LIVE: Old Songs Festival @ Altamont Fairgrounds, 6/22/12 (Day One)

Review by Greg Haymes

One of the many wonderful things about the Old Songs Festival is that you don’t have to encourage the audience to sing along. In fact, participation is really what the fest is all about.

The 32nd annual Old Songs Fest kicked off on the Friday afternoon with a performance of “Four Seasons, Four Years – The Civil War: A Musical Journey” by an all-star collection of 11 of Nippertown’s finest folk musicians. Hammered dulcimer virtuoso Bill Spence introduced the two-and-a-half hour performance by asking the crowd to hold their applause til the end of each act due to the length of the show. A nice try, but, of course, it just didn’t work. Following each of the first half-dozen or so songs – including Reggie Harris’ soulful rendition of “Go Down Moses” and Dan Berggren’s rousing “A Trip on the Erie” – the audience spontaneously burst into applause, in part due to habit, no doubt, but mostly because the performances deserved cheers, and the crowd just couldn’t seem to hold back.

Created and directed by Old Songs’ Andy Spence, the performance was a well-balanced blend of Civil War-era songs introduced with readings, most of them first-person narratives culled from the letters and diaries of soldiers who fought on the front lines. Spence’s keen selections highlighted the contributions of New York State soldiers, bringing an immediacy and sharp local focus to the sprawling tale.

Ranging from traditional folk and gospel songs to popular songs of the day penned by Stephen Foster and George F. Root, the musical selections featured many well-known tunes (“Follow the Drinking Gourd,” “John Brown’s Body,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”) as well as more obscure, but no less potent songs (including the a cappella “The New York Volunteer,” the Irish anti-war “By the Hush,” the jaunty “Richmond Is a Hard Road to Travel”). Each of the performers – who also included Greg Artzner & Terry Leonino (of Magpie), Stephen & Betsy Fry, John Roberts, Toby Stover, Susan Trump and George Wilson – provided instrumental accompaniment, as well as taking turns carrying the lead vocals of the songs and reading the narrative interludes.

“Four Seasons, Four Years” is a powerful piece, as rich in song as it is in historical importance.

Hosted by the Nippertown husband-and-wife duo of John Kirk & Trish Miller, the Friday evening concert was stacked with a line-up of acclaimed, well-seasoned folk musicians, and throughout the night musical tributes were paid to such folk icons as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Miriam Makeba.

But it was a pair of fresh young faces that stole the evening show.

Accompanied by fiddler Dana Lynn and guitarist Kyla Sanna, Irish singer-flutist-keyboardist Nuala Kennedy struck the perfect balance between the traditional and the thoroughly contemporary with a clatch of songs highlighted by “My Bonny Labouring Boy” and “The Waves of the Silvery Tide,” adding a subtle but cutting electronic edge to the keening ballads.

And the young Texas singer-songwriter Ellis was a clear crowd favorite with her solo set of such captivating original tunes as the opening “Crow Chorus” and her closing “Right On Time.” Her songs weren’t all winners – an overly sentimental ballad for a departed friend, “I’m Still Here” sounded more like something that an “American Idol” contender would trot out than a showcase number at Old Songs – but the majority of what she offered was smart, poetic and top-notch.

The blues duo Mulebone also served up a first-rate set with guitarslinger Hugh Pool squaring off with multi-instrumentalist John Ragusa (half of Albany’s Necessarily the Blues duo from back in the day) on flute, pocket trumpet, Jew’s harp, pennywhistle and conch shell as they slashed through “Money and Keys,” a jaunty ragtime treatment of “Candy Man,” the slide guitar-fueled “New Morning” and a final rousing medley that included “Jesus On the Mainline,” “Amazing Grace” and “Shortnin’ Bread.”

Those were the brightest highlights, but everyone in Friday night’s bill desrved plenty of kudos, and no one disappointed. Multi-instrumentalist John McCutcheon – who described himself as “an equal opportunity satirist,” poked fun at the left (“Grow a Pair, Barack Obama”) and the right (“Corporations Are People, Too”). “You may have heard – it’s an election year, which means that every day is Christmas for a songwriter,” he declared but McCutcheon was at his best on his more serious material – Seeger’s “Well May the World Go,” Guthrie’s classic “Pastures of Plenty” and his own powerful “Sara Tucholsky.”

Anne Hills & David Roth – who have both been featured at Old Songs as solo performers – offered a solid duo set culled from their recent collaborative album, “Rhubarb Trees.” Their wry “country & eastern” song, “The Strange Meanderings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama Down to Nashville, Tennessee” was an absolute hoot, not only melding mountain yodelling with Tuvan throat singing, but also the Dalai Lama with Dolly Parton.

Bruce Molsky offered a set of fine fiddle and frailing banjo tunes. Sharon Katz and her band the Peace Train took the crowd to her native South Africa for a energetic set that included the buoyant “Guabi Guabi,” “Mbube” (better known to American music fans as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”) and Makeba’s signature “Pata Pata.” And Brother Sun – the all-star trio of Pat Wictor, Joe Jencks and Greg Greenway – showcased both instrumental prowess and fine vocal harmonies (especially on the a cappella “What Must Be Done”) as they closed out the night.

Brother Sun will be performing at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival on July 27-29 at Dodds Farm in Hillsdale.
“Four Seasons, Four Years” will be performed at 7:30pm on Saturday, September 22 at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, sponsored by Caffe Lena.

Stanley Johnson’s review and photographs of the Old Songs Festival, 6/23/12 (Day Two) at Nippertown

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