Keeping it Weird at Oldtone 2021

The Oldtone Roots Music Festival is one of the few summer celebrations that’s fully devoted to old-time country music. “That’s like bluegrass?” people say to me. Not really. Old-time—bedrock weird Americana before Bill Monroe got his hands on it, is produced by musical collectives that exist to serve the song. Monroe, inspired by the jazz that was the basis for popular music in the 1930s and 1940s, introduced the soloist to country, sped it up, made it into a virtuoso display.

Paula Bradley and the new lineup of Moonshine Holler.

Old ballads, murder songs, tales of longing for Appalachian mountains—they lose something when translated into bluegrass. With a few exceptions (Monroe himself being one, Lester Flatt and Roy Acuff two more) they often sound like they’re rushing through the lyrics to get to the fast-fingered mandolin player. That doesn’t really do when the song is a tale of homicidal infamy like “Little Sadie” or “Omie Wise.”

The popularity of bluegrass could have killed off old-time, but it didn’t—just as TV didn’t kill off radio. In fact, we’re in something of a renaissance of the form, and Oldtone 2021—a one-day event instead of the usual weekend—celebrated it with performances mainly by younger practitioners. The organizers are to be commended—they got the pigeon-poop-covered stage up in record time. All was well at Cool Whisper Farm.

Moonshine Holler featured longtime member Paula Bradley with two younger players, Pete Killeen and Marco DePaolis. Bradley’s late husband and bandmate Bill Dillof is much missed, but it’s heartening to hear these young banjo and fiddle players enthusiastically embracing the music that was old in their grandparents’ day. Are some of the songs from the 18th century? Yes indeed, and sometimes translated with new lyrics when they made their way across the Atlantic.

Roger the Jester was a class act, and wowed the kids–all without speaking.

Bradley is an enthusiastic musicologist, as Dillof was, and that’s why instead of “Pretty Polly” we got songs sourced from old 78s like “Chase the Devil Down” and “Tie Hacker’s Number Two.” The latter apparently refers to workers who cut railroad ties by hand. This music is preserved from a very brief period in time, basically 1926 to 1930, when rural workers had money and the industry realized they’d pay for records. If the tunes were more slowly paced than you’re used to, well, that’s what bluegrass did to the music. This ain’t Hee Haw.

Dumpster Debbie is a New England old-time collective featuring Sophie Wellington, Zack Meyer, Andrew Stearns, Dan Bui, Will Seeders Mosheim and Mike Harmon. They play the music with drive, spirit and enthusiasm. Wellington may not be named Debbie, but she’s an ingratiating and outgoing frontperson. Also a keen fiddle player. There’s fiddle, mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass but no real singer, though Wellington hollered a bit on “Cumberland Gap.” There’s was but one of many versions of the song.

Dumpster Debbie prove that there’s life in the old form.

Dumpster Debbie was actually formed at Oldtone in 2019. Where else are you going to find simpatico roots musicians? They have an album out, which they sell at gigs for $20.

The Downhill Strugglers: The New York side of old-time country.

The Downhill Strugglers have played Oldtone a number of times, in recent years with John Cohen—a founding member of The New Lost City Ramblers. Thus did they connect their New York City-based take on old-time with similar impulses from the Ramblers back in the 1060s. “We played with John at every Brooklyn Folk Festival since the beginning, as well as at every Washington Square Park Folk Festival, many shows here at the Jalopy Theatre and many more all across the country, including at the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, the Newport Folk Festival and more,” the Strugglers say.Y

Now a trio, the Strugglers are Jackson Lynch on fiddle and vocals, Eli Smith (who also runs the aforementioned Brooklyn Folk Festival, on in November) on banjo and Walker Shepard on a variety of instruments. They’re all musicologists, too, and Lynch unearths some real gems. “I know “Big Ball’s in Cowtown,” but “Big Ball’s in Memphis”? He has a penchant for long and mordant ballads, such as (if I got the title right) “The Ballad of Utah Carroll.” There are variants on this story—a cowboy is killed saving a little kid from a raging bull/stampede. In this case she’s the boss’ little daughter.

One song the Strugglers did, “Ain’t Gonna Lay My Armor Down,” is one of just two recorded by the team of McVay and Johnson back in the 20s. Hey, you can look it up. It’s on Columbia, with unknown musicians aplenty, and recorded October 17, 1928 in Johnson City, Tennessee. Finding these old 78s is what the Ramblers did, searching dusty general stores rather than the Internet.

Another song they did, “Wimbush Rag,” by Theo and Gus Clark, was also one of the only two the performers recorded. Here it is:

Cole Quest and the City Pickers are also New York-based. Cole is Woody Guthrie’s grandson, and is definitely carrying on that tradition. Their set was a mix of old-time songs and some new compositions. Quest is aided by a very talented group: on guitar (Christian Apuzzo), banjo (Mike Mulhollan), harmonica (Matheus Verardino), and bass (Larry Cook).

Cole Quest (second from left) with the City Pickers.

Many of the bands played several times, which was all right with me. I was particularly keen to hear from Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings on three separate occasions. This is a band that, in many ways, prefigures not only bluegrass but also recorded old-time music. The focus is on songs from the very beginning of recorded music, make that 1910 to 1925. Is anyone else reviving Rudy Valee these days? Their only recording is on Edison wax cylinders!

Roochie Toochie and the Ragtime Shepherd Kings turn the clock waaay back.

This is accurate: The group turns a “recorded repertoire of antique novelty tunes into a fantastic stage show that puts a capital ‘S’ in showmanship. When you see the Ragtime Shepherd Kings you’ll witness: fancy fiddling, dueling Hawaiian guitars, ukelele wizardry, flashy lap-steel guitar, a menagerie of toy instruments, vocal harmonies that sound as if they were polished by hand, a musical pig ‘porkestra,’ scandalous dancing—and that’s just the intermission!”

