With seven stages at the New Bedford Summerfest, there's always difficulty in choosing where to be at any particular time, but on this first full day of the festival, as I walked by the closest stage to my hotel, I heard the old song "That's the Way That the World Goes 'Round" - being sung in Italian. So I decided I had to stop right there and listen a bit. It was one of the many themed "workshop" sets at the festival; this one with the title "The Melody that Makes My Reverie: Music That Stays With You." The singer and guitarist was Livio Guardi, from Florence, Italy. He was joined on stage by the Canadian Garnet Rogers and the Anglo-Canadian Ian Robb. As with most of these workshops, the artists took turns singing songs, sometimes with harmonies and instrumental backing from the others. Highlights included Ian Robb singing "On Sussex Downs," with words by Hilaire Belloc as set to a tune by the Australian Martyn Wyndham-Read, with Robb's deep voice leading the audience in singing the chorus, "which no one can deny, deny" and Garnet Rogers doing a gorgeous version of a song the legendary Nic Jones had recorded, "Farewell to the Gold," with the chorus:
Farewell to the gold that never I found,
On this hot and muggy day (not triple digit temperatures like Kansas but VERY humid and not a hint of breeze), I decided to next drop in to the air conditioned theater inside the Whaling Museum, which was quite crowded even before the first performance there, by The Deadly Gentleman, as well as the duo of fiddler Jeremy Kittel and cellist Nathaniel Smith. Spying a seat on the far edge of the front door, I made haste to grab that one - and found myself sitting next to the bassist of The Deadly Gentleman, Sam Grisman (son of the great mandolin player David Grisman). I asked Sam why he was not on stage setting up with the rest of the band, and he told me his bass was broken, and he was waiting on a borrowed bass from another band to arrive. Even so, the rest of The Deadly Gentlemen did not seem too deterred when they opened the show with a lively moonshine song. The band, centered around longtime Crooked Still banjo player Greg Liszt, describe their music as epic folk and coregrass. They have bluegrass instrumentation and lots of bluegrass in their music, but the unconventional vocals include a lot of dense spoken word in a kind of rap vein, lots of group shouting as well as more conventional harmony singing, and the subject matter trends toward the edgy side of things. There is no doubt about the instrumental prowess of Liszt, Grisman, guitarist Stash Wyslouch, fiddler Mike Barnett, and young (20 year old) mandolin player Dominick Leslie, who I first heard at Rockygrass some 6 or 7 years ago.
Speaking of instrumental prowess, I've been blown away for years by fiddler Jeremy Kittel since seeing him when he was just 14. At that time, he was focusing on traditional Scottish music, but has since spent significant time exploring jazz and contemporary classical music, and recently concluded a nearly five-year stretch as part of the acclaimed Turtle Island Quartet. His musical partner here, Nathaniel Smith, is one of the very talented young cellists exploring new directions in traditional folk, jazz and contemporary music on that instrument. Smith has performed with the likes of Natalie MacMaster, Mark O'Connor, Bela Fleck and Yo-Yo Ma. After a gorgeous Smith original, "Sirius," which he introduced with a hypnotic chopping rhythm on cello and which featured singing violin lines from Kittel, Smith and Kittel joined in enthusiastically on the next Deadly Gentlemen number, "The Road is Rocky," a rather drastic reworking of Bill Monroe's "Rocky Road Blues."
Showing their musical breadth, Kittel and Smith then played a gorgeous version of "Georgia on My Mind," with some very bluesy sounds from Kittel (I think the late KC legend, Claude "Fiddler" Williams, would have dug that one). That wasn't the only foray into jazz this set by Kittel and Smith, who burned up Charlie Parker's bebop number "Scrapple from the Apple," where they were joined by The Gentlemen's fiddler, Mike Barnett. I did note that this folk music audience was a bit puzzled by the rhythms of bebop. This had followed the slow groove set up by The Gentlemen on "Roll Me, Tumble Me" with its fast and dense spoken word lyrics from Liszt.
One highlight of the set - and the festival - was the fast bluegrass fiddle tune "Cherokee Shuffle," with everyone on stage joining in, and which featured sterling solos and an especially tasty twin fiddle passage from Kittel and Barnett. And with Grisman's bass finally arriving, you had the full force of The Gentlemen on a very cool tune, "Locust in the Willow" (by Liszt's Crooked Still bandmate, Brittany Haas) and then the rockabilly flavored number "Hobo Road Song" with the hip hop style words, filled with braggadocio, by Liszt, and a very Bill Monroe flavored mando break by Leslie - and a scat vocal by Kittel to boot.
