As MC Peter Bush, my partner in the WPKN Old Cars in the Driveway podcast, regularly puts it, nobody gets an award, and nobody is in charge–it’s the perfect formula for a successful auto show. Caffeine and Carburetors, in downtown New Canaan, Connecticut, brings together 1,400 or so cars of every possible description, from million-dollar supercars to handmade whimsy.
For instance, there was some kind of tacked-together car built on a Chrysler chassis for a Daughter of Bonnie and Clyde movie that was never released, McLarens. Rolls-Royces, Minis, art cars, a turqoise-and-white Metropolitan convertible with modern Mazda power, and anything else you could imagine. There are Porsche 911s for miles. Here’s a few highlights from the September 18, 2022 event:
This is an ultra-rare Toyota Century, a Japanese-market-only executive car. They came with lace draperies for the seats.
The next Caffeine and Carburetors is in Waveny Park in New Canaan, Connecticut October 23. It’s worth a trip from anywhere.
HILLSDALE, NEW YORK—Every music festival has its discoveries, and at Oldtone Lite in Hillsdale, New York—an elegiac end-of-season gathering—it was one JP Harris. He’s not a new artist, and I’d already heard his first old-time album—but live he was a revelation.
Harris was billed as offering a honky-tonk set as the closer on Friday night. Before that I’d seen him and four banjos in a delightful duo with Sophie Wellington (fiddle and dancing). The repertoire was much of Harris’ Don’t You Marry No Railway Man album, which is mostly another duo with Chance McCoy (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show).
Although Harris is relatively new to old-time, he’s already a master performer in the genre. He gets the blood and guts at the core of it. Old-time, at its best, is about as far from the cleaned-up college folk of the Kingston Trio and Burl Ives as you can get—it’s murder ballads, songs of tragedy, misfortune and hard times.
Wellington and Harris were magic together. Here’s proof:
Not convinced? Here’s more proof:
And even more:
I didn’t get any photos or video of Harris’ honky-tonk set, mainly because I was freezing. But also mesmerized. With an all-star band of fiddle, pedal steel, piano, guitar and bass, Harris, an Alabama native, ripped through a bunch of hard country music (the kind Merle Haggard, George Jones and Porter Waggoner used to play), most of it about drinking and lost love—and often the combination of the two. Harris, who will tour Europe next March, has made three fine albums in this vein. Especially check out I’ll Keep Calling.
Ferd, a beard-and-baseball-cap New Orleans band out the Hackensaw Boys featuring fiddler/vocalist/songwriter Ferd Moyse, played a rousing set, then came back and played on the between-set “Tweener Stage.” It’s a brilliant idea, because it means the music never lets up. But bathroom breaks are hard. “It’s All on Account of You” and “I Found My Own Today” were highlights of the Ferd set; at their best, they are reminiscent of the Holy Modal Rounders.
The also New Orleans-based Bad Penny Pleasuremakers were simply wonderful, featuring Matt Bell and Joy Patterson of Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings—a perennial Oldtone favorite and at the earlier 2022 Oldtone show. Like Roochie Toochie, the emphasis is on early jazz—really early, like 1915 to 1920 early. This band isn’t quite as theatrical—no fezzes—but Patterson, also a fine singer, made great sounds on her little instruments. Highlights were “Nobody but My Baby” and a Jimmie Rodgers song, “Any Old Time.” How far back does “When My Dreamboat Comes Home” go? Apparently at least to a recording by Guy Lombardo in 1936.
Here are the Bad Pennies on video:
Also from New Orleans, and featuring some of the same musicians, was Tuba Skinny.
Like the Pennies, the repertoire is trad jazz, Clarence Williams to King Oliver, but also jug band music, spirituals, country blues, string band music, ragtime, and New Orleans R&B. They are exemplars of the styles, and kudos to them for making the old 78s come alive. Here they are on video:
Moonshine Holler was heard in old-time duo and trio formats, playing ancient stuff like “Hop High the Ladies” and “Coming Across Texas.”
Leader Paula Bradley was an MVP at Oldtone, also playing piano in JP Harris’ country band. Like him, she’s a scholar of the old music, and will tell you just which 78 was scoured for the song she’s going to do. But like Harris she also plays the honky tonks. Accompanist Pete Killeen is a very versatile musician.
Like the festival, it was Downhill Strugglers Lite, with banjo player Eli Smith missing—he was probably off organizing the upcoming Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is October 20 to 23 this year. Never mind, Walker Shepard and Jackson Lynch were fine as a duo, offering oldies like “Big Ball in Memphis,” “Short Life of Trouble,” “Old Aunt Betsy,” “Utah Carol.” The latter, which Marty Robbins also recorded, is a fine tale about a cowboy saving a ranch owner’s daughter from a cattle stampede. “It’s sad and action-packed,” Lynch said.
The Lucky Five are another regular old-time jazz act at Oldtone, with the sound of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli as the base. Guitarist Kip Beacco is to be thanked as a main organizer of this peerless event. The Five were the Four at Oldtone, and not even on the bill, but they managed to get in a few numbers at the Tweener stage. Including this version of “Cuckoo,” captured on video:
Jesse Legé—another Oldtone regular—brought more of New Orleans to the Hillsdale stage, with the event’s only cajun music.
And then there was the uncharacterizable Dumpster Debbie, featuring fiddling savant Wellington.
Dumpster Debbie! (Jim Motavalli photo)
The Debbies don’t sing much: the fare is mostly fiddle-based instrumental material, but it moved out.