The fez-wearing group—Timmy Findlen on ukulele, Lindsay McCaw on fiddle, vocals and the scandalous dancing, Matt Bell and Joel Jackson on guitars and Joy Patterson (little instruments)—is simply unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. The show makes me very sad about never having seen vaudeville. It’s a show. No flannel shirts and grim expressions.

The Lucky Five adding a swing jazz element.

And finally there was the Lucky Five. It was getting cold, but I was so glad I stayed. The group features Oldtone organizer Kip Beacco on guitar and smooth vocals, and it’s old-time swing jazz with some French flair. The roots aren’t quite in Django/Grappelli, though—it seemed from a more romantic era.

The musicians are Beacco on guitar/vocals, Jonathan Talbot on violin/vocals, Carolyn Dufraine on vocals/trombone, Matt Downing on bass/vocals, and Tom Parker on drums. Collectively, they’ve been part of the Hunger Mountain Boys, Lauren Ambrose and the Leisure Class, and in performing/recording/trio settings with Neko Case, Iris Dement, Bobby Previte, Del McCoury and Jim Lauderdale.

But what comes out sounds nothing like any of them. Dufraine sings only in French, and the band sounds like what you’d hear in Paris in 1923. Maybe with an expatriate American in the band. Isn’t that what James Reese Europe was all about? They were really swinging, believe me.

The Return of a (Vaccinated) Rhythm & Roots

I didn’t initially realize that the Rosie Newton who played fiddle on old-time songs and originals with Richie Stearns was the same woman who played accordion and sang Cajun songs and played accordion with Rose and the Bros over on the dance stage. But that’s the way it went at the Rhythm & Roots festival 2021 at Ninigret Park in Charlestown, Rhode Island September 3-5—lots of mix and match. Roots musicians are very versatile. The festival this year admitted only fully vaccinated patrons and staff, a very smart choice.

Richie and Rosie.

I missed Friday, and Saturday started with a laid-back accordion workshop on the Roots Stage (my favorite), featuring ace Louisianans Steve Riley, Wilson Savoy, Jeffrey Broussard and Blake Miller. They talked about their challenged state, growing up in musical families, old-time musicians who influenced them (check out the great vocalist Ira “Iry” LeJeune), and varying styles. Riley (a genial host for the proceedings, on his first gig for 18 months) brought his 12 year old son, Burke, who already has a lot of the old man’s chops. And of course, they played, tunes like “Mulberry Waltz,” “Seychelle” and “Back of Town Two-Step.” You can find these musicians in the Pine Leaf Boys, the Revelers, and in Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys.

From left, Amelia and Dirk Powell, Tara Nevins, Richie Stearns.

A sublime panel brought together Dirk Powell—one of the greatest living exponents of old-time country—together with Richie Stearns, Powell’s daughter Amelia, and the two principals of Donna the Buffalo, Tara Nevins and Jeb Pruyear. It’s not well known that the latter two were heavily involved in old-time before Donna was formed in the Finger Lakes in 1989. Actually, both Stearns and Powell were in an early lineup, so it was a reunion of sorts. I’d never heard guitarist Puryear play fiddle before, and he sounded just fine.

“Breaking Up Christmas,” an old tune from North Carolina, was a standout, but so was “Sally Ann” and Stearns’ own “Chilly Winds.”

Stearns is an excellent songwriter, and his set with Newton as Richie and Rosie included a bunch of his compositions, including the lovely “Honeybee” and “I Will Be With You Always.” They mixed in nicely with traditional fare like “Waterbound,” “Say Darling Say,” “I’ve Endured” (Ola Belle Reed) and “Been All Around This World.” Newton is a first-rate vocalist and fiddler, and Stearns forceful on his main instrument, banjo.

Steve Riley: First time out in 18 months.

There’s always good zydeco and cajun at Rhythm & Roots, especially in the Dance Tent. I would put the Revelers and Rose and the Bros on the same basic platform—great bands to dance to, superb at the local VFW hall. You can listen also. The Revelers’ top number was “If You Ain’t Got Love”—that should be their single. Hitbound, but only in an era with charts not dominated by hip hop and R&B. Rose surprised me by singing John Martyn “Don’t Want to Know About Evil.” Odd that’s the only song of his anyone else sings—he’s got lots of other good ones.

The Revelers say you’re nothin’ without love.

Newton has many facets. At one point there was a lovely piece by three unaccompanied fiddles, and then the band joined in to create an indelible rave-up.

Rose and the Bros.

I’m sorry to have missed Veronica Lewis, a blues shouter and rockin’ pianist who’s all of 17. I’m listening to her album You Ain’t Unlucky right now, and it’s great jump blues stuff—from long before she was born. Fats Domino would approve.

Christine Ohlman, Rebel Montez, and the Sin Sisters.

Christine Ohlman, a beehived chanteuse from the New Haven, Connecticut area who got lost on the way to the B52s audition, mines some of the same territory. But on the Roots Stage, with Rebel Montez and the Sin Sisters singing backup, she was all about gospel—with swampy Tony Joe White/Creedence backup. This was a big old revue, with eight pieces on stage. Ohlman has a lot of voice and a large personality suited for “Wade in the Water,” “People Get Ready” and “The Devil Don’t Bother Me.”

I heard a little bit of Ward Hayden and the Outliers, a four-piece classic country band with a leader who looked like he’d just stepped off a FedEx truck. “I Just Can’t Live Like That Anymore” was fine country swing. One song was dedicated to the first two seasons of Twin Peaks, in which Hayden was immersed during the lockdown.

Richard Thompson: not audibly the worse for wear.

I’ve written extensively about Richard Thompson so no need to go on here, but he was fine with just his guitar and a backup singer. A bunch of new songs that haven’t sunk in yet. No one plays guitar like Thompson, Celtic influenced by every other style in the world. I still swear that “Beeswing” is about the great lost light Anne Briggs, but Thompson claims he met her only twice and both times she was passed-out drunk. Neither Thompson, in his early 70s, nor his guitar playing show much wear.

Rhiannon Giddens, national treasure.