After this powerhouse set, which turned up the heat even in the air conditioned setting, it was back into the real heat. I was eager to hear more from Annalivia after their short set the night before, so I managed to get to the last half of their feature set on the main stage, which featured a lot of impressive Irish tune sets, as well as lovely twin fiddling on a tune by the legendary North Carolina fiddler Tommy Jarrell and a fine version of the traditional song, "Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden." At this point, I was ready to escape the heat and have a bit of lunch, which I did at my favorite New Bedford hangout, the Rose Alley Ale House, which has a very extensive list of microbrewery and imported beers. I did try one of those before returning to the music, this time for two fine songwriters scheduled back to back at my favorite outdoor stage, the Garden Stage (the only one of the outdoor stages with grass under your feet instead of concrete). I made sure to get there early before Jeff Black began his set, and I was glad I did.
A wonderful word and tune smith, Black (who grew up in Liberty, Mo.) also has an unassuming but very effective stage presence, connecting with the audience with low key humor and a deeply sincere manner. He started with a song popularized by Sam Bush (who has recorded a number of Black's songs), "Same Old River," which is as hypnotic as watching the mighty Missouri River roll by. From then, he went back in time to the song "Noah's Ark," with the more general theme of a sailor hoping to reach land. Other highlights of his seven song set were the requested "Gold Heart Locket" (at first Black demurred, since he did not have his banjo with him and it is a banjo based song, but he ended up doing a fine job on guitar), "The Carnival Song" (with a great introduction about his first job, working in a gas station, and an older, self styled ladies' man who worked there), and "Walking Home," from his fine new CD, Plow Through the Mystic.
Following Black is one of the most exciting young singer-songwriters I've heard in recent years, the 23-year-old Seth Glier. He's not the typical guitar strumming folksinger; he mostly plays piano, his songs have catchy pop hooks and grooves, and his falsetto range and his infectious, high energy personality are a contrast to the mostly laid back folk world. But, his songs have the lyrical depth and meaning that are at the heart of the best of contemporary folk, and are much deeper than most pop music. But whatever box or genre you want to try to stuff his music into, it's tremendously affecting AND entertaining. Performing with his closest friend, the very fine guitarist Ryan Hommel, Glier got his set off with a rousing start by stomping and shaking leading into the song, "The Next Right Thing" (the title track to Glier's new CD), followed by my favorite Glier song, the wonderful and melodic pop song, "Walk Katie Home."
Seth Glier - "Walk Katie Home"
Glier can do quiet songs just as effectively, as he showed on "I Don't Need You," where he shifted from piano to acoustic guitar and Hommel had a beautiful solo on electric guitar. Written after a breakup with a girlfriend, "I Don't Need You" can be heard in a broader sense of leaving things behind and facing the future. After noting advice he'd been given by Ani DiFranco: "You need to write the song that needs to be sung," Glier launched into a powerful new song co-written with Ellis Paul, "Plastic Soldiers," which morphs from the mother telling her little boy to put those plastic soldiers away to the amputee veteran, "Living in this body, I'm a Prisoner of War." The highlight of the set was the closing number, where Seth taught the audience a singalong part of oh-oh-oh and a rapid handclapping part to go with his song, "Lauralee," an upbeat number going out to an unrequited love - but it was still filled with love and not just heartbreak.
While the plan had been to next see Patty Larkin's set on the main stage, a series of conversations with musical friends old and new scotched that. Even so, a big part of the Summerfest experience is the chance encounter on the narrow cobblestone streets, amidst the many arts and crafts booths, and several of those at this time were most enjoyable, and I still made it to the closing concert set, albeit sitting farther back than is my wont. This final set of the evening, titled "Gimme the Beat Boys: Music That Frees Your Soul," was hosted by The Kennedys, and included Zoë Lewis, John Whelan, and The Deadly Gentlemen. The irrepressible Lewis kicked off the music at the piano with her ode to forgetfulness, the catchy "That Thing," with Mike Barnett of The Deadly Gentlemen adding a jazzy fiddle solo.
Zoë Lewis - "That Thing"
Later in the evening, Lewis pulled out her ukelele and was joined by accordion master John Whelan for Lewis's "Cuppa Tea." Whelan, who filled in for Women in Docs at the festival at the last minute, played a great set of Irish tunes with fiddlers three: Jeremy Kittel, Cassie MacDonald (a terrific teenager from Nova Scotia), and Whelan's wife Louise, who had given up performing while raising their children but is now picking up the fiddle again. Along with being one of the greatest box players in Irish music, Whelan has a personality as outgoing as Lewis, as he showed dancing across the stage to a later song by Lewis (who wondered why the crowd was cheering before she saw Whelan dancing). Another highlight was The Deadly Gentlemen's version of "Let It Bleed," where Jeremy Kittel joined in on fiddle. The rousing finale of the evening was from The Kennedys, joined by all the other musicians on stage for "Like a Rolling Stone."