Sunday, July 31, 2011

Under Route 3

Another lovely summer day today and Dave and I kayaked downstream from the 225 put-in on the Concord to under Route 3 and back.  We meant to do a lot of kayaking this summer but that was our first and probably our last since we'll be up in Maine next week and he's back to college soon after that.

Lowell Folk Festival 2011

Went to the Lowell Folk Festival on a clear, dry, and hot mid-summer Saturday and saw in this order:

Eddie and Alonzo Pennington
We were cruising by the Lee Street Stage on the way to Boardinghouse Park and just had to stop to catch a few tunes from this father and son combo.  Eddie (the Dad) played the rhythm, sitting back and fingering some fine chords with his left hand while he picked the strings laconically with his right.  His son (Alonzo) played a fiery lead all through this and the two of them made a fine sound together.  Alonzo prodded his Dad into singing a bit ... a voice not ready for the clubs but fine and dandy for noon on a blisteringly hot summer day.

The Birmingham Sunlights
Got down to Boardinghouse Park just in time for their opening number and I'll tell you, every time I hear a fine gospel act I just love it.  They sang a cappella with sincerity, experience, and precision.  Every one of the six guys (two basses, two baritones, and two tenors) had incredible range and their arrangements were smoother than silk.  They took turns stepping out front and leading the band and starting the obligatory call-response cycles, except for one bass who kept the low beat going all through it.  They were all wearing red polo shirts, polyester black pants, and black loafers.  But one of them (I swear) did a crotch grab when he was getting really emotional about one song ... though that may have been just adjusting the polyester so it didn't pinch.

Led Ka'apana
I've been hearing Led and slack-key guitar for years and thought he (and the style) was pleasant, but I just didn't get it.  After seeing him live I got it and loved his music ... another great example of how valuable seeing live music is.  A small guy sitting way back on the large Boardinghouse Park stage, surrounded by a vocal mike and two sound mikes, he rocked the place with some smart, tasty music.  He mixed about 50-50 instrumentals and vocal songs but the gob-smacking thing was his guitar and his ukelele ... the vocals were just trimming when they came.  How can a layman describe his style?  He played simple melodies with a nice beat and did *not* miss a chance to hit every harmonic he could, both with the guitar and with his voice, which often meant singing falsetto.  He covered some familiar tunes, like a Nanci Griffith song and Turkey In the Straw and his set came and went so quickly ... this was just a master at work.  And isn't that what the Lowell FF is all about, showcasing the masters?

The Quebe Sisters
Got ourselves on over to the JFK Plaza stage as soon as Led finished and got there just as the Greek band was ending.  In the shuffle we snagged seats in the front row and settled in (as much as we could in the HOT early afternoon sun) for the Quebe Sisters (pronounced "kwaybee").  A family next to us was really psyched for them and we really enjoyed them too.  Three young sisters from Texas with an experienced Guitarist/bandleader and bass player.  They played and sang mostly in precision unison but each stepped out for a small solo as the set went along.  They all had print shirts, identical fiddles, and a smooth entertaining act that was just what the doctor ordered for a sweltering day.  The youngest sister (Hulda) was perhaps the most impressive musically but wasn't as polished as Grace and Sophia.  No highlights here but a great set.

Bill Kirchen
Bill Kirchen's set hasn't changed a lot since I first saw him ... starting with Here I Sit All Alone With a Broken Heart and building up to the crowd-pleasing Hot Rod Lincoln.  A mellow set up in the shade of the Dutton Street Dance Tent while the temperature peaked and started to abate.  After his set we had a little time to stroll over to Market Street, grab a beer, and then pull up a piece of lawn right in front of the stage for Dervish.

Lowell gets some great bands that represent other countries (I'm trying not to say "ethnic," which is so diminishing a word) and Dervish was one of the greatest we've seen.  This was the set of the whole folk festival as far as we were concerned ... it just blew us away.  I wasn't familiar with most of the songs they played, but their combination of strings (bouzouki/mandolin/guitar), winds (flute/whistles/accordion/harmonica), and fiddle was fascinatingly rhythmic and musical.  And Cathy Jordan on bones, bodhrán, and vocals was extraordinary.

They did a cover of Boots of Spanish Leather that was the most beautiful version of one of my favorite Dylan songs I've ever heard and literally brought a tear to my eye (my snippet doesn't do it justice).  We were wandering away after their set and ran into them for a nice conversation.  They were hot and ready for shade and a few beers, but Cathy gently but firmly took time to correct my pronunciation of "bodhrán" (the hard "dhr" sound I was making isn't called for and the "o" sound is more drawn out) and the fellas appreciated our gushing.

OK, it was Saturday dinner break at the Lowell Folk Festival and after checking out a few sidewalk places we got seats at one on Market Street ("Centro" I think), and had some nice wraps as the afternoon ended and the evening started.  We tallied for perhaps too long and then took off for Boardinghouse Park at 7:00 or so, confident that we could grab a prime spot for Michael Cleveland at 7:30.  Boy, were we surprised!  The park was *packed* already and we were lucky to squeeze onto the last small patch of grass in front of the stage before the hordes really started descending.  Soon even the walkways were covered with people. 

