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By Glenn Weiser

Old Songs Festival

Altamont Fairgrounds, June 22-24

Green Grow the Rushes, O,” a love song by the 19th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, was once so popular that Mexican troops fighting the U.S. Army in the Mexican War of 1848 corrupted the title of the song, which they often heard American troops singing, to gave us the nickname “gringo.” But where could you hear this Burns gem performed locally today? Well, Enoch Kent, a Scottish-Canadian octogenarian, sang a heartfelt rendition of it at the 27th Old Songs Festival in Altamont last weekend, underscoring the importance of the Voorheesville-based organization’s mission to preserve folk-music traditions through its annual three-day event at the end of June. This year’s slate of acoustic blues, British ballads, Celtic, Cajun, old-time string-band music and more drew around 3,000 or so fans, and musically was as good as ever.

Having been on the bill last year as half of the Celtic duo Byrnse and Barrett, I returned this time to review Saturday and Sunday’s music, which consisted of workshops and smaller performances at more than a half-dozen locations within the fairgrounds, and a closing concert on the main stage at the end of each day (there was also a Friday evening concert, which I didn’t attend). While I couldn’t take in everything, I did manage to hear a representative sampling of performers.

At 11:15 AM Saturday on the Main Stage was Bodega, an energetic band of young Scots on harp, guitar, fiddle, bagpipes, and a djembe added for an African flavor. That worked well enough, but when the band jammed a reel (a 4/4-time dance tune) into a 6/8 work song as an instrumental it seemed contrived.

In the Sheep Barn at 12:30, three duos—Magpie, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, and Ellie Ellis and Ron Gordon—served up some tasty blues. The technically brilliant harmonica player Annie Raines, however, repeatedly committed musical plagiarism by taking entire solos note-for-note from both Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter and inserting them into other songs without attribution (ironically, one song she borrowed from later was Little Walter’s “You Know It Ain’t Right”). Later, mandolinist Ron Gordon contributed a rippling solo to his and Ellis’ version of “Texas Easy Street.”

Next was a concertina consortium at Area 3 in which a half-dozen squeeze box players, including British bards John Roberts and the incomparable Louis Killen, recounted the history of the instrument, reminisced about collecting them in the early days of the English folk revival (guitars and banjos were at the time rejected as inauthentic by many folkies there), and performed tunes and songs, including Killen’s reflective arrangement of the Aussie anthem “Waltzing Matilda.”

The following act, the Magnolia Sisters, was a fine, all-woman Cajun band from Louisiana consisting of a fiddler, button accordionist, guitarist, and triangle player. They performed waltzes including the standout “Blue Eyes,” two-steps, and songs in French with excellent close-harmony duet singing by the guitarist and accordionist.

Back at the Main Stage at 4:15, it was Malinese musician Mamadou Diabate and his ensemble, consisting of sidemen on a marimba-like instrument called a balaphon, a cajón (or Spanish percussion box), and a bass guitar. Diabate himself pays the kora, a harp-like instrument capable of producing fast, cascading melodic runs. The band delivered a hypnotically atmospheric set in which the kora and balaphon wafted over the cajón and the bass’ simple harmonic lines.

Among the highlights of the evening concert, emceed by folkmeister Michael Cooney, was the singing trio of Herdman, Hills and Mangsen, who harmonized superbly on a musical setting of James Whitcomb Riley’s famous 1885 poem, “Little Orphant Annie.” Finest Kind, another vocal trio, sang a three-part cappella arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” in which the harmonies were a-changin’ in each well-crafted verse. Lastly, local pickers the Whippersnappers shined on a heart-melting double-fiddle-and- guitar rendition of the Shetland slow air, “The Old Resting Chair.”

Sunday saw the performers regrouped in various workshops—Fiddle Styles, which ranged from Klezmer to Celtic to jazz, and the Far Flung Colonials session, an Anglo-Saxon hootenanny, were memorable—before the seven-act finale at 3:30 PM, featuring among others slide-guitarist/songwriter Pat Wictor, zesty New Zealand traditional singer Danny Spooner, and our local old-time outfit, the Stillhouse Rounders, led by Mark Schmidt, a former student of North Carolina fiddle legend Tommy Jarrell. Fans of folk and acoustic music who missed Old Songs this time will want to be there next year.

