Music amid forces of nature

Tuesday, July 29
HILLSDALE, N.Y — Is it a bad idea to huddle with 30 people on a small, covered stage in the middle of a field as lighting crackles nearby, ferocious winds pummel the billowing tarps that have been pulled down on all sides, rain swirls in unforgivingly and water accumulates on the floor — while surrounded by amplifiers, microphones, cables, assorted electrical equipment, and metal poles?

A small group of concertgoers took refuge in this apparent shelter, joining the musicians stranded onstage and the festival's stage techies, most of whom held on to the nearest non-metal object for dear life for about fifteen minutes. Power might have been cut off already, but this did little to deter the general fear that the stage might actually blow away if lighting didn't strike it first.

So the 20th anniversary Falcon Ridge Folk Festival did not go off without a hitch — half of Sunday's performance schedule was wiped out by this uproarious tempest — but one suspects many festivalgoers simply chalked it up as another story, another storm weathered en masse, another challenge that did not kill them and thus made them stronger.

Indeed, Falcon Ridge still presented a feast of musical expression. A first-time visitor to this event, I only caught much of Saturday's program and a few very promising sets Sunday morning, but this was enough to collect a long list of favorite moments.

  • Saturday afternoon Janis Ian interspersed songs and stories on the workshop stage. A humorous yet politically barbed anecdote preceded "Married in London," a lovely ditty about Ian's marriage to her longtime partner and the fact their legal union dissolved when they returned to the United States. A long story about her mother's degenerative disease introduced her Grammy-winning favorite "At Seventeen." It was an intimate treat, made all the more special since Ian's festival-closing set scheduled for Sunday evening was washed out.

    Over at the main stage, in his 15th Falcon Ridge appearance, John Gorka and band created a lovely fabric of sound (superbly mixed by the front of house engineer), particularly on "Lightning Blues."

    Patty Larkin, her red hair blazing in the sun, was in fine voice for series of wickedly lovely tunes including "Hollywood" and "Wolf At The Door."

    Martin Sexton, a one-time participant in the emerging artists showcase, returned to Falcon Ridge for the first time in a decade to close Saturday night. He delivered a supremely soulful set that peaked with "Black Sheep," as he launched into some octave-leaping scat singing. There was a wonderful moment when the ESL translator accompanied this with what appeared to be improvisational sign language, as she closed her eyes and bobbed with the slinky beat.

  • However, the emotional high point of the day had to be Dar Williams' ecstatically received set Saturday evening. I admit I was unfamiliar with her work, so it was peculiar to walk over during her painfully beautiful song "Iowa" and stumble upon what appeared to be a shared cultural experience of great magnitude. If The Beatles at Shea Stadium could somehow be re-shaped to fit the contours of a small folk festival in Hillsdale, I think it would feel like this. It was an inspiring moment.

    Later I discovered this was Williams' 10th appearance at Falcon Ridge. She clearly connects squarely with some ingrained ethic at the heart of this scene. I don't know what sort of Kool Aid this particular under-the-radar musical subculture is drinking, but I'd line up for some.

    In the "miscellaneous standout" category is Lindsay Mac, a Boston-based performer whose lovely voice and unconventional approach to the cello (for one thing, she wears it around her neck like a guitar) command attention. She made appearances at assorted workshops and song swaps, but hopefully she'll land her own, full set next year.

  • Sunday morning boasted a gospel jam including The Nields, Vance Gilbert, members of Eddie From Ohio, and others; it culminated with a magnificent version of Stephen Foster"s 1855 tune "Hard Times Come Again No More" complete with tears streaming down Nerissa Nield's face.

    It was a stirring moment and an auspicious start to the day, but soon the rains fell, the winds blew, and the lightning crashed.

    I am told that, while I was over at the potential disaster zone of the workshop stage trying to strike up a version of "We Shall Overcome" among the temporary refugees, Tracy Grammer and Jim Henry gamely played Richard Thompson's 1952 "Vincent Black Lightning" on the main stage before the plug was pulled. It was not the planned finale, but perhaps it was fitting — festivals aren't about clockwork precision but about surprises. And we lived to tell the tale.


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