End of Summer Music, in Connecticut and Rhode Island

CHARLESTON, RHODE ISLAND—The Rhythm & Roots Festival, in Ninigret Park here, marks the end of the summer for me. That and the CT Folk event, about which more later.

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Erin, with kazoo, channeling Janis Joplin. Jim Motavalli photo)

Rhythm & Roots has a lovely location, a park complete with playground, a swimming hole (actively in use throughout the event) and acres of elbow room.

Rhythm & Roots, my friend Pete remarked, has a very particular focus. That focus is on zydeco (mostly the French kind), blues and rootsy rock. Sometimes those categories get mixed up, as in the first group I encountered on August 31, Erin and the Swingers from Boston. My notes suggest a mash-up—Janis Joplin meeting Cream, circa 1968. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. If the river was whiskey, and she was a diving duck…well, you know the rest. I liked her horn player.

Groups like Erin’s, with repertoires including barn burners and slow shuffles, may not be innovative but they’re sure entertaining. But if she’s going to sing a John Prine song, does it have to be “Angel From Montgomery”? Everybody and his sister have taken that one around the block. How about another song from that golden first album, “Paradise,” maybe?

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Fitzie and Cara get down at Rhythm and Roots 2019. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A big attraction for me was seeing Hat Fitz and Cara again. I first encountered their music in a Dublin, Ireland Oxfam shop, figuring that a group with a name like that had to be good. And they are! Fitzie is from Australia—the Outback from the look of him—and Cara is Irish. The basic sound is blues, but boy do they do interesting things with it.

Fitzie holds the distinction of a record 18 straight appearances at Byron’s East Coast Blues and Roots Festival in Australia. He’s a gruff-voiced singer really fiery guitar player and a mean man with a slide, earning the right to play a National Steel Guitar.

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Cara Robinson, a double threat on vocals and drums. And tin Irish whistle too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Cara Robinson belts out blues like an Anglo Bonnie Raitt, is a wonderful songwriter (they both are), and bashes the drums with authority (doubling on tin whistle). Together, they’re genuinely exciting. I saw them three times at this year’s festival. It’s their second appearance at R&R, and it’s always touch and go as to whether they can get visas.

In one of Fitz’s songs, he takes the viewpoint of the Woman Before Cara, who complained about the pre-war music on his scratchy Son House records. Luckily, Cara has no such qualms, because a Memphis Minnie record is cued on the turntable in a photo I’ve seen of their Australian home.

“Power” is genuinely powerful, and Cara’s gospel-inflected vocal memorable. New song “Hold On” was a balm for our times. And I love their version of “Prodigal Son.” The Rolling Stones claimed to have written it, but the real author—as these bluesologists pointed out—is the very Reverend Robert Wilkins.

If you can’t see this group live (going to the Nimbin Roots Festival in New South Wales?), and sightings in the U.S. are rare, check out their recordings. Here’s a video of “Hold On”:


Also just fine was Della Mae, an all-woman Americana outfit I’ve seen a few times. They have the songs and the vocalists. One song seemed to be channeling Merle Haggard’s “Working Man’s Blues.” They do very well by old-timey tunes, including “I’m Gonna Sleep With One Eye Open.” The group didn’t totally knock me out this time, but I like them.

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Della Mae, doing right by Americana. (Jim Motavalli photo)

They like their zydeco at Rhythm & Roots, and also respect older styles. I saw only a bit of Michael Doucet (who sings in French), but caught a whole set from Ed Poullard, Preston Frank and Jeffrey Broussard. This was classic, sit-down front porch Cajun music with twin fiddles and an accordion, and it was lovely.

Also hugely enjoyable was The Lustre Kings, classic rockabilly and the kind of road band that you might be lucky enough to catch at a club near you. Front man Mark Gamsjager sings plays his Gretsch with authority, and comes off like a genial, white version of Fats Domino.

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Mark Gamsjager of the Lustre Kings. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And then there was the finale (for me), a wonderful set shared by Dustbowl Revival and Hot Club of Cowtown of Band music. Their approaches were different—Dustbowl is an Americana group (with horns) and Hot Club comes out of Django and jazz. But both groups made me realize the sturdiness of Robbie Robertson’s (and Dylan’s) material for this band (Band!). This was the last night of the two groups’ tour, and I was glad to see it.

