A record 190,000 people swarmed the Richmond riverfront this past weekend to indulge in what has become a singular, city-defining event — the Richmond Folk Festival. Once again, downtown visitors were treated to a dazzling -- nearly overwhelming -- array of musical performers, from world-renowned instrumentalists to hometown heroes (To see a slideshow of photos from this year's show, click here.)
We asked a few Style Weekly editors and music writers to weigh in on this year's festival and here's what they had to say.
This was, to me, the sexiest festival yet, especially the late-night party Saturday at the Doubletree, where the performers stayed up until the wee hours making crazy fusion music -- blues guitar with Persian vocals, horns with kick-boxing, and super-hot dancing from an international cast of characters, some of whom don't remember a thing and might still be looking for their shirts.
Once again the folk festival proved to be the best downtown event of the year -- or at least the one that makes the city look the most likeable. Here are some observations:
- Many people seemed to be there largely to enjoy the food, considering the diversity of vendors and the fact that everyone who didn't have a beer or wine was stuffing their face with something else. Lines moved well and volunteers did a nice job directing traffic and helping to keep trash in the right place.
It felt like the most crowded festival yet, so those luxury baby strollers every four feet didn't help. Nothing against helpless babies, but if your child is old enough to ride a bike, they shouldn't be in a stroller. Just sayin'.
- This was the year where visitors could only catch the tail end of one band's set because another band was playing at the same time. One habit to learn from this: You really need to plan ahead for this particular festival and come with a strategy. Drifting around hoping to catch a surprise performance doesn't work so well with such a large crowd.
More than 190,000 people attended the 3rd Annual Richmond Folk Festival.- The most transcendent performances I saw came early. Friday night at the MWV Stage was the heavenly matching of Zakir Hussain (sadly his only gig) followed by Ensemble Shanbehzadeh, who enthralled the audience with soulful and exotic performance of wild Bushehri music. Yes, the frontman did look like he was making love to a stuffed pig -- his double-reed bagpipe was in a furry pink satchellike thing -- but so what? Not only was the music hypnotically awesome, but also the crowd's joyous reaction was a beautiful thing, a had-to-be-there moment.
- Memorable quote from leader Saied Shanbehzadeh that brought the house down: “We will let the music talk. We are not the ones who go to United Nations to kill. … I love Israel, I love America, I love all the countries and peoples of the world!” [insert massive cheering here].
- Another defining moment for me were the simple and effective folk ballads performed by the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band on the Altria stage during the day on Saturday, his closer, “Don't Ask Me Why” (off his new album) was a gorgeous and heartfelt love song, the kind you don't hear on the radio anymore.
Of course, there were lots more snippets and songs from different performers that stood out: the crazy high salsa energy of La Excelencia (with Bio Ritmo's bassist Eddie Prendergast sitting in Sunday); as well as some nutty “eefin'” from Deke Dickerson, and an amazing tour of Eastern European music by Otrov.
Donald Harrison and the Congo Square Nation brought a tuneful slice of the Crescent City to Richmond's downtown waterfront.Highpoints:
- I missed Donald Harrison's opening, which may have been a good thing since he started off with smooth jazz sax before morphing into a New Orleans R&B vocalist. The end of the show was energetic and entertaining.
- Boukman Eksperians was amazing ... charismatic and high-energy. Haitian music has a touch of reggae and a lot of African influence. Between the multilayered vocals, electric guitar, drums and flying dreadlocks it was like being at some alternate universe Bob Marley concert. Getting a Richmond audience to dance to Voodoo-inspired music is no small feat.
- La Excelencia also kicked ass, but you needed steel-toed shoes to stay on the dance floor at its Friday evening show. The audience had a chance to have a beer or two in the long break before the show started. Nevertheless, a salsa mosh pit may be an innovation.
- The talks are always a highpoint, and the panel with Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Los Texmaniacs, the salsa drummers and the Missouri violinist was no exception. The unplanned ensemble pieces at the end are always interesting.
- The quieter bits ... Sibirskaya Vechora for example, or the Nat Reese-Phil Wiggins Coal Camp Blues show, served as fine between-act breaks. But I didn't envy Andes Manta having to follow the No BS Brass Band's boisterous and enthusiastic show in front of a stuffed-to-overflowing tent on Sunday afternoon.
- At the Richmond Folk Festival, there is so much going on, all the time, that it is next to impossible to see everything you want to -- which is a good thing. The only semicomplaint: The scheduling that resulted in almost everything shutting down for an hour early Saturday evening. There may be a logistical reason for this, but the most apparent effect was to make the food lines incredibly long, and create a lull where the energy should have been building -- not that any of this was noticeable when the music started again.
