Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Burn/Fire: Fire Door

Ani DiFranco: Fire Door [purchase]

I’m using this Ani DiFranco song, which mentions fire, as an excuse to write about the recent Clearwater Festival, where DiFranco performed. More to the point, though, the weekend was hot and sunny, and despite some precautions, I did get a little burned.

I’ve written about Clearwater before, and it is one of the regular musical highlights of the year for me. Every year is the same, but different, and not just because there are different acts. Like most years, it was a long weekend filled with great music, some of which are new discoveries. Like most years, we get there early, claim our spot at the main Rainbow Stage, and walk around the place, shopping, visiting the Activist Area, and taking in the beauty of the Hudson River. As usual, we ran into friends. And like most years, there is some weather issue—as noted, this year it was hot and sunny both days, which is better than rain, or high humidity, but can be uncomfortable.

This year, though, it seemed as if the festival bookers didn’t have as many big name acts as in the past, especially on Saturday (and some “regulars” such as Toshi Reagon and Josh Ritter were absent). I don't know whether that was a money issue, an editorial decision, or based on availability, or some combination, but it meant that we spent the weekend sampling lots of music from bands that we were unfamiliar with, often moving from stage to stage to catch partial sets. My wife and I (and our daughter who attended with us—another difference) spent more time apart because different things interested us. Because there were fewer “must see” acts on the main stages, I visited the Dance Stage multiple times, which I had never done, to hear Cajun and Zydeco music, and we spent time at the intimate Workshop Stage for the first time, which led to my favorite performance of the weekend.

So, here we go. On the bus ride from the parking lot to the Festival site, we overheard a group of young women bemoaning their hangovers, and their concern that it would affect their performance. Of course, we had to ask them about this, and they turned out to be singers from a band billed as “Upstate Rubdown,” but which at the Festival called themselves “Upstate.” In my exhaustive pre-Festival research, I had checked out their music, and they were on the list of bands that I wanted to try to see. But we began, traditionally, at the main Rainbow Stages with what I call the “old folkies show,” now called “Songs for Pete and Toshi,” to honor the founders of the event. It included, David Amram (87), Josh White, Jr. (77), Tom Chapin (73), The Kennedys, Mike & Ruthy, Tom Paxton (80) and the Don Juans (58 and 66), and Joanne Shenandoah (60).

After a bit of that, we decided to move to the smaller Hudson Stage to check out Upstate. And they were great, despite any lingering hangovers. My daughter described them as like Lake Street Dive crossed with the Staves. She also believes that she may have met some of the women we spoke to on the bus when she visited their alma mater, SUNY New Paltz, for an a capella event.

Next up on that stage was Making Movies, two sets of brothers, one of Panamanian heritage and the other of Mexican heritage, who rocked bilingually, and included many songs focusing on the newsworthy plight of immigrants. Their music reflected many influences, including various genres of rock, Latin and African music.

We then returned to the Rainbow Stage for husband and wife-fronted The War and Treaty, which melded blues, rock, R&B and gospel.

They were also excellent, but it was really hot, and I wanted to check out singer/songwriter Margaret Glaspy back at the Hudson Stage (where I could stand in the shade). She was good, too, and I particularly enjoyed her Lucinda Williams cover.

After that, I met up with my wife, and we browsed some of the environmentally focused vendors, before I plunged into the Dance Stage for Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet, and enjoyed their Cajun dance music (but not as much as my friend Frank, who was dancing hard, and sweating through at least his first shirt of the day).

I headed back to the Hudson Stage for Beth Orton, and while I was a fan of her early songs, I was not familiar with much of what she was performing, and I had some trouble connecting with some of the unfamiliar songs, which were pretty dark and downbeat.

So, it was back to the Dance Stage for C.J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band, a hard rocking Zydeco unit, which filled the floor with joyous dancers (including Frank, sweating through another shirt).

It was finally time for the “headliners” at the Rainbow Stage, and we got to hear pop humorists They Might Be Giants. My daughter again pithily remarked at how much work they put into very silly songs.

After that, we took a brief trip over to the Sloop Stage, where festival regulars, The Kennedys, displayed their usual excellent singing, playing, songwriting, and storytelling.

