National Folk Festival
Saturday, September 12, 2015
The circus was in town last week in Greensboro, but this one was a tad different. It had no elephants, no tigers, no trapeze artists to dazzle and amaze. But there were plenty of high-flying acts to amuse and entertain children of all ages. The focus of the National Folk Festival was music, and with 30 artists on seven stages over three days, there was plenty of entertainment for everybody—for free.
This is the first time in 75 years the festival has been held in North Carolina. Arts Greensboro president and CEO Tom Philion, instrumental in bringing the event to Greensboro, called it the “Noah’s ark of living traditions.”
It made for some strange pairings at times. For Saturday’s opener on the Wrangler Stage, the juxtaposition of gospel and bluegrass seemed odd. But as the program progressed, Richmond-based Maggie Ingram and the Ingramettes and Ohio’s Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers discovered that, despite diverse roots, they had much in common.
Matriarch Maggie Ingram passed away in June, but the Ingram family tradition continues with daughter Reverend Almeta Ingram-Miller, granddaughter Cheryl Maroney-Beaver and cousin Valerie Stewart on vocals. “Don’t know what you expected, but this is what we do,” Almeta said after the seated trio had blasted the crowd out of its seats with “Standing on the Promises.” She said she grew up listening to the Dixie Hummingbirds and Sam Cooke. “We caught ahold of the message in the music and put a little mustard and relish on it,” she continued. She spoke of her mom’s influence and inspiration, as she came up from being a sharecropper in Coffee County, Georgia into a role as one of the most beloved figures in gospel.
Almeta recalled the family singing “I’ll Fly Away” as mom, who died at home, was carried from the house, when Mullins interrupted: “Girls, I’m gonna play ‘I’ll Fly Away.’ Get ready to sing.” They kicked it off bluegrass style, but when the Ingramettes jumped in, they owned it. Mullins offered up some counterpoint with what he dubbed “a cappella Appalachian Chord singing” on “Dearest Friend I Ever Had,” then closed the show on a shared version of “Amazing Grace.” Once again, when the Ingramettes got in, it was their scalding, sanctified gospel that took over.
A short trek to see Phil Wiggins‘ harmonica workshop under a tent at the McDonalds’ Family Stage proved a good choice, as the day’s only rain squall passed through just then. You not only got a free harmonica, but a half-hour lesson. “I suck at this style of harp I play,” Wiggins said, tongue-in-cheek, referring to his cross-harp style that involves more drawing in than blowing out. A circle of kids gathered around him in front of the stage, enthralled as he showed them how to shape notes with their tongues and their hands.
There was so much going on that you had to have some sort of a plan to see any of it. Even so, sometimes I had to make painful decisions due to artists playing simultaneously, and it could be a long slog from stage to stage.
With a parking lot in midtown, the Belk Stage offered the biggest holding area. The Pine Leaf Boys, who got a big boost with appearances on the HBO series Treme, had no trouble packing the lot with enthusiastic Cajun music fans. Led by accordionist/vocalist/keyboardist Wilson Savoy, the Boys had dancers of all ages and abilities strutting their stuff.
Nathan Abshire’s “Popcorn Blues,” which Savoy introduced as a song about a guy “who eats a lotta popcorn, then drinks a lot of beer,” got some interesting dance interpretations from a group way too young to have been born during its heyday. Still, they did the twist to the throbbing two-stepper, then formed a Rockettes-like chorus line and kicked enthusiastically by the side of the stage. Savoy sounds like Stevie Winwood, or husky soul with a Cajun accent. The Boys switched to Zydeco for a rollicking version of Boozo Chavis’ “I Got A Camel,” then switched gears once again with Savoy on piano for Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
The festival didn’t single out any artist as the headliner, but for many, Mavis Staples was the big draw. The lot was jammed for her 4 p.m. set, the crowd whooping as soon as the band kicked off the familiar bass line for the Staples’ 1973 hit “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” At 76, Mavis is as powerful as ever, still rattling the speakers with her her deep, soulful vocals.
“I’m trying not to let nothin’ get me, I’m gonna fight to the bitter end,” she said after a rousing version of Sly Stone’s “You Can Make It If You Try.” Staples, who hadn’t been to town since 2007, said she was glad to be back but would have liked a down-home offering as a welcome back: “Somebody coulda brought me some collards and hot-water cornbread.” She dug deep into the Staples’ catalog, sounding as good as ever on “Respect Yourself” and eliciting a big cheer when she got to the line “Take the sheet off your face, boy, it’s a brand new day.”
She roused the troops in a different way with “Fight,” backed by Pops Staples soundalike, Deacon Donny Gerrard. “Talking about Jesus but you treat people dead wrong/I’m a soldier but I don’t use a gun,” she sang to thunderous applause. She went off with Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It,” the band whipping the song into a gallop as she left the stage. She came back for Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” and was so impressed with the crowd’s singing she told them, “Y’all sound so good we’re gonna come back and record that song with you.” She closed with “I’ll Take You There” because she has to, right? “Good Gawd a’mighty,” Mavis shouted.