Michael Cleveland
Cleveland was one of the must-see acts for me.  We'd seen him years before playing with Rhonda Vincent's band and tagged him as one to watch ... he's since won IBMA awards by the handful and we were very psyched to see him and his new band, Flamekeeper.  They didn't disappoint.  Cleveland is one of those musicians who play his/her instrument with such authority and confidence that the sound from it is an exemplar of what that instrument can be.  Again, my little snippet is nothing compared to what we heard live.  He mixed classic, short bluegrass tunes with long, meandering jams that let his whole band shine but that he ultimately dominated with his amazing sound.  He had the crowd on its feet!

Time to towel down after after the first stellar evening set, and then the LFF disappointed me a bit by changing the rules about where I could buy/drink beer without making it clear and I had to miss a good piece of the next set while I was stuck in their beer corral.  I'm sure they'll have this straightened out by next year.

Le Vent du Nord
And I would have loved to see more of this year's Québécois band, the really fun, lively, quirky, and avant-garde Le Vent du Nord. Their sound is dominated by Nicolas Boulerice's hurdy-gurdy ... or maybe it's just that this is such an enthralling instrument visually that one paid more attention to it.  In any event, they were fun and fascinating and we would have liked to hear more of them.  But we *had* to see Shemekiah Copeland and so screwed in the middle of the set, picked our way through all the people, and bee-lined it for Dutton Street.

Shemekiah Copeland
Out of luck this time!  By the time we got up to the dance pavilion, Shemekiah was well into her set and we were lucky to grab a spot where we could glimpse her if we stood up on tiptoe.  We stayed for a couple of songs and she was rocking the crowd and the night with her smooth blues and her pop-tinged vocal stylings.  We would have loved to press up front but we were just too worn out after another day of music and finally dragged ourselves away.

We'd [strategically] parked in a garage near the dance pavilion and wound over the canals formed where the Concord River approaches the Merrimack River, back up to Jackson Street ... where another band had set up and was rocking the night!  Lowell sure becomes alive for the folk festival, what a wonderful time!  We made it back to the car and took off South, back home in a half hour.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Gathering of the Vibes 2011

Festival season continues!  Dave's college friends Johnny and Ricky took the bus into town Thursday night and on Friday we packed up for the journey to Gathering of the Vibes, which has seemingly found a home in Seaside Park, Bridgeport CT.  New England has been in the throes of a Biblical heat wave and record temperatures were forecast, so we packed up several gallons of water (we froze some of the bottles), a large jug of iced tea, some fruit juice, ice, and a few sandwiches.  Made sure we had the tickets and hit the road South at a few minutes after 10:00AM, listening to loud Grateful Dead all the way down.

The car thermometer read 100 by the time we passed into Connecticut and was at 103 degrees when we stopped at a rest area on route 91 and remained there when we pulled off of route 8 into the Housatonic Community College parking garage reserved for day-trippers.  We grabbed chairs and blanket and stuffed our packs with water and descended to an air-conditioned shuttle bus for the 2-mile trip to the festival.  Halfway there we were already stuck in the traffic trying to get to Seaside Park and I realized I'd left my wallet in the car! I disembarked and walked the mile back ... really not that bad if I kept a slow pace and stuck to the shade.  Grabbed my wallet and had another cup of iced tea and bottle of water in the shady parking garage and then took a non-air-conditioned shuttle to the festival.  We were all pools of sweat by the time we got there but realized that was only the beginning!

Confusion and bad/missing signage marked the festival entrance, but I waited through the wrong line, waited through the right line, and then waited through (what was not now) the wrong line again, and finally made it in.  After wandering for a bit I got my bearings and located the main stage, but detoured to the water's edge and waded a bit.  I hadn't touched Long Island Sound for maybe 42 years ... a scary thought.  The tide was high and several boats were out on the water as well as a number of people bobbing in the waves.  As I remembered, the high tide on that coast brings a lot of green seaweed and the water was basically filthy with algae and silt but whatever.

Entered the main stage area and Sarah and the boys had set up in a fine spot a little to the right of the soundboard.  I chlled as much as possible in the mid-day sun (we learned later that Bridgeport had officially tied their heat record of 103 degrees that day), listened to some of honorary MC Wavy Gravy's amusing rambles, had one of the Saranac Liquid Vibes (they brewed a lager especially for the festival, and it was a nice, dry pilsner), swigged down some more water, and then moseyed up to the stage for the Taj Mahal Trio at 2:30.

We'd seen Taj with Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums at the Lowell Summer Music Series a couple of years ago and their sound wasn't quite as good as that marvelous concert, playing an early set on such a hot day.  But they were just what the doctor ordered nevertheless.  The crowd pushing in around the stage got pretty big and you could tell that most of the people there were really Taj aficionados ... everyone knew the songs and shouted out requests.  An early standout was a new blues of his called Annie Mae, the song of the set was his delightful reggae take on Blackjack Davey, he covered his most recent masterpiece, Zanzibar, he did a funky, re-imagined Corinna Corinna, and he closed with The Blues Is All Right, in which of course he asked for audience participation.

