Diversity of folk at festival
by Seth Rogovoy

(HILLSDALE, N.Y., July 29, 2002) – It’s hard to imagine a stronger, more diverse, and more intergenerational lineup than the one on the Main Stage at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival on Sunday. From young up-and-comer Erin McKeown, who kicked the afternoon into high gear with her rollicking opening set, to elder statesman Greg Brown, who took his laid-back, improvisational folk jams to new heights, it was an afternoon of extremes, culminating in the dynamic extremism of Ani DiFranco and the extreme adulation of her audience.

DiFranco’s appearance, scheduled last on the weekend’s bill, undoubtedly accounted for a large part of the huge crowd in attendance, weighted heavily toward teen-agers and twenty-somethings as opposed to the more typical spread across the decades. Looking out from in front of the stage at the vast sea of concertgoers sitting on blankets and lawn chairs up towards the top of the picturesque hillside, one saw an abundance of youthful visages, facial piercings, and DiFranco lookalikes in braided dreadlocks and neo-hippie regalia.

Making her fourth Falcon Ridge appearance, but her first here in three years -- during which time she has become a bona fide media star -- DiFranco wisely low-pedaled her festival-closing set, thereby keeping a lid on what could have potentially been a very unfolklike scene of star worship. Eschewing the backup band she has been travelling with for several years, the singer-guitarist played an hour-long set consisting almost entirely of new, unrecorded songs, thereby preempting the sort of riotous enthusiasm some of her well-known ballads and anthems might have stirred in the hearts of her fans, many of whom had undoubtedly been camping out all weekend at the festival just to catch a glimpse of their hero.

Greg Brown was joined in his set by the three-piece Falcon Ridge House Band, consisting of keyboardist Radoslav Lorkovic, bassist Mark Dunn and fiddler Lisa Gutkin, with special guests Jeff Lang on guitar and Lucy Kaplansky on backup vocals. Brown stretched out his handful of songs into long, rootsy folk grooves that featured improvisational vocal sections loosely based on Pentecostal preaching but given a worldly twist, such as “That’s Enough,” a swampy, modal blues that made innocent berry-picking seem downright sinful. He also ventured into jazz territory with a steamy version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” and duetted with Kaplansky on his “Small Dark Movie.”

Kaplansky preceded Brown with her own set of pop- and country-fueled songs. Playing acoustic guitar and backed by the terrific Duke Levine on electric guitar, Kaplansky offered favorites like “Ten Year Night,” “Written on the Back of His Hand” and “Don’t Mind Me” with her trademark, sultry alto and hint of a sneer. Kaplansky also debuted three new, searing ballads, two of which seemed to be about longing for a family, and the third consisting of dramatic, impressionistic scenes of life in downtown New York last September 11. All three new songs had the feel of the world as portrayed by Bob Dylan on his landmark “Time Out of Mind” recording, and left listeners longing to hear how they will work in the context of Kaplansky’s next album – after they wiped away their tears, that is.

Australian singer-guitarist Jeff Lang played a solo set in that he was the only musician on stage for his 50 minutes, but that didn’t mean that what the audience heard was not a band’s worth of sound. Lang is a one-man band, and the inventive guitarist has concocted a rootsy, original style of playing drawn from blues, rock and other musics so that, for example, in “Too Easy to Kill,” an anti-gun protest song, he kept rhythm with his amplified, tapping foot and occasionally tapped or banged his steel guitar like a drum, laid down a bass line on his low strings, and interspersed both rhythm and lead guitar with dynamic, virtuosic fretwork.

If Lang is the Jimi Hendrix of new-folk, then Tom Landa is the Dave Matthews. The Canadian vocalist/guitarist led his sextet, the Paperboys, in a set of rootsy, groove-folk, in which they brought to bluegrass, Irish and old-time music an upbeat, neo-hippie vibe and a soulful earnestness.

Call Erin McKeown the John Pizzarelli of the field, at least when she is playing one of her more jazzy, swinging numbers and showing off her fleet fingerpicking on electric guitar. Backed by bassist Dave Chalfant and drummer Lorne Entress, McKeown also wasn’t afraid to capitalize on the power-trio instrumentation – her song “Strange Bed” was built upon the riff from The Who’s “Teenage Wasteland.”

There might have been a little irony in that in the end, the artist who has crossed over and the farthest outside the insular folk world was, at least structurally, the folkiest one of all. While all the other Main Stage performers drew from a wide variety of influences and added touches of pop, jazz and rock to their delivery, it was Ani DiFranco who simply came out on stage with an acoustic guitar and delivered her political manifestos and critiques the old-fashioned way, like a latter-day Woody Guthrie.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 30, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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