Spring Gulch Folk Festival,
New Holland, PA
(19 May 2001)

As I approached the campgrounds on foot, I heard a lot of common springtime sounds. Children, mostly -- playing in the lake, playing in the woods, running and screaming and laughing as children are supposed to do. In the distance, faint music.

As I drew closer, the distant and indistinct sounds coalesced into people singing "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." And they were singing not at all well.

Oh wait, I had to admit, that vocal backbeat -- all vocals, actually, although it sounded like a full band -- was pretty damn good. It reminded me of the Nylons, back in the '80s, when they made a fresh hit out of "Kiss Him Goodbye." But this lead singer was awful....

I made my way through the throngs of blissful campers and past the first tier of vendors in time to see that Four Shadow, the young, blue-eyed soul band on stage, wasn't to blame for the dominant caterwauling. It was the audience-participation portion of their sunny afternoon show, and several people with questionable vocal talents had lined up for their shot at singing those memorable lines (with the wordless "ooooooh-weeeeey" portion of the chorus, too) for a massed crowd.

Fortunately, I hadn't missed much of Four Shadow's show, which kept the crowd grooving to songs as diverse as "Under the Boardwalk" and "Ants Marching." The band's a cappella vocal harmonies -- perfectly excellent throughout the show, guests from the audience notwithstanding -- made for a pleasant, low-key afternoon under hazy, but thankfully not raining, skies. The band, based in Minneapolis, Minn., and composed of Andrew Tullar, Stacy Carolan, Kevin Steinman and Karl Schroeder, made for a good start to my day.

The Spring Gulch Folk Festival is a May tradition in Lancaster County, Pa. Arriving when I did meant I'd already missed some good performances -- the Gibson Brothers and Entrain on Friday evening, Robin and Linda Williams and Entrain again earlier Saturday -- but there was still plenty to see and do.

Next up was a fiddle workshop by Cape Breton fiddle wizard Natalie MacMaster. She spent the afternoon session seated and uncharacteristically mellow. It didn't take long for her to heat up the stage, however, with both legs pumping madly in point and counterpoint to the increasingly lively set, a medley of nine tunes, which started her show. Meanwhile, a growing number of hopeful fiddlers gathered on the periphery, hoping to gain new wisdom and skill at the feet of a master. Unfortunately for them, it wasn't that kind of a workshop; it was more of a demonstration, with Natalie taking questions about Cape Breton style and culture between tune sets. Still, this solo performance was a treat -- it's all too rare to see Natalie playing alone, all the embellishments and arrangement of a full band stripped away, leaving pure fiddle mastery. "It's rare that I get a chance to play the old traditional stuff just raw, the way that I would if I was home in my kitchen," she told the crowd. The crowd roared.

Natalie talked about her early lessons with Stan Chapman and showed the mechanics behind a few bowing techniques as the afternoon progressed. After a question about time signatures, Natalie effortlessly converted "McNab's Reel" into a jig, strathspey, waltz, clog/hornpipe, air and march to demonstrate the differences between styles. "This is hard," she said, laughing. "This is a good workshop for me!"

While some folks headed indoors for a workshop on Nova Scotia-style dancing, I drifted down through the camping area to join some new friends for a bit of tasty camp victuals, good conversation and some impromptu fiddling under the canopy. The formal entertainment resumed a few hours later, first with kilted solo bagpiper Dennis Hagey, and next with Andes Manta, which filled the site with their lively sound on a variety of Andean flutes and pan pipes. Then Four Shadow returned, giving new life to songs from the '60s through today with their well-conceived, well-executed a cappella stylings.

As the sun began sinking towards the horizon, t-shirts, shorts, sarongs and bikini tops were replaced with sweats, sweaters and endless layers of tie-dyed shirts. Meanwhile on stage, Four Shadow was mixing it up with the Bee-Gee's "Stayin' Alive," Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," the Temptations' "Can't Get Next to You" and Katrina & the Waves' "Walkin' on Sunshine," as well as their own classic insult song, "If" and the rap song "George" (about a well-known impish monkey from my childhood).

You'd be amazed at how well these four boys from Minnesota made a band of their voices. At times, you would have sworn their were guitars, drums and at least one bass at work on stage with them, but it was only four well-trained sets of vocal cords.

Grand Derangement, from Nova Scotia's Acadian region, was a colorful spectacle when they took the stage next. Wearing some form of red, white and black Colonial/Goth outfits, all leather and frills, the band and their three tireless dancers brought a touch of French-Canadian music and splash to the evening.

Their set featured high-powered instrumentals led by fiddling frontman Daniel LeBlanc and songs in French sung by singer-percussionist Briand Melanson. They, along with Armand Dionne and Jean Pascal Comeau, kept a funkin' groove going, blending their native French-Canadian styles with pieces of the Celtic, jazz and Cajun traditions. The audience even learned a bit of French so they could sing along.

Much of the show was punctuated by the fancy percussive footwork of Christiane Theriault, Janice Comeau and Michelle LeBlanc, three Acadian stepdancers with an endless supply of energy. They even performed a seated tap routine with fiddler LeBlanc, which accelerated into a whirlwind pace before its rousing close.

It was a lush production, visual as much as musical, with a fair bit of feigned 'tude flowing between the dancers and band. With a sparse freckling of stars lighting the sky, supplemented by spotlights, campfires, merchant lights and glowsticks, the enthusiastic crowd seemed to thoroughly enjoy a different sort of Nova Scotian music. Their portion of the evening closed with massed stepdancing, vocal lilting and plenty of pent-up vigor for the high-intensity conclusion.

Comedic singer-songwriter Deirdre Flint kept the stage alive as Grand Derangement cleared its equipment and Natalie MacMaster's band took its place. Meanwhile, across the campground, there was plenty of music happening at various campsites: sing-alongs, guitar jams, fiddle improvs and drum circles.

Natalie started her evening performance, now backed by her full five-piece band, with a semi-mellow version of "The Mathematician." Of course, anyone who knows Natalie knows it couldn't stay mellow for long. Her leggy perambulations were limited somewhat by the cramped stage, but she made do with the space available, stomping out a routine to leave aerobic diehards gasping for breath. As more stars appeared in the sky, she treated her audience to lively jigs, reels, her own brand of Celtic flamenco and, one of her favorites, the Scottish air "Blue Bonnets Over the Border." She and her bandmates even spent a portion of the show seated, kitchen-style, for an informal but no less lively set of bouncy tunes. The musicians' feet beat out a sharp tattoo on the stage as the music developed.

The performance ended with a final blast of tunes including Natalie's jazz-tap stepdancing routine. The entire show was marred only by a man in the audience who thought Natalie's arrangements lacked tambourine, a sound he provided loudly and with an overall lack of rhythm and tempo.

Kathy Mattea mellowed out the night with her soulful folk and folk-rock ballads. Her stories about life and her easy manner kept the crowd enraptured, and I headed back into the darkness with the sounds of her gorgeous "Ready for the Storm" echoing through the night air.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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