The Worst Gig Ever

I’m reading a book called The Worst Gig, and it’s quite amusing. Musicians do it for the love, not the money, and definitely not for the luxurious dressing rooms and detailed tour riders. (Did you see Arcade Fire’s fake rider? Vegan hot dogs are involved.)

the whispering tree

The Whispering Tree got stiffed at a death metal bar–in Belgium. (Whispering Tree photo)

I’ve seen shows in bars where management declined to turn down the blasting TV in the room, as a folkie struggled to be heard. I’ve been to concerts where the folks on stage outnumbered the audience. (Dr. John, faced with this, said, “You’re a small crowd, but you’re a mighty crowd.” That’s the power of positive thinking. )

Highlights of the book include the group Eisley getting stuck in a huge snowstorm—in Texas, where it never snows; and The Screaming Sirens showing up for a gig in St. Louis where the booking agent who’d signed them had been fired. “Screaming Who?” the club owner said. This was after they got a $75 speeding ticket and sent all the money they had on ahead. They slept in their van, though eventually played the club for the Supertramp after party.

Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch played a gig to the bartender, then had to turn the PA off. (Gillian Welch photo)

Here’s Gillian Welch on her worst gig:

In Nashville, before we ever had a record out, I decided I wanted to play this writers’ night. I went down there by myself and waited like three or four hours to play. They kept me waiting and kept me waiting as the crowd thinned out. Finally, the guy who had been playing his own songs between every three writers, he got up when there were about three people left and played three more songs. Then he said it was my turn. There was literally nobody left in the place but the bartender and the MC. The MC said, ‘Okay, you can play now. Will you turn the PA off when you’re done?’ So I got up and played a couple songs to the bartender, then I walked over and turned the PA off.

Michael Merenda of the Mammals has a story he tells in his sets, describing traveling eight hours to West Virginia for a “house concert” that ended up being in an abandoned house without electricity in the middle of nowhere. It was on the weekend, and the West Virginia university students go home on weekends. One fan from his mailing list showed up, and the show was punctuated by the sound of gunfire from the target practice that was going on upstairs.

On my radio show, I hosted The Whispering Tree (quiet dream pop) and asked them for their worst gig. “Our worst gig ever was this show in Belgium at a death metal bar. We walked in and they were blasting death metal and there was a woman behind the bar wearing a swastika earring. We ended up playing to two (completely uninterested) people in the basement—it was painful. The only reason we kept playing was because it was a paid gig. Then we found out that the owner had run off before we’d finished our set and was refusing to pay us.”

It’s got to be unique that your worst gig ever is in Belgium.

Summer Jazz at Caramoor

KATONAH, NEW YORK—I’d previously been to Caramoor mostly for Americana events, so how would the sylvan glades take to the sounds of Coltrane, Monk and Miles? Just fine, as it turned out. Acoustic jazz is a natural sound, and it not only carried well when unamplified, but sounded right to the setting.

Camille Thurman

Camille Thurman heating it up, Coltrane-style. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Caramoor jazz festival was produced in cooperation with Jazz at Lincoln Center, and was all the better for it. On the bill were a series of acts I was unfamiliar with, but many were nurtured at JALC, and now the talent is reaching a wider audience. Camille Thurman, Riley Mulherkar, Christian Sands, Zaccai Curtis, Michael Mwenso, these are the stars of tomorrow.

McCoy Tyner

Pianists play with their backs to the audience, so here’s a shot of the back of McCoy Tyner. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The two acts I did know, McCoy Tyner and Mary Halvorson, could not be more different, but are widely varying roots from the same tree. Tyner was John Coltrane’s pianist in the critical years from 1960 to 1965 (as a very informed talk by Seton Hawkins of JALC explained), and Halvorson is today’s most cutting-edge guitarist. The former briefly adorned the open-sided Venetian Theater; the latter appeared in a more intimate setting—the Sunken Garden glade, with bassist Stephan Crump.

Mary Halvorson

Mary Halvorson was heard in duet with bassist Stephan Crump.

