Portland Folk Festival Report, or is Kimya Dawson my generation’s Pete Seeger?
We attended the 2010 Portland Folk Festival a few weekends ago and came away with some great inspiration.
Friday, August 20: Alberta Rose Theater
Though I got down a bit late from Seattle (turns out trying to leave for Portland from Seattle at 3:30pm on Friday means quite a bit of traffic), still made it in time for Friday’s Portland Folk Festival headliner, Celso Machado. I had no idea what to expect having only been told that he was a “virtuoso Brazilian guitarist, percussionist, multi-instrumentalist and composer”. Indeed, it seems pretty impossible to categorize his music, since music is not his primary aim as a performer. His goal, first and foremost is to transport the audience through sound manipulation. It sounds a little heady, but the reality is that he used a crazy amount of instruments, great and small, to communicate his love for Brazil and the music of the world.
As a guitarist, he was dazzling, with fingertips dancing up and down the guitar neck effortlessly. It’s always a joy to watch musicians of this caliber simply play the hell out of their instrument. Aside from his guitar playing, he also brought the audience along on strange and engaging sound journeys. This started off simply with Celso tapping on a water bottle (and tuning it by drinking the water), tapping on the microphone, tapping on his face, basically tapping on anything. These sound journeys culminated in an utterly virtuosic audience participation that recreated the sounds of a hot Brazilian night, complete with thunder and rain. The audience provided the rain with a sea of tongue clicks and knee patting, while Celso provided the thunder by blowing into the microphone. Sounds simple, and it was, but it transported us. Little wonder that he got two standing ovations by the end of the night!
His encore was dazzling. Playing a guitar piece of his own composition, he progressively detuned the lowest guitar string while playing. When it was completely sack, he picked up a parade whistle and started the samba. He pulled the slack string across the other strings, strumming the dead strings with a convincing rattling samba beat, and pulled the loose string tight on the other side of the neck, loosing and slacking it to create basslines. I’ve never seen anything like this electrifying performance.
Celso Machado’s Virtuosic Encore:
Saturday, August 21: Mississippi Studios and Wonder Ballroom
Following Friday night’s concert, I made sure to hit up the afternoon music sets at Mississippi Studios. Turns out they were held outside under a small tent. Earl White gave a great performance with his wife, Adrienne. I love his stage presence and mellow performances. Watched a bit of Clampitt Family as well, which was a nice bit of alt-bluegrass.
The real highlight of Saturday, though, was the Wonder Ballroom evening concert. We made it in time for the two headliners: Thomas Mapfumo and Kimya Dawson. Cost a pretty penny, but our “Splenda Daddy” Tim paid for us. Thomas Mapfumo was a big surprise for me. I’d seen him some years ago in Eugene, but the show then was a bit sketchy (like everything in Eugene!). He still had his trademark deadbeat performing style, and had passed this lack of expression on to the mbira player in his band, but the music was so bouncy and full of joy and hope that it was absolutely impossible not to dance. I know it’s a cliche to say this about African music, but try as I might to resist, I simply had to take my hands out of my pockets to do the “white boy shuffle”. The music had so much lift and power that I felt completely energized.
Following Mapfumo’s dance music with Kimya Dawson’s introspective one-woman show was an inspired bit of programming. I knew little about Dawson’s music, other than having seen the movie Juno, which featured a number of her songs, and knowing she was part of K Records’ eternally eclectic roster of artists. She took the stage as one woman with a guitar, sitting mildly, and kept my attention for what must have been several hours. The show was supposed to end at 10:45, and we got out around 1am, but her performance was so engaging that I barely noticed the time.
I’ve come to think of her as my generation’s Pete Seeger. I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate, but she seems to have tapped into the same simple spirit of music that Seeger draws from. Her songs are stripped of all pretense, as is her performance. Though she has excellent stage presence, she portrays herself as an everywoman, just someone who has had the good fortune to be able to share her thoughts through music. Like Seeger, she puts her message first, and keeps her ego behind this message. Most importantly, her music makes more sense to me and fits better with my perspective and the perspective of my generation than Seeger’s. She shares his earnesty, true, but I’m more willing to go along with her than I am with Seeger. When Seeger sings about a social issue, I flip off. With Dawson, I went right along.
Kimya Dawson singalong a la Seeger
But as much as I enjoyed Dawson’s performance, I was really blown away by her traveling partner, Pablo Das. He’s an eclectic activist, with causes ranging from the American Rebel Food Network (subverting the industrial food paradigm), Buddhist meditation practices, and volunteer work at a suicide hotline for Gay Youth. And it’s this last cause that was the most powerful. He talked about his experiences growing up gay in a conservative community, and told stories of his life outside of this community.
It was enlightening to hear personal experiences from the front lines, and because he was relating what he lived, rather than what he believed, it was remarkably powerful. Dawson had the good sense to let him take the stage solo for a few songs and stories, and his song against California’s bullshit Prop 8 completely blew us away. Because after all, gay marriage isn’t a debate, it’s HUMAN RIGHTS, for fuck’s sake!
Unfortunately, Pablo’s amazingly powerful Prop 8 song is not available yet (he said it would be on an upcoming album), so here’s an earlier song he wrote about Prop 8. Best believe we’ll get his Prop 8 song up as soon as he releases it.