I spent last weekend at the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, Rhode Island. This is an annual folk festival on the coast near the Connecticut border. I’d never gone before, largely because I am often not around on Labor Day weekend and also because of my general indifference toward festivals. But after having a good time at Newport in July, knowing that I’d be in town, and seeing the lineup, I figured I’d give it a go. There were some acts I didn’t care for too much, but as you hope, some acts I didn’t know that I enjoyed, and then some good headliners.
Saturday night, the big highlight for me was John Hiatt. I’d never seen him before and realized that I probably wouldn’t have all that many opportunities. So that was cool. It was just him with his guitar. He did a few new songs off his brand new album he did with Jerry Douglas and then of course played a lot of the classics such as “Perfectly Good Guitar” and “Have a Little Faith in Me.” So it wasn’t exactly a surprising set, but that was fine. It was solid, he was happy to play in person again (he noted he had spent more time with his wife of 35 years since March 2020 than all the years before that). His voice isn’t quite what it once was, getting pretty raspy, but it was still a super fun show and I was glad to see him.
Sunday was the real winner. First, I saw Richard Thompson. This is the 5th time I’ve seen RT. As always he was great. He can be a bit predictable with the songs he is going to play. For someone with a huge and amazing catalog, one wishes he would explore more of it. But a like a lot of artists, he decides what he wants to play on a given tour and doesn’t deviate too much from that. You are going to hear a couple newer songs, a few of the songs he did a long long time ago with Fairport Convention or his ex-wife Linda, and of course “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and “Beeswing.” I don’t mind any of this, but I’ve always felt the 80s was peak RT and gets not enough attention from him in live shows. He is playing “Keep Your Distance” on this tour, which is one of the underrated songs on Rumor and Sigh and which works really well live. So that was pretty cool. It was also a momentous show for him in that his long-time sound engineer was retiring from the road. He worked with this guy for 40 years, i.e., since he and Linda broke up and he started on his solo career. Luckily, Thompson seems not at all close to retiring from the road.
Finally, and the real clincher for me paying up for this festival, was seeing Rhiannon Giddens. I’d wanted to see her for so long. It was mostly pretty great. She’s such a powerful singer, a great musician, and a real explorer of music and life. She reminds me of Earl Scruggs, and not only because they both play banjo. It’s because they are both old-time musicians who dedicated their careers to expanding the notion of what the banjo can do and what old-time music and its influences can do. This is rare. Scruggs, known as the only Nashville star to vote for McGovern in 72 (this is probably overstated; I expect Tom T. Hall and other songwriters were a lot more interested in McGovern than the Grand Ole Opry), had every reason to stay within his lane and play old-time and bluegrass music his whole career. That’s certainly what his long-time partner Lester Flatt did. But Scruggs did not, doing everything from adapting the banjo to the country-rock of his sons to playing with orchestras. Giddens is the same way. Her old Carolina Chocolate Drops partner Dom Flemons is pretty much staying on that old-timey track. Meanwhile, Giddens is learning to sing in Italian and Gaelic and adapting this material to her versions of Sister Rosetta Tharpe songs and Black versions of “Oh Death.” Playing with her husband, the Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, she put out a set of innovative versions of traditional music that really blew my mind. She also sat in with some pickers who were also at the festival earlier in the day. If you’ve never seen Rhiannon Giddens play “Georgie Buck” in an old-timey pickin’ session, well let me just say that you want to see this. She also played her own song about slavery “At the Purchaser’s Option,” which is tremendously powerful.
One thing about Giddens though–she is very particular on her sound and can get a little cranky when it isn’t perfect. She was complaining about what the humidity was doing to her instruments in the first set, even though of course from the perspective of everyone listening, she sounded great. But during her main set, she was visibly frustrated and really laid into one of the sound people at one point in the middle of the show when Turrisi was doing a solo. Part of the problem was a big mistake by the festival, which scheduled a loud band on the other stage with a big beat, meaning they could hear the sound bleed big time. That should not have happened. It wasn’t just that though. She was annoyed before the show started. I’m not blaming her. Some artists are like this. Once, I saw Dave Alvin play at Antone’s in Austin. For an iconic club, I saw a lot of shows with bad sound there. That time, the lead to his guitar just gave out. He was really mad. He was irritated at his band too. He was showing it. But then he would go back to smiling for the audience. Giddens was doing the same. I wondered, are they faking that happiness when they are singing for the audience on a bad night? Or are they receiving joy from it even though it is in fact a bad night.
Anyway, it was still awesome to see her and I really hope I get to see her again. Would travel the long miles to see her show.
Super excited for this new documentary on the origins of free jazz. Strong seal of approval from LGM friend Glenn Kenny too.
Good to see Lindsey Buckingham getting over his firing from Fleetwood Mac……….These people might have been more stable when they were coke addicts.
