While Ralph Stanley is a forefather of bluegrass, and one of its very eldest and most respected statesmen who should be seen by anyone interested in genuine straight-from-the-mountains traditional bluegrass, he plays here, relatively, all the time. Notwithstanding health problems, he'll play here again in the next six months.
On the don't-miss list: Mountain Heart, which plays at the very highest level and boasts some of the sweetest, truest, most pleasing harmonies in all of bluegrass. And the members do the darnedest imitation of a lonesome train whistle with their voices it gives me goose bumps just reliving it.
Cephas & Wiggins, the world's foremost Piedmont blues duo, are a joy to behold anytime. John Cephas' fingerpicking and singing are without peer, and Phil Wiggins' harmonica prowess makes him nothing short of an astounding performer. But they're not in the "don't miss" column, either. Like Stanley, they are a regional act and play here at least once a year. Catch them if you can at the festival and do the same for Stanley and his Clinch Mountain Boys but feel secure you'll have another chance before long. Bernard Allison (son of blues great Luther Allison) is one of the other blues acts at the festival, and he will probably put on a fine show, but he should be around for decades, so there's no urgency there. Catch his set at the dance pavilion the active and involved audience should inspire even greater heights from his searing guitar work.
Instead of blues, why not try something completely different? There's plenty of that at this festival, but first let's talk about Marcia Ball, the other headliner who has landed in my lower-priority area of the festival menu.
Ball, the Queen of Gulf Coast piano blues and New Orleans-style boogie-woogie piano (a la Professor Longhair), is a perennial Richmond favorite who gets better every year. But she's a peculiar choice. She played at the Science Museum of Virginia's Swingin' on the Tracks series just last month. Averaging one Richmond show a year, Ball is simply not an example of a local rarity. That being said, Ball's version of "Louisiana 1927," Randy Newman's elegy for that region after a terrible flood, is the most beautiful I've ever heard. This year, no doubt, it will be especially powerful and will be one of the "magic" moments the festival will offer.
So which acts will likely not see another Richmond sunrise after this festival? And which will bring with their artistry a special magic that can open up a new world to the listener, whether that magic comes from a culture far away, or simply from the hollers of Appalachia. I suggest a route that starts with some good old primal rockabilly and migrates nearly around the world.
Rockabilly pioneer Hayden Thompson, with his silver hair and recording history that goes back to 1956, will appear like a ghost out of a wild '50s past, and with Richmond's fondness for rockabilly, should draw an excited crowd.
The Cambodian import, Khmer Classical Dance Ensemble, blends pageantry, freedom and discipline. There is the pageantry of the costume ornate, elaborate, with lots of gold. There is the freedom of expression which comes in the slow, time-honored, stylized movements of the dancers. (Take special note of the women and their hyperextended fingers it's an ability for which they have been trained from an early age.) There is the discipline of the music majestic but carefully orchestrated, and exotic, with its gongs and xylophones and oboes. A local jazz musician calls it "intense" and "wild," bringing to mind a court dance inspired by the spirit of John Coltrane.
The Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano are said to be the preeminent mariachi troupe in the country. Hailing from Los Angeles, they've been led by the towering figure of mariachi in this country, Natividad "Nati" Cano, for more than 40 years.
Dervish, from Sligo in northwest Ireland, will bring the real deal as far as traditional Irish music and will feature a renowned female vocalist, Cathy Jordan, and an All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Champion in Tom Morrow.
The music of Eastern Europe will be represented by the Frank London Klezmer Brass All Stars, who are culled from the foremost and most groundbreaking klezmer bands in the world. Their exuberance and soulfulness will likely be one of the true joys of the festival.
And lastly, closer to home but a whole culture away, is "don't miss" artist J.P. Cormier, from Cape Breton Island in northeast Canada. Blending French, Irish and Scottish elements, the music of Cape Breton sounds almost like a new kind of Celtic music, but one with particular charms that traditional Celtic music does not include. A multi-instrumentalist, Cormier will be a great ambassador for this highly engaging music that may be a wonderful new discovery for some members of the audience. S
Offstage: Raw Materials
Don't limit yourself to the main performing stages. Some of the true talents will be in the Instrument Makers area of the festival. In addition to seeing the instruments they've made, you can watch demonstrations and performances. The demonstrations will serve to show the different sounds made by different shapes or woods, and the performances will highlight the utter mastery of the instruments.
Of particular note are Patrick Olwell and Wayne Henderson. Olwell, an Irish flute master, makes flutes for Seamus Egan, Chris Norman and even Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. Henderson, apart from making Eric Clapton wait for years for one of his handmade guitars, is a 13-time winner of the Galax Fiddlers Convention guitar competition; he can fly around that fretboard like few can.
The acoustic music jams in the Instrument Makers area will likely feature some incredible music and some real cross-pollination between cultures, as African, Appalachian, Irish and other instruments join together in a spontaneous sharing of ideas and stories. When that all flows together, it will be unlike anything else at the festival. A.G.