Gas isn't getting any cheaper, so now that you're back from the confusingly-named fields and stages of Bonnaroo, where Ben Folds retired his lush, hushed cover of Bitches Ain't Shit (see Fong Songs for a great live-from-Bonnaroo recording), it's time to start looking at a few festivals closer to home. For us, this means our own stomping grounds, here in the American Northeast. And for my money, there's no better festival around than the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, a four-day, four-stage extravaganza of music, dancing, and live music that takes place in Hillsdale, NY, on the last weekend in July.
Falcon Ridge tickets won't sell out for a while, but if you're like me, you're going to need some time to air out the camper and clear the calendar. Without further ado, then, here's a short feature on the festival itself, followed by some sweet covers from a few artists not to be missed.
Falcon Ridge Folk Festival isn't the biggest Northeast music festival, not by a long shot. The Falcon Ridge camping population hovers far under ten thousand; on a good year, total festival attendance doesn't rise much past fifteen thou. To me, this is a bonus. Where the bigger New England folk festivals such as Philly and Newport are often too crowded for me, Falcon Ridge is intimate, as festivals go, with a community feel that's rare for a major festival.
This intimacy is as much a product of design and business model as it is a function of size. The place is entirely volunteer run, which means about a tenth of the people there have more than just a visitor's stake in the place; the mood that results is relaxed and full of cheerfully shared ownership. There's a Family stage and a Dance tent, in addition to Mainstage and Workshop stages, plus the usual and plentiful booths and services that make any good festival a full-body experience; these spaces interact effectively, with room to move, and no sound spill from one stage to the next. The camping areas nestle right up against the grassy mainstage amphitheater; after hours, small-label and indie artist performances continue in privately owned tents up on the hill until dawn, where you can see mainstage artists in a makeshift coffeehouse setting.
Falcon Ridge is perfect for cover lovers, too. The best set at the festival is the annual two-hour tribute show, where as many as ten different artists and groups cram onto the workshop stage to perform the songs of a single artist in an in-the-round format; in years past, I've seen Beatles tributes, Dylan songs, and Guthrie tunes here, but no matter the tribute subject, the performers always have a great and infectious time. In fact, though the mainstage is plenty impressive, I spend the lion's share of my music-watching time at this small second stage, which features intimate performances from mainstage-caliber artists throughout the daylight hours -- most often in small groupings, which providing a rare opportunity to see two or three of your favorite folk artists play for, and with, each other.
Falcon Ridge celebrates their 20th anniversary this year, and to make it special, they've come up with a full set of festival favorites that span a broad definition of folk, from old-school folkies Janis Ian and Jack Hardy to up-and-comers Joe Crookston (heard recently on Songs:Illinois) and singer-songwriter-cellist Lindsay Mac (who does an amazing version of Bill Withers tune Use Me). Other crowdpleasers include a plethora of contradance bands, and the ever-popular folkrock bands Eddie from Ohio, Railroad Earth, The Strangelings, Lowen and Navarro, and Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams.
The core of the festival performance is singer-songwriter folk, of course, and this year's roster is impressive. Regular visitors to Cover Lay Down will find it familiar, too; we've previously featured a great many performers from this year's Falcon Ridge 20th anniversary extravaganza, including John Gorka, Eliza Gilkyson, Lori McKenna, Chris Smither, Dar Williams, and folk trio Red Molly, who first came together on-site. (Note: In order to tempt you into joining me on-site this year, archives for all these performers will remain open until the festival has passed us by.)
But such artists are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg; the Falcon Ridge roster is rich with talent. Later this week, in honor of their new album's June 24th official release date, I'll have two *exclusive* label-approved tracks from appalachian folkgrass quintet Crooked Still, who will appear at Falcon Ridge on Thursday this year. Today, we feature the coversongs of a few other great and often undersung performers who will grace the stage at this year's Falcon Ridge Folk Fest.
Though the songwriting talents of both male and female folksingers are increasingly touted with equal merit, for some reason, as a default mode of analysis, the folkworld tends to celebrate male musicians for their stringwork, while female singer-songwriters are known for their voice. Boston-based folk artist Patty Larkin has spent her career trying to challenge that curious bias, both as a solo artist and as a member of the short-lived quartet Four Bitchin' Babes, and she's got the chops to prove it: Larkin trained in Jazz guitar at the Berkeley College of Music, and her fretwork and picking style has been praised by many throughout her quarter-century of performance.
But Larkin's no one trick pony, either. Her songwriting is witty and wise, and she's got a perfect note of longing in her voice that can melt the coldest heart. Though she's drifted a bit label-wise, most recently landing at Vanguard, in the right production environment, her talents shine like a beacon. These two covers provide the perfect setting for this rare folk trifecta.
