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Old Songs Festival

ALTAMONT FAIRGROUNDS, JUNE 22

by Glenn Weiser on June 28, 2012 · 2 comments

This year, Old Songs picked the Mayan calendar to put on its commemorative festival T-shirts. The choice of the ancient circular bas-relief, which some say predicts global doom by fixing the end of time at this year’s winter solstice, proved to be a little too prophetic: Due to logistical problems, the three-day concert almost didn’t take place, and its director, Andy Spence, who has done so much to bring us fine folk music over the years, narrowly escaped serious injury from a head-on automobile collision earlier this month. Fortunately for the thousands of attendees, the 32nd annual event came off smoothly and maintained its high standard.

On Saturday morning and afternoon, the performers held their usual workshops on several stages spread over the fairgrounds. The first of the these I took in was a blues clinic at 12:30 at the Sheep Barn featuring Mulebone, Brother Sun, Eleanor Ellis and Ken Whiteley. Whiteley, a hugely talented Canadian singer-guitarist, was joined by some of the other performers on “Sooner or Later, Everybody Has the Blues.” John Rasuga of Mulebone played a honking solo on the pocket trumpet and Whiteley flashed tasty single-note chops on his 12-string. Eleanor Ellis’ voice was clear and strong on Willie Brown’s “Broke and Hungry,” as Whiteley chimed in with a Yank Rachel-style mandolin solo and Mulebone’s Hugh Pool blew harp behind her steady guitar fingerpicking. Brother Sun, a trio led by guitarist Pat Witchtor, sang in gorgeous three-part harmony on a slow burner with the memorable lyric, “Everybody crying for mercy, but they don’t know the meaning of the word.”

Next, at the Dutch Barn, Celtic harper Patrick Ball performed a set of Irish music and storytelling. He opened up promisingly with the haunting air “O’Carolan’s Welcome,” but he spent the bulk of his time on a long, albeit well-told, tale of a group of islands off of Country Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula whose inhabitants had to abandon in 1953 owing to the difficulty of getting supplies from the mainland over the rough Atlantic waters. He only played three tunes during his hour, though, given the scarcity of good harpers, I would have preferred more melody and less blarney.

The festival’s most unique performer was a huge, gaudy contraption: the Gavoli Fairground Carousel, an 89-key combination of a pipe organ and brass band built in Paris in 1897 and operated from punch cards in the manner of a player piano. The instrument’s gilded white façade, festooned with ranks of pipes, drums, cymbals, a xylophone, and painted wooden figurines, captured my gaze as it blared forth circus-like and deservedly forgotten Victorian-era compositions. Eventually, its owner, Roger Wiegand of Wayland, Mass., treated the gawking onlookers to a Sousa march and “Over the Waves.”

Larry Hanks and Deborah Robins, a duo of singer-guitarists, opened the five-hour Saturday evening concert at 7 PM. During their five-song set, they performed a tasty version of Jimmy Rogers’ “Miss the Mississippi and You,” to which Hanks contributed lovely jazz-tinged backup, and an a cappella rendition of Bessie Jones’ Georgia Sea Islands classic, “Turtle Dove.” But the standout was Utah Phillips’ “Orphan Train,” a heart-wrenching song about the westbound trains that took a quarter-million orphaned, homeless and abandoned children away from the Eastern cities from 1854 to 1929 in hopes of finding them homes.

Archie Fisher, the grand old man of the Scottish folk scene, sang in a deep, weathered voice as he artfully fingerpicked his guitar. “Bonnie Border Lass,” like many of his originals, was filled with bright images of nature and romance, and his characteristic descending chord lines soothed the mind as the story line unwound. He also performed the famous Child ballad, “The Great Silkie,” which tells of a shape-shifting seal who comes ashore, assumes the form of a man, and accomplishes the less than supernatural feat of knocking up a fair young maiden.

Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer were a delight with their multi-instrumental prowess. Fink is a champion clawhammer banjoist who, backed by Marxer on guitar, opened their set on her 5-string with the fiddle tune “The Mason’s Apron.” Switching to duet ukuleles, they played gypsy-jazz-great Django Rheinhart’s version of “Dark Eyes.” First Marxer soloed with fluid single note lines, and then Fink played a skillful chord-melody setting of the tune. Finally, joined by several other performers, they sang a moving rendition of the folk anthem “How Can I Keep From Singing.”

Old Songs was well worth the drive from Maine I made for this review. Let’s hope the festival continues to enthrall us with its fabulous musical offerings for many years to come.

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