And boy did that sweaty, writhing, mid-afternoon crowd participate.  I was close enough to the stage to be in the shade and there was some sea breeze, but the temperature was peaking.  Even under these conditions the crowd roared out their lines (I was roaring too of course) and the big screens flashed, the cameras swooped (the whole thing was being filmed), the colorfully-dressed people danced and played, clouds of pot and tobacco smoke rose from the audience, the seabirds flew overhead ... it was glorious.  I returned to our seats (two lawn chairs and a spread-out blanket with a pile of towels and packs in the middle) and gushed some, then cruised around to look at the vendors and get another beer.

The Tedeschi Trucks Band was up next at 4:30 and I was thinking I could take this set off and maybe get in a swim or check out the other stages.  But then they came on and all thoughts of doing anything but gawking at how excellent they were blew away over the Sound.  They had 11 pieces: Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks on guitar, bass, keyboards, two drummers, 3 horn players, and 2 back-up vocalists (one of whom sung a lead ... to call any of these guys "back-up" is fainter praise than they deserve) and their sound mix was extraordinarily clear.  I'd heard Susan Tedeschi before (she started her career as a Boston singer-songwriter), but had never seen her live and was just knocked over by her range, her talent, and her powerful voice.  Here was this Massachusetts girl up there in a spotted sun-dress and high heels singing like a blues goddess and getting the guitar techs to dote on her whims and *playing* guitar that was arguably better than her celebrated partner's steaming leads.

Trucks, the horn players, and the drummers were awesome, but watching Tedeschi go was more fun that you can imagine.  Bonnie Raitt?  She did a cover of Give It Up Or Let Me Go that Raitt would have loved.  Eric Clapton?? The highlight of the set as far as I was concerned was their cover of Clapton's Anyday on which Tedeschi (and Trucks) did some guitar solos that left burn marks.  Al Green/ Diana Ross/ Sly Stone???  They closed with Got To Take You Higher and this was another scary episode in crowd participation.  Sometime during that set I realized I had to leave my seat and join the crowd moshing in front of the stage.  Don't know how that happened ... momentary insanity.  But I was back cruising the vendors and looking for the beer tent during the last song and people all around me were singing the chorus and rocking out.

The boys returned between sets ... they had seen both Taj and Tedeschi Trucks and even though these were mostly new bands to them, they were suitably impressed.  We realized that even though we'd brought as much water as we could carry (without a rolling cooler or something), that we were close to finishing it.  Dave and I grabbed 4 of the big bottles and went in search of water.  Luckily, some people in southern Connecticut speak English and we got directed to the water station, with a *long* line.  We filled up the bottles and brought them back, drank them, and then the boys did another water run while I slipped up front for Levon Helm.

Levon brought the crowd with him.  His voice apparently wasn't in shape that day and he led on the opening Ophelia and the closing The Weight, but in between he let his stellar supporting cast do the vocal chores.  His recent collaborator/producer Larry Campbell filled in for him excellently on the songs he would have normally sung, and played guitar and mandolin.  Campbell centered an up-front choral trio with Teresa Williams and Amy Helm (the next generation of Helms was up there too ... Amy was very pregnant), Brian Mitchell did a great job on keyboards and accordion, they also had Byron Isaacs (from Ollabelle) on bass, a guitar player, five horn players (including the venerable Howard Johnson on tuba), and Levon himself on drums.  That makes 12 (one more than Tedeschi Trucks) ... and then the special guests started coming out!

The core group was up there for a few numbers and then they started swapping seats and instruments.  Cindy Cashdollar came out to play lap steel (she's currently playing with Johnny Nicholas and Hell Bent, who had been on another stage earlier), then Joe Russo (the drummer from Furthur) came out and accompanied Levon excellently with another drum kit ... great sound from those two, and then that guy what's his name ... oh yeah, Bob Weir came out...

The ensemble fumbled through a Deep Elem Blues that managed to take off and showcase everybody.  But then there was one of the most magical moments of the day/night: everybody cleared off except for Williams, Campbell, Weir, and Amy and they played/sung an Attics of My Life that came as close as you can to silencing a festival crowd that big and rowdy.  This was beyond being in church, it was like being at something like a gathering of good vibes.

They threw the mandolin around some after that and got Levon to pick a few ... he was grinning like he was doing exactly like what he wanted to do with exactly the people he wanted to do it with, including his daughter and future grandchild.  They finally did one of my favorite recent songs, the gospel-tinged When I Go Away ... it's a song about getting dead and what might happen after that to put it simply.  Larry Campbell did his best Levon imitation here and Amy and Teresa sang their vocal chords out.  This is what it's all about IMO.  Having Levon and Joe hammering those skins did not detract from the sound at all to say the least.  As mentioned, they closed with The Weight and that was the sing-along we all wanted, tens of thousands of people going nuts singing along to "Take a load off Annie...."  The sun was just starting to go down and there was a promise that the temperature would abate.

Phew!  I'd been up there as close to the stage as I could get and the boys, as it turned out, were close behind me in their own dancing spaces.  I wasn't the only old guy at the festival, there were many, many of us.  I was talking to a guy who asked me if I'd ever seen Garcia playing pedal steel and I told him that yes, I'd seen him on pedal steel with the New Riders in 1973 (which isn't exactly correct) ... and then wondered if I should feel insulted that I'd been so pigeonholed as a relic.  He admitted that he'd first seen the Dead in 1977 and I realized that we were just two old guys reminiscing, that there was no stereotyping involved.

