The Caramoor American Roots Music Festival 2021, in collaboration with City Winery, was an in-person event. And that’s a blessing. Caramoor on Zoom is missing a key ingredient—that incredible sylvan glade.
The event, on July 24, was virtually unchanged from its usual format, albeit with a reduced number of bands (and fewer food trucks). But there was plenty of useful variety anyway. Let’s take it chronologically.
The Brooklyn-based RT’s were already playing when we arrived. It was possible to set up in the shade, and still be pretty close to this enhanced singer-songwriter outfit. Enhanced in the sense that they had a horn section—trumpet and baritone saxophone. It was pleasant pop with a brassy oomph. The baritone guy had serious chops. I usually blanche at descriptions of bands that mix “punk rock energy, horn-drenched soul & precise musicianship,” but the RT’s went down easy. Their songs could be more distinctive. They later played an acoustic set.
Female-led Upstate met at SUNY-New Paltz in 2011. I liked their harmonies but, alas, found their generic folk-rock songs on the bland side. Though I agree with the idea of doing a song about friendship. There indeed aren’t enough songs about friends, though didn’t Elton John have a song?
Martha Redbone was solo in the beautiful Sunken Garden—just voice. That didn’t work so well, but she sounded much better on the Friends Stage with a guitar and keyboard behind her. Redbone has a powerful voice, and tells stories that are interesting but go on too long. William Blake songs sound great set to music—why don’t more performers take a crack at it?
Reggie Harris is straight out of Pete Seeger, and none the worse for that. He’s no longer performing in a duo with ex-wife Kim, but manages to make a rousing noise and tell an epic story. In this case, about the path taken by the woman who became Harriet Tubman. He was perfect for the East Lawn, where the audience contained many children. A pair of five-year-olds danced in front of the stage, and I’m sure that was Harris (and Seeger) approved.
A considerable highlight of the day for me was Hubby Jenkins’ solo slot at Friends Field. Formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and then in Rhiannon Giddens’ band, Jenkins is (like Bruce Molsky, Mike Seeger, Jackson Lynch, Taj Mahal, Dom Flemons, Dirk Powell and a few others) excellent solo.
He says he’s going to inform the audience about “black people,” and he does, offering useful history lessons in a cadence so fast his words tend to overlap. And then he shows what he means on his guitar (slide a specialty) and banjo, adding in a strong tenor voice. Jenkins not only did songs form Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell, but also performed “Little Log Cabin in the Lane,” an old song that he pointed out was written by a white man (William S. Hays, 1871) from the point of view of a former slave who misses slavery.
Jenkins also talked about the deep weirdness necessary for acclaimed African-American performers such as Bert Williams (1874-1922) to perform in black face. As best I can tell, this was to give audiences the comforting illusion that they weren’t actually watching a black performer.
Jenkins needs more recordings. He has one self-titled album and an EP, The Fourth Day, as a solo performer.
I loved Kat Wright, who played both on the big Venetian Theater stage and in the Sunken Garden. On record she uses a larger band, but at Caramoor she brought a tight trio with bass (Josh Weinstein) and guitar (Bob Wagner). Her music is Americana with a bit of horn-led swagger, but more intimate in stripped-down form—especially in the garden setting.
In another era, Wright would be a torch singer, tearing up the Great American Songbook. She has the vocal chops for that. Evidently, Bonnie Raitt was a big influence, and one critic dubbed her “young Bonnie Raitt meets Amy Winehouse,” but the latter only comes from those cats-eye eyeliner flips. Back in the day it might have been Billie Holiday. Did I mention that her songs are darn good? One she identified as having been written by guitarist Wagner, was also fine (if downbeat), and I captured it on video:
The headliners were The War and Treaty, a husband-and-wife modern country act. They both have big voices and strongly commercial songs that place them in the mainstream of country today. It’s interesting that they win folk awards—folk, they ain’t.
Next Saturday, the equally worthwhile Caramoor Jazz Festival, featuring Sean Jones’ Dizzy Spellz, Endea Owens & The Cookout, Charles Turner & Uptown Swing, Alexa Tarantino Quartet, Brandon Goldberg Trio, Godwin Louis & Jonathan Barber; Jeremy Bosch & Friends: Salsa Meets Jazz, Nicole Glover & Daniel Duke, Christina Carminucci & Leonid Morozov-Vintskevich and the Summer Camargo Trio.