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Dustbowl Revival proving the eternal verities of Robbie Robertson’s songs for the Band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

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Last week I went down to New Haven for the CT Folk Festival, which really is the last outdoor thing I’ll see this year. I regretted missing Jim Allyn, because I love his music and had him on my WPKN radio show—and he was playing with ace banjo hand Dick Neal.

But I did get there in time to see Birds of Chicago and Donna the Buffalo, as well as spending some time with my WPKN friends in the new station tent.

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Birds of Chicago. Someone give me the name of that guitar player! (Jim Motavalli photo)

I had heard of Birds of Chicago, but live they were a revelation. I’m planning on hosting them on WPKN soon. The band is Allison Russell and JT Nero, husband and wife, augmented in New Haven by a really, really good guitar player whose name I didn’t get. I’ll amend this when I do get it. They both write, and Russell—who you may have heard on the Songs of Our Native Daughters album with Rhiannon Giddens and Amythyst Kiah—is a strong singer who also plays banjo and clarinet.

Their songs are hushed, gorgeous and totally human. The music was complemented by lovely and sincere commentary about having to leave their daughter home for the first time. A more charming experience I haven’t had in a while. And I wish I knew the name of that guitarist—he’s the best I’ve heard since Jerry Miller in the Eilen Jewell band. Everything he played was perfect, and in service to the song. Like Miller, he has complete command of American music, from the Carter Family and the Skillet Lickers forward.

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The peerless Donna the Buffalo. See them now. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Donna was totally great, but I’ve written about them so much I’ll keep it short here. The version of “Ring of Fire” was new to me, though. If you want to like jam band music, but don’t actually like the bands (my situation) check out Donna the Buffalo.

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.

At Union Pool, 75 Dollar Bill and the Condo Fucks

WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN—The first act was the Condo Fucks, which meant that you had to be a hip music person to want to go to this gig.  Yo La Tengo, in my Top Ten for rock groups, made the album Fuckbook (a nod to their earlier Fakebook) as the Condo Fucks, celebrating garage rock with some fairly obscure covers.

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75 Dollar Bill in full flight. (Jim Motavalli photo)

At Union Pool, Condo Fucks was the entire Yo La Tengo, intact, and—after taking the stage late—they burned through an ultra-compact set of vintage rockers, separated only by waves of feedback. I recognized the Small Faces and (not so obscure) the Beach Boys’ “Wild Honey.” I’m not as ardent about garage rock as most critics, but I liked the high energy of the Fucks’ approach.

After they played, the stage was cleared for 75 Dollar Bill. Rick Brown, the group’s percussionist, sat in (on vocals!) for one of the Fucks’ songs, a Kinks cover, so there was obviously some affinity there. Bill doesn’t play garage rock, far from it, but there are parallels with some of Yo La Tengo’s long, improvisational, guitar-led pieces.

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Ira Kaplan on alto sax celebrating the music of Ornette Coleman! (Jim Motavalli photo)

From the first note, 75 Dollar Bill’s set was magical. The core is just Brown and the affable young guitarist Che Chen, but performing was the expanded band that’s on their latest album, I Was Real: Brown on plywood crate, percussion and homemade horns; Chen on guitars (and violin on one song we’ll get to later); Sue Garner (in a Shaggs t-shirt) on bass; Cheryl Kingan on alto and baritone saxophones; the indispensible Steve Maing on second guitars; and Karen Waltuch (channeling John Cale from admitted influence the Velvet Underground) on viola.

75 Dollar Bill is a college radio station/rock critic/record store geek’s dream because of the way they combine disparate influences—from VU to Ali Farka Toure, Fela to Ornette Coleman, Terry Riley to Phillip Glass, Robert Johnson to avant-garde collective improvisation. The bonus is that it’s completely coherent, ear-worm catchy, and incredibly exciting.

There were no solos. Come to think of it, the Condo Fucks left them out, too. It was all about adding to the pulse, hypnotizing through creative repetition, exploring the implications of simple phrases. Kingan, for example, played like no saxophonist I’ve heard before, blowing long lines (especially on her baritone) that put a deep bottom end on the compositions.

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Cheryl Kingan, looking ready to join Sun Ra’s Arkestra. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And though there is spontaneous creation here, the music is very deliberately composed. It begins quietly, as the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s songs did, builds inexorably to a full-band theme, then explores the groove upside and down (often taking 10 minutes or more to do it). This is just it for me. I can’t remember being so happy at a show.