And then, just before the rain, Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi. I heard Giddens earlier in the day during another workshop with Dirk Powell et al, and she was in amiable form. But with Turrisi it was on another level. She’s been locked down in Ireland for 18 months, and is busting out of the gates.  

Giddens with Francesco Turrisi, who just barely made it into America with the right visa.

Most of the material that night will be familiar to owners of their album together, There Is No Other. But it was all that much better live. Turrisi barely made it into America, but Rhythm & Roots was profoundly glad he did. And Giddens is one of our true American treasures, fully deserving of every accolade she’s gotten.

The Green River Festival, New Site, Same Good Time

The Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts was first held in 1986, back when the focus was on hot-air ballooning. When I started going, long ago, the balloons were still there but the music came from at least three stages. The festival kept growing at Greenfield Community College until last year, when COVID shut it down. But in 2021 Green River was back, now at the Franklin County Fairgrounds.

Bella White and band, Canadian driftwood. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The three stages were scattered in and around the very nostalgic fair buildings, which made a nice change. There wasn’t as much shade as at the college, but quite a bit of atmosphere. Attendees were “strongly encouraged” to come vaccinated, but it wasn’t required.

Appalachian Still, local boys making good. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I made it to Saturday and Sunday. Here’s what I saw, in order. Bella White is a fine Canadian singer-songwriter, signed to Rounder. White’s guitar was accompanied by fiddle and upright bass, a neat trio format. She’s very comfortable on stage, and has material that I wrote in my notes “is very good but looking for that spark of genius.” A standout was “Do You Think of Me at All?” She said the Stanley Brothers were her models for it, and that’s a recipe for classic country. George Jones was another influence, manifest in a real tear-jerker, and weren’t those Guy Clark and Louvin Brothers songs she did?

Kris Delmhorst with Jeffrey Foucault (left). (Jim Motavalli photo)

I loved Appalachian Still, who are local to the Northampton area. They had a guitar/banjo/fiddle front line and favored a breakneck form of bluegrass/old-time. They performed a lot of classics with gusto, including “The Race is On,” “Cumberland Gap,” “Salty Dog,” “Get Up, Jake” (an obscure Band song), and more. Maybe you saw them open for Del McCoury.

The overlap of the sets meant some acts I saw only briefly. I caught a bit of Kris Delmhorst, who was in fine form. A song she did called “I Fly Away” was absolutely killer—it should be a single. Delmhorst is a prolific album artist, check out her latest, Long Day in the Milky Way. A singer named Peter Moore, from Texas, well, I heard only the last few notes of his last song. Sorry, Pete!

Underground System, in a subdued moment. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Ghost of Paul Revere were very loud, not very melodic, and also swore a lot—which seemed inappropriate given all the children present. Other groups that didn’t ring my bell all that much included Whiskey Treaty Road Show, Ani DiFranco, Cimafunk and the Beau Sasser Trio.

Much, much better was New York-based Underground System, stars in the making. Frontwoman Dominica Fossatti is unbelievably dynamic, a powerful dancer, singer, flute player and songwriter. The music is afrobeat meets Talking Heads, in the best possible way. The horn section was killer.

Zara Bode and her Little Big Band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Zara Bode of the Sweetback Sisters is a big-voiced, standard-loving jazz singer fronting a band that featured venerable sax and trumpet players, plus the great Anna Patton as musical arranger and clarinet artiste. And that was her husband, Sam Amidon’s brother Stefan, on drums. He was in the Sisters, too.

JD McPherson did a solid rockabilly set, backed by standup bass, saxophone and drums. If the form is a bit limiting, well, it’s got three chords and the truth. The Rebirth Brass Band, a group I first saw at least 20 years ago, remain in rude good health. I still love the tuba, and not one but two trombone players.

Valerie June. Sorry the picture is fuzzy–might have been her cosmic vibes interfering with the camera. (Jim Motavalli photo)

With just her banjo and guitars (electric and National steel) Valerie June was transcendent. This was one of the best performances I’ve seen by her. She’s intense, funny and cosmic at the same time. And deeply humanistic, wanting us to see the glory of sharing the planet at this unique moment in time. She celebrates “the sun going up and down and the beauty of it all.” As to that unique voice, it’s the product of 18 years in church. “The World’s Not My Home” is from page 356 of the hymnal.

Rachel Baiman (center) and that’s the great Miss Tess on bass. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The Little Roots are from Florence, Massachusetts and specialize in teaching folk music to kids. But they’re entertaining as a duo, too. If you’re in Florence, don’t miss the circa-1941 Miss Florence diner.

Fiddle player/guitarist/banjo picker/singer/songwriter Rachel Baiman is a national treasure, solo and with 10 String Symphony. I saw her on the main stage performing her own songs with Miss Tess (a transcendent front woman in other contexts) on bass. Her songs are pretty good, but she really excelled on Andy Irvine’s “Never Tire of the Road.” More on her later.

Speaking of national treasures, this is Bonny Light Horseman. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Bonny Light Horseman feature, of course, the playwright Anais Mitchell of Broadway phenomenon Hadestown fame, and her presence is perhaps why the people were packed in by the stage. But the music bore no relation to Broadway, Hamilton or anything like that—it was mostly excellent revivalist folk from the U.S. and Britain. “The Roving,” now that’s a fine song. “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” I think I first heard it by Peter, Paul and Mary. “Bonny Light Horseman” is itself a honey of a song that dates to the Peninsular War against Napoleon (1807–1814). The hymn “Children, Go Where I Send You” never gets old. “Blackwaterside” is via Anne Briggs, and influenced Bert Jansch (and Jimmy Page, too).

What was Mandolin Orange is now Watchhouse, still featuring Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz. They’re both strong singers and songwriters, and Marlin is a mandolin wizard. Their set went down easily, and long codas were typical. “Beautiful Flowers,” sung by Frantz, was a standout.

Also Marlin’s “The Wolves.” I’d like to see the two singers sing in unison or duet a bit more. We sat behind the cello player’s mother.

