Two Festivals, in the Catskills and the Berkshires

OLIVEBRIDGE, NY AND MANCHESTER, VT—Two festivals, physically distant but spiritually close. I was at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969, and recently wrote a piece about why the reunions fail, and marketing can’t recreate the magic that happened—mostly by accident.

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Bruce Molsky, peerless champion of old-time music. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots Festival in Vermont is only in its second year, and the audience is still mainly local to that state and Massachusetts, but its renown is growing—in part because of the good vibes that prevail. The Summer Hoot, held at the magical Ashokan Center nature preserve, is in its sixth year run by performing couple Ruthy Unger and Mike Merenda (a/k/a The Mammals), and has had the community magic from the beginning—and especially this year.

Let’s start with Green Mountain, since it was first. The location, a park in the Shires of Vermont, a few miles from the town of Manchester, is ideal, and Jill Turpin knows old-time music. Despite the name, it’s not a bluegrass festival—the emphasis is on the Weird Old America music that existed before Bill Monroe thought to marry jazz and country.

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Rachel Baiman with guitarist Cy Winstanley. (Jim Motavalli photo)

John Reischman (whose name was spelled three different ways in the program!) and Eli West offered tasteful mandolin, banjo and guitar duets. Pretty, but not too involving. Things picked up when West started singing, something he was good at. “Pocketful of Dust” was a good song. And then Bruce Molsky and Alison de Groot from Molsky’s Mountain Drifters joined in and I was wide awake. They essayed “Black-Eyed Susie,” which was a staple for the Holy Modal Rounders.

I enjoyed the Lonely Heartstring Band, whose “Smoke and Ashes” was also the title song of their new album. Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” was passionately sung by the guitar player.

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Chatham County Line, channeling James Hunter. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Rachel Baiman had a good thing going as 10 String Symphony with fellow fiddle player Christian Sedelmyer, but he’s become a superstar and a member of ___’s band, so now they get together only occasionally. Baiman is doing just fine on her own, and has recruited Charlie Munch, the red-haired bass player from the now-defunct Stray Birds and New Zealander Cy Winstanley on guitar.

Baiman’s songs are mostly great, though a few sort of meander around. They all end abruptly, something I hadn’t noticed before. “Shame,” the title song from a recent record, is a powerful one, and “Getting Ready to Get Ready,” about procrastination, hit the mark. I love songs set to a surfing beat, and there was also a fine rendition of John Hartford’s “Madison, Tennessee.” Baiman lives there too, you see. How had I managed to miss that excellent tune?

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Two-thirds of Lula Wiles. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Crazed (as we all are) by Trump, Baiman now has a political side, and a song about the tent cities was strong, as was a spirited rendition of Andy Irvine’s excellent Woody Guthrie tribute, “Never Tire of the Road.” Baiman has a new album out in the fall.

The highlight of Chatham County Line’s set was James Hunter’s “People Gonna Talk.” Look up James Hunter right now! This British soul revivalist is an uncanny tunesmith who has never done a bad song. CCL, meanwhile, straddles the line between country and old-time.

The audience went nuts for Sam Bush, one of the most recorded mandolinists ever. How many times have I heard a DJ say “…and Sam Bush on mandolin”? I associate him with that progressive bluegrass form known as Dawg Music (cue David Grisman).

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Sam Bush, mandolin wizard. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Bush seemed in fine ruddy form. His band played bluegrass on steroids, complete with rock-oriented electric bass and drums. “The Crooked Suite” featured fantastic playing—every member is a virtuoso on his instrument. That was the highlight, though I didn’t realize we also had a good singer (and fiddle player!) in Bush. The group actually has the makings of a jam band, though with the exception of “Crooked” they didn’t go there.

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Town Mountain played them fast. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Everything Town Mountain did was well sung and played, but all their songs sounded similar—and rushed through. If they slowed them down, I might have liked the set better. They were playing for the dancers, and at a breakneck pace. In another context I might appreciate them.

Donna the Buffalo was great. They’re always great, but at Green Mountain, with a new album coming, they were on fire. Tara Nevins sang about “looking both ways before you cross my heart” and “swinging that thing,” and gave her electric fiddle a real workout. Last year, Donna was washed out by torrential rains and lightning. This year the weather turned again—the site was briefly evacuated—but Donna got to play.

