Scenes from the Night: Grassroots and Beyond

August 10, 2001 by Alan Rose

Nearly two weeks after the GrassRoots Festival, I am still recovering. This annual rite of summer, which actually occurs just outside of Ithaca in Trumansburg, NY, never fails to leave me both exhausted and exhilarated. With four stages of music running almost continuously from Thursday afternoon through Sunday night, it is a music-lover's paradise. The sense of community that forms over the long weekend is nothing short of amazing. Combine that with some great festival food, interesting craft vendors, an Art Barn that highlights local works, a Healing Arts area, and more, and you have the recipe for an unforgettable weekend.

The legendary Del McCoury and his band. The legendary Del McCoury and his band.

The musical highlights began early, with a stellar set by the Bubba George Stringband (an offshoot of festival founders and hosts Donna the Buffalo). Thursday also featured the only sets of the weekend by country songwriter Jim Lauderdale, who was backed by Donna the Buffalo, and bluegrass legend Del McCoury. Lauderdale has become something of an Ithaca fixture. Like Preston and Keith Frank, Keith Secola, and other perennial GrassRoots visiting acts, he is a member of the extended Donna the Buffalo family. Although his songs have been covered by many other country artists, hearing him backed by Donna returns his songs to their rawest and most powerful roots.

McCoury and his band burned up the stage with a set of traditional and modern songs. They performed around just two condenser microphones, mixing themselves by controlling their proximity to the mics and skipping monitor wedges entirely. The technical aspects of the sound system, however, paled in comparison with the technical aspects of the band's playing. Each of the members of McCoury's band has won a best-of award for their instrumental prowess, and it showed. The most memorable song was their take on Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."

Also on Thursday was the first of two sets by Malian blues guitarist Boubacar Traore (known to his fans as Car Car). Traore was one of the three new-to-GrassRoots acts I was most excited about seeing, and he more than lived up to his advanced billing. He performed solo voice and acoustic guitar, with just a single backing musician: a percussionist playing half a hollowed out gourd. Yet the sound was transcendent. The overall experience of the performance, more than just the music itself, created a magical moment that mere words cannot describe. Incredibly, he was able to transform the Grandstand stage on Friday afternoon in the same way that he did in the smaller Caberet Hall on Thursday. Another Thursday highlight from out of town was Eileen Ivers, an extraordinary Celtic fiddler who had brought down the house at last year's GrassRoots. She and her backing band again wowed the audience with their modern take on Celtic roots music. Unfortunately, seeing Ivers meant missing most of the Super Rail Band's set. Another act with Malian roots, Super Rail Band played a high-energy blend of dance music from Mali. Fortunately, they played again on Friday for those who missed them on Thursday.

The local scene was also well represented on Thursday. I caught sets from the Sim Redmond Band, Sunny Weather, the MacGillicuddies, Lost Sailors, the Wicked Natural String Band, Amy Glicklich, and Donna the Buffalo. The day also included the first set of the weekend from festival stalwart Keith Frank, whose driving zydeco fueled the start of the dancing frenzy. In addition, Old Crow Medicine Show, featuring former members of area bands The Funnest Game and Ketch and Kritter, brought their Tennessee String Band music to the dance tent. In all, Thursday was an auspicious start to a wonderful festival.

Friday featured the weekend's most heralded act, as well as its most touching moment. Nickel Creek had been getting a lot of national attention on country stations for their new bluegrass sound. The three teens were excellent instrumentalists with a broad repertoire that featured both classics and grunge rock. They were also masterful showmen. Ultimately, however, their performance left me cold, in part because of their constant harping about their on-stage sound. While it is true that performers need to hear themselves to sound their best, the contrast between their attitudes and those of McCoury's band were telling. When the trio begin to put as much emotion into their performance as they did in their pleas to turn up their instruments in the monitors, they will be on the right track. As things stand now, their technical brilliance -- especially that of Chris Thile on Mandolin -- is outstripped by a too-cool-to-care showbiz attitude that they would be well advised to drop. This was unfortunate, as this was the second of three new-to-GrassRoots acts that I was excited to see.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Friday night also featured a tribute to Colorblind James, who died suddenly just over a week before the festival. His band, the Colorblind James Experience, had been a regular at GrassRoots since the start. Chuck Cuminale (James' birthname) was remembered as a creative spirit and friend to the music scene both in the Ithaca area and in his hometown of Rochester. For 90 minutes, Jeb Puryear of Donna the Buffalo spun classic Colorblind James Experience tracks while people danced and reminisced. As the event was starting, several songs abruptly cut off and were replaced by others. An audience member mused, "It just wouldn't be Colorblind without a bit of weirdness."