Watchhouse, in fine form, celebrating John Hartford. (Jim Motavalli photo)

As I noted after seeing her at the Red Wing Festival, Sierra Ferrell is headed for great things. At Green River her fine guitar work was combined with a fiddle and mandolin—the poor bass player got left behind. Ferrell has a powerful voice with its own country twists, and is a prolific songwriter and interpreter.

Ranky Tanky, happy to be there. (Jim Motavalli photo)

In all the moving around I caught just a bit of Ranky Tanky, from the Georgia Sea Islands. Quiana Parler is riveting as the lead vocalist, and Charlton Singleton is both a singer and spirited trumpet player. They looked very happy to be there. This is the kind of group that used to be featured at the Newport Folk Festival in the 50s and 60s.

And then the finale, a tribute to John Hartford, curated by Baiman. What a delight! Artifact Cider was my favorite stage at Green River, though they all had great music on them. Roots! John Hartford was overdue for a salute, and he got a great one here, featuring many of the acts from the show—Baiman’s band, Appalachian Still, Twisted Pine, Ali McGuirk, Watchhouse, Sierra Ferrell.

More Bella White. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The versions were all loving, and pointed up the durability of Hartford’s compositions. “Gum Tree Canoe,” “Long Hot Summer Day,” “Tall Buildings,” “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” “Gentle on My Mind,” “Back in the Goodle Days,” great to hear them all. The next day I had to do a John Hartford marathon through my headphones. That Bonny Light Horseman set sent me back to the originals, too.

Thank you Rachel Baiman, and thank you Jim Olsen for doing this festival for 35 years.

The 2021 Caramoor Jazz Festival Brings on the Young Talent

The Caramoor Jazz Festival this year, in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center, brought a wealth of young talent to the garden oasis in Katonah, New York.

Andromeda Turre: If she doesn’t become a star, there’s no justice. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A case in point: Andromeda Turre wasn’t even on the bill. She turned up to sing an unlikely song, “Old McDonald’s Farm,” during an East Lawn set by Endea Owens and the Cookout. The daughter of trombone player Steve Turre, she came out swinging. In one brief three-minute song she demonstrated via a big, brassy voice every possible nuance of the great jazz singer, including scat. More please!

Owens, a bass player, had just delivered her own strong set. She was Lincoln Center’s emerging artist of 2019, and is quickly building a reputation that could provide competition to Esmerelda Spaulding. I could have done without “Imagine,” but “Idea” was a strong original from a front line that included a very strong Jeffrey Miller on trombone. He was later seen with Charles Turner. It was like Newport, with some musicians appearing multiple times.  

Alexa Tarantino in full song. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Alto saxophonist Alexa Tarantino is a talent deserving of wider recognition, as Downbeat puts it. She’s a fluent player and writer, and featured an adept quartet. “It’s amazing to play for real humans,” she said. Her mostly original set included Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap.” Strong Tarantino writes, mostly from her new album Firefly (described as “a day in the life of COVID”), were the limpid “Daybreak” and the very bright and busy “Surge Capacity.” I wrote down, “Maybe everybody doesn’t have to solo on every song.”

Brandon Goldberg has been playing since he was 3. Now he’s 15 and a veteran. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Brandon Goldberg is just 15 and (having started playing at 3) is already a jazz veteran. He played a set with a trio that sounded informed by life experiences not usually visited on one so young. Close your eyes and it was Cedar Walton up there. Goldberg’s many originals have frequent changes in tempo. It was windy so his written music sheets went flying, but he didn’t miss a beat. Goldberg’s new album In Good Time, produced by the late drummer Ralph Peterson, is out September 17. Most likely, his originals “Time” and “96” will be on it.

I’ve been fascinated by Nicole Glover since hearing her on a Gene Perla record. She’s now a member of all-female group Artemis (with such old souls as Anat Cohen, Renee Rosnes and vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant). At Caramoor, she was heard in duo with bassist Daniel Duke.

Nicole Glover channels the masters, playing standards on tenor. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Glover, on tenor, played a program of standards with a huge tone and timing reminiscent of the jazz masters. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Charles Turner was polished, with Bobby McFerrin in his sights. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Charles Turner and Uptown Swing were very polished. Turner is a very, very promising jazz singer, immensely talented and a wonderful host. Bobby McFerrin comes to mind. Miller on trombone added a lot. Turner’s ultra-fast “Honeysuckle Rose” reminded me of Betty Carter’s take on “My Favorite Things.” He brought down the house with his original, “Black Lives Matter”—which was straight out of the gospel choir.

In the Sunken Garden, veteran bassist Larry Grenadier—one of the few players who was on the stand back in the ‘80s—played solo. Grenadier started at 16, and was soon working with Johnny Griffin, Bobby Hutcherson, Art Farmer, Johnny Coles and Frank Morgan. Solo bass is an acquired taste, but I was totally on board when he took out his bow.

I missed headliner Sean Jones, but I’m sure he was fine. If you want a reason to come get embraced by the loveliness that is Caramoor consider a visit August 20 to see the female folk ensemble Della Mae.

The Caramoor American Roots Festival is Back! And Jazz on Saturday.

The Caramoor American Roots Music Festival 2021, in collaboration with City Winery, was an in-person event. And that’s a blessing. Caramoor on Zoom is missing a key ingredient—that incredible sylvan glade.

Kat Wright with Josh Weinstein on bass and Bob Wagner on guitar. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The event, on July 24, was virtually unchanged from its usual format, albeit with a reduced number of bands (and fewer food trucks). But there was plenty of useful variety anyway. Let’s take it chronologically.

The Brooklyn-based RT’s were already playing when we arrived. It was possible to set up in the shade, and still be pretty close to this enhanced singer-songwriter outfit. Enhanced in the sense that they had a horn section—trumpet and baritone saxophone. It was pleasant pop with a brassy oomph. The baritone guy had serious chops. I usually blanche at descriptions of bands that mix “punk rock energy, horn-drenched soul & precise musicianship,” but the RT’s went down easy. Their songs could be more distinctive. They later played an acoustic set.

