Folk Gets Stronger 

The Richmond Folk Festival hits the perfect weather weekend.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

The weather was great, the music was mostly phenomenal and the crowds appeared to break all previous attendance records. Not only that, but orange bucket audience donations hit a new high of $92,000. So what wasn’t to like about this year’s fourth installment of the Richmond Folk Festival, which saw dozens of world-class performing artists spread across seven stages along Richmond’s waterfront?

Apparently, to some, there just wasn’t enough of it. Take Saturday night’s party-hardy set by Original P in the Dominion Dance Pavilion, where the most diverse crowd I’ve ever seen at a Richmond music event (young, old, all races, genders and affiliations) bumped and shimmied together in a sea of gyrating joy. It was great to see Richmond’s own Jerome "Bigfoot" Brailey join his old P-Funk band mates behind the drums (a last minute addition to the lineup), and even if the song selection leaned a bit toward the obvious -- I was screaming for an “I Wanna Testify” that never came -- it was still a sense-shattering, foot-stomping dance party. No one wanted it to end. When festival overseers stopped the show on the dot at 11 p.m., the group joined the crowd in chanting, “occupy the folk festival.”

But this festival was already occupied -- with a three day schedule overflowing with aural treasure. The Redd Volkaert Band with Cindy Cashdollar gave crowds a series of ear-bending tutorials in western swing, country and twang pop throughout the weekend. Perhaps a bit too subtle for the larger Altria Stage, the combo burned up the Dominion Dance Pavilion with great country music covers (especially a fiery, sing-a-long version of Jimmy Bryant’s “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”) and atmospheric originals. If there was one sound that kept ringing in my ears throughout the event, it was Cashdollar’s ethereal steel guitar, perfectly framing and reverberating off of Santo and Johnny’s “Sleep Walk.” Sublime.

Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba, the energetic Malian dance band costumed in purple leisure suits and a strange but highly danceable sound, was the act with the buzz over the weekend. Nearly every diehard music nut I encountered was raving about it, and why not? This infectious group, anchored by the electric ngoni lute and the exhilarating vocals of Ami Sacko, possessed a light but tight fusion of African rhythms and westernized melodies that won over every crowd it encountered over the festival weekend. Let’s hope they moved some merchandise at the Plan 9 tent.

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys have been such a proven commodity over the years -- the Cajun dance band of choice -- that it’s easy to take them for granted. But they were as engaging as any act at this year’s event, sending backsides in motion and eliciting Louisiana yelps. Meanwhile, doo-wop legends Larry Chance and the Earls galvanized listeners with a show that was three parts musical history lesson and one part hilarious stand-up routine. Anyone expecting a lame oldies performance from a so-called one hit wonder was rightfully schooled.

Chicago blues legends Magic Slim and the Teardrops, with special guest “Big Time” Sarah Streeter, performed well -- and Streeter showed her moxie by performing after being checked into the hospital for complications resulting from pneumonia. The song selection for the troupe, however, left much to be desired. I could do without ever hearing “The Thrill is Gone” ever again, thanks, and no one should be allowed to sing “Ain’t No Sunshine” unless their name is Bill Withers. Competent and decidedly raw, this outfit was still the closest thing to an ordinary bar cover band that audiences experienced over the weekend.

Tony Ellis and the Musicians of Braeburn were perfect for a sunny Sunday afternoon near the Community Foundation Stage -- Ellis’ rolling banjo and his laconic vocals exuded a timeless sense of calm; and when the band’s version of “Jesse James” met a coal train traveling behind the stage, all seemed authentic and right. Later, a younger group of old-time music makers, Chatham County Line, impressed the same sun-baked crowd with their beautiful harmony vocals and expert musicianship.

The audience on display to see Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera (beautiful and awe-inspiring but inscrutable) was so thick -- and obnoxious -- that it was often hard to figure out what was happening on stage. Why do people insist on attending events such as this and then talking their way through it? It’s a free event, and it’s a free country, but paying attention shouldn’t be its own lost community art form.

New Orleans pianist Davell Crawford surprised many with his emotional and dramatic turns behind the keyboard -- but he was another one of those performers (Celtic folkies Mary Jane Lamond and Wendy MacIssac come to mind too) whose subtle turns and flourishes often got lost in the sheer spectacle of the roaring (chit-chatting) crowds. It’s interesting to note that both of these acts came off like gangbusters on WCVE’s live radio broadcast, but were often swallowed up when encountered live and in person.

The Tibetan Monks, performing a series of sacred religious rituals, were fascinating and (to Western sensibilities) appropriately weird. The lamas' deep-throated, trance-inducing vocal exercises were akin to listening to the lowest notes of a Moog keyboard played over and over -- that is not a criticism -- and their “debate” ritual showed that even the most peaceful of religions can boast dangerous and unpredictable components.

