Archive for September, 1997

music in Napa

I actually made it up to Napa for the Napa Valley Music Festival on September 20 and 21. Highlights included attending all four hours of Steve Seskin’s songwriting workshops (though I’ll probably never write a song in my life), Steve’s main stage performance, the Joel Raphael Band from my current home town of San Diego, and several of the songs heard at the after hours song circle I attended, but especially Mark Bradlyn‘s “Outside The Family Way“, about how he’s just not cut out for a life of raising a family. I identified quite strongly with that one.

Summer of 1997

Wow! Amazing! Incredible! That sums up my feelings upon returning from the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado. This has been the summer of folk music festivals for me. My first one was two years ago in Edmonton. I stayed in a hotel (the official hotel!) and hung out by myself for most of the time. See my Edmonton report for all the details of that trip.

This Summer’s experiences were a bit different. At the end of July, I flew to Albany, New York to attend the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival located in Hillsdale. I subscribe to the Dar Williams discussion list on the ‘net and a bunch of people decided to get together at Falcon Ridge, as Dar would be performing there. I had nothing better to do and I’m always looking for excuses to go traveling, so I jumped at the opportunity. All us Dar fans created Camp Dar, a place where we could all hang out and enjoy not just our common love of music, but each other’s company too. Jef Scoville was the elder statesman who showed us how it’s all done, while most of the other people were first-time festival goers in their teens or twenties. Dar even came by her namesake camp on Friday afternoon, friendly as always. Her manager, Charlie Hunter, stopped by several times and was always very gracious towards all of us.

At the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, I camped with the Folk Music Digest contingent, around the BOT (Big Orange Tarp). This was an older group, made up mostly of musicians. No matter what time I wandered into the camp, someone was sure to be playing an instrument, whether a guitar or a harp. I could never forget I was at a music festival.

Dar’s performance at Falcon Ridge was wonderful, of course. Other performers I had come to see included Greg Brown, Cheryl Wheeler, Dan Bern, and Moxy Früvous. But the biggest surprise was Janis Ian. Sure, I remember her sweet songs from the ’70s and I figured she’s another washed-up artist living on her former glory, but that was definitely not the case. She just blew everyone away! Her guitar-playing was amazing and had everyone in awe. At the end of the evening, it was Janis that everyone was talking about.

I had never seen Dan Bern before, but I was suitably impressed. I’ve been told that people either love him or hate him. I have to place myself in the former category, though there were plenty in the latter among the Camp Dar contingent. He’s very “in your face” and some people don’t like that. But you just have to be wowed by a guy with “balls the size of grapefruits”. He also happened to be performing a show in Montréal when I was there a few days after Falcon Ridge so I went to see him again.

Vance Gilbert was very funny. He is quick to point out that he, as an African-American, is a distinct minority at these (mostly White) folk festivals (“there aren’t many chips in the cookie”). I think I also saw three or four Asians (besides myself) at Falcon Ridge. Vance Gilbert also did a Performance Workshop on the Workshop Stage, where he critiqued and gave advice to up and coming performers. This was also quite entertaining. One of the people he helped out in this way was Diana Jones, doing her song “The One That Got Away”. I also heard her perform later in a song circle. I really liked her performance and I bought her CD at the “Record Tent”. However, I was disappointed by it when I got it home and spun it. It was the CD I was most looking forward to hearing, but the song she performed is not on the disc, and I didn’t feel that anything on her CD lived up to the live performances I had seen. Another song circle song that stuck in my mind was Hollywood Comes To Hoboken, by Greg Cagno, an autobiographical song about the singer’s car being towed when Ron Howard and company arrived to do a shoot on his street:

I got towed by Opie
Ritchie Cuttingham towed me
I don’t care who you are I was here before you
You’re a big shot director
And I’m just a renter
But I’d appreciate my wheels back when you’re through

Speaking of song circles, this is where the real discoveries are made. And at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, it was especially true that while it was the big names on the main stage that got me on the airplane, it was the never-heard-before artists in the after-hours song circles that made the biggest lasting impressions.

I usually gravitate towards female singers, but the ones that really blew me away at Rocky Mountain were males. Andrew McKnight, from Middleburg, Virginia, sang some really poignant tunes, such as his Last Call Waltz, about a first date going absolutely nowhere, while Steve Seskin was my absolute favorite. For the four days before the festival begins, a Song School is held on the grounds, thus attracting an even stronger group of singer-songwriters than is usually present at these festivals. Steve Seskin was one of the teachers (along with Vance Gilbert, David Wilcox, Tom Paxton, Catie Curtis, and others). He has been writing and performing for 25 years, but he says that early in his career he made the decision not to tour, which is why we haven’t heard of him, though many of his songs have been recorded by, and been hits for, other artists.

