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Word X Word Festival

by Jeremy D. Goodwin on August 24, 2011

COLONIAL THEATRE, PITTSFIELD, MASS., AUG. 20

Pittsfield’s Word X Word Festival offers a pretty soft sell. It lives not by big names but by a concept—and a concept that’s a little hard to explain to begin with. Founder Jim Benson’s pitch is essentially that people should check out the myriad events (mostly free) during the weeklong shindig—featuring performance poets and other writers, in-between a raft of brainy songwriters—and be surprised. And so the ticket for the closing-night show at the Colonial last weekend reads “Word X Word Finale,” with no mention of the acts on hand. It was no secret who was playing, but that wasn’t the point.

This third incarnation of the ever-more-ambitious festival did include a few bigger names, however. Jay Farrar slummed it in an intimate, 150-person loft show, and John Wesley Harding—billed under his given name, Wesley Stace, under which he’s published three novels—gave a hugely enjoyable reading and mini-performance in a barber shop. [Editor’s note: This review’s author contributed to the festival’s programming with The Battle of Egremont on the New Stage.]

The closing concert at the Colonial Theatre offered a triple bill featuring budding Australian guitar goddess Mia Dyson, two-time slam poetry world champion Buddy Wakefield, and Boston six-piece Kingsley Flood, who captured the 2010 Boston Music Award for best new artist.

The most obvious comparison prompted by Dyson’s set is to Bonnie Raitt, though more for Dyson’s cigarette-and-heartbreak-pocked lead vocals than her particular presence on guitar. She and her backing trio offered an only vaguely blues-inspired set of gritty but eminently accessible rock music, paced by Dyson’s rhythm guitar (she took only two or three solos) and a set of original tunes mining familiar blues tropes. “People Turn on You” was a rave-up of much greater intensity than its studio incarnation, with Dyson’s snappy, strummed guitar figure reminding of Keith Richards. The set peaked with an absolutely gorgeous encore cover of Little Feat’s “Willin’” that made plain Dyson’s talents, even if she was a bit undersupported by her merely adequate sidemen.

Buddy Wakefield was introduced by festival poetry curator (himself a much-decorated slam poet) Taylor Mali as “the best we have,” and struggled a bit under that expectation. He was (it seemed) effortlessly funny from the outset, but repeatedly insisted he was having an off night, detracting a bit from his impact. Wakefield’s balancing act between improv and prepared material, between-poem banter and performance, made the whole thing seem a hunk of fascinating performance art. Offering deeply personal reflections on love, sex and regret, he frequently changed pace mid-piece, shuffling tempos as if to hit the audience with a right hook when its guard was down. “Convenience Stores,” delivered straight as a can’t-miss closer, packed the most punch.

Openers Kingsley Flood provided a very pleasing set of beer-soaked burlap rock, with hints of Americana and country flavoring what was essentially a high-energy rock & roll show. Frontman Naseem Khuri belted out a series of attractive melodies, alongside the energetic Jenée Morgan, who at one point induced some wild sounds from her violin as she slid her hand up and down the neck. Utility man Chris Barrett was particularly effective, alternating between trumpet, keyboard and percussion, and once walking halfway up an aisle of the Colonial and across a row of seats in the middle of a trumpet solo. “I Don’t Wanna Go Home” featured a barrelhouse chorus and a bright horn theme, cutting no corners on its direct path to anthemic theater-rock.

The connecting thread between the three acts? Hard to pin down. But almost all of the surprises were good.