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It’s about the pulse. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This is from the band’s bio: “Brown is a clerical worker at a law school in NYC. Che Chen was born in New Haven, CT and works for a cancer diagnostics company in Stonybrook, NY. They met via myspace and started playing together as 75 Dollar Bill approximately eight years later. Brown plays percussion and homemade horns and Chen plays electric guitar.”

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Che Chen manning the merch table. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The band, while hardly mainstream, seems to be getting noticed. Pitchfork and Mojo raved. The people who were lucky to be there in Brooklyn will be 75 Dollar Bill fans for life. I didn’t think they could top what they’d already done, but Brown said they had one more song, and brought up some “friends”—all of Yo La Tengo again, with Ira Kaplan on alto sax, Georgia Hubley on drums and James McNew on, well, more drums.

And the song was Ornette Coleman’s “Friends and Neighbors,” from Live at Prince Street. A perfect closer, because it’s both childlike and challenging. The performance reminded me of seeing Sun Ra’s Arkestra at the old Five Spot—the same mix of joyous, chanted vocals and wonderful cacophonous noise.

Check out 75 Dollar Bill here, and the Condo Fucks here.

Here’s a sweaty video I shot of 75 Dollar Bill in action that day:

Oh, and here’s Ornette’s “Friends and Neighbors”:

Hot Stuff at the Green River Festival 2019

GREENFIELD, MASSACHUSETTS—Why is always so hot on festival weekends? It could have been worse—I’ve done Green River in the pouring rain. And it was still worth it! I’d have to say, though, that this is one festival that prepares for the heat. There were cool-off tents, misting areas, and lots of water stations provided by Klean Kanteen. The community college site also has some welcome shady areas, refuges to avoid sunstroke.

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Rhiannon Giddens, commanding the stage. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The music was hot, too. I got there on Friday night, just in time to see Lucinda Williams. She was personally in fine form, but I continue to have problems with the volume of her Buick 6 backing band, which can drown out the subtleties baked into the songs. Other artists, including Courtney Barnett, have disappointed in that way. Stuart Mathis, who tours with Williams (and plays on her records) is a fine player, but he belongs in a rock band.

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Eilen Jewell: one of the best singer/songwriters we have, with great stage presence too. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Saturday dawned clear and hot. I made it onto the field in time to see a short set by Little Roots, a local duo of Annie Stevenson and Maggie Shar. I loved them—the guitar and banjo combination, the sweet harmonies. And the repertoire of “Train on the Island,” “Green Leafy Garden” (which they said was derived from “Ida Red”), a Dolly Parton song named “Applejack” and the redoubtable “Jenny Jenkins.” But why, since there were two of them, didn’t they split up the vocal duties? It’s a call and response.

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Little Roots are music teachers when theiy’re not performing around the Pioneer Valley. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A trio of duds on the main stage: Pamela Means, a supposed jazz singer who was earnest but tuneless; the Record Company, which produced an ear-piercing blare without much coherence; and the Philadelphia-based Low Cut Connie, who were loud and aggressively awful, without a memorable song to call their own. Frontman Adam Weiner said he “loved” us after every song. That alone was a bad sign.

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Charlie Hunter with frontwoman Lucy Woodward. (Jim Motavalli photo)

That morning, in our Airbnb, I had enjoyed the owner’s collection of country vinyl. I put on a Porter Wagoner live album, which reproduced their stage show circa 1964. It had it all: Fast instrumentals, comedy (from the colorfully dressed bass player), female vocals (from the “lovely Norma Jean”), solid singing and hosting from the front man—and songs, lots of very good songs. There was quality control in those days. Vigilantly weeding out bad songs is the duty of every band and solo act.

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Mammas Marmalade had their bluegrass roots showing. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Equilibrium was restored with a performance by Mamma’s Marmalade, a Northampton bluegrass-based band with strong original songs, instrumental prowess and charisma. Fiddle player and singer Lily Sexton is a good front person. The new album is Rockabee Fields.

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Suitcase Junket has graduated to an almost drum kit. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Suitcase Junket is always fun. One-man band Matt Lorenz has insane energy, and sweats buckets to put his songs over (now there’s a concept). He seems to have evolved from banging on his suitcase to an actual drum kit of sorts, and in Greenfield he brought out his sister, Kate, to sing harmonies. Not all his songs connect, but most of them do—especially the ones with singable choruses. The new album is Mean Dog, Trampoline.

