Falcon Ridge Folk Festival
at Long Hill Farm,
Hillsdale, NY
(22-25 July 2004)

Last year, the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival expanded to four days to honor its 15th anniversary. The festival's management must have been pleased with the results, because this year's incarnation of the festival also lasted four days (as will 2005's). Four days may be too much of a good thing for some people (including me), but this year's festival was another episode of what has become a popular, well-run event. Since it is impossible to catch up with everything that goes on (even if one dispenses with sleep, which I did not), this will be an overview of some highlights from the weekend.

Under the four-day format, Thursday is a low-key day as the different venues start warming up in the afternoon. Introductory dance classes are held in the dance tent, and business workshops are offered for those interested in the business side of folk. This year's workshops ranged from staying healthy on the road to Vance Gilbert's ever-popular performance critiques. The dance tent got off on the right foot as Mark Erelli played a set of western swing music mostly drawn from his recent album, Hillbilly Pilgrim. He was backed by his recording cohorts, Boston-based country band the Spurs; they also joined Erelli during his main stage set that evening.

The act that generated the most buzz at the festival this year was Crooked Still. The band plays traditional American music, the sort of thing you'd associate with old-timey and bluegrass, but Rushad Eggleston's cello is definitely not what you would expect to see at a hoedown. Greg Liszt plays banjo and Corey DiMario plays double-bass, while Aoife O'Donovan's hushed, ethereal voice floats over her bandmates' music. In practice, it becomes a meeting of folk music and the classical concert hall, but with much more energy than such projects often have. The material was familiar ("Shady Grove," anyone?) while the treatment was anything but. Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl" turned into an up-tempo number once Eggleston's furious bowing was added to the mix. For the rest of the festival, attendees and staff were button-holing people and raving about Crooked Still. Their album Hop High won the 2004 Drive-Away Award, which my friends and I give to the first newly-purchased album put into the car stereo upon our departure from Falcon Ridge.

Crooked Still would be a tough act to follow for many, but David Bromberg and his band closed out Thursday night, so no fear there. Despite his long career, this was Bromberg's first appearance at Falcon Ridge. He invited Jay Ungar and Molly Mason to sit in for the set and the ensemble played "Ashokan Farewell" -- predictable, perhaps, but still a lovely tune that never wears out its welcome. The set was relaxed, sort of a back-porch picking session that happened to be on a stage. Material ranged over old blues like "Bedbug Blues," Ian Tyson's "Summer Wages" and Bromberg originals like the scathingly funny "I'll Take You Back." The most poignant moment was the second encore song "Catskill Serenade," a tune written in the voice of Rip Van Winkle after he has returned home from his long nap. Bromberg talked about how he felt like the song's narrator because he doesn't recognize his country any more and made a heartfelt plea for the audience to vote. It wasn't strident, it was just the simple statement of an American worried about his country.

A potential drawback to every open-air music festival is weather, and Friday was the day the weather affected Falcon Ridge the most this year. The day started out cloudy and misty but the rain began to get harder, then finally developed into a full-bore downpour only a couple of artists into the Emerging Artist Showcase. The onstage proceedings were halted as thunder rumbled overhead and the wind gusted. Eventually, the rain let up and the main stage opened up again, but by then I was back up the hill at camp (as were many others, no doubt), listening to the proceedings on a low-watt temporary radio station set up by the festival and Tom Neff. It is unfortunate that the rain disrupted the showcase, as these musicians will not reach the normal number of festival-goers and voting will probably be skewed toward those who played when the rain was lighter.

I did not see a lot of music on Friday, but one of the high points of the festival was Friday night's Brave New Polka Party at the dance tent. Brave Combo's first appearance at Falcon Ridge proved to be a successful one. There were at least as many sambas (you didn't know "Chopsticks" was a samba, did you?) and other dances as polkas, but it was all good fun. I particularly liked "The Habanera Twist," and the band's trademark "The Hokey Pokey" was, well, indescribable. As much fun as it was listening to Brave Combo put popular music in a blender and set it to "high," it was even more fun watching the dancers reach heights of inspiration and enthusiasm.

Once Friday's rain finally departed, Saturday was a perfect day: sunny, breezy, not too hot. If the previous day had demonstrated the drawbacks of open-air music festivals, Saturday demonstrated the advantages. Brave Combo woke everyone up with a boisterous main stage set and then there was a parade of familiar faces such as Erin McKeown, Vance Gilbert, Lucy Kaplansky and John Gorka. One might complain about seeing the same artists year after year at Falcon Ridge, but once one is sitting on the blanket and enjoying the music, it doesn't really matter. All four artists played excellent sets mixing old and new material; Gilbert bantered with the crowd in his typically irrepressible manner. These sets added some of the comfortable familiarity that keeps many people coming back to Falcon Ridge.

A fan favorite of more recent vintage was the trio Girlyman (Nate Borofsky, Ty Greenstein and Doris Muramatsu), part of the Emerging Artist Showcase in 2002. They were invited back last year as one of the three "Most Wanted" showcase acts and proceeded to wow many with their phenomenal harmonies and folk-pop style. This year they got their very own main stage set and did a terrific job. They mixed new songs from a forthcoming album with ones from their album Remember Who I Am. A personal favorite from that album is "Postcards From Mexico," which boasts one of the most perfect first lines for a country song ever written: "You slammed through my life like a screen door in a hurricane wind." Then there was their take on "Son of a Preacher Man" (popularized by Dusty Springfield), in which Borofsky took the lead vocal and gave the song a different twist by changing the usual gender of the narrator.