The Virginia Folklife Stage was well-attended this year, and why not? People love a good contest, and the music and folk life on display was homegrown and homespun. Eric Hardin of North Carolina won the vaunted guitar pickin’ competition -- and a hand-crafted guitar made by the great Wayne Henderson.

Horn’s Punch and Judy Show wasn’t just for children. I noticed just as many adults laughing and singing along to Professor Mark Walker’s revival of the centuries-only British puppet tradition -- an act so engaging and, well, action-packed that I had to catch it a second time.

Another huge success was Pedrito Martinez Group, which closed out the festival with an intense and totally winning set of Afro-Cuban sounds. With frenzied percussion breaks, saucy dance moves, technically-impressive musical chops and a wild man bassist in a Green Lantern T-Shirt, the band left a pool of sweat on the Altria stage and a thoroughly exhausted crowd exiting the fest with sweaty smiles on their faces.

Interesting footnote: I only saw one city politician the entire weekend, and that was in the VIP hospitality tent where there was free food (insert joke here). And if Mayor Dwight Jones made an appearance, he went incognito. So, even after the record breaking crowds and the endless good cheer, we still don’t know if anyone at City Hall really comprehends what it means for Richmond to play host to this incredible annual event.

But being a shining beacon for the best in world culture -- leaving out-of-town visitors tired and happy and wanting more of what you got -- this is how you start to build a real tier-one city. Occupy the Folk Festival, indeed. - Don Harrison

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

Ah, the Richmond Folk Festival, is there any local cultural event better? Not when you have a full weekend of spectacular fall weather, and this year’s dates could not have been sunnier or more comfortable.

Let’s just say the canal ducks were well fed—some probably needed to go on “Biggest Loser” after this. The occupiers were occupying (a few protestors stood outside the Federal Reserve Bank, others around Kanawha Plaza). Food vendors were vending. Crafts tents were crafty. The volunteer bucket staff was bucketing, making a concerted push for more donations; from the hordes of “I donated” sticker wearers, you could tell that there would be a strong haul.

But what about the music? Honestly, I wasn’t as excited for this year’s line-up, yet not having big expectations can be a good thing.

We caught a cab from Carytown on Friday in time to see a huge hillside crowd swaying along to the soothing reggae of the Mighty Diamonds—playing mostly slower material that showcased the trio’s fine harmonies. Dressed in bright Jamaican colors, they worked the crowd as vets will do, bumping things up with the classic “Pass the Kutchie.” I helped myself to a fine soft taco from nearby La Milpa—the first of several weekend food stops which included my Folk Fest staple: red beans and rice with mixed veggies from Ma Musa’s West African cuisine. Love those spices!

After the Diamonds, we wanted something more upbeat: Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys -- one of my favorite acts of this year’s fest -- provided a great kickoff to the weekend in the sweaty Dominion Dance Pavilion. Playing traditional Cajun music, with fiddle and accordion leading the way, this bayou band was perfect for riverside revelry, or just easy dancing and drinking. The enthusiasm of the crowd was the best I experienced all weekend and smiles nearly lit the tent. Hulking fiddler Kevin Wimmer, who recently replaced David Greely, seemed especially on his game tonight with his authoritative playing and Cajun hollerin.’

We kicked things off Saturday with a solid set of hungover honky-tonk from giant yard gnome and guitarist Redd Volkaert, a nimble player whose songwriting is clearly influenced by his old Bakersfield boss, Merle Haggard. Afterward, we sat and watched Davell Crawford play some intricate old school New Orleans piano rolls with Steve Mamou sitting in for the Louisiana Musical Roots event. By sunset, we were primed for Original P, whose family posse splayed funk across the big Altria stage. While their nonstop show did sound like an old P-Funk concert, it also suffered a bit from meandering “We Want the Funk” jams and familiar songs heard a million times. If they had thrown in more nuggets from “Maggot Brain,” or earlier Funkadelic albums, I would’ve been thrilled. But those funky space robes made me long for Sun Ra.

Sunday, I caught moody Azerbaijani music from spiked fiddle player Imamyar Hasanov and Iranian percussionist, Pejman Hadadi. The playing was impressive while the minor-scaled music was often sad and mournful, almost dirgelike -- like a lonely violin playing in a desert at night. Hasanov conjured up an amazing vibrato sound on the vertical fiddle, and Hadadi’s 10-fingered tombak percussion playing, which he said mirrored the structure of Azerbaijani poetry, was worth hearing.