The jazz setup is much the same as Americana—concurrent shows in the open air, some on stages, some in forest clearings, leading up to a more formal gala show in the evening. Luckily, the weather cooperated, as it always seems to do when I’m at Caramoor.

Michael Mwenso

The muscular Michael Mwenso came with his own dancer. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Michael Mwenso and the Shakes offered the very muscular leader with an international cast from South Africa, Madagascar, France, Jamaica and London. An in-house dancer provided appeal, and the group boasted strong singers and players. The only thing they lacked was good material; my mind wandered a bit when the songs started to sound the same.


The JALC Youth Orchestra Ensemble serenaded early arrivals. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I wish I’d heard more of Camille Thurman, who was gigging with the Darrell Green Trio. She has a firm, Coltrane-derived tenor saxophone sound and a chocolatey voice somewhat reminiscent of Dee Dee Bridgewater or Jean. She’d sound good, as Dee Dee and Jean did, chanting about the creator on those 1970s spiritual jazz records.

trombone trio

Spontaneous groups like this trombone trio enlivened the Caramoor grounds. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Halvorson and Crump were suitably challenging. The two, who have recorded together, essayed a pair of intense, rapidly shifting duets. If I’m not mistaken, they were called “Emerge” (by Crump) and “In Time You Yell” (by Halvorson). Her guitar was played through some effects pedals that bent the notes in appealing ways.

Riley Mulherkar

The great Riley Mulherkar tears into some Dizzy Gillespie. (Jim Motavalli photo)

My camera was running low on battery power, so I didn’t get video of the Caramoor  performance, but here the pair is at New York’s great Cornelia Street Café playing “In Time You Yell”:

My two big discoveries for the day both featured Riley Multherkar on trumpet. He led a program with a small group called “In the Land of Oa-Bla-Dee.” If you’ve never heard that particular Dizzy Gillespie song, you owe it to yourself, because it’s the strangest thing in his canon. Here’s a video:

The group played “Salt Peanuts,” “Be Bop,” “Tin Tin Deo” and other Dizzy classics, and Multherkar was on fire whatever the period. He plays very fast, but also very cleanly, fully articulating every note. And he was a good guide to Dizzy’s music, too. I’d never heard “Pickin’ the Cabbage” before.

The Westerlies

The Westerlies offered intricate arrangements of their own music and some well-chosen covers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Multherkar must have had track shoes on, because almost immediately after the Dizzy show he was in one of the glades as a founding member of the Westerlies. I love the idea of two trumpets and two trombones, all played by high school friends who grew up in Seattle and studied with Wayne Horvitz. The arrangements were intricate, and they played them without sheet music—a lot of woodshedding in evidence there.

The music was quite varied, including a group of songs recorded by the Golden Gate Jubilee Singers. “I Was Born 10,000 Years Ago” is similar to a song recorded by folk groups as “The Man Who Rode the Mule Around the World.” Their originals were great, too, with influences ranging from New Orleans parades to European classical music.

Here they are on video, unfortunately cut a bit short by my batteries running out:

Pianist Zaccai Curtis and his quartet played latin jazz. I thought he sounded a bit like Hampton Hawes, and they cooked on a Mongo Santamaria number. Also in a Latin mood was Pedrito Martinez, a Cuban percussionist. The jazz content wasn’t all that high, so I’m not in a position to judge.

Zaccai Curtis

Zaccai Curtis likes it Latin. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Another highlight was a solo piano set by Sullivan Fortner, during a tribute to Thelonious Monk. His work was brilliantly broad in scale, showing how Monk grew out of stride piano, but also quoting from “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” and just about everything else. As pianist Christian Sands, who had to follow him, put it, “Sullivan played all of the piano.”

And then it was time for the headliners. Helen Sung was a last-minute substitute for Geri Allen, whose passing was a major blow. Playing with the house rhythm section of Gerald Cannon on bass and Francisco Mela on bass, she heated up Tyner’s “Inception” (from his Impulse album of that name).

Craig Taborn was next, and he also gave the master’s music a good run. Tyner himself, 79 now, only played a few numbers, and notably flagged after the second one, but since we were hearing living history nobody seemed to mind.