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Gaslight Tinkers: You came for the dreadlocks, but stayed for the songs. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Well-known axeman Charlie Hunter has a duo (plus a Japanese drummer) with singer Lucy Woodward. She’s has a big soul voice, Etta James meets Janis Joplin, and really puts everything into her songs, conviction plus body English. She was so forceful it almost overshadowed the beaming Hunter, who nonetheless got in some slinky solos.

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Tyler Childers alternated a classic country sound (and good songwriting) with rock-influenced bombast. Guess which I liked better? (Jim Motavalli photo)

Tyler Childers played old-school country, which segued into pounding rockers in the modern Nashville manner. At his best, he’s a very good singer and songwriter.

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Red Baraat putting out the energy. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Red Baraat, return visitors to Green River, almost levitated off the stage. Whatever the source material—some are originals, one was “an old Punjabi song”—it’s performed with rhythmic intensity, pounding drums and a tuba for bass. What, it wasn’t a tuba but a sousaphone? The Lowdown Brass Band are similar, if with a New Orleans flavor, and were equally intense—with two excellent singers, R&B and rapper—to the fore.

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Chapel Hill’s Mipso bears further exploration. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The East Pointers, from Prince Edward Island, had both instrumental prowess (including fiddle-led rave-ups) and good songs, plus funny patter about PEI. They quoted from the local paper: “Rogue Beavers Invade Town” was one headline. This was my wife’s favorite festival band.

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Jerry Miller, the one and only. No, not the Moby Grape guy. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Festivals are best when they introduce you to bands you’ve never heard before, and the Brattleboro-based Gaslight Tinkers was one of them this year. My impressions: dreadlocks, congas, electric bass, jigs, a tragic kids’ song, Emerald Rae’s fiddle. The Spanish song wasn’t their best. Cedric Burnside was solo, a bit stark but effective. He’s not as raw as granddad RL, but still did a song whose lyrics included, “Isn’t it just like a woman/they’ll do it every time.”

The major highlight of the festival for me was the performance by Eilen Jewell, promoting her new album, Gypsy, out in August. This is one of the best singer-songwriters performing today, and if you don’t know her music you owe it to yourself to change that fact. Jewell is an ace interpreter of classic songs—bringing them to live the same way a Carmen McRae or Anita O’Day would—but she’s also a wordsmith who can take your breath away. A highlight for me was the moody “Santa Fe” from Queen of the Minor Key.

lowdown

The Lowdown Brass Band had both R&B and hip-hop vocalists. Bases covered. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Jewell has long worked with husband Jason Beek ably holding down the drum chair, and wild man “Stone Cold” Jerry Miller on guitar. Miller is, for my money, one of the best guitarists in any genre working today. His playing encapsulates every rockabilly, country, bluegrass and roots style—sometimes in the course of a concise one-minute solo. He has his own album out, New Road Under My Wheels. Jerry says, “These are players that I remember slowing down the record to figure out: Grady Martin, Leon Rhodes, Roy Nichols, Billy Kirchen, Joe Maphis, Les Paul. Also Scotty Moore, Cliff Gallup.”

cedric burnside

Cedric Burnside was spare but effective. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Next up was Rhiannon Giddens, who was just as good, performing –as on her latest, 2019 album, There is No Other—with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi. I wrote down, “She was always good, but now she’s commanding the stage.” If the festival was just those two women, I would have gone away happy. Giddens’ talent on fiddle and banjo sometimes gets overshadowed in large-band settings, but Turrisi (leaping from accordion to piano to Persian hand drums) was just perfect for her. She said their collaboration is “just getting started.” Good. He was funny, too. As she is.

Angelique

Angelique Kidjo promised all of Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I caught a few songs from Chapel Hill’s Mipso, including a lithe cover of “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes,” and liked what I heard very much. There are three good singers, and fine original songs. Their most recent album is Edges Run from 2018.

I’d have liked to hear more of Angelique Kidjo’s performance. She’s an African export worth hearing, and delivered a strong empowerment message. I wanted to hear more of Talking Heads’ “Remain in Light,” but caught only one song. Her next album (after the Heads tribute) salutes singer Celia Cruz.

