Winterhawk on Saturday night
by Seth Rogovoy

HILLSDALE, N.Y. – A drum kit sat onstage alone, unused and ignored for most of Saturday night at the Winterhawk Festival at the Long Hill Farm. Instead, stringed instruments were the focus on this warm, muggy night which was unforgiving to strings and their subtleties. Performers including Stacey Earle, Greg Brown, Jeff Lang and the Hickory Project chose not to avail themselves of the added punch that a bit of kick drum, some snare or a ringing high-hat would have lent to their sets.

Certainly Earle, Brown and Lang could have used the extra oomph that a good kick of a drum could have lent. Hickory Project came already equipped as a self-contained ensemble, with arrangements tailor-made to fly offstage and out onto the Winterhawk hillside just fine without drums. Like Nickel Creek -- another fresh, young string band bringing new audiences to bluegrass by juicing it with modern influences -- the Pennsylvania-based quintet, which opened the evening portion of the program, let the music’s natural rhythms power its performance, which ranged from traditional bluegrass to ‘60s-style folk-rock to glistening arrangements that were classical in their majestic proportions.

As for the rest of the evening’s performers, they had a hard time penetrating the thick humidity. They could be heard fine, but for the most part their music just hung in the air limply, like soggy laundry on the line.

Not even the added color of the Winterhawk house band, featuring Radoslav Lorkovic on keyboards and accordion, Tim Carbone on fiddle and Mark Dann on bass, could shake Greg Brown out of his apparent doldrums. The gravelly-voiced singer-songwriter, whose specialty is songs about the loss of small-town life, was unusually dark and humorless on Saturday night. Lorkovic added some Tex-Mex accordion to a version of bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Kind-Hearted Woman,” and the musicians tried lifting “It’s Your Town Now,” about the suburbanization of rural America, to another level, but mostly it sank of its own sorry weight.

Brown finally showed signs of life on a jazzy encore version of “Wish I Was Married to You.” He shed his guitar for the number and Carbone and Lorkovic stretched out a bit as Brown improvised like a folkie Tom Waits. But it was a case of too little, too late.

Australian singer/slide-guitarist Jeff Lang performed solo. Lang uses the vocabulary of the blues, the bent, blue notes, and elongates and stretches them to the breaking point. Ordinarily they shimmer and resonate with an emotional wail, matched by Lang’s heartbreaking vocals, and occasionally Lang conjures forth the sound of Hawaiian lap steel with his echoey, languid notes. But not even Lang’s innovative use of his guitar’s sonic possibilities – harmonics, buzzing strings, unusual pitches – could compensate for the ultimately lonely sound of his program, which was like rock music without the band.

Country-influenced Stacey Earle came the closest to conquering the night. Earle’s bubbly persona and hook-filled pop melodies woke up the stars somewhat, but it was a struggle. Backed by her husband on guitar and harmony vocals, Earle delivered her catchy ballads about working, getting married and having children with her typically chirpy, iconoclastic ebullience.

“Makes Me Happy,” which she said was about the joy she felt upon the release of her first album, was as uplifting as anything by Mary Chapin Carpenter, and “Must Be Love” featured astute lead guitar by Stuart. But what the song really wanted was complete western-swing treatment. Alas, the drum kit just sat there, ignored and unused.

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