An Indoor Campfire? Yes, Please!
When I am told that I must attend a music event, I take that seriously. In this case, it was Club Passim’s 18th annual Memorial Day weekend “campfire.” festival. Three and a half days of music (and one comedy set) from artists ranging in age from 16 to 60s sounded good to me.
I was at the festival for all but two hours and do not regret one minute of it. The roster of artists included both local and touring musicians, first timers and veterans, bands and individuals. I will not say that I loved every artist (if I did, would you take my reviews seriously?), but all were talented, engaging musicians who gained new fans. I did love seeing so many friends on stage.
There were two types of sets; 30-minute sets for individuals or bands, and 75-minute ‘in the round’ sets. The latter consisted of four singer-songwriters (although five were in the closing set) who performed four songs each, either solo or collaboratively with the others in their round. Club Passim arranged those in-the-round sets.
I am not reviewing each set; if I did, this post would take you an hour to read, if you made it to the end. I will attempt to give you a sense of my experience and describe some of the sets that made an especially deep impression.
The only standing ovation of the weekend went to the Irish-born but living in Canada Irish Mythen, who delivered one of the most engaging sets. She has a powerful voice, both literally and figuratively, and brought tears to my eyes several times during her set. She described the people behind her songs, one of whom was a man whose wife of 55 years had passed away. At one point, Irish looked outside (the music was being broadcast on the street all weekend) and noticed a juggler who was juggling to her stops and starts. After that, they performed almost as a duo! After her set, he came into the venue and enjoyed the rest of the music with Irish by his side. Amazing!
There was an in-the-round set with Scott Matthew Pittman, Rose Polenzani, Dinty Child, and Lloyd Thayer. I knew Scott from his work with Sugar Blood Jinx, Rose and Dinty from several of their projects, but Lloyd by name only. Scott started by turning on some lights he strung on his mic stand (you need lights at a campsite) and showing the audience his iPad that was streaming a campfire, complete with crackling sounds! He really got into the whole campfire frame of mind. Rose and Dinty have performed together (the others may have as well, but I have not seen them together) and clearly have musical chemistry, but Lloyd and Scott fit well with them. Lloyd played mostly dobro which is an instrument I adore, while the others played guitar. Scott added a keyboard riff which he played on a phone app!
Jackie Giroux is a tenth-grader who performed a solo set as well as an in-the-round set. During the in-the-round set (with Emily Mure, Heather Woods, and Eva Walsh), she mentioned a song she wrote last year when she was in ninth grade! Everyone in the room, including the musicians, stared open-mouthed at her because none of us had a clue she was that young. Mature beyond her years is a phrase that comes to mind. This in-the-round set was performed without collaboration; Jackie watched the others intently with such strong emotions written on her face that I felt she was soaking in everything she could, knowing the other women could teach her much about songwriting without doing any ‘teaching.’
The closing set on Saturday night was an in-the-round set by Rob Flax, Sean Trischka, Mike Block and Dietrich Strause. I know all but Rob fairly well (musically, at least) and was excited for this set which did not disappoint. They performed collaboratively for the most part, and their set included a couple of political songs. For one of those songs, Sean and Mike had costumes of a sort – Sean wore red, white and blue patriotic shorts while Mike sported a (anti) Drumpf cap! Considering this is in Cambridge (affectionately referred to as the PRC – People’s Republic of Cambridge), they were preaching to the choir but it was great to see.
How many of you have seen four bouzoukis on stage at the same time? I certainly have not, but that is what happened at the in-the-round set with Matt Heaton, Lindsay Straw, Sean Smith, and Lloyd Thayer. This was a fairly collaborative set, with each musician performing four songs of their choosing and the others providing harmonies and supporting instrumental melodies. This set was a mix of traditional tunes, from Ireland and one from Greece (since the bouzouki is a Greek instrument, they had to include at least one tune from its native land), as well as original tunes.
There were many bands that were completely unfamiliar to me. One of those, the Anna/Kate Band, is terrific. Normally an eight-piece band, they had only three on stage for their set; Anna, Kate, and guitarist Mark. They describe themselves as a queer folk-pop group. Anna and Kate were theatre majors (I am guessing specifically musical theatre) which was obvious to me from their expressive performance style. They have great harmonies and an infectious sound. For one song, Anna and Kate stood at opposite ends of the room and sang to each other without amplification. Fabulous!
An act I was excited to see was Reverend Freakchild. I bought a couple of his albums at two of Passim’s CD Benefit Sales. How could I not buy an album called Hillbilly Zen-Punk Blues? His type of blues is in the style of Reverend Gary Davis and I enjoyed seeing him live as much as I am enjoying his recorded music.
The Rough & Tumble is another band that I did not know prior to the weekend. A duo of Mallory Graham and Scott Tyler, they sold all their belongings, bought a camper and are permanently on the road. Their music is Americana, a genre I particularly enjoy, so I was not surprised at how much I like them. I hope their camper brings them back to Boston soon.
Other artists I have seen and loved prior to this festival (and reviewed some here on No Depression) who I have not previously mentioned include The By & By, The Western Den, Honeysuckle, The Novel Ideas, Isa Burke, Ellie Buckland (Isa and Ellie are two members of Lula Wiles), Taylor Armerding, Kathleen Parks, and Rachel Sumner (Kathleen and Rachel are two members of Twisted Pine). All are well worth seeking out.
Some of the individual artists I saw for the first time who impressed me tremendously (who I have not previously mentioned) include Bill Scorzari, Anthony Savino, Jim Trick, Lay Low Moon, Aurora Birch, and Katie Martucci. I do not mean to imply that others were not impressive, only that these five stick out in my mind.
The closing set of the festival was the most collaborative of the in-the-round sets. Five recent Berklee College of Music graduates – Rachel Sumner, Isa Burke, Ellie Buckland, Aurora Birch, and Katie Martucci – comprised this set, and thrilled the audience. Dubbed the Ultimate Lady Hang, they were all good friends prior to this set. They all have stunning voices that work well alone and together. Some songs were performed solo but most were performed at least as duos. When all five women sang around the Grand Ole Opry mic, chills went up my spine and I will gladly admit to having tears in my eyes.
One thing that stands out happened Friday night when one of the bands – unfortunately I forget which one – had ‘Hasidic Jews’ in the lyrics of one of their songs. I can honestly say it is the first time I have ever heard that in a song!
In addition to being impressed with the music, I was extremely impressed at how smoothly it ran. I imagine that keeping musicians on schedule is as difficult as herding cats, but every set started on time if not slightly early (one set did start slightly late due to technical difficulties). It could not have been easy for the wait staff to serve because people were coming and going throughout the weekend, but they did a fine job of getting good food and drink to everyone who wanted it.
I could not mention every band, and for that I apologize to the bands not mentioned. Everyone was good, but there were some that stood out for me more than others. The entire schedule can be found here.
I already cannot wait to spend part of Labor Day weekend (I have a show on one night of the weekend) at the next campfire.festival. At $25 for the weekend pass, it cost patrons less than $1 per hour of actual music time. I do not know any festival that can beat that value other than the festivals that are completely free.