Festival that 'started on a fluke' returns for 14th season
DALTON — In 2009, the late Bob Vincelette was moved from Sugar Hill Assisted Living Community to a nearby nursing home, so he missed that year's Sugar Hill Folk Festival. But on the afternoon of the festival, performers Bernice Lewis and Toby Walker visited Vincelette at Craneville Place Rehabilitation and Skilled Care Center to play him a song.
"Bob loved the blues and was thrilled to have a private concert," Lewis said.
Few spaces afford the intimacy that the folk music tradition provides. Between coffeehouses, lawns and living rooms across the country, community has remained folk's binding element.
"I get to sit 10 feet from the music I listen to — it's not like an arena," said Lewis. "I get to go up and talk to the artists who I admire."
The 14th annual Sugar Hill Folk Festival is set to run from 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 12, on the lawn of Dalton's Sugar Hill Senior Living Community. Husband-and-wife duos The Levins and Adler & Hearne will perform, and Lewis will play alongside Mariah Colorado, her daughter, and bass player Dan Broad. Funding from seven sponsors, including the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Adams Community Bank, allows the festival to be free and open to all.
A fixture in the local music community, Lewis said that she started the festival "on a fluke" in 2005. Her mother had moved to Sugar Hill, and sound engineer Don Harris pointed out that the expansive lawns and stone porticos would make for a lovely setting to put on a festival.
Colorado has performed alongside her mother since age 12 and has played at the festival throughout her teenage years. Now 18, she has become a member of The Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra, a group that Lewis joined in 1994.
"Five years ago, she was like, 'Here's a ukulele,'" Mariah Lewis said. "She showed me the chords to 'Creep' by Radiohead, and I practiced my heart out."
"She would be around during all the rehearsals, and she'd be able to sing the third-part harmony from the upstairs bedroom," Lewis joked. "I pretty much forced her to do gigs with me because I wanted someone younger who could carry stuff. And she's a really good harmonist."
Nevertheless, Lewis said that the festival primarily aims to highlight the other bands.
"My goal is to bring in some artists from my travels out in the world who people might never have heard," she said, noting the Berkshires' lack of a substantial folk music scene. "We always play first so that we can sit back and self-indulge in listening to others play."
Hailing from Winnsboro, Texas, Adler & Hearne — Lynn Adler and Lindy Hearne — are traveling troubadours of the purest form. The two met in Nashville in 1979, when they were both solo artists. Since the duo began touring together in 2001, house concerts have constituted a large portion of their gigs.
"We largely make our living in people's living rooms," Adler said by phone from Moultonborough, N.H., where she and Hearne were teaching songwriting at a camp last week. "It's usually a pot luck, and there's eating, drinking and being merry. Then everybody settles into the living room, and we give them a concert."
The pair describe themselves as "organic song farmers" — folk singers who craft stories from real experiences in their lives. Selected to serve on Texas' official touring roster from 2014-2020 by the Texas Commission on the Arts, they said that their favorite part of touring is the people they meet.
"It makes life rich and helps us appreciate the different ways people live a life," Adler said. "We just want to play in rooms full of people, and we're just as happy for it to be in somebody's home as to play in a venue."
"Because we travel — just the two of us — in our old Toyota van, we have the flexibility to go anywhere," Hearne added. "It's a good life. And as Ronny Cox says, we make dozens of dollars every year. We don't need much."
Ira Levin and Julia Bordenaro Levin comprise The Levins, a "harmony-driven" acoustic duo. On the one hand, they are recognized for their vocal harmonies (Julia had previously toured worldwide with Vocolot, a women's a cappella group). But promoting harmony and understanding in communities was a key mission that led the couple to pursue music full-time together in 2010.
They said that mission is more important now than ever, given the tensions and divisions currently existing in the United States. On June 28, The Levins released "America Could Be." Built upon quotes from such figures as Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, and Thomas Jefferson, the song reminds listeners of the virtues that the United States possesses to "make the world a happier and brighter place."
"I think we need bridges and a means to heal the divide in a lighthearted way," Ira said in a telephone interview from New York, where the band is currently recording a new album, "Caravan of Dawn." "We're not really standing up on a soap box or anything — we're just pointing out where we intersect."
As songwriters, The Levins often draw from literature.
"We joke that, besides our car, our other home is the library," Julia said.
"My Friend Hafiz," their 2013 album, is inspired by the words of a 14th-century mystical Persian poet. And "God's Spies" on their 2015 album, "Trust," sends a message borrowed from Shakespeare's "King Lear."
"If you don't go for what is real in your life, you'll go crazy — is essentially what I think is the message of King Lear," Ira said. "It takes until the fifth act and the third scene for this reconciliation to happen between the father and the daughter. I guess what we say in concert when we play the song is, 'Don't wait until the fifth act to tell somebody next to you that you care.'"
Lewis said that the festival has grown to have around 150 attendees each year, although there is room for more. Artists will play many of their own songs, but there will be covers to which the audience can sing along.
"Come and bring your family, and bring a picnic," she said. "It's just a lovely afternoon in the Berkshires. It's free, it's publicly funded and you're going to hear new stuff."
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