Artists that sounded interesting that I missed: The Devil Makes Three (liked them in the past), Heather Maloney (didn’t like her in the past), Mapache, Phillip B. Price, Parsonfield, Samantha Fish, Spanglish Fly, Fantastic Negrito, The Suffers, Dez Roy, Moving Day, Zoki, the Stone Coyotes, Home Body.

Allan Harris: All Blues

NEW YORK CITY–For one reason or another, I’d never been to Dizzy’s Club, which is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center, hard by the shops at Columbus Circle. (That’s one way of saying it’s in kind of a mall.)

allan harris

Allan Harris at Dizzy’s. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I couldn’t have picked a better act to see there than Allan Harris, a jazz singer I’ve admired for a long time (but never seen). The New York Times calls him “a “protean talent” who “is best known for his takes on jazz standards,” and adds, “Mr. Harris flaunts his musical showmanship for the stage.” Here’s my interview with Harris in New York City Jazz Record. Go to page 6.

I’m fascinated by Harris’ musical, Cross That River, which was produced to sold-out acclaim on Broadway and still gets performed. Harris and I are both interested in America’s frontier, and his musical and my new book, The Real Dirt About America’s Frontier Legends, point out that African-American and Hispanic cowboys rode the West. At Dizzy’s, he pointed out that a very high percentage of such range riders were “people of color,” but it’s rarely dealt with in the history books.

allan harris

Harris picks up his guitar now and then. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Harris is extremely relaxed on stage; probably because as a constant tourer, he’s on them a lot. Joking with the audience, calling out old friends, asking about a new baby, it’s all part of the plan. His wife is his manager.

In New York, Harris performed an excerpt from Cross That River, but he also offered his deep insights into those standards, including “I Remember You,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I Wish You Love” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home.” I particularly enjoyed hearing the 1941 Johnny Mercer tune “Remember,” because I heard Chet Baker singing it on the way in to the city. Harris’ less wistful but still emotionally full version was just as good or better.

Harris also did some of his tribute to Eddie Jefferson music, including takes on Horace Silver’s “Sister Sadie” and Miles Davis’ “So What.” He’s right that Jefferson’s lyrics and vocalese for classic jazz tunes should be better known, and he’s a perfect interpreter of the material.

When he picked up his guitar and performed some of his own songs, Harris was more in the mode of a smooth blues belter, Jimmy Witherspoon, maybe, or B.B. King.

Kudos to Harris for hiring women (in the piano and drum chairs), and for taking the crack band on the road for an extended tour–to Italy, Sardinia, Turkey, Russia, London and Berlin, among others. And the group had just gotten back from Australia.

The protean Allan Harris deserves to be heard by a wider audience–and not just in the four corners of the world. Here’s a little bit of Cross That River on video:

Caramoor’s Bucolic Americana 2019

KATONAH, NEW YORK–Cellist Kaitlyn Raitz (half of Oliver the Crow with fiddler Ben Plotnick) went to SUNY Purchase, which is just down the road from Caramoor and just as bucolic, so she must have felt totally at home playing outdoors as part of the American Roots Music Festival at Caramoor June 22.

oliver the crow

Oliver the Crow: The day’s pick hit. But it was all good. (Jim Motavalli photo)

This is a festival that (like the similar jazz event coming up July 20) uses all of Caramoor’s beautiful groves and clearings in the woods for unamplified sets that merge with bird song and the sighing of the wind. If you want it loud, stay close to the main stage.

Oliver the Crow were wonderful, combining really strong singing and songwriting with virtuoso work on their instruments that never grandstanded and complemented all of the above. That’s the key to great music right there. The debut CD Oliver the Crow is out now. Plotnick quipped that Raitz, who has a Master of Music Performance degree from McGill University, “is wildly overqualified to play with me.” But in fact they’re evenly matched—and about to get married.

At Caramoor, OtC (now based in Nashville) combined original songs with traditional material such as “Bury Me Underneath the Willow Tree.” Almost all of the performers did that, in fact, and it’s a winning combination. OtC also played some very credible songs from people they know in Nashville, where every Uber driver is trying to make it as a musician.

porch stomp revue

Porch Stomp Revue was a teaser for the big event on Governor’s Island the next day. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Porch Stomp Revue featured artists from the event of that name, which took place on Governor’s Island the day after the Americana festival. I haven’t been to that one, but I loved the Porch Stomp we had closer to home here in Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Black Rock section. What’s not to like about free music (singer songwriters and Americana bands) in the neighborhood, in people’s yards and on their porches?

