KATONAH, NEW YORK and GREENFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS—When you go to two Americana festivals in two days you hear quite a lot of music. And that was certainly the case for me at the Caramoor American Roots Music Festival in Katonah and Signature Sounds’ Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts. But two performances were so luminous I have to lead with them.
Molly Tuttle has been making a lot of waves, and rightly so. Guitarists lined up to see her version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues,” because the fingerpicking is amazing. More than one million views! But it took until her new album Crooked Tree that the full range of her songwriting, singing and guitar playing came together on disc.
On that new record, Tuttle writes songs in the bluegrass tradition, very suited to her band’s virtuosity. Her biggest influence here is probably Gillian Welch, but that’s not a problem! Songs like “Dooley’s Farm” definitely tap into her well. What’s interesting here is that Tuttle grew up in Palo Alto, far from those bluegrass hills. But that’s true of Gillian Welch (born in New York City!) also.
Crooked Tree is amazing, but it pales in comparison to Tuttle live at Caramoor’s open-air Venetian Theater. The energy level was incredibly high—imagine a metal band plugged into a towering Marshall stack. There wasn’t much room for balladry, but a huge amount of did-they-really-just-play-that wizardry. On “Sleepy-Eyed John” alone I thought the room would levitate, or at least the instruments catch fire. The group deserves to be identified by name: Molly on guitar and lead vocals, Dominick Leslie on mandolin, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on fiddle, Kyle Tuttle (no relation) on banjo and Shelby Means on bass and occasional vocals.
It’s not enough just to buy the album. This group really needs to be heard live.
Over at Green River, I was eagerly anticipating the Brennen Leigh set on the strength of her last two albums, and she did not disappoint. Just out is Obsessed with the West, which is a collaboration with Asleep at the Wheel. Given that group’s predilection and 50-year commitment to the music of Bob Wills, it’s safe to say that the album is country swing. But instead of rehashing the overly familiar—but brilliant!—Wills repertoire, Leigh had the effrontery to write an entire album of songs in that vein.
It would have been wasted effort if the music didn’t measure up, but it does! At Green River, Asleep at the Wheel was also on the bill. Leigh’s own set was backed by Wheel’s rhythm section and one of the two fiddle players, and they did a great job of interpreting mostly songs from Prairie Love Letter, the album before Obsessed.
What’s fascinating is that Tuttle does a great job with a tradition from hills that are a long way from where she grew up, but Leigh revisits her youth in North Dakota farm country with cinematic clarity and great poignancy. “John Deere H” is seen through her father’s eyes, when he was eight year old and got to drive the family’s 1943 tractor for the first time. “He listened to it, and said it sounded like he talked,” Leigh said. “Billy and Beau” is about a chaste same-sex obsession that takes place around a 4-H farm competition.
Later that day, Leigh got on stage with the Wheel and did her “Texas with a Band.” The video is above. Ray Benson, the group’s leader, was in fine form. I’m sure he’d agree with her song “If Tommy Duncan’s Voice was Booze (I’d Stay Drunk All the Time).” Tommy Duncan was the Wills’ vocalist, though many people thought it was Wills himself hootin’ and hollerin’.
Leigh is a powerhouse singer and guitarist, too. Check her out. Asleep on their own were damned good, too. The pedal steel guitarist is from Rome, though you’d never know it. Like jazz, country is a universal language.
These were music festivals, so there were a lot more performers than just those two. Here are a few highlights:
The Black Opry describes itself as “a home for Black artists and Black fans of country, blues, folk, and Americana music.” The Black Opry Revue came to Caramoor with four of its members doing a concert in the round. I was especially taken with Riki Stevens (from Norwalk, CT, where I was born) and Tae Lewis. The latter played a separate show in the sunken garden, where Lewis unveiled his song “We’ve Got a Lot to Drink About.” It’s a goodtime party song for hard times, and Lewis—with a deeply soulful voice—is a Bill Withers for our time. Stevens has both strongly emotive songs and a really flexible, expressive voice. Roberta Lea did a very warm family song about introducing kids to genius—in the car with fried chicken, “Dinner, Sunset ad Nina Simone.”
The motor-mouthed one-man band Suitcase Junket is always fun to see. He writes darkly quirky and rootsy songs with bluesy guitar grooves. “Just Another Human Disaster” was one. I think I heard him singing about “black holes and overdoses.” He said that band arguments sometimes escalate, and that he was on “the reunion tour.”
Kittel & Co. are a three-piece folk-classical ensemble led by violin player Jeremy Kittel. Their music was inventive and well-crafted, albeit not very emotionally involving. The material ranged from Bach interpretations to a Django/Grappelli-adjacent version of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” with some Tom Petty thrown in.
Rebecca Haviland and Whiskey Heart didn’t make much of an impression. Her strongest song was “Black Dog,” a Led Zeppelin cover. Over at Green River, the Green Sisters got by on their sibling harmony, and some good covers of Gillian Welch’s “Red Clay Halo,” Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou” and Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight.” Dustbowl Revival was a bit spotty, but the highs were fairly high.
Florida-based Matthew Fowler is new to me, but I liked his voice and songs, and his two female accompanists who doubled as the horn section (clarinet and oboe).
Waxahatchee (a/k/a Katie Crutchfield) was punchy and compelling onstage. Her expressive voice glided over the strong folk-rock arrangements, which featured a killer drummer. My guess is she’d reject the folk-rock tag (in favor of something punkier), but maybe not—she’s a big Lucinda Williams fan, and covered one of her songs (“Fruits of My Labor”) onstage.
Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for Allison Russell. I like her solo albums, and her work with Birds of Chicago. At Green River she seemed to be talking and speechifying as much as singing. Deva Mahal was best when singing covers. She has a powerful voice like Odetta’s, and is Taj Mahal’s daughter.
And then there was the Young@Heart Chorus, who had a prime-time slot. You have to be 75 or older to join. My wife was reduced to tears by their version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” But all their material isn’t so folkie. They do the Ramones’ “I Want to be Sedated.”
Many other festival weekends coming up. Stay tuned.