I want to say something about the behavior of the crowd though.  From as early as the Tedeschi Trucks set and especially after the closing act, the crowd left the field in a trashed state that I couldn't believe.  I thought that people at a festival like this would have been a little more environmentally conscious than elsewhere, but that optimism was dashed.  There was no hardship (weather, lack of options) making it tough for people to bring out what they brought in, but people left piles of trash all over the field like they were entitled to.  I admit that there are situations where you need other people to gather your garbage, but people need to have some long-term consciousness and realize that if they do that in the short-term it brings up ticket prices in the long term.  Oh geez, maybe this is getting too complicated for simple people to understand.

A guy in front of me in the Tedeschi Trucks set had a beer and was smoking a cigarette (there was a shocking amount of tobacco smoking at this festival). He put the smoke out in the beer and a few minutes later *dropped* the beer can and took off.  The can rolled onto my feet (these were close quarters, you understand) and Bud Lite leaked out all over my left foot ... which actually felt good since it was a few degrees cooler than the air but was pretty gross.  In another situation in the Levon set a girl in front of me finished her water bottle so threw it behind her.  *I* was behind her and it landed on my feet so I kicked it back to hers.  She kicked it again.

These people should be the first pushed off the plank when the pirates take over.

OK, Ok, ok ... time to talk strategy for Furthur.  The guys referred to them as "the Dead" and as much as I felt this was inaccurate I was totally bought into the idea that seeing them up close was important.  The last time I saw Bobby or Phil was with the Grateful Dead in Tully Forum, Billerica MA on May 11, 1979; critiquing that show/experience would be a digression but let me emphasize that it was the last time I saw them.  I've listened to the Dead countless times since then but hadn't seen them or any of the spinoffs spawned after Garcia's death in 1995.  My son loves the Dead and convinced me that I should see them ... actually he didn't convince me, listening to the recording of the performance he saw in Binghamton NY in early 2011 convinced me.  They're fucking good in my opinion.

I knew I needed to pace myself for the drive back to Boston after the concert, but when it came time I rushed the stage with the other guys and got a good spot pretty close.  We had to stand there for about 45 minutes before the band came on and it was one of the most magical times of the day-night.  We were pressed in like sardines but when you rolled your head right back you could see stars and the video screens were rushing and there were laser lights coming from all over and painting the backdrop and highlighting visual events in the crowd.  There were tens of thousands of people there and they were all centering on what was about to happen on the stage I was standing in front of.  People were throwing glow-sticks and glow-balls, there were not only beach balls all over the place, there was one gigantic beach ball that rolled over the top of the crowd and when it was painted with the green laser it was trippy like you wouldn't believe.  Secondary effects of pot (or course, accompanied by few fancy beers) were hard to ignore.  Jammed up front where I was it seemed that everybody, with very few exceptions, was pulling out their pipes and lighting up and the clouds of pot smoke were totally unavoidable.  You would have had to hold your breath!

After three sequences of guitar techs tuning and 4 sequences of lights going up and down, Phil came out and assumed his place and then the other guys did and eventually Bobby came out.  I had told the boys that in my day they usually opened with Bertha to knock out the kinks and these guys did basically the same thing, opening with the simple rocker New New Minglewood Blues (now apparently called just Minglewood Blues, though it has a pedigree) while they adjusted organ levels and negotiated how loud Phil should be.  I staggered back to join Sarah after that and watched the rest of the show from our seats.

No idea how to describe that show. In some ways it was perfect: I was transported to 35 years ago and the sound and environment and being surrounded by loving people all told me that my life was unlimited.  In other ways it was technically great: especially in the first set Bobby was on fire and his sound rocked, not to mention Phil's outrageous six-string runs that just made you realize that the music you were hearing was nothing compared to the music in this genius's mind.  Where was Garcia?  Oh well, John Kadlicek's guitar runs were miles beyond what a mortal could do, probably exposing his deep experience studying Garcia's phrasings for Dark Star Orchestra.  By no means do I want to slight Kadlicek's contribution, which included some exceptionally soulful vocals like his lead on Stella Blue, which was one of the highlights of the evening.

The audience participation merits its own paragraph.  Some people made a great dragon from a papier mache head, some plastic tubing struts, some Christmas lights lighting up the inside, and some sheets painted with gold sparkles and strolled around in it with a practiced dragonny insouciance.  Phil was so impressed he made a cryptic comment on it.  One guy was parading around with what from a distance looked incredibly like a big pink-orange jellyfish, but when he came closer you could see it was a huge orange parasol draped with gauze of various colors.  Another guy had a happy shark up on a pole, dancing through the crowd.  And the most magical thing was people in the back of the main stage area (who were probably glad the gentle wind was just right) who set free a series of balloons powered by a single candle each.  From right underneath them you could see what they were, like illustrations from Jack Jump Over the Candlestick, but as they drifted up and away they became dancing lights wafting through the night sky past the stage towards the Sound.  *Very* cool.