A Spectacular Spectacular

Cirque de Soleil’s Delirium

Times Union Center, June 19

“Who are all these people?” asked the Guide (Guy Laiberte) as he peered at the audience from the stage. Nearly blinded by the starburst footlights, a fellow cast member answered: “I don’t know; it’s your dream.” And so commenced Delirium, Cirque Du Soleil’s aptly tagged “delirious sensual folly.” At the Times Union Center, the gigundo production (one of Cirque’s two touring arena shows) incorporated dozens of circus performers, dancers, musicians, and gymnasts (some of them former Olympians) to create a fantasy travelogue through unfettered physical realities.

Flanked by two giant video monitors that alternated between capturing the onstage action and augmenting it with images, the dream began, apparently, in a tenement building (video tenants opened and closed their doors), before soaring and sailing to parts unknown. Early on, a large dome seemed to represent a space module; later, when it was surrounded by African dancers, it appeared to be a sand dune, but when the dancers began to beat on it, it revealed itself as a mammoth drum.

A greatest-hits show of sorts, Delirium is composed of 20 of Cirque’s most popular “musical tableaux,” remixed and pumped up with tribal and urban beats. It’s also the first production to add lyrics (by Robbie Dillon) and singers to its original music. The songs were conventional-style pop songs sung with throaty ardor by three dramatic vocalists, with “Birimbau,” an Afro-Cuban number, being the most infectious. But the vocal turns were probably the least amazing element of Delirium, simply because everything else was so astonishing. The costuming was inexhaustibly brilliant; at one point, what looked to be giant seedpods dangling from the rafters opened up like flower buds to release upside-down aerialists whose headdresses wriggled like electrified tendrils.

As the show subtly morphed to different regions of the imagination, some of the musicians were given the spotlight—atop barges that sailed across the stage through the air, seemingly powered by nothing beside the coaxing motions of their legs. One barge flipped over—with the horn player still affixed to the deck. Whatever wire-work or hydraulic engineering made these surrealist feats possible, it sure wasn’t visible to the untrained eye.

The mischievous guide was sometimes bedeviled by a dandyish stilt-walker who spoke in “Cirqese,” the troupe’s made-up dialect, which sounds like a cross between a barking Pekinese and the exclamation of stubbing a toe (“ow ow ow”). The other circus acts included a phalanx of gymnasts who melted into kaleidoscopic formations, and balletic trapeze artists. Cirque productions include not only a supremely gifted choreographer, but also a researcher-designer of “acrobatic language,” and it was this language that elevated the show into the realm of the uniquely fantastical. Yet the evening’s brightest star was (arguably) a solo hoop dancer (Karen Bernal from Mexico) whose skill was mind-blowing. While spinning hoops from her foot, with leg at full extension, and simultaneously spinning several more hoops from her upraised arms, and then undulating them at high speed to other parts of her body, she still managed to radiate a joyful aura that outshone even the lit-neon colors of the hot-air balloons that would rise and set like Martian moons.

“Whew, I’m glad this is just a dream, it’s really weird,” said the guide as a conclusion. His words inspired the cast to spill out into the audience and send balloons wafting above about the seats, as if to prove that the dream-like production was, in fact, real. And what a wonderful weirdness it was.

—Ann Morrow


PHOTO: Martin Benjamin

Jazzin’

The one and only Reverend Al Green headlined the Sunday lineup at last weekend’s Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. To celebrate the festival’s 30th year, two alumni from the 1978 debut—George Benson and Jean-Luc Ponty—were on hand to perform at the annual, two-day celebration. Other acts paid tribute to ’78 performers who have since passed, including Trio Beyond, who saluted the late Tony Williams, and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars (self-explanatory). Reports on Green’s set were mixed—some complained that he let the crowd do more singing than he did—but we here at Metroland are of the mind that any Al is good Al.

 


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