Josh Ritter was the first performer on the Fort Stage on Sunday, and he was one of the prime reasons that I was at the festival. I’m a big fan of the Idaho songwriter, and his set did not disappoint. He appeared with his full band, and they sounded great on songs like “Right Moves,” and “Real Long Distance” from Josh’s most recent album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter, and on the title track from his 2003 album Hello Starling. The real standout however, was one that Josh played solo, the beautiful and powerful anti-war song “Girl In the War.” He dedicated “Another New World” to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Not only is Josh a wonderful songwriter and performer, he comes across as a completely genuine guy, and the early audience at Fort Adams was very appreciative.
I moved over to the Harbor Stage for what was to be my favorite set of the weekend. The legendary (there’s that word again, but it can’t be avoided in this case) Texas songwriter Guy Clark was appearing, together with his performing partner Verlin Thompson. There are very few songwriters that I admire more that Guy Clark. Country songwriters often talk about “three chords and the truth,” but the actual songs aren’t always that honest. Guy Clark is a different story. His songs are simple and eloquent, and he wears his honesty as a badge of honor. His performance style is low-key, and self-deprecating, but once he starts singing, you immediately fall under his spell.
Every song that Clark played was a classic. Some might have been more familiar that others, such as “L.A. Freeway” which Jimmy Buffett covered and had a hit with, but equally profound were songs like “Boats To Build,” “Stuff That Works,” and “The Guitar.” Clark has a new album coming out in September. I haven’t heard it yet, but I want to recommend it because getting a Guy Clark album has never been a bad idea.
I rushed back to the Fort Stage for the much-acclaimed Neko Case, but was unable to get to a very good vantage point. I watched most of her set from behind the stage, which didn’t provide very good visuals, although the audio was fine. I wasn’t as knocked out as I was supposed to be by what I heard. I guess it’s one of those things that’s a matter of taste. The best songs were “Wish I Was the Moon,” “Tigers,” and the title song from the latest Neko Case album, Middle Cyclone.
Case’s band is well chosen and does a good job of putting her songs across in a way that highlights the the songwriting, and not the individuals playing. I had a real problem with backup vocalist Kelly Hogan who does way too much talking during the set. Since when does a backup singer do all the talking? Someone told me that it was set up that way so that Case could focus on her performance. All I can say is that if you’re going to put yourself up front, you have to learn to be comfortable in front of an audience.
It was legend time again when Arlo Guthrie hit the Fort Stage. There had been much talk about his dad all weekend, and a lot of Woody’s songs were covered. Now it was time to hear from an actual blood relation. Arlo opened with his own song “In My Darkest Hour,” which comes off as a tip of the hat to Bob Dylan. Next he paid tribute to New Orleans with “St. James Infirmary,” and honored Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee with “Cornbread Peas and Black Molasses,” before covering Leadbelly’s “Alabama Bound.” The crowd favorite though was Arlo’s version of his very popular “Motorcycle Song,” (you know, “I don’t want a pickle,” etc.). As you might expect, Arlo was personable, and very funny with his between song patter.
Then it was back to the Harbor Stage for what I thought was the most interesting set of the weekend. Former punk rocker Tim Eriksen, who plays a variety of stringed instruments, and specializes in historic folk music, played a very strong set of his own, which included songs like “O’ Death,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” and “Amazing Grace,” before being joined by the Shape Note Singers, a choir of 20-30 voices.
According to the NPR website, Shape Note Singing is a “four part a cappella style based on the solfege syllables (fa, so, la, etc.) with which the notes of the musical scale are sung.” I’m not sure if I completely understand it yet, but it’s fascinating to see these singers perform songs from the Sacred Harp with no music to guide them, and only the voice of the leader for them to follow. I’ve provided a video here so that you can see what I’m talking about. It was completely different from everything else I saw that weekend, and totally fascinating.
Joan Baez was appearing on the Fort Stage. I’m going to resist using that “L” word, because I’ve never been that big a fan. I’ve always felt that her voice, particularly in the upper range, could be strident, almost screechy. Listen to her early recordings at Newport with Bob Dylan to see what I mean.
The good news is that Joan’s voice has mellowed with age. Perhaps she can’t hit the notes that she used to, which has resulted in a key change for her songs, making them much warmer and accessible. She sang a number of Dylan songs, including “Farewell Angelina,” “Forever Young,” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and the stirring song that she wrote about her relationship with Dylan, “Diamonds and Rust.” There was also a cover of Steve Earle’s “Christmas in Washington,” and her classic version of the union anthem “Joe Hill,” which she famously performed at Woodstock.
Judy Collins was next, a performer that inspired me in my younger days. Frankly, I hadn’t paid much attention to her work since the ’70s. I’ve always respected her for tackling difficult material, “art songs” as they were often called, and her performance of “The Weight of the World” was a beautiful example of that talent. She also played classics like her covers of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” and Ian Tyson’s “Someday Soon.” But when Judy brought Joan Baez back to the stage to perform with her, it was if two figures on the Mount Rushmore of folk music had come to life. Together they repeated “Diamonds and Rust,” but it was a lovely version, and seeing them perform together is something that I’ll never forget.
Pete Seeger and friends closed out the day, and the weekend, with another sing-a-long that included a number of the artists who had performed over the weekend. Frankly, I didn’t stay through it all. By then, the rain that had held off all day was holding off no more, and it had been a long, and glorious weekend. I’m ready for Folk Festival 51 already. Whatever it may be called, long live this great American festival.