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.
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'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.
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.
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.