- Patty Larkin, Have A Little Faith In Me (orig. John Hiatt)
- Patty Larkin, Everybody's Talkin' (orig. Fred Neil)
My father took me to see appalachian dulcimer player and storyteller David Massengill way back in the eighties, at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA; it was one of my earliest experiences with folk, and it was, truly, a revelation. Massengill is best known in the folkworld for his role in starting the Greenwich Village cooperative which spawned the Fast Folk scene that revived folk music in the seventies and eighties; he hasn't been terribly prolific over his long career, but he is an amazing performer and songwriter in his own right, a culture vulture with a wry critical eye and a warm voice, full of humor and poignancy about everything from gritty urban immigrant life to vivid, fanciful dreamscapes in which tourists visit the New York sewers, Jesus escapes from a mental hospital, and history's greatest villains gather for a dinner party.
David Massengill will be performing at Falcon Ridge as part of a duo with fellow Fast Folk granddaddy Jack Hardy; here's two covers from him, plus Cover Lay Down fave Lucy Kaplansky doing a great rendition of one of his best.
- David Massengill, Crucifixion (orig. Phil Ochs)
- David Massengill, Hard Times Come Again No More (Stephen Foster)
- Lucy Kaplansky, My Name Joe (orig. David Massengill)
I recently discovered that Martin Sexton lives right around the corner from my sister-in-law, which makes sense only if you assume that such miraculous bluesfolk and that perfect mellow weight-of-years voice are best honed in the middle of absolute nowhere, Massachusetts. Sexton started off in the early nineties as a Bostonian busker, where he sold 20,000 copies of his demo out of his guitar case, but despite being named artist of the year by the National Academy of Songwriters way back in 1994, and, more recently, having one of his songs featured on Scrubs, this incredible songwriter and guitarist with the multi-octave jazz-infused vocal style remains just under the radar.
Though my favorite tunes from him are light and airy as a Leo Kottke tune, despite his rural residence, Sexton can play it up funky and fast, too, with a catchy urban sensibility that's off the charts. And he's just incredible live. While we wait for his next album to go platinum, here's both sides of Martin: a delicate live version of Amazing Grace worthy of Jeff Buckley's dreamiest, and a bass-heavy high-production take on Billy Preston's infamous Will It Go Round In Circles. Plus a great Christmas tune, just for the hell of it.
- Martin Sexton, Amazing Grace (John Newton)
- Martin Sexton, Will It Go Round In Circles (orig. Billy Preston)
- Martin Sexton, Have A Holly Jolly Christmas (orig. Burl Ives)
It took me a while to get into the nasal, warbly, oddly Nordic vocal harmonies of local authors, folk teachers, and singer-songwriter duo Nerissa and Katryna Nields. But most people who like their unique sound really like their sound, and I can see why: the sisters, who first began playing Falcon Ridge years ago as part of folk rock group The Nields, write surprisingly poignant, deeply intelligent tunes about the weirdest subjects, and perform them with bouncy spunk and aplomb and a surprising tenderness. Plus, there's something about any sibling pair singing harmony that just melds perfectly. Here's a cover of and a cover by the Nields, the better to showcase both their songwriting and their performance. PS: Don't miss their kid's stage set.
- Cry Cry Cry, I Know What Kind Of Love This Is (orig. The Nields)
- The Nields, Black Boys on Mopeds (orig. Sinead O'Connor)
Want in? Tickets for Falcon Ridge are available through the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival website; if you're camping, act soon, because four day camping passes invariably sell out a few weeks before the gates open. If you'd like to attend totally free, come volunteer* -- we're always looking for a few more folks willing to help out! A few hours of generally enjoyable teamwork each day gets you free music, free food throughout the festival, access to great camping spots, and that feeling that comes from being a part of something wonderful. Contact Volunteer Coordinator Barbara Jesse for more.
*Full Disclosure: I'm Teen Crew Chief at Falcon Ridge, in charge of our "officer's candidate school for future volunteers." If you see a guy with a walkie-talkie leading a bunch of kids in matching shirts around the festival grounds, come on over and say hi -- I'd love to meet you!
Today's bonus coversongs are a bit ragged, but I couldn't resist: they were recorded in 2005 at the annual Sunday morning Falcon Ridge Gospel Wake-up Call -- another of my favorite Falcon Ridge traditions -- and everyone who is singing here will be at this year's festival, as well. Add a warm and sunny summer morning, a great spot on the hill, and that feeling of community that can only come from having woken up in a field full of cool people you love, and you're practically there.
- Eddie From Ohio/Lowen and Navarro, Get Together (orig. Jesse Colin Young)
- Eddie From Ohio/Lowen and Navarro/The Kennedys, People Get Ready (orig. Curtis Mayfield)