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Donna the Buffalo, always great. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Carling and Will are a local Vermont duo consisting of Carling Berkhout and William Seeders Mosheim, who is also an instrument maker. He’s a good songwriter, too, especially with a song about the Salton Sea. “Indian Summer” was a fine instrumental by the duo, and they gave a Tim O’Brien song break-up a good workout.

A highlight of the festival was the Kieran Kane/Rayna Gellert duo, which also played last year. He’s one of our best singer-songwriters, and she’s also a good singer and one of the best fiddle players on the planet Earth. They mostly did Kane’s songs, which are wry, tuneful and wise. There’s a new record, of which “Bells and Clover” should be a standout.

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Rayna Gellert and Kieran Kane. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Kane remarked that all his songs were sad except one, titled something like “I Don’t Know Why I Get to Love You.” Kane said, “People ask which record has the happy songs, and it’s easy to answer, because there’s just the one, then it’s straight back to heartbreak.” Check out the classic Kane/Kaplin/Welch albums if you want a master music class.

Lula Wiles are newly Smithsonian Folkways recording artists, and they had a passel of new songs. All three members sing lead and write well. I loved fiddle/guitar player Isa Burke’s new kiss-off to a bad friend. The song advises Mary Ann (not her real name) to “get your shit together,” and informs her that they won’t be making plans anytime soon.

Intriguingly, the band brought their drummer to the fore. Sean Trischka has a Boston-based group called Corporate Punk, not a promising name. But he sang lead on a song from it, “Camille,” and it was just great—an excellent mash-up of styles, with lovely imagery. I want to hear more.

Speaking of excellent fiddle players, Brittany Haas was the name I knew from Hawktail, a new instrumental group that plays highly arranged and tightly played music that would be at home in concert halls. Haas’ “Dandelion” stood out, but all the musicians were top form. Hawktail formed by taking the existing Haas Kowert Tice and adding mandolinist Dominick Leslie. Collectively, these folks have played with Punch Brothers, David Rawlings and Crooked Still, and appeared on A Prairie Home Companion.

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The Green Mountain Festival is only in its second year, but finding an audience. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Molsky’s Mountain Drifters I already mentioned, and have praised highly elsewhere. Molsky is the greatest living exponent of old-time music, and is a fine concert performer solo, but de Groot and guitarist Stash Wyslouch add a lot. The latter dredged up “Spring of ’65,” also covered by the Holy Modal Rounders (on Good Taste is Timeless from 1971) but dating to an unaccompanied recording, he told me, from a record called Mountain Music of Kentucky.  The composer is J.D. Cornett, not the Rounders’ Peter Stampfel as I long believed. It’s about farmers having an all-night revel, and it’s 1865 we’re talking about.

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Molsky’s Mountain Drifters, keeping it fresh. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Bruce Molsky always dredges up some fine songs, and in Vermont he did a great one from a late Michigan-based songwriter whose name I heard as Craig Johnson. It’s about how Kentucky-born workers were mistreated at the Willow Run bomber factory during World War II. Molsky makes it his own. I’d love an album of all-vocal music from him.

And then there was Chapel Hill, North Carolina’s Mipso, heard briefly at this year’s Green River Festival. They seemed interesting there, but in Vermont they had time to stretch out. I really liked them. It’s punchy folk-rock, with at least three good singers.

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Mipso had both the songs and the singers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

“Edges Run,” a great song I hadn’t heard before. It’s the title cut from their fourth album. And the edges do, indeed, run all over.

I arrived at this year’s Summer Hoot after a long drive from Newark Airport. That urban craziness couldn’t be more opposite to Ashokan’s isolated bucolic splendor. You go down a lot of rural roads to get there, but it is so worth it. One of folk music’s great bargains, and so imbued with love, peace and music is should take place in Bethel/White Lake.

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David Bromberg and, behind the mike, Jay Ungar. (Jim Motavalli photo)

David Bromberg was holding forth when I arrived. He’s not the world’s greatest singer, but he is one of the world’s great guitarists, and fortunately he knows it. His sets are a mix of worldly wise raps, long story songs and the occasional clunker. He was joined by Molly Mason and Jay Ungar, the heart and soul of Ashokan, along with Lyn Hardy, Ruthy Ungar’s mother.

