New Bedford Folk Festival Ranks Among the Best

Newport… Winnipeg… Big Muddy… Old Songs…. Fine folk music festivals each (though Newport is way too pricey), but ask me to list my favorite and the old Massachusetts seaport town of New Bedford goes straight to the top. Held each year on the weekend of (or just after) the Fourth of July, New Bedford is a bargain extraordinaire. Tell me where else you could see Garnet Rogers and Patty Larkin for two and a half days for $30. (A one-day pass is just $20.) Rogers and Larkin were 2012 headliners, sort of. One of the glories of New Bedford is that everybody gets a star turn or two. Plus your armband gets you access to seven stages. As always, it means you’ll hear some folks whose work you didn’t know very well but will be sure to check out in the future.
Here are some of my impressions from the weekend of July 6-8. Fell free to post your own comments on the forum if you were lucky enough to attend this year’s events.

Let’s start with this: Patty Larkin is a goddess. She looks amazing at age 61, sounds fabulous, and plays guitar like her hands are on fire. The Custom House tent was packed with hundreds of folks for her headline show and each had that mix of amazement and ecstasy on their face as Larkin made her way through some old and future favorites.  Garnet Rogers, on the other hand, was very subdued and was content to be more of a storyteller. The material, to be honest, sounded a bit mailed in, though his wit and irreverence were fine-tuned.

Watch out for Annalivia, a Boston-based quintet that blends Irish, traditional, and Appalachian material. They’ve seemed a bit tepid in the past, but they were clicking on all cylinders at Summerfest and made a lot of new fans. Here’s hoping they build off that energy.

If anyone doesn’t know the pure joie de vivre of Benoit Bourque, check him out immediately. Benoit has been playing, clogging, singing, and joking his way in every heart he touches between Quebec and New Bedford since the first Summerfest 16 years ago; this time he showed up with his son, Antoine, a peach of an accordionist who didn’t fall very far from the family tree.

It was wonderful to see so many younger performers like Antoine in New Bedford. It’s not fair to hold them to the same standards as seasoned vets, but keep your eyes peeled for the Cape Breton sisters Cassie and Maggie MacDonald. Another Canadian act on the rise is the duo Dala. In keeping with the youth theme, there’s Seth Glier, he of a falsetto/tenor voice reminiscent of a cross between Ellis Paul and young Billy Joel. At age 22 he already has a Grammy nomination under his belt. Think he might have a promising future? (My advice: Lose a few syrupy love songs and add some more grit.)

Pete and Maura Kennedy delivered my favorite performances of the weekend. Pete is a virtuoso guitar player and Maura an accomplished vocalist. Their mix of straight-up folk, rockabilly, country, and urban folk rock offers something for every taste. I was especially enamored by how well Pete orchestrated the workshops he headed. These folks are always on when they take the stage, but even though you have trouble not looking at them, they play without ego and seek to involve everyone.

It’s always hard to take in everything at a festival. Although I didn’t get to hear tons of their stuff, I enjoyed dipping into performances by squeeze box demon John Whelan, the eclectic blues, etc. of Pumpkin Head Ted, the dynamic folk of Peter Mulvey, the plaintive Appalachian music of Molly Andrews, the booming voice of shanty singer Ian Robb, and the songwriting prowess of Andrew Calhoun and Rod MacDonald. Another nice find was the Quebecois band Raz de Marée. That translates “Tidal Wave,” but the lineup actually favors subtle tunes and complex arrangements over kitchen dance tempos.

Every year I discover someone whose music was unfamiliar to me. This year it was Zoë Lewis, an offbeat woman from England who now resides in Provincetown. Some reviewers use the term “vaudeville” to describe her act, and it’s apt. You never know what Ms. Lewis will do–sing a poignant café-jazz-flavored homage to her mother, burst into scat, do a wacky ukulele-backed comic song, pick up the guitar for some folk, or sit down at the keyboards for some classic jazz.  She speaks in soft English accents; she sings in gutsy gusts. I was charmed.

 Apologies to other fine musicians I simply didn’t have time to check out, but thanks to the organizers, volunteers, and sponsors for allowing me to dip into so many amazing performances.  --Rob Weir

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