Hubby Jenkins is a one-man roots band. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Female-led Upstate met at SUNY-New Paltz in 2011. I liked their harmonies but, alas, found their generic folk-rock songs on the bland side. Though I agree with the idea of doing a song about friendship. There indeed aren’t enough songs about friends, though didn’t Elton John have a song?

Martha Redbone was solo in the beautiful Sunken Garden—just voice. That didn’t work so well, but she sounded much better on the Friends Stage with a guitar and keyboard behind her. Redbone has a powerful voice, and tells stories that are interesting but go on too long. William Blake songs sound great set to music—why don’t more performers take a crack at it?

Upstate excelled at harmonies. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Reggie Harris is straight out of Pete Seeger, and none the worse for that. He’s no longer performing in a duo with ex-wife Kim, but manages to make a rousing noise and tell an epic story. In this case, about the path taken by the woman who became Harriet Tubman. He was perfect for the East Lawn, where the audience contained many children. A pair of five-year-olds danced in front of the stage, and I’m sure that was Harris (and Seeger) approved.

Reggie Harris: chasing Pete Seeger and Harriet Tubman. (Jim Motavalli photo)

A considerable highlight of the day for me was Hubby Jenkins’ solo slot at Friends Field. Formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and then in Rhiannon Giddens’ band, Jenkins is (like Bruce Molsky, Mike Seeger, Jackson Lynch, Taj Mahal, Dom Flemons, Dirk Powell and a few others) excellent solo.

He says he’s going to inform the audience about “black people,” and he does, offering useful history lessons in a cadence so fast his words tend to overlap. And then he shows what he means on his guitar (slide a specialty) and banjo, adding in a strong tenor voice. Jenkins not only did songs form Blind Willie Johnson and Mississippi Fred McDowell, but also performed “Little Log Cabin in the Lane,” an old song that he pointed out was written by a white man (William S. Hays, 1871) from the point of view of a former slave who misses slavery.

Jenkins also talked about the deep weirdness necessary for acclaimed African-American performers such as Bert Williams (1874-1922) to perform in black face. As best I can tell, this was to give audiences the comforting illusion that they weren’t actually watching a black performer.

Jenkins needs more recordings. He has one self-titled album and an EP, The Fourth Day, as a solo performer.

I loved Kat Wright, who played both on the big Venetian Theater stage and in the Sunken Garden. On record she uses a larger band, but at Caramoor she brought a tight trio with bass (Josh Weinstein) and guitar (Bob Wagner). Her music is Americana with a bit of horn-led swagger, but more intimate in stripped-down form—especially in the garden setting.

In another era, Wright would be a torch singer, tearing up the Great American Songbook. She has the vocal chops for that. Evidently, Bonnie Raitt was a big influence, and one critic dubbed her “young Bonnie Raitt meets Amy Winehouse,” but the latter only comes from those cats-eye eyeliner flips. Back in the day it might have been Billie Holiday. Did I mention that her songs are darn good? One she identified as having been written by guitarist Wagner, was also fine (if downbeat), and I captured it on video:

The headliners were The War and Treaty, a husband-and-wife modern country act. They both have big voices and strongly commercial songs that place them in the mainstream of country today. It’s interesting that they win folk awards—folk, they ain’t.

Next Saturday, the equally worthwhile Caramoor Jazz Festival, featuring Sean Jones’ Dizzy Spellz, Endea Owens & The Cookout, Charles Turner & Uptown Swing, Alexa Tarantino Quartet, Brandon Goldberg Trio, Godwin Louis & Jonathan Barber; Jeremy Bosch & Friends: Salsa Meets Jazz, Nicole Glover & Daniel Duke, Christina Carminucci & Leonid Morozov-Vintskevich and the Summer Camargo Trio.

The Red Wing Roots Festival: A Stunning Return

“You can dance in a hurricane/But only if you stay in the eye.” That was a lyric from one of the songs Red Wing Roots Festival organizers Steel Wheels sang (with special guests) in their opening set. It was great hearing them, especially with some excited students, as a reintroduction to live music after the one-year-plus of COVID 19.

The actual chimneys!

The festival launched in 2013, and it’s back bigger than ever. After it was over, Steel Wheels emailed, “What an amazing way to return to live music. You all, you who make up the Red Wing and Steel Wheels community, have kept us going through a long two years since we were last able to do this.”

There was pent-up demand. The festival was packed, with campers spread all over Natural Chimneys State Park in Augusta County, Virginia. One of the stages—there were five of them—was in fact right under the awesome chimneys.

Bill and the Belles.

The festival is awesomely programmed, and I heard a tremendous amount of good, new music. Here they are, in chronological order. Bill and the Belles I’ve written about extensively, and they were in fine form for two sets at Red Wing. They have a new album called Happy Again (an ironic title; it’s about a divorce—though it sounds upbeat) and songs that showcase their fascinating parade through the back pages of American music. Previous albums logged into Bing Crosby-style crooning, but this one has its ear on the girl groups of the 50s, among other things. We sat next to banjoist Aidan VanSuetendael’s parents—the first time they’d seen her with Bill and the Belles. Fiddle player Kalia Yeagle was also on fire, especially on “Johnson City Rag.”

The Chatham Rabbits.

My big find of the festival was the Chatham Rabbits, Sarah and Austin McCombie, a husband-and-wife duo from North Carolina. They perform original songs about the basic things in life, and get directly to the heart. They’re fine as a duo (Sarah tells funny stories, one about an elderly relative who didn’t like being told she couldn’t collect roadkill when she was over 100). But the two albums I’ve heard add some welcome elements. “My songs are about getting old or stressed out,” Sarah said. Yes, but more than that.

Anna Tivel and Adam Wolcott Smith.