I learned a lot of new names at Caramoor, and had a brilliant day of jazz.

Yo La Tengo Doesn’t Disappoint in Central Park

NEW YORK CITY—Yo La Tengo opened its free Summerstage concert with a song about being back in the “New York groove,” and few bands are more beloved in the city. They’re most famous for playing a club in New Jersey (the now-closed Maxwell’s in Hoboken) but they’re as quintessentially New York as the Velvet Underground (one of their biggest influences).

yo la tengo

Yo La Tengo, assimilating their myriad influences. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But not the only influence. Ira Kaplan, guitarist/singer/songwriter, was a rock critic before he got serious about actually playing music, and the group is omnivorous—taking in cues from across the spectrum, avant-garde jazz to garage rock. In some ways, they’re NRBQ without the rockabilly.

Yo La Tengo played free in Central Park 26 years ago, and it was the very first show with bassist James McNew. But Kaplan said he was coming to shows long before that, namechecking Sha Na Na, Poco and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. That would have been 1971 and 1972, when the series was the Schaefer Music Festival at Wollman Rink. I went to a number of those shows, too, and saw the same Mahavishnu/Taj Mahal double bill at my high school in ’72.

I love the diversity of that lineup. Usually, fans of Sha Na Na (doowop revivalists) hated Poco (country rock) and Mahavishnu (jazz-rock). I could listen to all three, and maybe that’s why Yo La Tengo is, along with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band, my all-time favorite rock group.

yo la tengo

Day becomes night at Summerstage, under a cloudy sky. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Amazingly, I’d never seen them live, and they didn’t disappoint. The band launched right into a VU-influenced “Sister Ray”-type jam with a hypnotic repeated bass line. Georgia Hubley is one of my favorite drummers, and it’s not because she’s flashy. In the pocket, as the jazz guys say.

What followed was the mix apparent on their records from the beginning—intimate songs alternating with rock and avant-noise. Perhaps it’s the same formula as Sonic Youth, but you can like both of them, can’t you?

McNew did something the ramshackle NRBQ would have been proud to call their own: He pointed to the unblinking lighted “Yo La Tengo” sign behind the band and said, “How do you like our light show? Visual presentation is important for a big outdoor show, and I think we nailed that shit.”

The show concluded with another long jam, this one featuring members of opener Ultimate Painting. It went on for 20 to 25 minutes, far past a number of logical stopping points, which is what I love about Yo La Tengo—going too far, turning it up to 11, confounding expectations. The encore, to promote a series of Hannakuh shows at the Bowery Ballroom, featured Kaplan’s mother warbling a charmingly off-key number—played completely straight. How can you not love a band like this?

Ultimate Painting, the English opener, managed to be both chiming and lilting, without also being catchy. Tight but boring. Odd, that. They had a nice sound, but didn’t have the songs to go with it. Zero stage presence, and flubbed one song twice before making it all the way through. “Their tunes weave in and out of each other like the duo’s respective six-strings, spiraling around each other in a laconic dance,” the publicity said. I missed the laconic dance, I guess.

If Ultimate Painting became a Yo La Tengo cover band, though, they’d do great. The problem was that the band’s lyrics didn’t seem to be about anything, or at least they didn’t put them over as if they did. They didn’t feel invested in their own material.

I should mention that the Summerstage sound was fine, the prices for food and drink not outrageous, and the crowd control was handled well. It’s a nice venue, under the trees in Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield. Other concerts worth your time are PJ Harvey July 19, Regina Spektor July 27, and the “Bhangra royalty” show August 6.

Surprising Wedding Music in Washington State

I went to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to attend a wedding (my lovely cousin’s), not to hear music. But the American musical Diaspora is so vast that I heard some great music anyway, on the street and in front of the barn.