On a happier note, Friday featured additional sets by the aforementioned Boubacar Traore, Sim Redmond Band, Super Rail Band, and Old Crow Medicine Show. It also included local acts Plastic Nebraska, Jennie Stearns, and Hank Roberts. Festival perennials Keith Secola and Wild Band of Indians, Preston Frank Family Zydeco, Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys, Jo Serrapere and Los Pochos also chipped in to keep things lively. The evening finished at a relatively early 3:30 AM with the closing strains of Balfa Toujours' cajun set in the Dance Tent.

Saturday began, as always, with the GrassRoots Band Contest. This year's competition featured 24 acts (with more than a dozen more that could not be squeezed in). Ably hosted by local musician Timmy Brown, the contest lasted three hours. Ultimately, solo bass player Milo Matthews of Vermont was declared the winner for his prowess with instrument, vocals, and echoplex. His prize was an hour long set in the Caberet Hall on Sunday morning, a set which was well attended and enthusiastically received. Other highlights of Saturday's contest included local singer-songwriters Bora Yoon and Bert Scholl and a heartfelt performance of Colorblind James' "Let's Go Back" by Kids Without Blankets, an impromptu group led by Cuminale's son.

The party for those who skipped the competition probably began with Keith Frank's set. It revved up further with a technical difficulties-frought set by Sunny Weather in the Dance Tent and this weekend's surprise highlight for me, The Flying Clouds. I've never been big on gospel music, but The Flying Clouds made me a believer. They had raised the roof on the Dance Tent on Friday and brought things to a higher level on the Infield Stage on Saturday.

The third of my pre-GrassRoots picks for best newcomer also played on Saturday and, unfortunately, was more of a washout than Nickel Creek. Ellen Oakes was billed as a singer-songwriter with a unique voice. Starting a set with note-for-note covers of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" and the Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine" was a poor way to highlight that voice. When Oakes announced that her third song was to be a cover as well, I walked out, a first for me in five years of attending GrassRoots. I've left artists to catch other artists before, but never walked away from one without something else to go to.

Fortunately, Saturday was full of highlights. Keith Secola, Donna the Buffalo, Walter Mouton, and the Sim Redmond Band all returned to the stage. Fantcha brought her lovely Cape Verde sounds back for a second year. Mamadou Diabate's kora was more enchanting this year than last, The Red Hots' bluegrass felt more pumped up, and The Hix' blend seemed even more bizarre (and more fun) than in past years. Clint Swank's tasteful jazz session led into a band showcase that featured local mood rockers St. Low (whom I love), Athens Georgia-based modern rockers The Fountains, and Ithaca's own surf-punkers The Mofos (the most unexpected local treat of the festival).

But Saturday's true musical highlights were twofold. For those who needed to go to sleep at a reasonable hour, Samite of Uganda (now an Ithacan himself) played a set that bested his best. His long-time percussionist Mar Gueye was uncharacteristically animated throughout the set, exhorting the crowd to clap along and even getting out from behind his drums to dance for parts of several songs. Of over a dozen Samite performances that I have been fortunate enough to see, this was by far the best, which is saying a lot. Someday, Samite needs to release a live album featuring Mar and guitarist Emma, as well as guest percussionist Nedy Arevalo. Only then will one of his discs capture the pure magic of his music.

For those who didn't mind some sleep deprivation, however, the party really got started around 1 AM in the dance tent when the Preston Frank Family Zydeco Band began its annual "Goes All Night" dance party. Hundreds of people stayed up with the band and were treated to a gorgeous sunrise before the music finally died down around 6 AM. But matching and expanding upon this feat were Los Pochos, who kept things going with Conjunto, Barrachos, Polkas and more until 7 AM. Needless to say, my feet were rebelling by the end of this sleepless night.

With just a couple of exceptions, Sunday was a day of winding down. It began with Milo Matthews' performance. His improvisational bass performance left the early-morning audience spellbound. Bubba George then kicked things off in the Dance Tent, keeping true to old-time music by talking amongst themselves between songs. Sunny Weather replaced Horizonte Llanero Bandola y Arpa, who had played a fun set on Thursday but then had to depart. Jo Seraperre returned for more blues and swing, as did Jennie Stearns, for more soulful country waltzes.