The great country drummer Kenny Malone has died of COVID-19, almost certainly because he didn’t get vaccinated. So stupid, what a waste. He really was the A List drummer for Nashville in the 70s and after. This is great too:
Something of a mystic, Mr. Malone heard music everywhere, and exulted in it. “Music is in everything, not just the instruments we play,” he told Modern Drummer. “The way that chords, melody and rhythm work together mirrors our emotions. Everything we hear forms a visual image or an attitude of a place, a time or an environment.”
In a biography of Mr. Malone for allmusic.com, the guitarist Eugene Chadbourne elaborated on this philosophy, writing, “He is the drummer who, upon hearing that a song’s lyrics described a woman slitting a man’s throat, told the producer to hang tough a moment while he fetched a different cymbal from his van, one that had just the right ‘scream’ for the job.”
When I saw Bonnie Prince Billy and Matt Sweeney last week, they were talking about Malone, who they knew and had played with some. The story they told was being at a BBQ at some musician’s house and Malone goes up to the host and says, “You know those propane tanks on the side of your house? They sound really great.”
In conclusion, get the damn vaccine!
We also lost the legendary jazz DJ Phil Schaap. This I found interesting:
Mr. Schaap became a D.J. at WKCR in 1970 as a freshman at Columbia, where he was a history major. He set out on a lifelong mission to keep jazz’s past alive.
“One thing I wanted to impart,” he told the radio program “Jazz Night in America” this year, “was that the music hadn’t started with John Coltrane.”
It’s most definitely a different world today, where popular knowledge of jazz ends with John Coltrane.
The Weather Station, Ignorance
This is a very fine modern singer-songwriter work. Tamara Lindeman is a really excellent songwriter from Toronto and the band is good too for this kind of music. She really goes for a bigger sound and one that is not just your usual indie pop, but bringing in flutes and strings too. But this is a pop album in the end, one that is looking for a bigger audience and absolutely earning the right to that claim.
Circa Waves, Sad Happy
Passable dream pop that presents two short discs–the first is “happy” and the second is “sad.” Well, OK, though these are not exactly deep thoughts here or in depth expressions of these rather obvious emotions. The first album is better because at least it rocks a little more. The second is both sad and not very interesting in part because of that when the lyrics don’t really have the weight to hold it and the music doesn’t either.
Mike Dillon, Suitcase Man
Dillon is a vibraphonist who has backed any number of major figures in the pop world, from Les Claypool to Ani DiFranco. Clearly not risk-adverse, he decided to record a trio of albums during the pandemic, including Suitcase Man. This is an exploration of his life as a man in his 50s and the mistakes he’s made. Given how rare it is to hear this kind of music with a vibes-centric background, it is definitely interesting. He’s witty and smart and creative. My god, the cover of the old country song “Roly Poly,” made famous by Bob Wills, is hilariously ridiculous. But Dillon really cannot sing, and not in the still charming and charismatic not great voice way of Kristofferson or late raspy Peter Gabriel. It’s more like he is croaking this out. The voice makes it hard. He should have brought in a singer to do that part of the work while he wrote and played his vibes. I guess the comparisons are Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, but he doesn’t have the expressionism of Waits’ multifaceted, if unusual voice, and I never much cared for Beefheart anyway.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Axiom
The period at the very beginning of the pandemic is one that historians will find interesting. For the first time in a century, a mass pandemic shut down society. But that took some time. Adjuah’s band played a long series of shows in New York in early March. This documents those shows, including him talking about how they are going to keep going, but don’t sneeze on him! Of course they wouldn’t keep going, but it’s a fascinating moment in time. That’s irrelevant for the record’s quality but one worth noting. What I really like about his work is how he comes squarely out of the New Orleans tradition but also very much is pushing the envelope in modern jazz. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who better combines those traditions today and that very much includes anyone in the Marsalis family. Good album.
Lula Wiles, Shame and Sedition
Lula Wiles is not a woman but a folk band of three women (Jethro Tull thing going on here with the confusing name, though definitely not with the music). This is the sort of project that one gets from three young women who grew up around the folk music scene but maybe never did quite come from the folk, if you know what I mean. It’s solid enough work–they sing and sound good. But it doesn’t really hit home as a powerful document of songwriting either. The kind of band you are fine seeing at the folk festival and maybe enjoying in the background but not one I found utterly compelling. Found it somewhat interesting that they record for Smithsonian Folkways, as they don’t quite seem to fit that model. In any case, a find enough album.
Alice Bag, Sister Dynamite
As many will know, Alice Bag is a punk legend from her days of fronting The Bags. Not totally sure what the difference between a solo album and a band album is here, but it’s a solid if not great piece of old person punk, which is a real thing these days. I don’t love it but that’s mostly because I’m just not a big fan of her as a singer. Politically, it’s excellent queer punk focused on the oppression of women. So it’s going to be well, your bag if you are into hearing some queercentric feminist lyrics with loud rock and roll. And you could do a hell of a lot worse than that.
In conclusion, GO DUCKS!!!!!!!!!!
This is an open thread for all things music, art, and DUCKS!!!!! and none things politics.