Ditrani Brothers

The DiTrani Brothers live on the streets of Port Townsend, Washington. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The streets of downtown Port Townsend yielded an impromptu gig by the DiTrani Brothers, who describe their influences being “western and eastern-European folk music, Roma swing (gypsy jazz) and early American jazz.” And that’s exactly what they sounded like. There was a guitar (Walker DiTrani) an accordion/banjo (Bobby DiTrani), a drummer (Eddie Gaudet) and a washtub bass player (Dana Anastasia Hubanks). Together, they made music with those influences, plus klezmer, maybe, quite apparent—not your usual street music fare! If Django was a Jewish Italian and resident in Montenegro…I captured this video:

The Brothers have a Facebook page here. Influences include: St. Cinder, Lost Dog Street Band, G-String Orchestra, Resonant Rogues, Ladies on the Rag, Crowquill Night Owls, Carolina Catskins, Folkfaces, Kyle Ollah. I haven’t heard a one of ‘em, but I’m sure they’re all great. They also like Tom Waits, Django (of course), Cab Calloway and Freddy Taylor.

The Delta Rays

The Delta Rays rock Kathy and Tracey’s wedding. Note dramatic sky. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The wedding band was, well, a bit different. The Delta Rays don’t play “Celebrate” or, in fact, any getting-hitched music at all. Their repertoire was Cajun (the vocalist/guitarist doubled on fiddle, and the keyboard player on accordion), jump blues, and early rock-and-roll. I wish I got their names but, you know, it was a wedding.

washington wedding

Around the bonfire at the Washington wedding. (Jim Motavalli photo)

They started playing in the late afternoon, as a spectacular cloud formation gathered over the garage. Check out the video; the Delta Rays got people dancing. Here’s a fine instrumental, answering a request for something with a klezmer feel.

Great music is where you find it. I found it on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. The wedding took place on the couple’s new homestead, with 60 acres of temperate rain forest. Incredible views!

A Swinging Territory Band at John Zorn’s New York Club

The Stone, unfortunately closing in February, is composer John Zorn’s outpost in the East Village. It’s at the corner of 2nd Street and Avenue C, and the only way you know it’s there is some peeling Letraset on the door.

Steven Bernstein

Steven Bernstein, conducting with his trumpet. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The club, which I visited for the first time July 2, reminds me of New York jazz in the 70s, when many artists—Sam Rivers, Joe Lee Wilson, Rashid Ali—had clubs that were about the music first. The Stone doesn’t even serve drinks or food. It’s a shame it’s not lasting, but it was packed 7/2/17 for a first-rate show by the Millennial Territory Orchestra, one of several bands (the Sexmob is maybe better known) that the composer/arranger/trumpeter Steven Bernstein either started or plays with regularly.

The phrase “territory band” has fallen out of favor, but in the old days it means a band—often with horns and vocalists—that traveled around a regional circuit (the Midwest, say). The MTO has a shifting cast of mostly New York-based first-call musicians, so its territory is the Tri-State area, though I believe it’s done some touring internationally.

The Millenial Territory Orchestra

The MTO has a shifting cast, but among the names I caught were Ben Allison, Curtis Fowlkes, Peter Apfelbaum, Ben Perowsky. Erik Lawrence, Doug Wieselman and Will Bernard. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The MTO got together in 1999, Bernstein told me. “I had just finished arranging music for Robert Altman’s film Kansas City, and part of the job was listening to a lot of the territory bands. That music stayed with me. It got left behind in the late 1920s when swing came in, and nobody was playing those songs or that style anymore. The first thing I did was an arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed and Delivered.’ I just heard that in my head, and it led to a lot of other music using that kind of instrumentation.”


The night at the Stone included two Ellington tunes, but also some originals, the Grateful Dead’s ‘Ripple,’ some Bessie Smith, and a song or two from a New York territory band. The Dead song is no aberration because the group embraces pop—MTO Plays Sly is the most recent album. Guest vocalists have included Antony Hegarty and Martha Wainwright.

Whatever the material, the sound is a delightful exploration of the possibilities and colors of the kind of little big band that once piled into a pair of Model A Fords and hit the road. Bernstein is a very physical conductor, swooping into the band to indicate the next soloist, to silence a passage or bring on a fanfare. He doesn’t (or didn’t) solo, instead using his signature slide trumpet and muted horn to change the pace.