I heard Steve sing Friday and Saturday nights, and was suitably impressed, but his crowning achievement, and the performance that won over tons of new fans, was his Sunday appearance on the Workshop Stage. He opened with a new song, New Orleans, a gender-swapped, younger, Bridges of Madison County, where a 28-year-old woman pulls off the interstate to gas up and ends up staying, getting married, having children, and working at the gas station where she stopped, leaving behind her former life in New Orleans. The power of this song, though, is more in what’s not said. We’re never really told much about New Orleans, other than “That’s another story … that’s another time, that’s another town, that’s another life.”

When she dropped the kids off
At mothers’ day out
All the ladies had their questions
But they knew not to ask about
New Orleans

I thought maybe it was my own memories about New Orleans that were making my eyes water, but after Steve’s second song, someone in the first row grabbed a box of Kleenex off the stage and started passing it around, so I knew that I was not alone. What I thought was so special about his songs is most were not explicitly tear-jerkers; the emotional impact was stealthily injected into the songs. Like with New Orleans, the greater impact was often made by what was implied rather than by what was said. Steve Seskin has perfected the art of the story song.

I hear that all of Steve Seskin’s CDs sold out immediately after his workshop stage performance. Luckily, I had bought one of his albums the day before the stampede. Everyone I spoke with agreed that Steve’s performance was awesome. I’ll have to track down any live performances of his next time I’m in the Bay Area, and order his other CDs.

Megan McLaughlin, a school teacher from Oakland, California, was another of my song circle favorites. She had also been at Falcon Ridge, as had several other people performing around the real and virtual campfires.

Back to the Main Stage, I was happy to see Cheryl Wheeler again, along with only my second viewing of The Nields. Their vocal harmonies are wonderful, and their workshop stage performance with The Burns Sisters was an added treat. I also finally got to see Eddie From Ohio, and I was so impressed that I bought three of their albums, after promising myself not to get carried away and buy too many CDs this time. I also experienced my second time seeing Nancy Griffith and Catie Curtis, and good first impressions of Tom Paxton and Peter Himmelman.

Overall, the three festivals I attended this summer were an absolutely wonderful experience. For those who have never attended, just imagine several days filled with nothing but great music all around you, almost twenty-four hours a day.

After Falcon Ridge, I spent a few weeks traveling around Québec. I didn’t have that much time to spend again after Rocky Mountain, but I did spend Monday doing a little sightseeing, checking out Rocky Mountain National Park and the town of Boulder, Colorado.

Québec surprised me. I never realized how French (in terms of language) it really is. Yeah, I know they want their own country and all (sort of) but I expected it to be more bilingual. In fact, I found the anti-English feelings to be quite strong. I would even go so far The PFK Colonel as to say their French-only stance is laughably pompous and arrogant. They try to be more French than the French and even the French I met thought it was ridiculous. For example, their stop signs don’t say STOP, but rather ARRÊTEZ. But what do stop signs say in France? They say STOP. Another example is that popular fried chicken restaurant from Kentucky. Around the world it is known as KFC. It’s KFC in Japan; KFC in China; KFC in France! But noooo, those crazy Québecois couldn’t stand to have a TLA based on English polluting their fast food drive-thru lanes. So in Québec, the Colonel smiles down from his PFK sign.

I was also surprised by how few English-speaking visitors come to Québec. 99% of the people I met in the hostels were either French, Belgian, or Québecois. I expected to see many more Americans (Montreal is only an hour from the border; four hours from Albany, New York) and Anglophone Canadians. But who can really blame them. English speakers are most definitely made to feel unwelcome. For example, the city of Montreal has gone through the trouble of erecting tourist information kiosks around the city. But they are entirely in French, with not a word of English on them. Hey, this is Canada guys!

Once you leave Montreal, you’re really on your own (good thing I’ve studied French for five years). In the countryside, absolutely everything is in French. I must add here that I’m not the xenophobic type, nor do I look for trouble. When I visited France a few years ago, I did not encounter any of the rudeness that many Americans report. I spoke French as much as I could (that being not very well) and tried to follow local customs, such as always greeting the shopkeeper upon arrival. I was more than happy to try and fit in with the local culture, and this is probably why I had all good experiences.

I felt differently in Québec, though. Probably because it all seemed so farcical. After all, this isn’t France. I saw it as a bunch of people pretending to be French; pretending so hard in fact that English has been completely banned from their land. But they’re only fooling themselves.