And I loved the vocal team of Sunshine (Garcia) Becker and Jeff Pehrson, who filled in for the historically absent-minded vocals of the lead guys and brought power and precision where it was needed.  Jeff Chimenti on keyboards switched flawlessly between his big organ sound and his high piano sound, and Joe Russo on drums did just what Kruetzman used to do for me, filling the beat until I realized that that sound wasn't just there, it was supplied by a guy working as hard as anyone on the stage.

So they opened with Minglewood, did Friend of the Devil and Dire Wolf, did Mama Tried and Big River, did Sugaree and Deal, and then started on Mason's Children.  As they say, I didn't know whether to shit or to wind my watch.  My dogs were barking and I tried to stretch out and relax a bit between songs but I was up dancing in a shot.  After the first set the boys came back and were suffering, but some water and some prompting got them gushing about what they'd just seen.  The crowd was rushing back for the port-a-potties and the beer tent, almost sweeping away our little camp in the sea of Dead fans.  The boys held fast and asked how long this would last, which is one of the questions presented to the great Fud of course.  We responded in kind.

The boys tried to talk themselves *out* of going back into the maw, but they ended up talking themselves *into* it and so rushed the stage at exactly the right time to get up in front for the second set.  Sarah and I stayed back and danced and danced.  Johnny had ventured that they'd open with Minglewood and was right ... I ventured that they'd do St. Stephen and The Eleven and it was the opener of the second set.  One of Furthur's fantastic new songs  is The Mountain and they did that, finishing with I Know You Rider, jamming in their best second-set tradition onto Golden Slumbers/Carry that Weight (Beatles) into a superlative Let It Grow and then the wonderful Stella Blue mentioned above.

Time for Bobby to rock.  Time for a great Sugar Magnolia and then a flawless segue into Sunshine Daydream, a transition that they'd been blowing for years (well ok, those years were the seventies).  And then it was time for the finale: "Well the joint was jumping, going round and round..."

The band left the stage and a clock check showed it was 12:30AM.  Lots of applause and crowd noise ensued and Sarah and I just chilled with thousand of people milling around us, some walking in slow motion and some lurching from dimension to dimension.  Phil came out and did his heartfelt plug for organ donation and then the band straggled out and did an encore. Again, what was that song?  Oh yeah, Ripple.  This is one of those Dead songs that's been seared into my memory/consciousness and for me to stand on tiptoe and hear the originals sing it in the late night is beyond description.  Sorry, you've got to find that fountain for yourself!

Time to chill and Sarah and I had a few sips of water while waiting for the boys to reappear, which they did with eyes as wide as you might imagine.  We talked about the sets for a bit and then started to gather up our stuff.  We recycled and as mentioned earlier, we were appalled by the amount of trash left by others, some of which we dealt with.  Whatever.  We saddled up about 20 minutes after the set and still had to negotiate a people jam (including a baby carriage that people tried to trample and a cripple-with-leg-in-crutch that people tried to knock over) to get out of the main tent area.  From there it was an ok run back to the street, only to find (as we'd suspected) that we'd have to wait in line for a long time to get a bus back to the parking garage.

Rather than deal with snarling people and busses (some of which might not have air-conditioning), we walked.  I had noticed that the street name of where we got dropped off (Myrtle) was the same as the one we had been on originally, and my map of the area indicated that following this path would head us to the parking garage.  A couple of random cats latched onto this idea and we shepherded them out of the depths of Seaside Park, even though one tried to get run over.  We soon found the parking garage and everyone cheered my sense of reality, as heartily as anyone's is cheered of course.

OK, fill up on iced tea, replenish water bottles, switch sweat-soaked shirts, and we were off back onto route 8 North before 1:30AM, now listening to quiet Grateful Dead.  We were all pretty pumped at that point but the miles led to snores from the back seat and a break was called for at the first rest area when we hit the Pike (where it was a chilly 68 degrees at 3:30AM).  Made it back to Woburn by 4:30 and into bed a bit before 5 ... rock on!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sunday, Back at Green River Festival

We had the air conditioner on overnight because it was really beginning to heat up, and though we'd been up until late the previous night and the sleeping was good, I got up and then got Dave up in time to leave the hotel in search of coffee-breakfast by 8:30 or so (Sarah got up early). We sashayed on back to the Trail TOC Diner and had another breakfast that couldn't be beat and then drove back to the hotel. We packed up for the day's activities and Dave and I headed for the golf course while Sarah tried to chill. Scott joined us for a couple of holes and though there were some fine shots we aborted the round early. Dave and I did a quick change and joined the kids and parents in the pool, but then changed back and hit the road for the Festival by a few minutes after 11:00.

The gates opened just as we got there ... it was much less crowded for the first couple of acts than it had been for Saturday. We pulled up a piece of lawn right in front of the stage again. You don't want to get too close because then you'll be swamped by dancers rushing the stage, but we set up about 30 feet back and with several rows of chairs in front of us this was just right.

The Two Man Gentlemen Band was up first, in their old-fashioned knickers and shirtwaists. If you haven't seen this act you need to. They've got a Tom and Dickie (Smothers Brothers) thing going but instead of talking around what they're really trying to sing about they get right to it and, in the most genteel way, they sing about liking reefer and beer and partying with girls. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that and when you back it up with a stand-up bass, a kazoo, and a rockin' 4-string guitar that probably has fathered several ukeleles then it's more than all right.