After the show my wife and I returned to Connecticut, where an exuberant Lincoln Parkapalooza was in progress, featuring music on my neighbors’ porches and an evening performance by the Tom Petty Project. It’s all music, isn’t it?
CHARLESTOWN, RHODE ISLAND—For a while, it looked like the illness of founding producer Chuck Wentworth was going to kill the much-loved Rhythm & Roots Festival in Rhode Island forever. Wentworth started the festival in 1998, and I’ve been attending since my kids were tiny.
Fortunately at the last minute Tyler Grill and GoodWorks Entertainment swooped in like Mighty Mouse to save the day. Grill, who started out booking big mainstream artists like Alicia Keys and 50 Cent, got into the Americana business in my home town of Fairfield, Connecticut, saving another institution in need—the Fairfield Theatre Company. The company also books shows at the Infinity Theaters in Hartford and Norfolk, Connecticut.
I interviewed Grill on WPKN before the festival, and asked what was changed from the Wentworth era. “Nothing,” he said, and that proved to be true. The setting, down to the precise placement of the banners and tents, was exactly the same as always. And the music mostly followed suit.
The highlight for me wasn’t a headliner—it was Rose and Bros from Ithaca, New York, first encountered last year at Rhythm and Roots. Rose Newton, also half of the folk duo Richie (Stearns) And Rosie, is a musical force. She plays accordion and fiddle with equal assurance, and also sings beautifully—mostly cover songs and originals by her life and bandmate, Paul Martin (who’s also a farmer, owner of Sweet Land Farm in Trumansburg, New York (near Ithaca).
There’s an Ithaca sound, I think. It’s a relentless folk/cajun-inflected boogie groove. Accordions and fiddles and guitars in the front line. Ithaca-based Donna the Buffalo—who’ve had that sound for decades, and have built an audience through being great and relentless touring—were also at Rhythm and Roots, playing not once but twice.
Rose gets the groove going on accordion, Greg Evans kicks in on drums and Angelo Peters on bass, backed by Sally Freund on rubboard and triangle. Martin sings some, Newton sings some, and then they have these furious instrumental rave-ups—sometimes on twin fiddles. Steve Selin is the regular fiddle player, but with Newton doubling it’s an angelic noise.
Donna was equally inspired in Rhode Island, honed on the road and with a lot of fine new songs to showcase. I’m sure they’ll show up on records soon. Tara Nevins—like Newton—often drives the band with her unusual electric fiddle or accordion. The last few times I’ve seen them, an extended fiddle solo—the Mahavishnu Orchestra meets Vassar Clements—was a real crowd pleaser. Nevins and guitarist Jeb Puryear come out of old-time music, and its’ spirit is alive in their music—no matter how hard-driving it gets. I’d love to see the Buffalo and the Bros touring together. ‘’
Here’s Rose and Bros on “I Must Be in a Good Place Now”:
And here’s Rose and the Bros doing Michael Hurley’s “Blue Driver,” an old one:
Cajun and zydeco music are king at Rhythm and Roots, centered on the dance stage. Cedric Watson, an erudite Cajun accordion and fiddle player, led his band Bijou Creole. Watson is a veteran of Dexter Ardoin and the Creole Ramblers and Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys, as well as another ubiquitous act at Rhythm and Roots, the Pine Leaf Boys. The songs ranged from antique Cajun songs from the earliest days of recording in the 1920s to “I’ve Got a Rag on Top of My Head” (he did, too) and “Lazy John.”
From a fiddle workshop with Watson and Pine Leaf Boy Chris Segura, I learned that when the accordion came into Cajun music it’s more basic abilities changed the sound forever—in some cases simplifying it. C and D accordions made it into Cajun music by 1925, just as the music was first being recorded.
This is critical: “The Cajun Dennis McGee and the Creole Amedé Ardoin traveled together to New Orleans, recording together in 1929 and 1930, and in San Antonio, Texas, in 1934. ”Ardoin [accordion] was Black, McGee [fiddle] white—a highly significant meeting in that time and place.
The Pine Leaf Boys are another Louisiana-based band with great respect for the music’s traditions. Headed by multi-instrumentalist Wilson Savoy (son of famous Cajun accordionist Marc Savoy), the Pine Leaf Boys are inheritors of the tradition laid down by Ardoin and Iry Lejeune, among others. But there’s nothing academic about ‘em—a good time band.
Savoy, in his capacity as Sweet Willy Allen, also led a swinging big band on piano, performing old rock, rockabilly and R&B classics. It was a first-time thing, he said, but they sure sounded rehearsed in a program that embraced Jerry Lee Lewis (a Savoy fave), Ray Charles, Hank Williams and Bob Wills. Scott Newman was a standout on the tenor sax.
And speaking of musical blends, Los Texmaniacs managed to fuse the Sir Douglas Quintet with Los Lobos for a rocking time at the Texas-Mexico border. Songs in Spanish or English, it didn’t matter to them.
And don’t let me forget Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, who’ve I’ve seen both in Rhode Island and in their native New Orleans. Nathan is a great front man and accordion player, which is best demonstrated on video here:
Bands that didn’t click with me for various reasons included Grace Potter, Willie J. Laws Band, the Superchief Trio, the Honey Island Swamp Band and the New Orleans Suspects. Sometimes too many ingredients don’t add up to successful stew.
So all in all it was a great time in Rhode Island, and I’m very grateful that this festival lives on.