Use any gauge you want -- high turnout, perfect weather, engaging entertainment -- the third annual Richmond Folk Festival was a raging success. Thousands flocked to Richmond's downtown to hear music ranging from obscure religious hymns to blistering blues rock to pan pipe music from the Andes to the haunting sounds made by the Hardanger fiddle. [Disclaimer: the writer is a member of the festival's programming committee]
While bluegrass legend Peter Rowan opened up the festival on the Altria Stage on Friday (Rowan was a consistent source of delight throughout the weekend), Zakir Hussain took the spotlight for his only festival appearance on the other side, at the MWV Stage. At first, I wondered if the amazing crowds seen on the first night would mar the actual music on display -- I had to move several times to find a seat far enough away from the chatting class in the back to actually hear the music. Hussain was having his own problems with the sound mix and the crowd -- "I'll tell you when to clap," he said good-naturedly -- but he offered up a masterful set that rewarded the listener's attention. It should be noted, too, that Hussain's ace accompanist, Kala Ramnath, provided exquisite violin throughout the appearance.
La Excelencia was a huge hit, worthy of every bit of the advance hype (FYI: Josh Kohn's job as festival booker is still secure). The New York-based salsa band whipped the RT-D Dance Pavilion crowd up into a frenzy with its brassy, intricately rhythmic stage show. And when band members were done, they marched to the middle of the dance floor and continued the party there. I've never seen so many sweaty happy people, all with their figurative jaws resting on the floor.
Another crowd favorite: The hypnotic and erotic Persian trance music of Ensemble Shanbehzadeh. Bandleader Saied Shanbehzadeh played the most amazing instrument -- a huge, pink double-reed bagpipe that he also used (creatively) as a prop. Very occasionally he would put his ax down and take his shirt off and embark on a terrific and infectious dance. He was accompanied by his son Naghid on the tombak, a Persian goblet drum, and another percussionist, Habib Meftah Boushehri. I could have listened to this group for hours.
Haiti's Boukman Eksperyans also tore up the stage with its fiery, off-kilter dance music, which mixed up reggae, rock and Caribbean music into an Afro-Cuban vibe. One of their jams was so infectious that I carried it with me throughout the weekend as my own little theme song. I've got to find that song.
I managed to catch the second half of Lil' Ed and the Imperials set at the Dance Pavilion and got to see the Fez-Headed wonder barrel through some muscular blues. Deke Dickerson and the Ecco-Fonics also did not disappoint, transfixing crowds with their high-energy take on rockabilly and hillbilly music. Crowds at the RT-D Dance Pavilion greatly enjoyed Deke's observations on Richmond's tattoo fixation.
It wasn't just about the music, visitors were also treated to workshops on crafts and Virginia traditions.Dickerson also helped to make Sunday's “Virginia Rocks” show on the Altria Stage a huge success; he and his crack band accompanied Virginia rockabilly legends Russell Willeford (from Gene Vincent's Blue Caps) and Vic Mizelle (from Richmond's Rock-A-Teens). Both of the veteran rockers stunned the crowd with their vitality — we should all be so elderly. Lynchburg's the Dazzlers — one of the few '50s rockabilly bands that still perform with their original members -- also made the crowd jump and pump with electrifying versions of their souped-up originals along with well-chosen covers. And thanks to everyone who came out to the fun “Rockabilly Conversations” workshop later in the afternoon on the Martin's stage.
Slowing things down a little, I enjoyed the Sand Mountain Sacred Harp Singers on the Dominion Stage on Saturday, but had to agree with those listeners who thought the choir's stage sound was a bit weak. It was only when I had the chance to hear this interesting set of singers up close and personal in front of the stage did I experience the full power of the amazing fa-so-la vocal stylings -- it may have sounded like alien music from another country but shape note singing is actually one of America's earliest indigenous musical forms.
It took a while for Donald Harrison and the Congo Square Nation to get revved up -- the New Orleans band's first few numbers sounded a bit like the music you'd hear on the Weather Channel — but when Harrison and Co. began to explore classic New Orleans rhythms and song forms (here's to “Iko Iko”), the music was masterful and filled with catharsis. And, yes, it does help to have colorful Mardi Gras Indians dancing along in full regalia.
I had a blast, but there were the occasional burps. I too was struck by the paucity of choices available to visitors on Saturday evening during prime time. But if that's the only thing we have to complain about -- a few scheduling lulls -- we are good to go. As with previous years, I thought that festival organizers pulled off the Herculean logistics of this sprawling event very well. I talked to a lot of people during the course of the weekend and there were very few complaints; most of the grousing was about the expensive food vendors. For the most part, it was a weekend of smiles.
Is it too early to start talking about next year?