Anna Tivel was wonderful to hear. I’d just gotten her very quiet album as a download. She’s a great lyricist (“…a fusebox sparking in the summer grass”), and she knows that’s not enough—the songs twist the hooks into your gut. At Red Wing, she was hugely aided by guitar support from one Adam Wolcott Smith, a Brooklynite. What he played had a metal edge and shouldn’t have worked—it could have been overwhelming, but instead it was hugely enhancing. His work created audioscapes that made it sound like there was an orchestra behind the curtain.

Tivel is out of the singer-songwriter tradition. Her songs tend to the mordant. “My sister, who knows me best, challenged me to write a love song where nobody dies,” she said.

I caught the tail end of David Wax Museum, also performing as a duo. They’re building a home stage with online funding—a great COVID solution, don’t you think? Hiss Golden Messenger seemed to be chasing the Dead, and why not—there’s a void there.

The one act I saw at the festival that didn’t ring any bells for me was a singer-songwriter named Erin Lunsford. Good singer, not good songs. Her cover of “A Case of You” was the highlight of the set.

Miss Tess brought an awesome band.

Another artist I’ve raved about before is Miss Tess, and she was absolutely sparking at Red Wing with a super band led by Thomas Bryan Eaton on electric guitar and pedal steel. (The pair of them also just made an album called Parlor Sounds). Comparisons to Eilen Jewell and her band would not go amiss. The band channels the best of rockabilly and Americana. Eaton is an excellent guitarist (like Jewell’s Jerry Miller) and Miss Tess is handy on the instrument, too.

The Jacob Joliff Band played fast, virtuoso bluegrass. Joliff is ex-Yonder Mountain String Band, and I kept expecting them to get into the jam band thing, but they fortunately never did. A favorite instrumental was called “Large Garbage Barge.” On flashy guitar and singing a few numbers was “Stash” Wyslouch from Bruce Molsky’s Mountain Drifters band.

I only heard a bit of Sierra Ferrell (five stages, remember?) but she sounded super-competent and crowd-pleasing. The next Allison Krauss or Mary Chapin Carpenter? Her set was mobbed.

The Fernandez Sisters.

Another fond discovery at Red Wing: The Fernandez Sisters from Durham, North Carolina. All three of them are strong players and singers (on guitar, mandolin and fiddle). They’re still very young, but have been playing at Red Wing for years, and as a band since 2011.

Danny Nicely (right) with Cheik Diabate in white.

Completely unexpected was a band featuring Cheik Hamala Diabaté from Mali on kora, guitar and banjo and Danny Nicely on mandolin (and occasional bass). He’s a first cousin of koramaster Toumani Diabate. The western players in the band have all absorbed the Mali tradition, but applied it to unusual material, such as the trad country tune “Little Satchel.” The guitarist was fabulous, and wouldn’t have been out of place with New York’s 75 Dollar Bill. Bass legend Mark Schatz was, well, on bass (except when he played the banjo).

LA Edwards (at right).

I enjoyed a brothers act named LA Edwards. The lead brother, Californian Luke Andrew Edwards, has a compelling singing style and is a good songwriter, too. Sarah Jarosz was fine. Her best moments were covering a John Prine song in tribute to him, and essaying a very sweet “Little Satchel” (yes, the same songs the African guys did).

Tim O’Brien brought his fine band.

And finally, ending things on a high note for me, was the Tim O’Brien Band. Maybe he’s been cooped up for long, but he was like a horse out of a gate. O’Brien is one of our contemporary masters of old-time music, but he’s an excellent songwriter, too. Much of the material was from his great new album, He Walked On. All the players were standouts, so the band will hopefully stay together. Finally, let me say that the festival was extremely well organized, with water stations, food availability, a shade area, excellent sound, schedules that started on time, and well-coordinated ticketing and parking. There were plenty of volunteers to help out. I can’t think of one criticism, other than that the Hill Stage was, unfortunately, up a very long hill. Maybe only four stages next year? I will be back next year.

Music Festivals are Back: Check out Red Wing Roots

Live music is coming back. I dipped my toe back in with a house concert featuring Bruce Molsky and Tony Trischka here in Connecticut, but next week I’m hitting the road for the Red Wing Roots Festival (July 9, 10 & 11 in Mount Solon, Virginia).

Steel Wheels, your hosts at Red Wing.

The festival, one I’ve missed, is hosted by the Steel Wheels band. On WPKN I interviewed Trent Wagler, the group’s leader, and he said the aim was to create a roots festival for the Shenandoah Valley. Working with their friends Michael Weaver and Jeremiah Jenkins, they made it happen in Natural Chimneys Park and Campground in 2013. I’m not a camper, but it looks like a great place or that option.

On stage at Red Wing.

Here’s just some of the lineup: The Steel Wheels, The Mavericks, Sarah Jarosz, Hiss Golden Messenger, Bettye Lavette, Tim O’Brien Band. Peter Rowan’s Free Mexican Air Force, Dustbowl Revival, Hawktail, Town Mountain, Bill and the Belles, Miss Tess and many more. I like that there are groups I never heard of that sound wonderful, such as the Chatham Rabbits. With a name like that, c’mon, they’re going to be stupendous. I talked to Kris Truelsen of Bill and the Belles, and the group is excited to be finally getting on the road this summer.

Bill and the Belles, with Kris Truelsen third from left.

There’s really no substitute for live music. I like Zoom as a tool, and I even promoted a couple of Zoom music festivals, but the medium pales after a while. Jazz musician David Friedman told me, “It’s live or I’m staying home!”

The Chatham Rabbits. With a name like that, how could they not be great?

Typically, I go to five or six festivals per season. Obviously, that didn’t happen in 2020. But so far in 2021, it looks like I can also attend these live events: Rhythm & Roots in Rhode Island, Green River in Massachusetts, and the Baltimore Old Time Music Festival.

Good music, great setting.

One of the great advantages of these events for people still cautious about COVID. They’re outside! The closest thing to indoors is the porta-potties.

Miss Tess.

It’s going to be about a seven-hour drive to Red Wing. It’s more than worth it for three days of great live music.