Next up was another of the shining stars of the Festival, Patty Larkin. I've seen her several times and had half-planned that this would be my time to wander down to the Dance Tent, but I wanted to stick around for at least a few songs and I ended up staying for her whole set and loving it. The thing that amazes me most about Patty is that she's such an accomplished guitar player who knows exactly what sound she needs next and has no trouble getting it. She's been playing some of the songs she did for decades, but it's like every time she plays one she can reach back to that moment when she composed it and it was filled with meaning, and she can hit the right notes to drive that meaning into our skulls. She's one of the best singer-songwriters I've ever hear and you could tell she was getting off on the hot and sunny summer day in the Berkshires with a folkie crowd thing. Absolutely wonderful. Michelle and hot (caliente no picante) daughter came up front in the middle of the set but couldn't stay.

OK, I was all set to hit the jets as soon as Patty finished and I headed right for the Melt Down Stage (the kids stage) where I was delighted to catch several songs by Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem.  Rani (ex of Salamander Crossing of course) and husband/drummer Scott Kessell have a young family and the band has switched to a kids sound from their adventurous bluegrasss-swing sound of the past.  As you might expect with such great musicians they excel at it and the thing I loved about their set was that they really excelled at getting the kids involved, from some whom they obviously knew and who knew all the songs, to some who were taking their first steps toward dancing and singing in front of an audience.  The band was great, the kids were great, and I was singing along with everybody about the wriggling snake, the sneaky monkey, and the waddling duck.  This was a different kind of fun then I had all day and just as valued.

BUT ... as soon as they hit their last note I was out of there and streaking across the back field towards the Dance Tent, where the Sacred Shakers were holding court.  I ran into Dave on the way and briefed him quickly about the band, then we moved up front when we got there and started dancing.  Daniel Fram (I believe) was missing, but that meant that Eilen Jewell was up front more often and who could complain about that?  Their "last" song (they did an encore) was Samson and Delilah and Dave (who had recently realized that that wasn't a Grateful Dead song originally) was as gobsmacked as you might expect.  Dan Kellar sang the key line as "and the birds and bees made honey in the lion's head" ... a slight departure from Reverend Gary Davis.

Time to chill and wander back to main stage now, as Wanda Jackson wasn't coming on for a bit.  I wove back and forth back up the hill through the green, green, but already severely trodden-down grass, past the short line at the popcorn chicken wagon, the long line at the ice cream booth, and the anxious people at the first aid station, past the noodles and wraps and smoothies people, back to the front rows.  The Pine Leaf Boys had one song left in them and I was up by the right speaker to groove on their textbook Cajun sound, though it was off to the port-a-potties as soon as they were done.  I took over from Sarah who was wilting in the sun and I waited for Wanda to come on.

Wanda Jackson is, of course, the rockabilly goddess and though the years had taken their toll and she needed to be helped up the stairs to the stage, when she got there she rocked us all.  The big hair must have helped (her lead guitarist had certainly bought into the big hair thing), and her timeouts to tell great tales about her days with Elvis were a good break for all on a godawful hot day, but Jesus she was authentic.  She's recently had her career jump-kicked by Jack White, that Pygmalion of the modern music scene (and producing/playing genius himself of course), and she gave us a much more professional and heartfelt set than I was anticipating.  I'd have to say that she was 5 times more entertaining and hip than what I expected.  She sang songs I barely remembered from my childhood and her band, the Lustre Kings, backed her up right.  I was left with the taste and smell of the old bowling alleys and big cars of long, long ago ...and this was live!

Oh boy, time to calm down and get some veggie wraps for me and the still-sunned-out Sarah.  I acquired the food and then let it sit on my chair while I danced because the next goddess, Eilen Jewell, came on and proceeded to take over the Festival.  Talk about generations: Wanda Jackson, Emmylou Harris, Patty Larkin, Eilen Jewell, Zoe Muth ...

Eilen came out in her trademark little black dress and cowboy boots, but this time she had a frilly collar and a lot more confidence than when I first saw her.  She knocked us out with some classics like Rain Roll In but mainly stuck to her new material.  Highlights of her set were Bang Bang Bang and Queen of the Minor Key from her new record.  The new stuff doesn't feature Jerry Miller's wizardry as much as her sets of a couple of years ago did and her songs aren't quite as sharp as a few years before that.  I'd have to say she's in a little slump, but it's probably akin to Adrian Gonzalez's last "little slump" and she'll come busting out of it soon.  Next year I'll probably be saying that Warning Signs and Home To Me are my favorite songs of hers ... give them a little time.

Two more sets left and this next one was going to be another exciting, exciting experience.  I had checked out JJ Grey and Mofro on Youtube and just a ten-second listen was enough to make me know I had to hear this guy live.  Again, our friend Scott had also heard his songs and was as excited as I was.  JJ came on at 5:00 and played until just after 6:00, while the temperature gradually cooled off to something approaching liveable and the vibe wrapped us all up and took us away to another land, where the bayou/swamp/lowlands are full of wonder and the relations/loves/work are tedious but self-affirming.  He has some great songs and is one of those unexpectedly soulful singers who belt it out of their innards for us all to testify to and enjoy.  Another guy you've got to see.