The New York version of Porch Stomp featured Matheus Verardino on harmonica, vocals and foot stomps, plus the Nick and Luke duo (better on covers than on originals) and fiddler Cleek Schrey. There were dancers, too.

Youth in a Roman Field

Youth in a Roman Field featured three singers, one songwriter. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Youth in a Roman Field (New York by way of Chicago) is new to me, a vehicle for ambitious songwriter Claire Wellin. The songs, which were nicely arranged by a well-rehearsed band (with three female singers), lacked hooks and catchy choruses and were somewhat obscure lyrically, but still went down easily. Wellin is a good frontwoman. She described one song, “Town Hall,” as written in Cleveland “about life cycles I hope don’t continue to be life cycles.”

I loved the Bumper Jacksons, featuring the big voice of Jess Eliot Myhre and banjo player Chris Ousley. Myhre herself plays clarinet, and she hooked up with trumpet player Joseph Brotherton for a rough-and-ready horn section that gave their Americana music some meat on its bones. Decent originals, well-chosen covers. A good time.

our band

Our Band was an international travelogue, with hot guitar and accordion, plus duo harmonies. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Our Band, heard in one of the glens, features snappy singer/guitarist Justin Poindexter and singer/accordionist Sasha Papernik. The band does State Department tours (and Poindexter works at global outreach for Jazz at Lincoln Center) so its sound is understandably eclectic. It ranged from nice duo harmonies on the Everly Brothers’ “Gone, Gone, Gone” to a Leonard Cohen cover (beautifully sung by Papernik) and songs from Brazil. In Poland, Our Band got urgent requests for Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” so they did that one, too. Their very sweet original song “Bright as You” is online with a stop-motion animation video:

California’s Rainbow Girls have been together eight years and have a shambolic chemistry onstage. Unplugged, they essayed lovely three-part harmony on “Tennessee Waltz” and more aggressive delivery for “These Boots Are Made for Walkin.’” I caught only a little bit of Damned Tall Buildings, both on stage and in a glen, and liked what I heard. Lots of energy there.

Rainbow Girls

Rainbow Girls, a California import, had a shambolic charm. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Bethlehem and Sad Patrick stood out for the former’s huge voice and assured delivery. Patrick’s guitar was somewhat rudimentary. Maybe he adds more in other contexts. Bethlehem is going places, though.

Amethyst Kiah

Amethyst Kiah’s songs didn’t quite match the power of her voice, but she couldn’t be stopped on the covers. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A tribute to Odetta was a fine excuse for a rousing sing-a-long featuring all the performers. Standouts: “Jack of Diamonds” by Damned Tall Buildings; “Cotton Fields” by Rainbow Girls; “Careless Love” by Youth in a Roman Field; “Make Me a Pallet” by Bumper Jacksons. The MC, as always, was an (uncredited) Mark Miller of the Spuyten Duyvil band.

But that wasn’t the end, just the pause before the headlining evening concert. At these events, I sometimes find the unknowns better than the big names, but both Milk Carton Kids and Amythyst Kiah were credible. The latter doesn’t write songs that fully exploit her incredible voice (they’re somewhat formless), but she really connects on covers like “Death Don’t Have No Mercy” and Darling Corey.”

I’m eager to hear the album Kiah made with Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russel (of Birds of Chicago) and Leyla McCalla, Songs of Our Native Daughters. The one original she did from it was powerful.

Milk Carton Kids

Milk Carton Kids combined sharp songwriting, intricate harmonies and dry wit. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Milk Carton Kids were not what I expected. I thought they had techno elements, but maybe that’s only on record. Instead their live show had beautiful Simon and Garfunkel-style vocal harmonies on often-dreamy songs, extremely good guitar playing and really wry deadpan wit. It was like an updating of the Smothers Brothers.

By the way, if you like hearing Americana outside this summer, check out the continuing CHIRP series in Ridgefield’s Ballard Park, curated by the knows-what-she’s-doing Barbara Manners. What a great series of free Tuesday and Thursday night shows! I’m marking my calendar for C.J. Chenier (July 9), Hot Club of Cowtown (July 25), the Brother Brothers (August 1), Sam Reider and the Human Hands (August 6) and, again, Damn Tall Buildings (August 8).

