A Weekend of Traditional Music in Brooklyn!
I would not have known the Brooklyn Folk Festival existed were it not for the publicist. I might have known if I lived in New York, but I do not. I am grateful to that publicist because I was introduced to some fine people – musicians, a writer, and a filmmaker – who enriched my life.
This three-day festival celebrated its ninth year with a large diverse crowd, ranging from families with babies to older people who lived through the folk revival movement of the 1950s and 1960s.The musicians were as diverse as the audience; there was an 11-year old girl playing a mean banjo and there was Jim Kweskin who was part of the folk revival movement.
This festival has been held in St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights for the past three years (of the nine years of its existence), and it provides an excellent backdrop for the music. It has a reputation of being a mystical place; I had an extraordinarily spiritual experience there which leads me to agree with that reputation. While I include photos of every act I saw, I am writing only about the artists who I especially loved.
Admittedly I did not know most of the artists who appeared at the Festival. There were two artists I have seen and loved – Willie Watson, one of the founders of Old Crow Medicine Show, and Jerron ‘Blindboy’ Paxton, an incredible acoustic blues player.
Willie considers himself a folksinger, and named his first solo album Folk Singer Vol. 1. When I spoke with him before his set, I asked if he is working on volume 2 and he said it will be released later this year!
Willie appeared twice; once was his solo set and the other was in a tribute to Clarence Ashley. I had never heard of Ashley, but he was a banjo player and guitarist who played with jug bands as well as with Doc Watson. Jalopy Records released (that weekend) a tribute to Ashley which includes some previously unreleased tracks of Ashley, who died in 1967. As I listen to that album, I am struck by how much Willie reminds me of Ashley.
During his solo set, he played most if not all the songs from his album as well as several songs that will be on the new album. Willie has an unassuming presence that belies his power as a performer. The audience was rapt.
I first saw Jerron perform with the Lead Belly Fest at Carnegie Hall last year and he blew me away. He is as gregarious as Willie is quiet, and was a great contrast to follow Willie’s set. Jerron has performed at every Festival so far and I hope he continues.
He is a great guitar picker and singer. It has been written that he embraces the 1920s and 1930s blues, and while I am not terribly familiar with that era I feel that his music has an old-timey style. His stage presence is almost bigger-than-life, and I think he will be a tremendous force in acoustic blues in the not-too-distant future.
There were two women who performed whose music I loved. One was Amythyst Kiah from Johnson City, Tennessee. What a voice! She did not have any recordings with her so I was not able to bring her home with me. Described as a Southern Gothic, alt-country blues singer, her style is traditional yet contemporary. I hope she returns to the northeast soon!
The other was Queen Esther who is based in Brooklyn. She has been making music for a number of years (and is also an actor), but I did not know her until this Festival.
Queen Esther refers to her music as Black Americana. I loved her style and the band she had backing her. She also has a powerful voice and had the audience enthralled with her.
The first ‘set’ I attended was a reading and discussion by Rick Massimo whose new book about the history of the Newport Folk Festival, I Got the Folk, is releasing early next month. The selections Rick read evidenced much research and interviews with many people key to the history of that amazing festival. I am excited to read it!
Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir is incredible! Described as a “wild anti-consumerist gospel choir and earth-loving evangelist sermonizing”, their message was delivered clearly but with humor and extreme talent.
There were probably twenty people or more crowded onto the stage, with some of the singers taking leads on the original tunes. I could have listened to a full two-hour set by them!
Papa Vega’s Dream Shadows Orchestra was another act I particularly enjoyed. They are charismatic while playing music that sounded as if it was written in the 1920s.
One member of music royalty performed although I did not know about him until the festival. John Cohen, a founding member of The New Lost City Ramblers, might have been the oldest performer I saw but he is still every bit as adroit on the guitar and banjo and those a quarter his age! I sense it was a rare treat to be able to see him perform, and I am happy to have been introduced to him.
The last artist I want to highlight is The Last Poets. A group of poets and musicians who arose from the late 1960s African-American civil rights movement’s black nationalist movement, they were mesmerizing as they recited/rapped highly emotional poems accompanied by percussion. Members Abiodun Oyewole, Umar Bin Hassan, and Jalal Mansur Nuriddin (Alafia Pudim) caused the audience to listen intently with their powerful message which was especially poignant in this highly-charged political climate.
Throughout the weekend, a papier-mache bust of Thomas Jefferson kept a creepily watchful eye on all!
This is a terrific event, and I predict next year’s tenth anniversary festival will be a blockbuster!
I am grateful to the Brooklyn Folk Festival for the ticket; all opinions are my own.
This review, as well as many photographs, is originally published on Suze Reviews the Blues.