Next was Emmylou.  It would take me pages to describe what she means to me as an icon, a musician, and ... well, don't get me started.  She wore a headband and an off-the-shoulder pancho and was much more sexy and cool than a 64-year old should be ("Will you still be sending me a valentine...").  She had an ace band with her in the latest incarnation of the Red Dirt Boys and took us through a tour of her newer stuff, like Home Sweet Home (just a fantastic song!), My Name Is Emmett Till (more moving live than I'd ever thought it would be off the record), and Big Black Dog (at a nice slow tempo, again, much better then the record).  She closed with the classic Wheels and then Six White Cadillacs from the new record and then she was gone off into the night, as was the Green River Festival.

We tried to gather our stuff, both physically and mentally ... the same thing many people around us were going through!  The guy behind me mentioned that he had seen me sitting and/or dancing in the hot sun all day and asked how I did it?  I told him that I had no idea.  We packed up and made it back to the car, waited in line past delighted campus/town cops who were directing traffic (they were as rosy-cheeked as anybody), and finally made it back to Route 2 West where we floored it for the Oxbow and the pool.  We all changed into bathing suits as soon as we got there and ran, not walked, into the pool around 8:30.  It took us at least a half-hour of total submersion to cool off, and then we were rejuvenated!

We made some quick sandwiches for dinner and joined Scott, Michelle, Jeannette, Tristan, Dave, and Rebecca for some beers, margaritas, and true confessions late into the night, mixed in with raves about the Festival we had just been at.  The kids kept on waking up and trying to join us, as kids will, but we navigated through that.  Finally to bed around who-knows-what-time and we woke up in the morning and drove back to work *early* on Monday, wounded warriors to say the least.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Green River Festival 2011 (Saturday)

We had an incredible, perfect, just right (but hot!) Green River Festival this past weekend, July 16th and 17th 2011.  When we saw the preliminary lineup a few months ago it took us micro-seconds to decide that we had to go:  Emmylou Harris, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Eilen Jewell, Patty Larkin, Rani Arbo, Toots and the Maytals, and many, many others.  We have friends who go every year and back in May we got the last room at the hotel they always go to, the Oxbow Resort Motel in Charlemont (though their mailing address is Shelburne Falls).  We got early bird tickets to the festival, parking passes, and there was nothing left to do but get more and more psyched for several months.  And then it exceeded our expectations when it finally happened!

Sarah, Dave, and I met in West Concord after work on Friday and hightailed it West out Route 2.  We had several options for dinner but decided to go through Greenfield, all the way to Shelburne Falls, and head for the West End Pub ... and see the mysterious Bridge of Flowers and Glacial Potholes there.  It was a fine driving evening after we got past Gardner or so, and we cruised all the way into the small, old New England mill town of Shelburne Falls, where we crossed the Deerfield River (into the village of Buckland), grabbed a parking place, and walked a bit on the Bridge before moseying into the pub and grabbing a table, where we had Berkshire Brewing Co. beer and some fine burgers.

After dinner we crossed the Bridge for real and then detoured down to the Potholes overlook.  What a fun little town!  We've got to go back there.  We saddled up and it was just 10 more minutes to get back onto Route 2 and West to the Oxbow.  The room was exactly what you'd expect for a small hotel on the Mohawk Trail, the swimming pool was cool, and we slept like babies that night.

In the morning we needed coffee and cruised back up the trail to a place recommended by the guy at the front desk, the Trail TOC Diner ... nice peach bread, totally acceptable coffee, and nice omelettes.  Back to the hotel and Dave and I went out and completed their 6-hole par-3 golf course in a surprisingly few number of strokes, though we were a bit dismayed at the number of balls that got themselves lost.  We got all packed up by 11:00 or so and ready to leave.  Our friends (who all brought their young kids) were in the pool by then and we left them behind ... screw them, we wanted to see Zoe Muth!

Got to Greenfield Community College in time to join a long line waiting to get in at noon.  They opened the gates early and we claimed a nice patch of grass with about an hour to go before the music started.  Time to get roasted while the temperature climbed into the 90s and the sun tried to fry us out.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers came on right on time with her wonderful country band and calmed everything down with her Seattle-twangy originals.  Ethan Lawton was just fantastic on mandolin.  I talked to Zoe after her set and commented that she had a wonderful  mix, and it was unusual to my ear to hear a mandolin leading a country sound.  She liked that, and when I asked her how she ended up signing with Signature Sounds she was eager to tell me about opening for Eilen Jewell  in Seattle and how Eilen recommended that she do that.  Hope her career takes off, what a fun set and a nice person.

Terry Adams and the New NRBQ came on next and played some hot stuff, not quite R&B and not quite rock but totally fun.  Many people were enthralled by Terry and that was fun to watch.  He had three keyboards: an organ, an electric piano, and a fuzzed-out electric piano with a wah-wah.  He should have stuck to the piano IMO, on which he was sublime.  Bit of a down set for me but then they closed with Johnny Cash's Get Rhythm and this was one of the rocking-est, funnest moments of the Festival.  Whoah, I can still see him pounding that piano and grinning like a banshee.