WPKN’s Own Chris Frantz Presents the Lockdown Festival March 13

Chris Frantz, drummer for Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club and a WPKN disc jockey for a decade, is presenting a virtual day of music, The Lockdown Festival, on March 13. Frantz lives in Westport, Connecticut, and the festival will be hosted at the town library’s new Verso Studios. Tickets at $25 are available at https://westportlibrary.org/lockdown-music-festival, and the event will benefit Neighborhood Studios of Fairfield County, a nonprofit promoting art, music, theater and dance. A $40 contribution scores a ticket and the concert poster.

Performing during the event, which starts at 7 p.m., are soul-funk band Deep Banana Blackout; Tom Tom Club veteran Mystic Bowie and his Talking Dreads with reggae, ska and lovers rock; multi-instrumentalist Plastic Ivy (a/k/a Lira Marie Landes); electronica from Xeno & Oaklander; the all-hockey Zambonis; poet Sadie Dupuis; and husband-and-wife rock group Du-Rites/Lulu Lewis. 

“Many of the groups are from Connecticut, but the Du-Rites are from Brooklyn and the new-and-wild Plastic Ivy is from Philadelphia,” said Frantz, who along with the other Talking Heads was just awarded a 2021 Grammy Special Merit award. “All these groups have an artistry to what they do—they don’t chase the trends. Sadie Dupuis has a band called Speedy Ortiz, but she’s also a published poet and for Westport she’s going to be reading from her work. Xeno & Oaklander are a synth duo, but they also sing beautifully.”

Curator Frantz will serve as master of ceremonies. “I may or may not be introducing the bands live,” he said. “We’re working that out.”

“Westport is very fortunate to have someone of Chris’s talent and generosity living in our community,” said Westport Library Executive Director Bill Harmer. “He’s an extraordinary musician who has inspired so many artists over his long career. When we brought up the idea of having a concert to showcase our new audio and video production studios, he was all in! The talent he has assembled for this show is nothing short of remarkable.”

Harmer continued, “The funds we raise from the concert will enable us to bring the young people from the Neighborhood Studios in Bridgeport to the library to experience a fully functioning commercial recording studio. We’re thrilled to provide this educational opportunity.”

Frantz’ WPKN radio show is called “Chris Frantz the Talking Head,” and over the years his guests have included Debbie Harry from Blondie, Richard Lloyd of Television, Cindy Wilson of the B-52s and producer Mike Thorne (Soft Cell, Laurie Anderson, John Cale).

Frantz guesses it was around 2010 that he and wife Tina Weymouth (bassist in both of Frantz’ bands) were approached at an arts fundraiser in Norwalk by then-WPKN Station Manager Peter Bochan and asked if they’d be interested in being on the air at the station.

“Tina said, ‘You don’t want me, you want him,’” Frantz said. “We have both listened to the station over many years and had visited to promote our projects. We agreed to do it because we enjoy the vibe, and the fact that WPKN is community- and listener-supported and fiercely independent in its programming. We’ve visited thousands of radio stations on tour over the years, but none were quite like WPKN.”

Frantz is excited about WPKN’s impending move this spring to 277 Fairfield Avenue in downtown Bridgeport. “It’s a great idea,” he said. “Clearly, WPKN needs to be in a place that has a bar [at the Bijou Theatre] downstairs. It’s a new day for WPKN, and a step in the right direction.” The station is currently raising funds for the move, which is expected to cost around $300,000.

Steve di Costanzo, WPKN’s current general manager, added that moving to downtown Bridgeport will add a heightened level of community engagement to the station. It will also give the operation much greater visibility with community partners, non-profits and the downtown creative community.

Dazed and Confused: The Oral History

Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (Harper) by Mellissa Maerz

The template for successful oral histories was set by Jean Stein’s Edie: American Girl, about the doomed Warhol superstar Edie Sedgewick. Norman Mailer said at the time it was released in 1982, “This is the book of the ‘60s that we have been waiting for.”

It’s tempting to say, then, that Alright, Alright, Alright is the book about the ‘70s that we’ve all been waiting for—but that’s not quite it. This is the book that tells the story of the movie that best defines that era, or at least a small part of it. Dazed and Confused was set on the last day of high school, 1976, in a Texas town. The kids get high, they hook up, they bond, they say goodbye. It’s a microcosm, but one with broad application to other towns, and other years.

There’s a formula to making oral history work, and Maerz put the right chemicals together. Alright is a work that’s full of emotion, as these stories always are, but it’s built on a very sturdy and methodically planned base. We get the prelude to the movie (filmmaker Richard Linkater maxing out his credit cards to make his debut, Slacker, with a bunch of misfits in his beloved Austin), the financing (via Universal, a step up to studio filmmaking), the casting (including a bunch of future stars—Renée Zellweger, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey), the filming (bonding ensued), the sad parting, the editing and music rights (replete with studio interference), the release (Dazed bombed initially), the reunion, and even a section on the film attaining cult status and the significance of it all.

There are sidebars, there are lists, there are (black and white) photographs, there are “where they are now” epilogues. If that’s an Entertainment Weekly approach to writing books, I don’t see an issue.

A few things stand out. One is Linklater’s iron determination to make the movie he was unspooling in his head. He wanted to keep it true to his own 1970s Texas high school experience, and he largely succeeded. Sure, some great material had to be cut, but what’s on the screen is mostly what the filmmaker—a football star for a time—actually experienced or saw around him at Huntsville High School. Even the names are preserved (which led to a lawsuit later). Ricky “Pink” Floyd really existed.

The film has a large, ensemble cast, and Linklater encouraged his actors to bond, and to create new scenes for their characters. Those who took advantage of that freedom—principally Posey and McConaughey—ended up with larger roles in the finished film and a boost for their careers. That iconic “alright, alright, alright” was McConaghey quoting The Doors’ Jim Morrison from the Boston Arena in 1970, though it could have come from “Cat’s Squirrel” on the first Cream album.

