One of the notable features of the New Bedford Summerfest are the themed workshops, usually featuring four musicians or bands, often of varying styles, in song circles centered around a particular theme. They are quite informal, and offer a lot of interaction among the musicians, as well as with the audience. I began my third day at Summerfest at the workshop titled "Smile When You Sing Tha: Music to Bring a Smile to Your Face," which featured Raz-de-Marée, John Whelan, Ian Robb, and Joel Mabus. Raz-de-Marée, which translates as Tidal Wave, woke people up with a lively set of tunes from Quebec, followed by equally lively reels from accordion master John Whelan. The first song of the day was from Joel Mabus, whose "Preacher and the Flood" told the story of a preacher who refused multiple rescue attempts, saying he was waiting on God to save him. When the preacher ended up at the pearly gates, Mabus sang:
He said, “Lord, why didn't you save me - I put all my faith in you!"
Helping to wake up the audience in this (admittedly, late) morning set were Ian Robb's sing-a-long and a catchy call-and-response song in French from Raz-de-Marée. From there, it was on to another workshop, "Sometimes I Take a Great Notion: Songs I had to Write, with the Boxcar Lilies, Peter Mulvey, Andrew Calhoun and Bob Franke." Highlights included Bob Franke's "I But a Little Girl," which came about when the city of Salem, Mass., commissioned him to write songs about that city. Though they no doubt preferred he avoid the infamous Witch Trials, this song resulted. Franke explained, though, that the song was not really about witches, but about Christian on Christian violence. This prompted the next singer, Andrew Calhoun, to skip his intended song and replace it with his own song: "Witches." This is typical of the Summerfest workshops, where one artist's song can cause the next to go in a different direction than planned. This happened once again after the Boxcar Lilies sang a song about throwing caution to the winds, "Put the Top Down." with its chorus about taking the back roads with the top down.
Boxcar Lilies - "Put the Top Down"
This prompted Peter Mulvey to describe writing a song while out on the highway, as Peter drove and his friend Matt Lorenz rode in the passenger seat, playing a banjo, where they came over a hill and nearly ran into a multi-car pileup; memorable not only for Mulvey and Lorenz, but for the people they ended up stopped just a few feet away from, who stared out their car window at this guy holding a banjo in the next car. The resulting song from all that was Mulvey's "Remember the Milkman." And that story of near mishap led Bob Franke to perform his song "Collateral Damage," which came about after the tragic death of fiddler and singer Freyda Epstein, the victim of random violence in an automotive murder-suicide. From there, Andrew Calhoun sang his musical response to the sudden death one decade ago of songwriter Dave Carter, "I Shall Not Look Away."
Gem after gem followed at this workshop. Peter Mulvey explained how he wrote his lovely song, "The Mailman Came." After he had toured with Chris Pureka, she sent him a book of poetry. His thank-you note to Chris became the basis of the song, which opens so simply:
The mailman came, the mailman came.
Peter Mulvey - "Mailman"
Bob Franke then pointed out that the workshop was about songs you HAD to write. And never was that more true than when his daughter asked him to write a song for her wedding, which resulted in the gorgeous "Come See What Love has Done." Not to be outdone in the love song vein, Andrew Calhoun followed with "With Thee I Never Weary," which had the beauty and grace of a centuries old traditional folk song.
After a break for lunch, I stayed with the workshop theme. There were also many fine "regular" sets on other stages, but I was hooked on the often spontaneous song selection and artist interplay going on in the workshops. So I headed to "Caused My Heart for to Sing: Songs of Love and Desire." with Seth Glier, Dala, Amy Black and Andrew Calhoun, Dala, a Canadian duo of Amanda Walther and Sheila Carabine, has gorgeous vocal blends, and on their own excellent CDs, focuses mostly on original music with a very produced pop sheen. But here, they floored me with a gorgeous vocal duet on the traditional Irish love song, "Red Is the Rose" (which has the same melody as the Scottish song "Loch Lomond"). Amy Black, new to me, showed of a big, brassy country/blues voice on her song "Whiskey and Wine" and another song about obsession. Seth Glier sang of what he called "the world's worst best friend" and Andrew Calhoun sang of his close high school friend in "Fred's Brother." But the highlight came when Calhoun invited Fall River songwriter Michael Troy to the stage, and Troy sang a song set in a Fall River soup kitchen, "I Got Gods in These Friends of Mine."
After this, I made for the main stage, where I wanted to get as close to the front as possible for the double bill set of Annalivia and The Deadly Gentlemen and the solo feature set by my old pal Catie Curtis in her only festival appearance.
I've written a lot already about both Annalivia and The Deadly Gentlemen in my previous blog entries on Summerfest, but this particular main stage set was certainly one of the highlights of the festival. The Deadly Gentlemen got things off to a rousing start with their in-your-face number called "Police" with its shouts of "bang bang bang bang" in a very uptempo, brash performance. After a set of fiddle tunes by Annalivia, The Deadly Gentleman stayed on the far side of the law with "Moonshiner." Annalivia then took the old folk ballad "False Sir John" (aren't just about all the sirs in those old ballads false?) and gave it a new bluesy melody, which prompted The Gentleman to follow with "Bad News Blues."
Somehow, this set got even better from there, with Flynn Cohen's vocal on "Sweet Sunny South" with the twin fiddles of Annalivia giving a bit of an Irish feel, and then a great new song by The Gentlemen, called "Bored of the Raging," one of the best songs I heard all weekend. I'm looking forward to playing it on KPR when the new Deadly Gentlemen CD comes out late this year.
The Deadly Gentlemen - "Bored of the Raging"
From there, The Gentleman's fiddler, Mike Barrett, joined in with Annalivia on a set of tunes that ended with "Glory in the Meeting House," for a great triple fiddle sound, and before the set was over, the rest of The Gentlemen jumped in with their own solo breaks. To wrap up the set, The Gentlemen showed off their traditional bluegrass roots on Bill Monroe's "On and On," with Flynn Cohen of Annalivia taking the lead vocal after a hot banjo introduction from Greg Liszt.
As Catie Curtis prepared the stage for her set, I walked down in front and waved at her; she was a bit surprised to see me so far from Kansas and gave me a big smile and shout out. Catie had a LOT of very devoted fans at this set, and they were aglow when she kicked off the show with "Kiss that Counted." From there, Catie showed her self-deprecating humor as she explained how she had lost her rental car keys and had to call the festival for a ride to her performance - but how she was too embarrassed to tell them she had lost her keys, so said "I can't start my car." Which was, of course, literally true. From that story she went into her song "Find You Now" and from there into her song inspired by her adopted daughters, "Love Takes the Best of You." Other highlights included her early song, "Troubled Mind," which was the first song I ever heard Catie do, way back at the 1995 Folk Alliance conference, where it brought tears to my face then...and did again at Summerfest.
Other highlights included Curtis's impassioned musical response to Hurricane Katrina, "People Look Around," and a new song, inspired by being in a cottage hit by lightning, "Heaven Knows." The set ended with two great fan favorites, the great falling in love song, "Magnolia Street" and her wonderful tribute to her Dad, "Dad's Yard" followed by a glowing Curtis singing a most appropriate song, "Happy."
Which is what I was at the end of the set. I was, however, also in that state called "festival exhaustion" so I did not stick around for the traditional festival closing set, the Celtic Extravaganza, which is always quite fine....but I preferred this time to let my final festival memory be of the marvelous Catie Curtis.
Cate Curtis - "Happy"