bones. Decent originals, well-chosen covers. A good time.
Our Band, heard in one of the glens, features snappy singer/guitarist Justin Poindexter and singer/accordionist Sasha Papernik. The band does State Department tours (and Poindexter works at global outreach for Jazz at Lincoln Center) so its sound is understandably eclectic. It ranged from nice duo harmonies on the Everly Brothers’ “Gone, Gone, Gone” to a Leonard Cohen cover (beautifully sung by Papernik) and songs from Brazil. In Poland, Our Band got urgent requests for Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” so they did that one, too. Their very sweet original song “Bright as You” is online with a stop-motion animation video:
California’s Rainbow Girls have been together eight years and have a shambolic chemistry onstage. Unplugged, they essayed lovely three-part harmony on “Tennessee Waltz” and more aggressive delivery for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.’” I caught only a little bit of Damned Tall Buildings, both on stage and in a glen, and liked what I heard. Lots of energy there.
Bethlehem and Sad Patrick stood out for the former’s huge voice and assured delivery. Patrick’s guitar was somewhat rudimentary. Maybe he adds more in other contexts. Bethlehem is going places, though.
A tribute to Odetta was a fine excuse for a rousing sing-a-long featuring all the performers. Standouts: “Jack of Diamonds” by Damned Tall Buildings; “Cotton Fields” by Rainbow Girls; “Careless Love” by Youth in a Roman Field; “Make Me a Pallet” by Bumper Jacksons. The MC, as always, was an (uncredited) Mark Miller of the Spuyten Duyvil band.
But that wasn’t the end, just the pause before the headlining evening concert. At these events, I sometimes find the unknowns better than the big names, but both Milk Carton Kids and Amythyst Kiah were credible. The latter doesn’t write songs that fully exploit her incredible voice (they’re somewhat formless), but she really connects on covers like “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and Darling Corey.”
I’m eager to hear the album Kiah made with Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russel (of Birds of Chicago) and Leyla McCalla, Songs of Our Native Daughters. The one original she did from it was powerful.
Milk Carton Kids were not what I expected. I thought they had techno elements, but maybe that’s only on record. Instead their live show had beautiful Simon and Garfunkel-style vocal harmonies on often-dreamy songs, extremely good guitar playing and really wry deadpan wit. It was like an updating of the Smothers Brothers.
By the way, if you like hearing Americana outside this summer, check out the continuing CHIRP series in Ridgefield’s Ballard Park, curated by the knows-what-she’s-doing Barbara Manners. What a great series of free Tuesday and Thursday night shows! I’m marking my calendar for C.J. Chenier (July 9), Hot Club of Cowtown (July 25), the Brother Brothers (August 1), Sam Reider and the Human Hands (August 6) and, again, Damn Tall Buildings (August 8).