Those who didn’t get into the proper spirit, with the full-of-himself actor Shawn Andrews being the most glaring example, not only saw their screen time cut to almost nothing, but went nowhere later.

The great thing about Alright, Alright, Alright—and the oral history format—is that it gives you everything that happened in the making of Dazed from multiple points of view. (No, I’m not going to invoke Kurosawa’s 1950 Rashamon.) Cast and crew contradict each other, argue it out, and try to arrive at what actually happened during the 1992 shoot.

The author got great material from her subjects, and just about everyone (no Jovovich or Andrews) gave interviews. McConaghey plays an older guy still hanging around the high school parking lot. “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man,” he tells his buddies. “I get older; they stay the same age.” Looking at that today, the actor muses, “Who not only thinks that, but believes that? That’s this guy’s DNA….It’s a mantra. It’s a philosophy.” (Emphasis in the original.)

Most of the people involved went on to other projects, but few had experiences that were more affirming and life-changing. “There is no movie that has affected me more, or stayed with me longer, or shaped me as a filmmaker more,” says Affleck. “It’s my favorite movie I’ve ever worked on,” says Anthony Rapp.

It would be possible to do a book like this on almost any movie, but Dazed and Confused is a perfect choice. Actors sometimes barely remember film shoots—it was just six weeks out of their lives. But nobody ever forgot working on Dazed and Confused. Melissa Maerz does right by the film—and the people who made it.

The Air Felt Like Heaven

Saturday dawned with unseasonable warmth and bright sunshine. A still unsettled Presidential election, too. Votes were being counted in Pennsylvania. The New York Times was unsettling, as it often is these days.

Exit 46 rocks the neighborhood. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I do better when I’m busy. The leaves were nice and dry so I filled six bags with them, then looked up and noticed how many more were still to come down. I went for my morning bike ride. I love my Pedego.

It was 11:25 a.m. when Biden won the Keystone State and the Associated Press called the election for him. My wife got the notification a minute later (I’d turned mine off as too unnerving) and within moments I heard the first car horn. A traffic jam? No. The horns were soon answered and swelled into a chorus with happy shouts from front yards and porches. It really took me a minute or two to get what was going on.

My friend Ron was across the street at his son’s house, and he came out and we did distanced fist bumps. A heavy weight had been removed from his chest, it seemed. One of my favorite singer-songwriters, Erin McKeown, posted about this moment:

on saturday morning, i was walking slowly on one of the dirt roads near my house. i think i was listening to the new david sedaris collection. all of a sudden my phone started blowing up. every text chain i am part of. folks i hadn’t heard from in awhile. you know what had just happened. at that moment, a cyclist whizzed by me. i spontaneously whooped and raised my fists, and they returned my whoop and shouted “i just heard.” it was a surreal and strange moment. and of course, i immediately started to feel better. the malaise i felt this week was trump leaving my body.

It so happened that Saturday coincided with the semi-regular Shop & Stroll event in our Stratfield neighborhood. People sold crafts, jewelry, coffee and hot chocolate in their driveways. My friend Ari and other lens people displayed their photographs. You could buy cider doughnuts.

Exit 46 has an array of strong vocalists. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I grabbed a $2 hot chocolate, and was reminded of why I don’t drink sugary drinks anymore. Sipping it, I walked down the street and there on the corner, in front of a house whose dog hates my dog, the band Exit 46 was set up. I met the band through dog walking, actually. There’s a high level of canine ownership in the band, which was originally called Josh and the Dogwalkers.

Exit 46 has been on my radio show—right before the COVID shutdown—and I’ve played their cover songs on the air. There are three women lead singers, and two male. The sax man rocks out, and there are also strong players holding down the guitar, bass (a psychiatrist!), keyboard and drum chairs.

Exit 46 (our stop on the Merritt Parkway) does mostly covers, some with subtly altered lyrics. They love Fleetwood Mac—the later period, not the blues band led by Peter Green. They’re not political—it’s not like this was a rally celebrating the ouster of Trump.

But it felt like that.

Wordsworth wrote, celebrating the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!” They said the very air felt electric. And didn’t they set the calendar back to zero? I’m exaggerating, but it felt a little like that long-gone time.

Exit 46 went through some old favorites. The aforementioned Josh had a strong lead on Creedence’s “Down on the Corner.” He also joined the women on a mostly acapella version of “Seven Bridges Road” by Steve Young. I love that song. They did “Wagon Wheel,” which doesn’t sound like a Dylan song, but at least partly is—it was finished by a member of Old Crow Medicine Show from a fragment Dylan had left over from the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sessions.

Sorry for the digression, but “Wagon Wheel” has become so popular in Americana circles that it’s been banned in certain locations. John Cranford of Swampfire Records put up signs at the Swampfire Sessions proclaiming, “Absolutely No ‘Wagon Wheel.’” The New England Americana Festival sold a t-shirt with the image of a crossed-out wagon wheel. I don’t care—I still like it, even though it is the folk “Free Bird.”

But back to that day and that place. The sun shone down, making it almost too warm. Crazy to think it snowed the week before, but now I was worried about sunburn.

The band did “Quit Dragging My Heart Around,” and a bunch of songs I didn’t know—probably because I’ve ignore the pop charts for decades. The audience kept growing. The band swung into a version of the late John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” sung very well indeed by another Ari, owner of the house and that dog that hates my dog. Out of Prine’s vast repertoire, why does that song from his first album get covered so much more than any other one? Dunno. Maybe because Bonnie Raitt covered it. Here’s a video snippet of that:

The Shop & Stroll ended, the sun went down, the band packed up. There were complications. The President said, “I WON. BY A LOT.” But we had that shining moment.

PRESCRIPT: Before election day, we had another moment: Halloween. Most of the block was dark, including my house, but my neighbor Dan always goes above and beyond, and this year he had a fun COVID-friendly chute to deliver candy to the people who have long seen our neighborhood as a central gathering point. Here’s what that looked like:

Dan’s distanced domicile.