Now was one of the hard choices that a Festival can present: stay at the main stage and watch Kermit Ruffins (star of Treme), or off to the Dance Tent and see Miss Tess.  The decision was to ramble and after catching up with Cousin Kate back at her camp in Umbrella City I headed down to the back field and saw an incredible set by Miss Tess and the Bon Ton Parade With Sweet and Low Down (featuring Rachael Price from Lake Street Dive).  Music can be so wonderful!  The surprise for me was how talented Miss Tess is on the guitar and her guitar (which I've since learned is a "vintage Weymann guitar") had such a sweet sound, a slightly bowed body, and a giant pick guard.  I was enthralled by it but managed to get distracted by Christopher McDonald (I think) on piano and Rachael Price ... or was it her dress that enthralled me?

Miss Tess was a lot of fun, but I split from there early so I could get back to our seats at the main stage for one of the showcase events: Carolina Chocolate Drops.  Scott came up and watched this set with us and it was priceless.  They did some of their great songs like Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine, Hit 'Em Up Style, and Corn Bread and Butter Beans, but mixed in some new stuff and were obviously having a great time.  Their new mouth artist (Adam Matta) just had our jaws dropping to the ground with his ability to do a bass and a treble line at the same time, Rhiannon Giddens did some supreme wailing and clogging, and Dom Flemons delighted us by pulling out the jug and tooting it.  I could have left right after this set and been totally satisfied with the weekend, but this was just the beginning.

Next up was the Old 97s with their straight-up alt-rock sound and no prisoners were taken here.  Loved their set, but I'm not a big fan of their music.  One great thing about their set was they spanned 6:00 ... the scheduled (dependent on weather) balloon launch time!  The weather was great so they were inflated and took off while the band was playing.  Many people in the crowd just turned around and watched this, and the Old 97s lead singer Rhett Miller was cool enough to interrupt his song with a stammered "That's awesome!" when one of them broke free of the ground.

Now came one of the bands I was most exited about, Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears.  I had done some research into bands at the festival I didn't know and was just blown away by some of Black Joe Lewis's songs, like Sugarfoot and Livin' In the Jungle.  He's a cross between James Brown, Delbert McClinton, and The Blues Brothers and his band (mostly white BTW) took this set seriously to say the least.  They did not miss a beat and neither did we ... the crowd jammed up to the stage on this one (we were in the jam of course) and everyone danced and raved.  They ended with Sugarfoot and then walked off as we all hollered.

OK, time for strategy!  We wanted to be mobile for the last couple of acts and so picked up our camp and dumped everything back in the car before sliding back up close to the main stage for Toots and the Maytals. He opened with Pressure Drop and got the whole crowd in the palm of his hand right from the start.  His rhythm section looked like a Hopper picture (ok, a reggae Hopper picture): they were so beyond cool they were stone-faced but playing a bottom like you wouldn't believe, a trio of old black guys on drums, bass, and rhythm guitar looking like they were doing anything but playing some drop-dead back-beat.

We stuck around for 4 songs and then headed down the hill for Rubblebucket!  Oh, on the way we stopped and did some serious gawking at the balloons.  They had all come back (did they come back in the air or where they driven on trucks??  I have no idea but there they were) and were being illuminated by their burners, in sequence and all at once.  It was just marvelous!  We sat on the hillside and watched for a while and then bee-lined for the front of the gathering crowd in the Dance Tent.

Rubblebucket is another band I had never heard of but was incredibly psyched to see after watching some of their videos.  Scott had told us they were his favorite band of last year and despite of that we decided to see them.  They came on late with eight musicians (singer, trumpet, trombone, keyboards, bass, drum kit, percussion, and guitar) and proceeded to rip into the night with some aggressive power-pop.  They mixed in a few songs one might call ballads but everything they started off to play took a quick left turn and then did a sudden Moebius flip before becoming really eclectic.  The horn players (Alex Toth on trumpet writes most of the songs) then put down their horns and started on some harmony with Annakalmia Traver on lead, and then Annakalmia would drown them out with her baritone sax, and then Ian Hersey on guitar would play a mind-bending riff, and then you'd notice that the best player on the stage was really Darby Wolf on keyboards, but maybe that was because his Leslie was twisting things around and around.  In all it was just a cacophony of quality sound that all worked and had us all dancing and dancing and dancing.  Towards the end, Toth, Traver, and Adam Dotson on trombone brought their instruments out into the crowd and danced and played with us while we all writhed and shouted.  The amazing thing for me was that as loud as the band was, the crowd was even louder and when the band stopped that's when my ears started to ring, when the sound came from behind me (I was right in front of the stage, natch) and the whole tent and surrounding area was howling.  I was probably one of the oldest people there, but there were a whole lot of us older guys mixed in with the startlingly young crowd.  Why weren't these people in bed?  Why would anyone be in bed if Rubblebucket was an option??

They finally closed with one of their major songs, Came Out Of A Lady, were persuaded to do one more, and then ran off the stage.  We dragged away and made it back up the little hill and to the car with our friend Tristan, who had stayed until the bitter end.  Our ears were ringing like you wouldn't believe, but it was another fine drive up the East side of the Berkshires to the Oxbow with the windows open on a warm summer night.  Back to the Oxbow and it was too late for the pool but we all gathered outside and had a few beers before bed and recapped the day's highlights before collapsing into bed at a bit after 1:00.