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Tent Revival: 

Recollections from a first-time Folk Festival attendee.

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By now you probably know the weekend's National Folk Festival was a huge hit, attracting approximately 95,000 people — and a diverse crowd at that. A weekend of beautiful weather dimmed most memories of last year's rain-fest.

With notebook in hand, Style's CD editor, Brent Baldwin, attended all three days of the festival in downtown Richmond along the James — scribbling notes between bites of food and the occasional Yuengling.

We asked him to share the moments that stood out:



Friday Afternoon

We're walking down Fifth Street and the festival is coming right at us.

New Orleans' Treme Brass Band is marching while playing their funky brass horns with about 100 people shuffling behind. We follow them up the hill to the large Ukrop's/First Market Bank Stage, where the band performs a loopy rendition of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," complete with drunken-sounding horns and gruff Satchmo-like vocals. Notes sound even brighter in the crisp October night.

Several speakers take the stage for long-winded introductions ("Virginia is great. … blah blah … We're turning 400"), highlighted by Gov. Tim Kaine shouting the name of one of his favorite musicians, "Flavor Flav!" the ex-drug addict and comedic sidekick from hip-hop group Public Enemy. It's almost a Howard Dean moment, but not quite.

The Kenny & Amanda Smith Band play some tame bluegrass that sounds made for commercial radio (if there were bluegrass radio). We decide to go home and get a fresh start tomorrow in the sun.



Saturday at Noon

Now this is what I'm taking about. We're ready for a full day of music, and the weather is cooperating magnificently.

Organizers must be thrilled as thousands of revelers swarm the festival grounds, enjoying the many different tents and stages, as steady winds off the James carry the aroma of food everywhere. Plenty of vendors, crafts for kids and clean Porta Pottis mean no long lines. That's an A for preparation.

I've been tipped off to check out the throat singers, AltaiKAI, at the Comcast Stage. They blow me away with their deeply hypnotic vocal technique, funky jaw-harp-playing and barnyard animal noises. Of all the bands, they create unique and immersing soundscapes. Mountain life never sounded so exotic.

Next I catch elder bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens, who has difficulty staying in key (she recently had two strokes, for Pete's sake) but wins over the crowd with her loud and proud chorus delivery, rough edges adding authenticity. Highlights include a great cover of Dallas Frazier's "California Cottonfields."

I'm learning the important thing is to keep moving. Check out a couple of songs and start heading to the next tent. There's just too much to see.

We spend the rest of the day at the Times-Dispatch Dance Pavilion, watching The Carlos de Leon Orchestra (wonderful salsa/Latin jazz with great trumpet runs by its leader, who weaves the melody from "On Broadway" into one heavily percussive number), followed by a rollicking blues set by Willie King & The Liberators. Little kids are everywhere on the dance floor — you have to be careful not to trample them.

The music reaches a crescendo with a blistering set of horn-heavy ska from originators The Skatalites, who happily unleash their classic "Guns of Navarone" with an old dude on drums who still kicks butt.

By now it's 7 p.m. and we're burned out. No gas left for Chuck Brown's D.C. go-go.



Sunday at Noon

The festival is a hit, and I'm back for more — plus the weather is even better.

Because it's Sunday, I feel compelled to check out the gritty rock gospel of The Lee Boys. While I thought they could use an organ to round out the sound, pedal-steel player Roosevelt Collier is a revelation, lighting up the crowd with sleek tremolo-picking and scorching runs. After a few tunes by Santiago Jimenez are marred by sound difficulties, I head back to the Times-Dispatch dance floor, where things have been hopping all weekend.

I'm rewarded with a surprise: the Lost Bayou Ramblers, who earn some of the most enthusiastic crowd response of the weekend for their rockabilly-infused Cajun music. These guys put a modern face on traditional roots while working the crowd like pros, with a stand-up bassist who lays it all out — spinning, slapping, straddling and … was he jumping atop his bass? Their 75-minute set is one of the highlights of the festival.

Later we get mystical with Mythili Prakash and the Dance of India Ensemble (I'm a sucker for sitars). They play a new tune choreographed especially for the festival, appropriately titled "The Sun." The colorfully dressed dancer moves with taut precision, her steps running in perfect counterpoint to the music.

"This feels more like an international music festival," says a friend between bites of jerk chicken.

Yes, it does. Here's hoping Richmond can keep something like this going, even after the three-year stint ends in 2007. Who can say no to free music in the sun? S

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