Smile Politely

Folk & Roots: In review

For the majority of the Folk & Roots festival last year, Cody Caudill and I stood outside the Iron Post entreating passers-by to play a song for a project of ours called Prairie Hymnal. We successfully video-recorded ten sessions that day and the musical diversity and quality of those who played for us has had a lasting impact. In those sessions, I discovered people whose interest for playing and perfecting their craft was not motivated by the audiences that music had the potential for creating. By and large, the musicians who stopped in were just attendees at the festival interested in participating in a musical community. This participation model is in stark contrast to the common consumer-based festival model, and can be felt at all levels of the Champaign-Urbana Folk & Roots Festival, from the performers on down. I can think of at least four of those ten folks whom I’ve seen several times in the year since — friends now because of the reciprocity of a shared and mutually-beneficial community act.

Not surprisingly, and though my focus needed to shift this year from attendees to the artists, I found this same generous spirit of community at the festival last weekend. I found it in volunteers and venues hosting the festival; I found it in the special activities — especially the presentation on Carl Sandburg that featured local musical talent and a poetry reading from local poets, including the amazing Janice Harrington. I found it in workshops given by my favorite musicians at the festival the day after their appearances on the stage: Red Tail Ring did a workshop on arranging old tunes and Robbie Fulks did an hour on playing fiddle tunes on the guitar. I found it everywhere I turned.

As usual, the festival offered up a wide palet of listening. There were several “traditional” string bands playing — The Freight Hoppers, being the standout among them. But there was also some terrific eclecticism. Chicago’s Devil in a Woodpile, who played a late, off-mic set late on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl, are an accomplished, jazz/blues trio who play 80-year-old songs and manage to make them sound absolutely fresh. Folks were dancing and lead-man Rick “Cookin'” Sherry was playing his washboard like it was a full-sized drumkit. Then Sherry pulled out a clarinet and started playing the old jazz standard “Louisiana Fairytale.” The timing and contrast of that against the other stuff with the sweet tone of that clarinet was perfect.

I also caught a few tunes from Canada’s Tequila Mockingbird Orchestra (who played at nearly exactly the same time as Woodpile). It’s hard to listen to bands like this and not think that there are a million Mumford & Sons fans who are missing out on something slightly similar, but oh-so-much more rich than anything that the beloved UK boys are capable of. TMO jumped from one style of music to another and often pushed several together into the same tune. They charmed the large crowd with beautiful multi-part harmonies, driving up-beat barn-stormers, and and accordion player with one of the only respectable head of dreads I’ve ever seen on a white guy.

Day 1 in photos:Red Tail RingCampfire Singalong/JamCampfire Singalong/JamRobbie FulksNew Old CavlaryNew Old Calvary

One of my early critiques of the festival was the fact that so many of the headliners were repeats from previous years. But, it occurred to me that having folks back is in the same spirit of community that I mentioned earlier. It helps that Blind Boy Paxton, Robbie Fulks, and Red Tail Ring (all returning artists) are wonderful. I’d be happy to see them in town at this festival every year. Paxton played two sets, the one I caught was in a standing-room-only crowd at the Iron Post. He spent most of the set at the piano alternating between old jazz ballads and blues tunes with his guest harmonica player Brandon Bailey sitting in when the blues rolled out. Every single one of Blind Boy Paxton’s tunes had a punchline. Every minute of his set was entertaining. The same could be said, actually, about Chicago artist Robbie Fulks — the dude is funny and commands his large audience with both his wit and his truly virtuosic playing. Something about the mixture of humor and artistry satisfies both the heart and the mind — and it doesn’t hurt that his bandmates are equally talented. Fulks was my favorite discovery this year, but I’m pretty much the last person to that party. He plays again here in Champaign at the first of December and I will be there.

Finally, a few words about Red Tail Ring. As expected, the Michigan duo (Michael Beauchamp and Laurel Premo) were lovely. They played a mixture of original and traditional songs. Laurel played a mean jaw harp on an arrangement of “The Cuckoo.” Michael bowled me over with his song “Stone Song.” They were graceful and professional even though sound issues plagued their set. I’m drawn to bands like Red Tail Ring for a hundred reasons, but perhaps foremost because their earnestness isn’t a put-on. It’s clear that they love the music they play — there is no pretention — and what’s more, they see that music as inseparable with the sustainability of a healthy community. Both are active in causes important to them. And, really, that was my experience all weekend: folks active in a cause important to them. Community folk festivals are about community values — but no one is really trumpeting that. There is no preaching or politicking. Instead the values of the community are imbued in every aspect of the event. It would be there even if the festival wasn’t — the music just becomes an apt way to celebrate and nurture those values together.

Day 2 in photos:Blind Boy PaxtonTequila Mockingbird OrchestraTequila Mockingbird OrchestraTequila Mockingbird Orchestra

All photos courtesy of Sean O’Connor.

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