Next up were Zydeco Experiment, another Donna the Buffalo offshoot. Sunday's high-energy highlight was Perfect Thyroid, who returned to GrassRoots by popular demand. They had been omitted from early schedules until an outcry from their loyal Ithaca fanbase secured them a slot. With their socially conscious lyrics and their fun-loving spirit, Perfect Thyroid fit in, well, perfectly with the GrassRoots spirit. They recently released their first new album since a record label debacle a few years back. By the time they were finished, my legs and feet were screaming at me to stop. But did I? Of course not. Time for one last Keith Frank set on the Infield, and Zydeco is a musical form that challenges you to sit still. It is a challenge I always loose.

The weekend reached another peak with a terrific performance by Celtic neo-traditionalists Solas. Led by the legendary Seamus Eagan and featuring as many award-winning musicians as the Del McCoury Band, Solas put on a spirited set that recalled the power of their Saturday night showcase two years ago. This led nicely into Donna the Buffalo's closing set of the weekend, featuring guest appearances by most of the Preston Frank family and countless others. At one point, Jeb Puryear commented "There are almost as many of us up here as there are out there." An overstatement, to be sure, but a mark of the overall festival spirit of sharing and collaborating. When Donna finished playing, with an extended zydeco jam, the long process of breaking down and cleaning up the festival began.

In all, this year's GrassRoots was wonderful. It was even better than past years, if that can be believed. As always, I caught a ton of music and had to miss a lot more that I had hoped to see. Although the crowd felt larger than normal on Thursday and Friday, Saturday seemed to be roughly the same as in past years, and Sunday was a bit quieter. If you have not yet had the pleasure of experiencing the GrassRoots Festival, start making your plans to attend next year's now. As always, it will be on the next to last full weekend in July.

Amazingly, the GrassRoots spirit continued during the week that followed. On Monday night, I caught the Sim Redmond Band in a benefit concert for the See Spot, a new art gallery on the Commons. This was the smallest crowd I've seen at a Sim show in a long while, reminding me of the early gigs that I caught a few years back. Other See Spot benefits that week featured Hank Roberts and Gabe Tavares. While heading to see Sim, I caught local bluegrass upstarts Cletus and the Barnburners, who put on an energetic and entertaining acoustic set under one of the pavillions. After emerging from the See Spot, I happened upon the Monday night Contra Dance that happens near the center pavillion each week until the frost.

Tuesday night was Open Mic night at the ABC Café, hosted by local jazz guitarist Marco, and featuring appearances by a wide variety of lesser-known area talent, including guitarist Silence. Wednesday was another multiple event night: the ABC Café featured earnest San Francisco singer-songwriter Gavin Benford, while Cletus and the Barnburners and an Ithaca College-based blues band tore up the Nines. Friday night, Oculus performed a set of intricate rock with folk and world-beat influences at Castaways that was marred by a hideous sound mix. Saturday, it was the always-entertaining Mary Lorson opening up for rockers Hubcap who performed a rare acoustic set. And Sunday, there were two events. First, the final Bound for Glory of Year 34 of this live folk show, featuring James Gordon (late of Tamarack) and Sandy Horne. Then the latest in the series of occasional I-Town Records Songwriter Circle nights at the ABC Café.

The music scene in Ithaca is far from quieting down, too. Labor Day Weekend this year will bring the Second Annual MuseFest, a cooperative music festival featuring many of the area's bands and singer-songwriters. Free tickets are available at the festival's website and can also be found at area retailers like Ithaca Guitar Works. Highlights of this year's festival will include the farewell performance of jazzy area favorites Mectapus, a set by the relocated Reid Genauer (chief songwriter for Strangefolk), and folks like Hank Roberts, Jennie Stearns, Perfect Thyroid, Plastic Nebraska and Sunny Weather. Also on the bill is an electronic dance party, a singer-songwriter stage, and a swimming pool for you to cool off in. This year's festival has moved to the Willowood Resort in Newfield. With well over 30 acts on three stages over the course of the weekend, a list of musicians is all but pointless. With few exceptions, if they are local and in town that weekend, they are on the bill. Check out the web site for more details and watch this space in two months for my review.

Next month, I'll bring you more on Ithaca between festivals. If there is something or someone that you would like to see profiled here, contact me at See you out in the night.


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