“Why aren’t we in the streets?” Bromberg asked. Like Baiman, he has Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS). Anyway, it’s a good question. He closed with “Mr. Bojangles,” Jerry Jeff Walker’s song but his second guitar on the original. He once remarked that he never got tired of playing it, though Jerry Jeff did.

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Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Courtney Hartman, a veteran of the peerless Della Mae, is best heard with partner Taylor Ashton. On her own, despite excellent guitar skills and a sweet voice, her songs (about her “feelings” maybe?) lacked distinction. But in a later set with Ashton she complemented him perfectly. They made an album together, which is worth investigating.

It was getting cold when Rose (Newton) and the Bros, from Ithaca, New York, came on. Newton is a standout on both fiddle and accordion, and sings in a clear voice. The material was straight-up Cajun, but veered into country with a cover of a Julie Miller song. I regret not staying until the end, but did I mention it was cold? It was August, but we were in the mountains.

The next morning began with the Love Wave gongs, always a nice meditation, and segued into Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower. Mitchell is lovely, with a memorable voice and peerless old-time song selection. Catch her in the folk-rock group Ida, and don’t miss their album with Michael Hurley. Mitchell’s sets are marred only by her insistence on letting the kids sing, but it’s only a minor distraction. She’s Pete Seeger’s daughter. Not in real life, but spiritually. He sang in Japanese also, or at least tried to.

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Little Roots is Maggie (left) and Anne. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I saw Little Roots, Anne Lynch Stevenson and Maggie Shar, in a couple of places, playing a short set for the cameras in the Pewter Room and doing a kids’ set on the main stage. I prefer their adult stuff, not being a kid, but they do a lovely job on old-time two-part female harmony.

I intend to delve further into another duo, that of the Ohio-based Rick Good and Sharon Leahy. Rick is a phenomenal songwriter and guitar and banjo player who uses old-time as his base. Sharon sings and dances. Rick hates Trump, and he offered a diatribe on the subject in the style of Uncle Dave Macon during the banjo fest. The gist was that the White House is not for sale.

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Rick Good and Sharon Leahy, old-time out of Ohio. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A major discovery was the Detroit-based Reverend Robert Jones, Sr., a bluesman in the form of Brownie McGhee, but also a cogent historian of music, who weaves lessons into his eminently listenable travelogues.

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Reverend Robert Jones, Sr., gave us the music and the history, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Did you know that “Wade in the Water” is a coded spiritual, with the water serving to throw off the bloodhounds on the trip north from slavery? The same five notes and three chords are behind copious amounts of music, he told us in song. Jones was just one of the artists who Michael Merenda said he and Ruthy discovered on tour.

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Steve Poltz, before he broke down the walls. He was still on the stage at this point. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And then there was the phenomenon known as Steve Poltz. I’m sorry he’s so far down in this story, because his performance was memorable—not least because it broke down—definitively—the fourth performance wall. Pretty much everything Poltz did was about his life, with some of the songs turning the tables and addressing this very show—your date might hate it, he sang.

And then Poltz stepped off the stage, relying on the magic of wireless music to perform the rest of the set among, well, us. He suffered a stroke some years ago, went blind, and woke up to a new appreciation of the Grateful Dead. So we all sang “Ripple” together. The whole thing was totally empowering in the Pete Seeger tradition, but modern, too—he ended with a beatbox song about, well, his performance. Believe me, if you see this guy it will be like nothing else.

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The banjo party featured Reverend Robert Jones, Sr. (left), Taylor Ashton, Maggie Shar and Rick Good. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Oh, and Poltz is a very good guitarist and songwriter. I especially liked a piece he wrote for a family in Ireland who said they’d let him stay at their house free if he wrote a song for them, and “Kilkenny Man” was the result.

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The Mammals rockin’ with Courtney Hartman guesting. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Mammals themselves took time out from organizing the whole festival to do a spirited set, featuring several new songs and backing from the Restless Age, a rock group that had performed earlier.

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Ruthy Unger, lost in song. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Two weekends, two memorable shows.

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