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Once upon a time in Saratoga: the Swell Season.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Festive Times

By Kirsten Ferguson

Saratoga Music Festival

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Aug. 17

There weren’t too many surprises at Sunday’s inaugural Saratoga Music Festival at SPAC, other than maybe the weather, which was surprisingly storm-free. Headliner Bob Dylan, dressed in the bolo tie, wide-brimmed Zorro hat and black suit he’s been rocking for much of this decade, turned in a set fairly consistent with the shows he has been playing lately: older classics like “Desolation Row” rearranged in vastly different and sometimes confounding ways, his troupe of matching-suited session players cutting a somewhat mysterious, roadhouse-on-the-edge-of-the-world presence, while the singer himself swayed his knees to the beat behind his keyboard but said very little to the audience.

The all-day event, which organizers hope to make an annual occasion, ran smoothly, with the focus falling solidly on the music and day’s lineup of well-chosen acts. Aside from a small clutch of craft vendors, there were few of the multimedia distractions and corporate promotions that crowd most music festivals these days, and until Dylan’s set approached as darkness came, the audience was attuned to the music and manageable in size (i.e., the lines in the beer tent weren’t ridiculously long).

If there was a musical common thread to the six acts that preceded Dylan, it was roots rock in its many variations. Raul Malo, former lead singer of country band the Mavericks, opened the festival at about 2:30 PM. A burly guy with a shaven head, black sunglasses and a powerful voice, Malo belted out lovelorn laments over his own twangy guitar and the energetic, south-of-the-border horn stylings of his youthful band, the festive Latin rhythms spicing up Malo’s otherwise fairly traditional honky-tonk blues. “That’s what Los Lobos wants to be late at night,” said a beer-tent patron after Malo’s set finished.

Steve Earle—the beard and shaggy hair making him instantly recognizable even from afar—tossed a Frisbee to his black dog just outside the amphitheater as Gillian Welch and her longtime musical partner David Rawlings gave the day’s second performance: a too-short set for a still-smallish crowd that greeted their sparse country-bluegrass with downright adulation. It was well deserved. Rawlings and Welch, who looked the part of a prairie pioneer in her long gingham dress, sounded stunning on songs like “No One Knows My Name” and “Revelator” and several new tunes. Even Welch announcing her intent to depress—“I’m going to play one guaranteed to bring you right down”—elicited cheers from the crowd, who demanded an encore, unexpected for so early in the afternoon.

Following Welch, Steve Earle started off alone onstage, for a touching version of “Goodbye,” but was soon joined by a DJ, who backed him with a beat. I can’t say it worked exactly; personally, I never got over the incongruity of Earle (whose wife, singer Alison Moorer, also accompanied him for a few tracks) singing over the artificial beats and occasional scratching. Earle regained his stride when he got political on “City of Immigrants” and the moving “Jerusalem,” which closed the set, but here’s to hoping that Earle’s accompaniment by turntables is just a phase.

The best surprise of the day was the set by Conor Oberst and his newish ensemble, the Mystic Valley Band, who just plain rocked. Previously unconvinced about Oberst and his band Bright Eyes, I found his show at SPAC to be really enjoyable and full of heart, from the clever wordplay of “Cape Canaveral” to his rollicking take on the old blues standard “Corina, Corina.” After that, the Swell Season, which featured Irish singer Glen Hansard, known most recently for his performance in the hit indie movie Once, was a bit of a disappointment. Hansard veered dangerously close to prima donna territory while complaining about the sound, and he achieved the most unintentionally ironic moment of the festival with his song, “Happiness,” which featured a weeping violin and extorted the listener to “go away with happiness” while sounding like the least uplifting song ever heard.

Warming up the late-arriving crowd for Dylan’s final set, the Levon Helm Band achieved the collaborative spirit that the day’s roster of talent-heavy acts was crying out for: When Earle, members of Swell Season, Welch and Rawlings joined bluesman Sammy Davis onstage with Helm’s large crew for a joyous run through the Band’s “The Weight,” it was the highlight of the day.

Small Talk

Rufus Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche

The Egg, Aug. 16

Rufus Wainwright’s appearance at the Egg in 2003 continued my admiration for his music, but tempered it with formidable annoyance at his between-song patter. So it was with some trepidation that I entered the oval realm last Saturday. But my curiosity in hearing him perform solo is what drew me there despite my reservations. Wainwright’s songs are composed with alluring layers of harmonic movement, and always seemed to have been built for ensemble performance. His love of operatic gesture and cinematic sweep makes him as far removed from the prototypical troubadour as an astronaut.

With five albums of his own material to draw from and no new disc to promote (Release the Stars is more than a year old at this point), Wainwright was in a position to wander through his catalog. He has managed to deliver on the promise of his audacious debut a decade ago, bringing forth a continuous stream of notable works (though none can ever equal the startling jolt of that introduction). “Beauty Mark,” “Danny Boy,” “April Fools,” and “Millbrook” were joined by “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” (from his sophomore release, Poses), as what can reasonably be called his “early classics” (and from a man now just in his mid-30s). Omissions are inevitable when you can get only 22 songs into the night, and most everyone in the nearly full house would have had their own short list of what they’d wished he played. (I’d have liked “Grey Gardens”; my daughter wanted “Foolish Love.”)

Wainwright’s primary instrument is the piano, and he sat center stage at a grand with its top raised. He also played about a third of the songs on acoustic guitar, and while this did allow for a bit of movement and the chance for him to face the audience, he is far less proficient on it. He capably strummed his way through the tunes, but without any of the playful filigree he brought to the keyboard. He was singing fine, even apologizing for having lost his voice when last on the Egg’s stage.

The welcome change for me was his more succinct approach to talking. His previous visit found him basking in adoration, which allowed him to be not only toweringly full of himself, but also seemingly incapable of understanding the shape and dynamics of a well-told anecdote. This time it worked. Perhaps it’s simple maturation, or maybe it’s from having studied the subtle shadings of Judy Garland’s famous Carnegie Hall concert (which he re-created a couple years ago). Also, he may have benefited from being the only one on stage—there weren’t band members standing and waiting while he spoke. Rufus still unashamedly loves Rufus and doesn’t hesitate to say so (“All of my albums are equally brilliant!”), but he now delivers with a sly dose of self- deprecating familiarity.

Opening was Rufus’s half-sister, Lucy Wainwright Roche (daughter of Loudon Wainwright III and Suzzy Roche). Older than Rufus and Martha were when they started, she doesn’t have the artistic core of either of them. She delivered a pleasant but unremarkable set, with her presence depending far too heavily on her family names.

—David Greenberger


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