“While performing, I see that people are able to forget their differences and join as one in the moment; my hope is for that moment to last. If we can make that moment last, the world will be a better place.” — Samite of Uganda
While the GrassRoots fests have always been the most musically diverse of festivals, this year’s Finger Lakes version, in upstate New York, was the most inclusive yet, both in terms of music from many nations, including rap and hip-hop, but also an audience that, to my eyes, included more folks of color, mostly on the younger side.
It was a week of music, traditions, and cultures of immigrants — clearly rebuking nationalistic political rhetoric. This was also evidenced by shirts worn by Samite of Uganda (“I Really Do Care, Do U?”) and Taina Asili (“No Human Being is Illegal.”)
Additionally, for the first time, again to my eyes, African-American and transgender stage announcers. And it was presented as though it was no big deal.
Here are my takeaways.
While it was never said in so many words, it was apparent to me that this year’s fest was a celebtaion of immigration, for and by immigrants. From the outset, the GrassRoots fests have always had a strong Native American presence (yes, I see the irony), along with Cajun, zydeco, and Creole, and some world music. This year inclded Uma Galera (Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay, and Venezuela), DakhaBrakha (Ukraine), Cortadito (Cuba), Samite of Uganda, Taina Asili y la Banda Rebelde (Puerto Rico), Toots and the Maytals (Jamaica), Sidi Toure (Mali), LADAMA (Pan-America), The Town Pants (Celtic), and more.
While this too was presented as the natural way of things, it was also evident that we were in the midst of a celebration. A celebration that, to quote ND Editor Hilary Saunders from her introductory article to the Summer 2018 print edition, (Im)migration, “is a call for curiosity, compassion, and creative expression, and a case for how those characteristics prove we’re more alike than different.” One also with empathy and great enthusiasm.
Some folks forget that the Appalachian mountains stretch as far north as Canada, with each region having its own traditions and culture. Upstate New York has a stringband tradition with a zest. From the Ithaca Bottom Boys’ punkgrass to the spunkiness of the Speckers (a trio of fiddlers) led by irreverent patriarch John and his two daughters to the faithful Mac Benford and Up South, there is a strong mountain music identity.
This identity has neared mythical status in the hands and mind of Richie Stearns, who simultaneously embodies tradition while taking it into a metaphysical stratosphere that leaves many in a state of transfiguration. While he effortlessly sits in with other folks’ sets, he’s also part of the dance band Dead Sea Squirrels, and, along with Jeb Puryear, the Bubba George Stringband that always kicks the festival off on opening day.
And let me not fail to note that his duo sets with Rosie Newton are the highlight of many festivalgoers’ weekend, mine included. As I indicated to friends as I left the Herd Compound for their sets, “I need my Richie and Rosie fix.”
Americana: Alive and Well
With so much going on at the fest, Americana artists sometimes get a bit overlooked, but this year their presence was an invigorating one with full houses wherever they played. Notably, the Wood Brothers and Patty Griffin were packed wall-to-wall. Jim Lauderdale’s set with host band Donna the Buffalo is always a treat. You never quite know where Mr. Americana will take you.
Three sets took my breath away. First, there was Eilen Jewell’s late-night set in the Dance Tent, where her mixture of country, blues, and swing had folks both dancing and listening intently. The other, unsurprisingly, was Valerie June’s late afternoon set. Many folks had yet to experience her blend of roots music along with that signature voice, and it was a delight to see so many of them come away enthralled. Seratones, led by the effervescent A.J. Haynes on guitar, appeared to be enjoying themselves as much as the audience did. Her sly looks from the corners of her eyes were just as catchy as her musical hooks.
Additionally, there is a local band that bears watching, Laila Belle, that plays sweet country rock, mostly on the introspective side. They premiered new songs from their forthcoming second album and it was immediately apparent that it’ll be a stunning one. ND’s Chris Griffy highlighted that album in his crowdfunding column not long ago.
Ithaca Underground and Beyond
There has been for quite some time a vibrant local music scene along the Ithaca-Trumansberg corridor. So much so that it has spawned a venue, Ithaca Underground, for artists to perform and expand their audience. This year’s fest had had a late night set that featured quite a few of its regulars, appropriately titled Ithaca Underground.
However, it is the above ground scene that draws most attention. These folks include, among others, Johnny Dowd, Mary Lorson, Anna Coogan, Bronwen Exter, Uniit Carruyo, Jennie Lowe Stearns, and Bess Greenberg.
Two of note that I have been high on since I first heard them are Mary Lorson and Bronwen Exter. Both are able to not just put larger bands behind them, but those respective groups of musicians are also able to embody and stretch out the musical visions of their “leaders.” Lorson recently released another album (Themes from Whatever) and Exter’s new one (Snakeskin, There) will be out next month. Based on what I heard, both albums bear seeking out.
Another musician also bears mentioning, Bess Greenberg, whom I first saw fours years ago. Then, she seemed tentative, as if she was searching for her musical niche, her identity. This year, in her two sets (one in the duo KidBess and the other in a band, KidBess and the Magic Ring) she demonstrated a sure-footedness and intensity that reminded me of my CBGB nights. Think a more melodic Patti Smith without the angst.
The sets by these artists, mostly in the more intimate Cabaret Hall, are among my highlights, and together are a mini-festival unto itself.
The Dance Tent
As its name suggests, it’s primarily for dancing. However, this year I noticed something a bit different: Every set was full to the gills with folks who were moved by what they heard. Not just with their ears, but with their entire bodies, in constant motion. