Top picks and hidden gems at this weekend's GrassRoots Festival

July 17, 2012 by Alan Rose

The 22nd annual Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance is right around the corner, and they don’t call this festival a “music-lover’s paradise” for nothing.

The GrassRoots schedule is available for download at www.grassrootsfest.orgThe GrassRoots schedule is available for download at www.grassrootsfest.orgWith four stages running non-stop for four days and a musical spread that ranges from grindcore to chamber orchestra and features acts from around the globe and our own back yards, there truly is something for everyone. That’s why so many regular attendees have taken up the habit of printing off a schedule ahead of time and highlighting the sets they want to be sure to catch. (You can download a copy from the GrassRoots web site: grassrootsfest.org). 

That schedule can be daunting if you are unfamiliar with most of the musicians listed, and it can be equally challenging if you’ve been going for years and either love everything (my copy of the schedule ends up having almost everything highlighted) or have fallen into the habit of seeing just certain bands and are hoping to branch out this year. So, here is a guide to some of the can’t-miss sets that lie ahead -- but just some because, really, at GrassRoots, it’s all worth seeing.

Let’s start with some of the bigger names on the bill, the ones you might recognize, and then branch out. How about country legend George Jones, for starters? With instantly recognizable songs like “The Race Is On” and “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today,” Jones has been on the GrassRoots organizers’ wish list for years, and he’ll finally be stopping in at the Grandstand Stage on Thursday night.

Don’t miss Eilen Jewell, the Idaho-based singer-songwriter who precedes Jones on the same stage. Her versatile voice and top-flight band (guitarist Jerry Miller is particularly spell-binding) have been charming GrassRoots audiences for years.

Speaking of country, Jim Lauderdale will be hitting the Grandstand on Friday evening, once again backed by GrassRoots host band Donna the Buffalo. These high-spirited sets of Lauderdale-penned country classics are always a festival highlight. Jim will also be leading a songwriting workshop in the Healing Arts area on Friday afternoon. Donna the Buffalo has sets of their own on Thursday and Saturday and a big, guest-laden set on Sunday to end the festivities. Members of the band also appear throughout the weekend under a variety of band names, with guitarist Jeb Puryear sitting in with so many different bands throughout the weekend you’d swear there were four of him.

Back in the ’90s, Jill Sobule attracted a lot of attention with her hit song “I Kissed a Girl.” More recently, she released a live CD of rootsy duets with John Doe (from the L.A. punk band X) that shows she’s anything but a one-hit novelty. She’ll be at the Grandstand stage on Sunday afternoon, right after the annual appearances by the GrassRoots Chamber Orchestra (this year featuring the premieres of four pieces, including an arrangement of Jeb Puryear’s song Mystic Water written by Judy Hyman of The Horseflies) and the GrassRoots Songwriters’ Circle, which allows for intimate solo performances by members of bands on the bill.

If it’s singer-songwriters you’re after, this year has plenty, starting with hometown favorite Willie Watson, of Old Crow Medicine Show (and, along with Jordan Aceto of Sim Redmond Band, The Funnest Game), who returns to the Grandstand on Friday afternoon. Old Crow’s song “Wagon Wheel” has become a mainstay of open mics and song circles, and it had its genesis right here.

Mary Lorson and the Soubrettes at GrassRoots. 14850 Photo by Mark H. Anbinder.Mary Lorson and the Soubrettes at GrassRoots. 14850 Photo by Mark H. Anbinder.Jennie Lowe Stearns and the Fire Choir and Mary Lorson and the Soubrettes take over Cabaret Hall on Saturday evening, with Jennie also appearing in the Dance Tent on Sunday. Both create gorgeous atmospheres with compelling lyrics and memorable melodies, and both guest with each other. They’ll be joined this year by their long-time friend and collaborator Kathy Ziegler, returning from her home in the Netherlands for a set in Cabaret Hall on Friday. And if you love them, be sure to check out the Amy Puryear-led Double E on the Infield on Friday and in the Cabaret on Sunday, Uniit on the Infield on Sunday, Bronwen Exter in the Cabaret on Friday, and Rockwood Ferry in the Dance Tent on Thursday and Friday. 

Louisiana is a hotbed of musical activity, from the legendary sounds of New Orleans, to the less familiar places that birthed those sounds, and GrassRoots has always had a fine representation of performers from the Big Easy and its environs. If you haven’t heard a New Orleans-style brass band, nothing can prepare you for the sheer force of nature and fun that they bring to the stage. The Rebirth Brass Band, who will take over the infield stage on Friday night, are among the very best.

Keith Frank and band at GrassRoots.Keith Frank and band at GrassRoots.Of course, it wouldn’t be GrassRoots without the Zydeco sounds of the Frank family. They have been with the festival seemingly forever, and both Keith Frank and his father Preston Frank will lead marathon sets throughout the weekend, including the goes-all-night party in the dance tent on Saturday. Also returning is Walter Mouton and the Scott Playboys, whose Cajun waltzes and two-steps have been raising dust clouds on the Grandstand track and in the dance tent for years. 

And, of course, Reggae has a big presence in this year’s lineup. The Meditations, from Jamaica, have been at it since the early ’70s, and they’ll be returning to GrassRoots with a harmony-filled Friday night set that’s sure to set the right tone for the weekend.

Eliot Martin leads John Brown's Body.Eliot Martin leads John Brown's Body.Locals John Brown’s Body and Black Castle, both led by Eliot Martin, always raise the party atmosphere, but it’s the promised reunion of JBB members of old during Kevin Kinsella’s Thursday night appearance on the Grandstand that has the underground buzz as the can’t-miss set of the weekend.

GrassRoots has a longstanding tradition of bringing the best musicians from the African continent to perform here, and this year is no exception. The return of Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited to the Infield stage on Saturday night is sure to be a highlight, but don’t miss Khaira Arby, billed as Mali’s “Nightingale of the North,” or SMOD, who take traditional Malian blues sounds and infuse them with a modern soundscape. They’re both on the Grandstand on Saturday. The brief samples I listened to online sound good, and if the past track record is any indication, these will be the most buzzed-about sets of the weekend. Mapfumo was a big influence on the Sim Redmond Band; these local favorites will be back on the Grandstand on Friday and the Infield on Sunday for sets that are guaranteed to leave you smiling.

Although it’s been a few years since the Conjunto sounds of Los Pochos have visited Trumansburg, Locos Por Juana will be returning with a Dance Tent set on Friday and a Grandstand set on Sunday with more of an Afro-Caribbean sound. And if you like them at all, be sure to check out GrassRoots newcomers Revelation Mizik. This band of Miami-based musicians bring the sounds of Haiti to the Infield stage on Friday night, right after a set from Ithaca’s own JSan and The Big Mean Sound Machine that’ll be a perfect high-energy warm up. 

Thousands of One draw a crowd at last year's GrassRoots.Thousands of One draw a crowd at last year's GrassRoots.Speaking of high-energy locals, the annual Dance Tent appearance by Thousands of One has taken on a life of its own. They’ll be back there again on Thursday night, and then on the Infield stage on Saturday night. And on a similar note, the Gunpoets always bring the party with them. Catch their conscious hip-hop on the Infield right before the Meditations on Thursday night.

The sounds of the Emerald Isle are also a long-standing tradition at GrassRoots, and though last year’s standard bearers The Town Pants didn’t make the schedule this year, Eileen Ivers returns after a hiatus of several years. They replaced the roof on the Grandstand stage after her last appearance, and her return to the scene of the crime on Thursday night is likely to be equally incendiary. As a warm up for her fiddle prowess, check out locals the Grady Girls in the Dance Tent earlier that day and again in the Cabaret on Saturday, and pick up a little hair of the dog with Sunday’s Grandstand appearance by Traonach. They’ll also be on the Infield on Friday morning.

If you like your fiddle music to be rooted on this side of the Atlantic, you won’t find a larger selection of old-timey music anywhere. From the festival-opening strains of the Bubba George String Band on the Infield Stage through the Jerkhampton Family Band closing out the Cabaret Hall on Sunday, GrassRoots has you covered. Classics like Mac Benford (in the Dance Tent on Thursday) and John Specker (right before Donna the Buffalo on the Infield on Saturday and with his family band The Speckers in the Dance Tent earlier that day), long-time favorites like the Dead Sea Squirrels, and upstarts The Stringbusters are just a part of the picture. There are also genre-benders like Dirk Powell and Matuto who will leave you breathlessly unable to guess what might come next. In addition, you can check out some up-and-coming talent during the Grassroots Fiddle, Banjo and Guitar Contest on Friday morning at the Grandstand.

The Jerkhampton Family Band are on this year’s schedule after winning last year’s GrassRoots Band Contest. The contest happens on Saturday morning, allowing roughly 20 bands to play the Grandstand stage in about two hours, and the winner (chosen by a panel of judges) gets a slot in next year’s festival. Two previous band contest winners are also returning with sets of their own: The Folkadelics, from Brooklyn, play an acoustic roots/reggae mix to open Cabaret Hall on Thursday, and Driftwood, from Binghamton, have been bringing down houses wherever they tour with their acoustic blend of rocking old-time. They’ll be back in the Dance Tent on Friday evening and on the Grandstand on Saturday afternoon. Driftwood introduced me to North Carolina’s Holy Ghost Tent Revival a couple of years ago, and while I can’t quite do justice to what they sound like, it’s enough to say that it’s high energy, genre bending, mostly acoustic American music that’ll knock your socks off and wear you out. They close down the Dance Tent on Thursday.

Keith Secola and his Band of Wild Indians on the Infield Stage.Keith Secola and his Band of Wild Indians on the Infield Stage.You can’t get more American than Native American, and long-time GrassRoots friend Keith Secola and his Wild Band of Indians will be back with sets on the Infield on Friday afternoon and the Grandstand on Sunday evening. Moontee Sinquah, a past member of the Wild Band, will be on the Infield on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, and the Jones Benally Family appears on the Grandstand on Friday. Both offer more traditional takes on Native music and dance. In contrast, Atsiaktonkie, who kicks off the Grandstand on Thursday afternoon, plays music that sounds like classic rock, and Sihasin (two members of longtime GrassRoots favorites Blackfire) take a punky rock approach.

Maddy Walsh fronts the Blind Spots at the Cabaret Hall.Maddy Walsh fronts the Blind Spots at the Cabaret Hall.The harder side of rock is well represented this year beyond Sihasin, too. The Blind Spots have built a well-earned reputation as a great live band, and you can see them for yourself on Saturday night in Cabaret Hall. Lead vocalist Maddy Walsh harkens back to the big voices of Janis Joplin and Grace Slick, and the rest of the band matches her in spirit and drive. Hubcap has transformed into purveyors of hard-edged power pop while retaining a taste of their trademark twang. They’re on the Infield on Sunday this year.

Mike Brindisi and the New York Rock have a more commercial take on hard rock, the Atomic Forces get a bit more experimental with it, and Hiroshima Vacation slam an hour's worth of music into a half-hour set with gleeful grinding abandon. And if that’s still not enough for you, consider checking out the Crazy Horse-like sounds of The Fly Rods, the return of the inimitable Johnny Dowd, or the always-inventive and spacy rocktacular that is the Sutras, led by A.J. Strauss.

The Sutras may launch you into the stratosphere, but there are other ways to reach great heights at GrassRoots. Relax, I’m talking about Gospel music. The Flying Clouds of South Carolina are back once again, with sets in the Dance Tent on Friday and on the Grandstand on Saturday. And The Campbell Brothers are returning, too, to make sure that we get some church on Sunday. They’ll also be appearing on the Grandstand on Friday.

Jimkata at GrassRoots 2011.Jimkata at GrassRoots 2011.The schedule is chock full of local bands that fill the clubs on a regular basis, including Jimkata, who are sure to have a raucous set on the Grandstand to close out Friday night; The Sound Awake, which is led by Nick Bullock of long-time Ithaca favorites Revision and Features Dana Billings (of IY/New Neighbors, among countless others) on drums; and the grooving classic sounds of Go Gone.

While it’s always nice to see local favorites, GrassRoots is also a time that the rare birds of the local scene come out of hibernation. World-class jazz cellist Hank Roberts takes to the Infield stage on Thursday and Sunday. Sunny Weather follows Hank’s set on Thursday, returning with their rootsy zydeco mix for the first time in many years.

The Makepeace Brothers play a steamy set on the Infield Stage at GrassRoots 2011.The Makepeace Brothers play a steamy set on the Infield Stage at GrassRoots 2011.Plastic Nebraska will bring their impossible to describe yet impossibly danceable swampy mix back to the Cabaret on Thursday. The TalkToMes, led by Gregor Sayet-Bone, play rootsy, matter-of fact rock in the Infield on Friday and the Cabaret on Saturday. Gregor is one part of Burke and Bone (along with Pat Burke, and sometimes Sid Burke), who play old-style acoustic blues in the Cabaret on Sunday. And don’t miss Paso Fino, whose acoustic music blends rock with Spanish influences on Saturday on the Infield, or favorite sons The Makepeace Brothers, who bring their good vibrations back from California for a set on the Infield on Saturday.   

And then there’s the Dance part of the festival’s full name. This year, Galumpha has their traditional Saturday evening set as well as a bonus set on Sunday afternoon, both on the Grandstand. Earlier on Saturday, Footworks take over the Grandstand for their own brand of dance. And, of course, the Dance Tent is home to square dancing, contra dancing, zydeco dancing, swing dancing (with the always rockin’ Bobby Henrie and the Goners), and more throughout the weekend. 

Whatever your tastes, whatever your interests, chances are GrassRoots has something for you. From old favorites to the new best thing ever, from expected highlights to newfound treasures, the music-lover’s paradise awaits. And it’s all right at the Trumansburg Fairgrounds, July 19-22, 2012. See you there!

Alan Rose is not only a constant fixture in the audience at local music events, he's a talented songwriter and performer. Alan Rose and the Restless Elements released Alan's third CD, "American Hands," two years ago. Find Alan at www.alanrosemusic.com or on Facebook.

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