Being seated for two consecutive sets at the same stage was helpful for preparing the next move. The Branchettes, the Ingrams on a bigger stage and John Dee Holeman all had conflicting slots. Thus, it was necessary to forgo the Ingrams and dash down three city blocks to see part of The Branchettes set and then catch John Dee. Originally a vocal duo with Ethel Elliot and Lena Mae Perry, the Johnson County group reconfigured in 2004 after Elliot’s death to consist of pianist Brother Wilbur Tharpe and vocalist Perry. But the duo sounds like a choir, as Perry’s voice is rich and full, and Brother Tharpe’s churchy flourishes fill the spaces between breaths. “We’re going to church tonight,” Perry said, introducing “Reach Out and Touch the Lord,” adding that she was going to sing a little bit of that song for “my Lord to reach out and take these shackles off my feet.” Indeed, she had a big cast boot on one leg, but that didn’t stop her from moving in the spirit with Brother Wilbur. It felt like the Gospel Tent at New Orleans Jazz Festival when she invited the crowd to “stand up and sway and dance with me.”
We left mid-set, or during “Lord Help Me To Hold Out ’til My Journey Is Done,” because our pilgrimage wasn’t done. Catching John Dee involved a nearly six-block slog. But it was worth the journey, as Holeman sounded powerful backed by Tad Walters on harmonica. John Dee’s picking was pristine and clean, and even though the tempo was slowed down for “High Heel Sneakers,” one celebrant was so pumped up that he pogoed in front of the stage like a punk in a mosh pit. Walters was in fine form, too, blowing Sonny Terry-style on “Big Boss Man” and eliciting Little Walter’s spiritual help on Howling Wolf’s “Goin’ Down Slow.” Walters is a great accompanist and a good listener, never stepping on John Dee’s lines while carrying on a lively musical conversation. Pembroke bottleneck slide player Lakota John showed up unannounced and contributed some wiggly, greasy slide on an extended jam for “Big Boss Man.” John Dee held steadfast to his Piedmont picking, impeccable as usual.
I had to find extra motivation to move from one end of Elm Street to the other, a 15–20 minute trek, depending on the crowd density. But plenty of folks showed up at the Wrangler Stage for the Newfoundland-based Dardanelles. The young band seemed a bit awed by the size of the audience, but they conducted their business with a great sense of humor. “You might want to try this at home, but do not play it for a living,” said vocalist and guitarist Tom Power. “You’ll make hundreds of dollars a year.” The band rejuvenated traditional tunes like the 1840’s chanty “Leave Her, Johnny, Leave Her,” performed a cappella in gorgeous six-part harmony.
The Cape Verdean group Lutchinha, now based out of Boston, followed with slinky salsa, Afro-beat and Latin jazz. Lutchinha is frontwoman Maria Neves Leite’s nickname, and it was very obvious this was her show. She spent several minutes giving the audience a lesson in Cape Verdean patois, then split her remaining time between recruiting children to dance onstage and pumping out peppery rhythms for the offstage audience. ￼
By ducking out mid-set, I had just enough time for a quick run back down to the Belk Stage to see Dale Watson. Clad in black from the neck down and sporting a thigh-length frock coat, and topped by a towering white pompadour, Watson looked like he was dressed to channel Johnny Cash. But Watson stayed mostly in Texas, recalling Western Swing with his original “South Of Round Rock Texas,” his soundalike tribute to Bob Wills, and “Everybody’s Somebody in Luckenbach Texas,” from his Call Me Insane.
Watson noted that Saturday was George Jones’ birthday, so he celebrated by playing “Jonesin’ For Jones.” “I was Jonesin’ for his kind of music,” Watson said about writing the song in a recent chat. “Now that somebody’s gone, you always miss ’em more.” It’s a perfect fit for Watson, whose voice sounds like a blend of Jones, Buck Owens and Ray Price, anyway. But one Jones tune wasn’t enough for Watson. He started to reminisce about discovering moonshine. “I first heard about it from George,” he said, referring to Jones’ “White Lightnin’.” Then, they ripped into it.
Unfortunately, it was time to break off once again mid-set again to catch Henry Butler across town at the Wrangler Stage, soon closing. It was well worth the hike. Butler is a raucous, piano-pounding wildman who incorporates the styles of New Orleans greats. Kicking off with “Born Under A Bad Sign,” Butler made you doubt that he has only two hands, as so many notes flew around so fast you’d swear there was more than one set of fingers at work.
Roundabout keyboard meandering suddenly broke into Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles,” with guitarist Bobby Bryan chicken-pickin’ funk around Butler’s frenetic pounding. Butler disassembled “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” confounding audience members who tried to sing along with his dirge-like intro. But it was too esoteric for them, as it darted from gospel to jazz to soul to funk before letting it roll into a spine-snapping second-line strut.
Over a pancake breakfast the next morning at Tex and Shirley’s, Tom Philion smiled ruefully when asked if the distance between stages cold be shortened a bit for next year. “We expect the festival to grow like the Richmond Folk Festival did,” he said, “and we’ll need the room for more stages.” He was referring to the fact that, as part of the agreement making Greensboro as a host city, the city has to continue the festival under their own power after the National Folk folks leave in 2017. The folk festival in Greensboro, then, is here to stay, so you’d better get in shape—this course is worth running, again and again.