Hot Jazz at Caramoor in Katonah

KATONAH, NEW YORK—Vince Giordano is about the same age as me, but his perspective goes much further back—long before either of us were born, in fact. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks Orchestra are the leading band in the U.S. that is keeping the music of the 1920s and 1930s alive with loving recreations of period arrangements.

vince giordano and the nighthawks

Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks honor the composer’s intent. No disco versions. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Giordano is a stickler for authenticity. When he was five (this was in 1957, mind you) he heard 20s music on a wind-up Victrola, and has never been the same. Instead of Elvis, he was listening to Paul Whiteman. He’s a music collector as well as a sax player, and reportedly owns more than 60,000 scores.

It’s a treat to hear this music live, in good fidelity, instead of on beat-up low-fi 78s. I had exactly that pleasure at Caramoor’s “Hot Jazz Age Frolic” June 16, which featured Giordano’s band with singer Kat Edmonson and the great trumpet player/vocalist Bria Skonberg. Oh, and crowd-pleasing tap dancer DeWitt Fleming, Jr., too.

bria skonberg

Bria Skonberg (with sax player Evan Arntzen ) blows hot. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Skonberg’s first set was for kids, many of whom were darting around the music tent. It was distracting, but it didn’t last long. Skonberg is a committed educator, and took the time to explain jazz history and context. “Jazz was born in New Orleans,” she said. “And it came with rhythms from around the world, including Habanera from Cuba and Clave [originally from Africa but then] from the Caribbean.”

Skonberg’s Hot Five was in good form. Clarinet/sax player Evan Arntzen (also in the Giordano orchestra) was inventive, especially on clarinet, ad he was complemented by Devin Starks on bass, Chris Patishall on piano and drummer Darrian Douglas. They played material like “Joe Avery’s Blues” and “Stomping at the Savoy,” the latter a showcase for a great “conversation” between Skonberg and Arntzen. “Music is a language,” Skonberg told the kids. “The call-and-response makes it like a conversation.”

Skonberg is a double threat. She has a big brassy trumpet sound, out of Louis Armstrong mostly, and is also a strong singer. Her albums, particularly lately, have been getting more experimental, but in Katonah she was exploring the same 20-year-period as Giordano.

Even if it was for kids, the music was uncompromising and a lot of fun—Sidney Bechet’s “Egyptian Fantasy,” “Sunny Side of the Street” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got that Swing”).

Skonberg came out later for the adults, and got even hotter on numbers like, well, “Hotter Than That” (lots of nice blowing from Skonberg) and “When You’re Smiling…” (featuring inspired piano from Patishall). Arntzen can sing, too, and he did it particularly well on a version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Up a Lazy River.” Skonberg showed off her compositional side on the eerie and haunting “Down in the Deep.” Here it is in a studio version:

At intermission, we got to hear recorded 78s on Michael Cumella’s twin vintage wind-up Victrolas. They changed needles a lot. Cumella hosts a program of music taken from his extensive collection of 78s on WFMU in New Jersey.

Victrolas

The kids loved Michael Cumella’s Victrolas. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Giordano gave us an ambitious “Rhapsody in Blue,” and also talked about the music. Have you ever heard of James Reese Europe? Serving in France as a lieutenant, he brought jazz to Europe during the First World War. Europe survived the war unscathed, but then got stabbed to death by his drummer in 1919.

Giordano’s music can be heard in Woody Allen’s Café Society film, and for five years on the Boardwalk Empire series. In Katonah, he had outstanding vocalist Kat Edmonson with him for a few numbers, as well as Fleming on such dance numbers as “Castle House Rag.”

Kat Edmonson

Kat Edmonson got into the period flavor. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Poor “Putting on the Ritz.” Irving Berlin’s 1927 song had to survive both a disco version by Taco (a hit in 1982) and being sung by the monster in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. It was much closer to the composer’s intent at Caramoor. “West End Blues” featured some fine solo work from trumpet player Jon Kelso.

The show was a prelude to Caramoor’s Jazz Festival, which is July 20 and features, among others, Etienne Charles & Creole Soul, Willie Jones III Quintet: Celebrating Roy Hargrove, Sammy Miller and The Congregation, Marquis Hill Quartet, Brianna Thomas & Danny Mixon, Lakecia Benjamin Quartet Plays Coltrane, Andrea Motis Quintet, Michela Marino Lerman’s Love Movement and the Isaiah J. Thompson Quartet. Jazz at Lincoln Center is a joint presenter.