Saturday night's headliner was folk legend Richie Havens, another first-time Falcon Ridge attendee. By this time, the evening had become chilly, which might help explain some of the lengthy between-song tuning sessions. Still, once Havens got going on a song, his energy and passion was obvious. The highlight was the concluding version of his trademark song "Freedom," but other numbers like "Motherless Child" and "All Along the Watchtower" were delivered with equal energy. If the folk revival is dead, no one has bothered to tell Richie Havens. As the happy audience trekked toward camp after Havens' set, a lone bagpiper up on the hill sent a melody skirling into the air, one of those serendipitous moments that Falcon Ridge is so good at providing.

Sunday morning got off to a rousing start with the ever-popular Gospel Wake Up Call. Any folks worried about the prospect of orthodoxy should've been relieved by the lineup: a congregation led by the likes of Eddie From Ohio, Mark Erelli, Vance Gilbert and Girlyman was bound to be an inclusive one. EFO's Robbie Schaefer wondered at the fact that once again, a Jew got to be master of ceremonies. Kidding aside, EFO deserves its perennial slot in this set because of their crowd-pleasing cover of Manhattan Transfer's "Operator (Get Me Jesus on the Line)" and their own "Great Day." Erelli threw a little fire and brimstone into the mix with "Devil's Train" while Gilbert lifted up the crowd with Al Jarreau's "Could You Believe?" Girlyman added their version of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord," as well as a reprise of "Son of a Preacher Man."

A major change of pace was the gospel set's successor, Jake Armerding. Once known as a fiddle prodigy in the popular Massachusetts bluegrass combo Northern Lights, Armerding has turned into a songwriter with a knack for memorable songs. "Little Boy Blue (North of North Dakota)" chronicled an imaginary Canadian road trip and immediately became my favorite new song of the festival. "Color You In" took a paint-by-numbers approach to a relationship (literally) while "Peace of Mind (Lost in Back Bay)" doubled as a search for a lover and a travelogue of Boston neighborhoods. Jake was accompanied by his father Taylor Armerding who requested that the audience buy plenty of CDs after Jake revealed that he wrote the song "Ithaca" while he was in a college class. Apparently royalties haven't exceeded the tuition bills yet.

Then it was off to the workshop stage for two good workshops. The first was Our Roots Are Showing, in which the musicians paid tribute to their musical influences. Tracy Grammer, not surprisingly, performed three Dave Carter songs, while Crooked Still reprised some of their main stage traditional songs. Mark Erelli started with a brand-new song called "Roots," a tribute to the simple pleasures of hanging out at home, then delivered a knockout version of Roy Orbison's "Crying." His final entry was a traditional ballad (supposedly the first original American ballad) called "Springfield Mountain," which concerned the tragic encounter of two lovers and a snake. Erelli said that he found the snake's behavior in the original version somewhat unrealistic, so he reworked it to be more biologically correct. Lucy Kaplansky had a few problems with forgetting lyrics, but contributed Emmylou Harris's "Boulder to Birmingham," the Beatles' "Tell Me What You See" and Joni Mitchell's "Carey."

The workshop fun continued with Groovin' On Sunday Afternoon, which reunited Eddie From Ohio and Girlyman and threw John Gorka into the mix. "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)" was an appropriate choice, and it led into an epic version of "The Weight," during which Nate Borofsky's fuzzy pink flip-flops (they matched his guitar strap) mysteriously transferred themselves to Robbie Schaefer's feet.

One of the oddest groups to visit Falcon Ridge was Snake Oil Medicine Show. Though they claimed to play "mountain music from North Carolina" and obviously had the chops to play straight-ahead bluegrass, their mountain music was heavily blended with reggae. The song "Bluegrasstafari" summed up their approach pretty well. As the band played on the main stage, one member sat off to the side and painted on a large canvas; other paintings were displayed around the stage. Even in a free-wheeling environment like Falcon Ridge, most of the audience didn't seem to know what to make of Snake Oil Medicine Show, but at least the group was an original change of pace.

After a terrific set from Eliza Gilkyson, and another set during which Ellis Paul valiantly struggled with broken guitar strings and sound problems, it fell to Tracy Grammer to close the festival. She first gained renown from her musical partnership with the late songwriter Dave Carter, but since Carter's passing in 2002 she has continued on her own. The bedrock of her concerts is still Carter's music, but she has started to add other songs to the set list and her new EP, The Verdant Mile, is all non-Carter material. Her current performing partner is songwriter Jim Henry, well-known in his own right; he got to deliver his own "One Horse Town." Grammer's set was mostly Carter songs, including three so-far unreleased ones. A highlight of the set was Grammer's own "The Verdant Mile," a heartbreaking song about her grief over Carter's death. If this tune is any indication, fans can look forward to some fine songs from Grammer's pen in the future. What seemed like a cast of thousands joined in for the finale, a spirited rendition of "Gentle Arms of Eden." Although a line of cars snaking toward the exit indicated that many festival-goers opted to get an early start home, those of us who stayed were able to marvel once again at the magic of Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer.

I've been going to Falcon Ridge for quite a while, and every year is different. This year I found myself sitting back and taking in the general atmosphere rather than obsessing so much over the details of who played what song. Four days is a long time to camp out (for me, anyway), so making sure I got enough food, fluids and relaxation over the course of the weekend became a higher priority than trying to see as many sets as possible. Even with that, sensory overload had definitely set in by Sunday afternoon. Eliza Gilkyson's set merited much closer attention than I was able to give it, but I did enjoy letting her songs waft over my head as I relaxed on the blanket. Perhaps that's part of Falcon Ridge's charm; it can be many things to many people, or even to the same person. One of the friends who went to the festival with me spent most of her time in the dance tent, so her account of the festival would be very different from mine, but no less valid. Then there are the people who attend less for the onstage music and more for the late-night song circles. There's room for everyone. No wonder it's a well-loved festival with many fans that have made a late July visit to Hillsdale a tradition.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 18 September 2004