The music was very visual, somewhat in the way Sun Ra was in front of the Arkestra, though without the costumes (there were a lot of hats, though). “We just want  to give people something to wrap their ears around,” Bernstein said.

On the night, Bernstein quipped that every time he plays a club, it closes. Let’s hope that pattern does not continue. What would be great is a permanent berth for the band, say on Monday nights. As you may recall, that was a tradition for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band at the Village Vanguard for decades.

Celebrating Roots Music in Caramoor’s Gardens

I’ve seen the Carolina Chocolate Drops four times, and Rhiannon Giddens under her own name three. You could say I’m a fan, of both the group and of Rhiannon as a solo act. Her show at New York’s Caramoor this year, ending a near-perfect day of outdoor shows and jams as part of the American Roots Music Festival, was an ideal balancing act.

caramoor 2017 rhiannon giddens

Giddens (above) isn’t a cult favorite anymore; she’s gone mainstream. A capacity audience jammed the Venetian Theater, and gave her standing ovations before she was even halfway through. The turning point was a luminous public performance of Odetta’s song “Waterboy,” and her 2015 album Tomorrow is My Turn, produced by T-Bone Burnett. It’s a fine album, but by showcasing her (stellar) vocals, it presents an incomplete picture of what Giddens can do.

Rhiannon Giddens

Giddens was on fire, and she covered all her bases. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A show I saw in Brooklyn promoted the Tomorrow album, and as such left me somewhat frustrated—she hardly touched her banjo or fiddle, though she’s a virtuoso on both. The situation reminded me of the experience of the brilliant Nat King Cole, whose skills as a pianist were pushed in the background after that magnificent foghorn of a voice hit the pop charts—and stayed there. Cole even made an album as a singer with George Shearing at the keys—a shame.

But solo Giddens is stretching her huge wings, and the Caramoor show was unreservedly great, with the full range of her talents on display. She’s already on her way to becoming a major star, and she couldn’t be more deserving of it. Between the opening “Spanish Mary” (taken from Lost on the River/Basement Tapes album of unrecorded Bob Dylan) to Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman” encore, she was simply on fire.

Highlights included a furious fiddle duet with ace collaborator and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell, who keeps the traditional fires burning; a string of great original songs centered on the African-American experience of slavery (taken from this year’s Freedom Highway, co-produced by Powell); an intense give and take with Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins on the spiritual “Go Where I Send Thee”; a master vocal class with Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You” and even a Cajun interlude.

Cole Quest

Cole Quest (left) is walking in Grandpa Guthrie’s footsteps. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There was so much music at the American Roots Music Festival it’s hard to do justice to all of it. Spuyten Duyvil, favorite sons (and daughter) here, were their usual boisterous selves (and lead the Grateful Dead-song social hour later). Cole Quest is Woody Guthrie’s grandson, and Arlo’s nephew. His band the City Pickers was a mainstay of the event, mixing it up with nearly everyone there. Quest plays dobro and does justice to Grandpa’s songs.

Kaia Kater

Kaia Kater (right) was a bit subdued, but well worth seeing. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I loved banjo player Kaia Kater’s album Nine Pin, released last year. In performance with a bass player, she was a bit subdued, but still compelling. She later turned up with Giddens, and the two of them make a convincing case that African-American folk music is back, and that women are in the vanguard.

I missed Eddie Barbash’s set, but heard him blow sax in one of the jams, and was amazed that an alto sax can be turned into a credible bluegrass solo instrument. Barbash was a member of Stephen Colbert’s band, and played with Chico Hamilton, Yo Yo Ma, Lenny Kravitz and Parliament. But now he’s leading an eponymous band and “playing American Roots music on alto sax.”

The Mammals

The Mammals are Mike + Ruthy with their old name back. Don’t miss their Summer Hoot in August. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Michaela Anne has a great singing voice, a fine band, but no songs that really stuck at Caramoor. I enjoyed River Whyless more simply because they were so unexpected. They looked like a roots band, but made virtually none of the genre’s clichéd moves—the roots were sprayed with day-glo paint. There were elements of jazz, psychedelic rock, and more. The experimental edge helped them stand out during a crowded day.