But we returned to the Rainbow Stage to hear first night closer, Ani DiFranco, another regular Clearwater performer, who played an strong set that combined her distinctive guitar style with her broadly political, thought provoking songwriting. I don’t believe that she played “Fire Door,” but I wasn’t really listening for it—nevertheless, it is a fine song, about dealing with the aftermath of a relationship betrayal. She did start the set with “Little Plastic Castle,” which I love. So that was nice.

Not bad for Day 1, right?

Sunday promised to be even hotter, but undaunted, our trio of music lovers arrived early, set up at the Rainbow Stage, wandered around a bit and returned for a new feature. Choir! Choir! Choir!, a couple of Canadians who specialize in creating participatory choirs, invited all interested to the front of the stage to learn the background parts to the folk classic, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” My wife and daughter participated, because they have beautiful voices and love to sing. I sat back and listened, because as anyone who knows me knows, I cannot sing. At all. They had fun, although it was a bit disappointing in the end because the lead singers, some of the “old folkies,” didn’t seem to understand what was going on, and were even less rehearsed than the choir.

After that, my wife and daughter headed over to the Workshop Stage for a “harmony workshop” with the band Mipso, while I went to check out River Whyless at the Hudson Stage.

I enjoyed their folk rock sound, but decided to leave part way through their set to join my wife and daughter for two reasons—to hear Mipso, and to try to make sure I got a seat for the next performer at that small tent, Rhiannon Giddens. The tent was packed, with an overflow crowd standing and sitting around the edges. Mipso, a rootsy, folk rock band, played songs and answered questions from the crowd. What I heard made me want to check them out when they did a full set later in the day.

When they were done, a few people left, but the crowd size increased as the time for Giddens to take the stage approached. Luckily, I was able to get a seat.

Rhiannon Giddens is remarkable. Her latest album made my list of favorite music of 2017. She’s a MacArthur award winner, and her bio on their website begins:

Rhiannon Giddens is a singer, instrumentalist, and songwriter enriching our understanding of American music by reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country genres and revealing affinities between a range of musical traditions, from gospel and Celtic to jazz and R&B. 

During the next hour, she sang, played the guitar, banjo, and fiddle, and discussed each song with us, and they included everything that is mentioned above, including a song in Gaelic and one in Spanish.

Being able to see a genius with such prodigious talent in an intimate venue was one of the best things that I have ever experienced at Clearwater.

After a quick lunch, I checked out Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience at the Dance Stage (Frank, however, wasn’t there on Sunday—maybe he was doing laundry), and they provided some rocking Louisiana sounds.

Then, I checked out country rock legends Dave Alvin and Jimmy Dale Gilmore, who played some songs that I recognized, both originals and covers, while never missing a chance to say each other's full names.

I wandered back to the Hudson Stage to listen to Mipso, and their music was equally enjoyable in a larger setting.

It was now time for the headliners, so it was back to our base at the Rainbow Stage to hear an hour of Rhiannon Giddens, with a full band, including fellow former Carolina Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins on guitar (and lead vocals on a few songs). What the set lost in intimacy, it made up in power. As you can probably guess, her performances were the highlight of the weekend for me.

Next up was Jeff Tweedy, who I am also a huge fan of. Tweedy delivered a set of mostly Wilco songs, with a few covers, Loose Fur songs, and new songs mixed in. As much as I like him, I think that his solo act would be better in a small club than a large festival stage. His stage banter, though, mostly about his perceived personal and professional failures, was extremely amusing, as expected.

Finally, the weekend ended with an amazing, rocking set from The Mavericks, who are not only a great band to see live, they also seem to be enjoying themselves on stage as much as we did in the audience. I think that my daughter, who was not familiar with the band, is a fan now.


I grudgingly left during the Mavericks’ last song, to try to beat the crowd, sadly listening to the sound of them tearing the joint up fade away while we approached the buses, although I suspect the extra few minutes wouldn’t have made a huge difference in our exit time.

We returned home, exhausted, hot, burned and tanned, and in awe of all of the great music we heard over the weekend. It wasn’t the best lineup I’ve ever heard, but to some that is to some degree beside the point.

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