Finally, I saw crowd favorites, Bassekou Kouyaté and Ngoni Ba, performing what could loosely be described as ‘electric lute blues’ not so different from rocking bluegrass, yet with those great Malian rhythms. They had an interesting string sound: percussive, deep-toned and bright. Bassekou Kouyaté must be a musical sponge: You can tell he’s well versed in American styles -- they were like an African jam band that knew just how to push the crowd’s buttons with repetition, trills and peaks -- and most important, joyful playing. - Brent Baldwin

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

Where else can you see founding members of Parliament-Funkadelic and the billy club-wielding antics of Punch and Judy within hours of each other?

It’s safe to say that it’s reserved to the Richmond Folk Festival. Original P doled out two powerhouse sets on Saturday that thumped and funked with old-school jams; one that brought an unprecedented crowd to its feet with classics like “Give Up The Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker).

Professor Horn’s Punch and Judy proved that slapstick is timeless … and a little creepy. Sorry, Punch, your crazy, cobbled face is poised to prompt nightmares to all of those little children in the audience. Curiosities continued throughout the day with the turkey-call and oyster-shucking contests, kazoo parades and the crafting of dazzling, paper-bag hats. Watching a 5-year-old have a meltdown in one of those contraptions after her corn dog hit the dirt was an entertaining scene.

As the sun fell on the sprawling grounds of the festival, Davell Crawford and his piano wooed the ladies with smooth Louisiana sounds while Magic Slim and the Teardrops started sound checking for their blues-infused romp over at the Dominion dance stage where folks of all ages crammed onto the floor to shake their thangs. Slim and company ripped through renditions of “Mustang Sally” and “Hound Dog” and pulled an inattentive audience member who was reading onto the stage for participation in the form of howling like a dog. It was fair punishment for ignoring the consummate blues man.

There were difficult decisions aplenty when it came to choosing who to see Saturday night. Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys fired up the Altria stage with their ragin’ Cajun ruckus around the same time the Tibetan Monks of the Drepung Loseling Monastery entranced the MVW stage with chants and traditional dance. Dressed in their striking orange costumes, the lamas wowed an entranced group of onlookers. Fortunately, most acts performed a few times throughout the course of the weekend.

Off the stage, the festival offered up a top notch array of foodstuffs that included smoked turkey legs, kabobs, soul ice and fried Oreos. Porta Potties were plentiful and lines for both eats and relief were minimal despite the whopping number of attendees. The only thing that may have made the festival just that much better would have been a selection of local beer. I’m sure Starr Hill, Legend and Hardywood would happily oblige much to brew lovers’ delight. Oh, and can we please put a ban on sport-utility strollers? Those in open-toed shoes will thank you.

The Richmond Folk Festival proves that Richmond can play host to a sizeable event and have the masses attend. I would ask promoters to consider the success of this event and see if we can’t pull in some of the bigger name summer music festivals next year or start our own. Riverpolooza, anyone? - Hilary Langford

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST

The appeal of the Richmond Folk Festival is its dizzying array of global talent. Its charm is the impossibility of giving each act the focus it deserves. Performances hold rapt attention in front of the stage, attenuating at the sides and back where eye-catching eccentrics and the occasional friend bob out of the ceaseless streams of migrating people. The navigation is compressed by long lines at food stalls, offering everything from vegetarian virtue to artery-clogging excess -- I saw one person balancing both a several thousand calorie potato flower and one of those festival-only “keep the glass if you have a two-foot tall shelf in your kitchen cabinet” concoctions in front of their baby papoose.

But the music is the main thing. Bassekou Kouyaté’s Sunday afternoon set was a blast, a rock and soul review front-lined by the Eric Clapton of the gourd lute ngoni.

Pedrito Martinez proved that his band’s chops, honed in an intimate New York restaurant, translated without diminution to an open outdoor stage.

The Azerbaijan violin session was intense and impressive (although I was distracted by an impossibly cute 1-year-old trying to get an abandoned water bottle underneath the seat in front of me.)

Mary Jane Lamond, with Wendy MacIsaac, made a strong case for the pure, spare beauty of the Gaelic language.

Los Tres Reyes’ guitar work was incredible.

At least one of the Tibetan Monks seemed to be having absolutely too much fun amidst the colorful spiritual pageantry; then again, open good humor is more accessible than monophonic chanting.

Pianist Davell Crawford was impressive on Saturday -- although Peter Solomon told me he went all diva on his Sunday set, chastising the (excellent) sound crew and cutting short his set.

The crowds this year seemed even bigger than in 2010, and most patrons wore the stickers proclaiming their monetary support of the ubiquitous orange-shirted bucket crews. Lacking that visible mark of support of this amazing festival is like walking around with your fly down. If it is not uncomfortable, perhaps it should be. - Peter McElhinney



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