Michaela Anne

Michaela Anne (left) had everything but a tackle box for the hooks. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Lonely Heartstring Band, which started out covering a seminal Beatles album that turns 50 this year, was less adventurous, though I loved what they did to “Graceland.” Who knew that made a good bluegrass song?

I’ve written much about the Mammals (formerly Mike + Ruthy) that I don’t have to reiterate it here. If you have a chance to see this husband-and-wife act, do. Like Rhiannon Giddens, they have it all–dynamic performances, stellar singing (solo or in harmony), and both instrumental and songwriting skills in abundance. Their native habitat is the Summer Hoot in Ashokan, New York.

I caught five minutes of Jefferson Hamer (who made a great album of trad ballads with Anais Mitchell), and he was especially fine on “Old Churchyard”) recently covered by The Decembrists with Olivia Chaney).

The Brother Brothers

The Brother Brothers are Adam (left) and David Moss. You’re going to hear more from these identical twins. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’m an identical twin, so probably predisposed to love a twin act, but I’d heartily endorse The Brother Brothers if the two were entirely unrelated.

Adam Moss (who also worked with Anais Mitchell) excels on fiddle, is a very strong singer, and haunting songwriter. David Moss has the songs, the singing and killer cello chops.

Together, they’re a modern Everly Brothers in terms of harmonies, so it wasn’t surprising they did two songs from Phil and Don. They’re funny too, and from Peoria. Check out their Tugboats EP.

Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz was fine, if a bit studied and subdued. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The evening concert featured Sarah Jarosz, the enfant terrible of bluegrass who’s mostly grown up now. With Anthony da Costa on colorful guitar washes and the absolutely ace base player Jeff Picker, she was fine, very tasteful, and sang her lovely songs well. But I prefer her records.

Sarah Jarosz and Adam Moss

Sarah Jarosz (right) with Adam Moss of the Brother Brothers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Live, Jarosz’ raps were a little too scripted, her instrumental skills were muted in favor of the singing (which won her Grammys), and she could have used a little of Rhiannon Giddens’ fire. But, then, you could say that about almost any performer in the world.

Clearwater is Back for 2017

CROTON ON HUDSON, NEW YORK—At the Clearwater Festival, which came back this year after taking a breather in 2016, it’s either beastly hot or pouring rain. But on June 17, the day I could attend, it was cloudy, with only a couple hours of rain. Remembering the search for shade (which made the dance tent more tempting), it was actually better to be getting wet.

suitcase junket

Matt Lorenz, a/k/a Suitcase Junket, in full flight at Clearwater. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And it was worth it, because the music was so good. I had The Suitcase Junket, a/k/a Matt Lorenz, on my radio show a few days earlier, and he confirmed that he found his guitar in a dumpster, cleaned the mold off, and has been playing the thing ever since. The program described him, accurately, as a “throat-singing, slide guitar-playing, one-man band.”

I’ve been reading Robbie Robertson’s Testimony, the section about the Basement Tapes, and it was a pleasant surprise when Mr. Junket performed “Tears of Rage.” As you may recall, Dylan wrote the song with Richard Manuel of the Band, who is remembered so well in the Mammals’ song “The Ghost of Richard Manuel.” I’m happy because I’m seeing the Mammals this coming weekend at the wonderful Caramoor American Roots Music Festival (along with Rhiannon Giddens, Sarah Jarosz and a whole lot more).

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams had the good. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Larry Campbell wooed Teresa Williams with a Louvin Brothers mixtape. “And it worked,” she said. The Louvins’ “You’re Running Wild” was a highlight of their set, but really it was all good. Both are strong singers and songwriters—Teresa is a classic country belter, and Campbell is paging Johnny Cash. Add to that the fact that Campbell is a truly great guitar player, who references all of country history (as does Jerry Miller, the incomparable guitarist in Eilen Jewell’s band).

These two are the Porter Waggoner/Dolly Parton of their age, but Nashville no longer rewards such partnerships, alas. Classic country belters play at bluegrass festivals.

