Five Takeaways From the Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival in Trumansburg, New York
I have recovered from my annual trek to Finger Lakes, where I sat in on 17 Culture Camp workshops along with two dinners and dances, 63 festival sets, and two thunderstorms during my five-day visit. Wet, yes, but it did not diminish our enthusiasm for what was going down.
While I caught all of certain folks’ sets, including those of Johnny Dowd, Richie & Rosie, Del McCoury, and Bronwen Exter, I always watch enough of any set I attend to get a feel and flavor of what the artist is going for. Notwithstanding engaging sets by headliners Jamestown Revival, Del, and host Donna the Buffalo, here are my key takeaways from the 27th Finger Lakes GrassRoots Festival of Music and Dance.
1. Culture Camp
In only its second year, the Culture Camp that preceded the festival appeared to not only have increased participation by half, but also there seemed to be a more confident sense of interaction and participation among the instructors and participants. It’s as though everyone knew more of what to expect, and thus got down to the experience at hand without being tentative. Also, like last year, at the end of each of the four days, there was a collective dinner and dance, both themed, which only added to the overall sense of collegial creativity. I fully expect to be included next year, and to get even better, so if you are thinking about where to go next year, this should be at the top of your list.
Of the workshops I attended, the most attended were, not unexpectedly, singing led by Amy Puryear and Mollie Farr and songwriting led by Jennie Stearns and festival founder Jeb Puryear. The most focused were four on the fiddle, led by Rosie Newton, Claire Byrne, Courtney Granger, and Judy Hyman, and Richie Stearns on the banjo. The one most interesting for me was an accordion workshop led by Cajun master Ryan Brunet, who had even Tara Nevins (who plays an inspired accordion herself) picking up some new tricks. Keith Secola added a nice touch by calling his guitar workshop “Native Americana.”
Many folks attended more than one workshop, as they were spread throughout the day. One new offering this year was acrylic painting with John Vanderhayden. On the last night’s dinner the participants displayed their art for all to see. It was a joyous occasion.
2. Richie & Rosie
Any song or tune that can be played should be played on the banjo and fiddle – provided those players are Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton. Upon falling under the spell of Stearns some years back I heard the banjo as it had never been played. Not technique so much as it was, at first, the incessant, hypnotic driving in The Horseflies, and later, in solo and duo settings, more spiritual. I caught him in every configuration I could, including Bubba George Stringband and Dead Sea Squirrels, and, of course, with Newton. Newton’s also a part of Squirrels and sat in with Toivo and Tenzin Chopak.
Together, they have taken the most old timey of instruments and created worlds of wonder, casting a mystic spell with both their marvelous original material as well as their covers, such as Dirk Powell’s “Waterbound.” I challenge anyone not to be beguiled after hearing them do Stearns’ signature song, “Ribbons & Bows.” Their Dance Tent set thankfully went long as they played much of their upcoming second album, Nowhere in Time, to an audience that was as captivated as I was. I have heard few duos who are as simpatico as this one. My only festival regret is seeing them only once.
3. Native American Music and Traditions
Native American musicians and traditions have always played an integral part at this festival. But this year it played an even more significant role. The audience shared in customs like hoop dancing, chants, and food preparation and learned about issues facing Native Americans (and the rest of us as well), then got to flat-out rock with the likes of Keith Secola and His Wild Band of Indians and the brother-sister, bass-drums duo of Sihasin. Also to be treasured were the stories and songs of Bear Fox. Let me not forget to mention Jones Benally, the patriarch, who was everywhere, in workshops, sets, and walking around with a friendly, yet stoic presence.
In addition to Sihasin’s set in the Cabaret Hall (see below), the most moving moment was not musical, but rather a presentation of Water Protectors: Stories From Standing Rock. One story seemed to epitomize their/our plight against those in power — when a buffalo bone was thrown from the police detachment area into where the Standing Rock protectors were gathered, with the shout, “Eat this, you savages.”
4. Cabaret Hall
Of the four stages at the festival, the Cabaret Hall is the only one under a roof and by far the smallest. With deep crimson curtains, low lights (very low at night), and a coffee bar at its entrance, it is a warm and intimate long rectangular performance space. As it usually features local and upcoming artists, its audience has a feel of friendship and mutual discovery. I know it has been such a place for me as I “discovered” some of my faves here, Anna Coogan and Mary Lorson, as well as being able to hear for the first time legendary Johnny Dowd; the super-Americana band if there ever was one, Red Dog Run; and the exquisite voice and songs of Jennie Lowe Stearns. Needless to say, I did not miss sets by Dowd with Coogan guesting on vocals and Stearns, who called up Lorson (whom I sat next to) to add vocals on a song.
This time was no different. From the start Bronwen Exter and her band had her local fans, and me for the first time, enthralled. She had been described to me as feeling like “swimming in a dream.” I was expecting yet another sensitive singer-songwriter, and what I got were songs of well-honed experiences in songs that just kept getting better, with a tight full band that, as The Ithaca Times said, “brings the Americana Haze with each of her inspired compositions. She excels in the shadows of remembrance, and lays haunting reminders of lives left past.” Nearly all, if not all, the songs in her set will be on her third album, Snakeskin, there, whose Kickstarter campaign was highlighted in a recent ND article by Chris Griffy. Her band that day is the same one on the album, and I cannot recommend her more highly. I eagerly await the album, in part to make sure I was not dreaming.
Three other highlights. First, Sihasin (that normally plays the bigger stages) being joined by their father, Jones Benally, for a recitation, with Jeneda swaying in the background, playing some some sublime bass lines. They were also joined by Tainia Asili. Sweet. Then, at the end, they were joined by the entire family for a final number. Swimming, indeed. Second, Kelly Britton whose time in New York has resulted in a Lou Reed-type presence, but more lyrical and far less angsty. Finally, I closed Sunday night and its torrent of rain with the shirtless Ithaca Bottom Boys playing a rambunctious blend of punk, old time, and bluegrass. What a send-off into the night.
5. World Music
It was hard call for number five as I have dearly loved zydeco ever since first hearing Clifton Chenier over 40 years ago, and the presence of Cajun Balfa Toujours, but the world of music outside our borders also enlarged its presence this year. It kicked off for me when I heard Taina Asili at the songwriting workshop, both her singing and stories. We chatted afterwards about many things, including our mutual love for the Peruvian singer and activist Susana Baca. I was also transfixed by her lone set the next evening with full band at the Dance Tent.
Other highlights included Cortadito, a traditional Cuban Son band, the flute playing Samite of Uganda, Uma Galera’s blended influences of Cumbia, Murga, bossa nova, and funk, and the unmistakable voice of Unit Carruyo. Also, perhaps the most blended of artists, Mokoomba takes traditional Tonga and Luvale rhythms and laces them with ska, soukorous, and funk, not to mention their dance moves. Many, many folks were likewise taken with the drumming/accordion/keyboard band from the Ukraine, Dakahbrakha, with their colorful clothing and eye-catching cello.
Now, scroll though a select 50+ photographs of a festival that every ND reader should visit.