Leyla McCalla

Leyla McCalla and band explored her Haitian heritage. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Leyla McCalla, the cellist/singer I first saw with The Carolina Chocolate Drops, is now on her own, and mixing Americana with Creole songs from her Haitian ancestry. She also had a crack band, and one of the highlights of the set was a fascinating duet with her fiddle player.

McCalla is a historian and a folklorist, so she does what any self-respecting cultural ambassador would do—explain the songs, put them in context, and translate the lyrics.

Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe was riveting, with just a guitar in hand. A new man in black? (Jim Motavalli photo)

I heard someone describe Nick Lowe as “Britain’s Johnny Cash,” and while that isn’t entirely accurate, they both dress in black and write and sing like geniuses. With just a guitar, Lowe was riveting—he was really singing well, and took us through “Heart for Sale,” Cruel to be Kind,” “When I Write the Book,” “Heart for Sale” and other modern classics. It wasn’t “folk,” it wasn’t “punk” or “new wave,” it was just good songs, very effectively delivered.

Guy Davis

Guy Davis is keeping the country blues tradition alive–and what a storyteller! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Guy Davis is a folklorist, too, though he finds fertile ground in the country blues. But rather than mining the old 78s, he writes great songs in that tradition—often with lots of contemporary flourishes.

The son of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, he could probably tell Hollywood stories if he wanted, but instead we’re set down on the crossroads somewhere. He’s an incredible guitarist and harp player, and one of my favorite singers. Good storyteller, too.

Josh Ritter

Josh Ritter was happy to be at Clearwater. Just happy in general. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Josh Ritter appears to be entering a fertile period. At Clearwater, he played a lot of newer songs. (My favorite was “Cumberland,” which is on his Sermon on the Rocks album.) And he appeared unbelievably, unconquerably happy to be doing what he was doing. With a broad grin that never left his face, he kept thanking the audience for being allowed to play at Clearwater.

The fans reciprocated. During the set, which I watched from behind the stage, I saw two women, with their children, mouthing every word of the lyrics. Later, I asked one about her love of Josh Ritter. “He’s brilliant, poetic, and he has a way of getting across political messages without being overtly political.” I’ll agree with that. He can sing “Girl in the War” for 30 minutes and I’d be happy. After the show, he agreed readily to an appearance on my radio show, so I’ll hold him to that. He was still grinning.

Stilt walking

How’s the weather up there? Stilt walking is a lost art, except at folk festivals. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Some of the show is offstage at Clearwater, and I enjoyed a lady on stilts and Nate the Great, who juggled flaming torches and played a song on a sliding board.

Nate the Great

Juggling three flaming torches? Why not, all in a day’s work for Nate the Great. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I finished the night with two ace zydeco performances in the dance tent. Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas are black, and Jesse Legé and Bayou Brew are white, but their music has plenty in common. I’ve been fascinated recently not only by zydeco and Cajun music, but by the process that created it.

Here were these French people expelled from Canada’s Atlantic provinces by the conquering British in the 18th century, exiled to France, then resettled in—of all places—southern Louisiana’s swamps and bayous.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas. Their version of stage diving is a gentle stroll through the audience. (Jim Motavalli photo)

What a shock to the system! And yet they adopted and, influenced by the rich alternative traditions around them, created both a very appealing culture (French culture plus crayfish equals Cajun cooking) and incredible music.

Nathan is an extremely genial presence, given to strolling through the audience, furiously playing his accordion all along. I noticed Jesse Legé sitting at stage right, rapt, for Nathan’s entire set. The Cha Chas are the best there is right now, and if you can see them, don’t miss it.

Legé and his band, featuring three women, was on the same plane. They build up a huge head of steam on uptempo numbers, and get the dancers moving on ballads, too. They’re from Louisiana, but it appears they’re in New England and New York for most of the summer—the festivals come that thick and fast.

All in all, an excellent return for Clearwater. There was an air of celebration in the air, because Indian Point nuclear plant is shutting down, and the usual political and cultural activism was in the air. My favorite sign said: “Group Mime! Sing-a-Longs! Join Us on the Working Waterfront.”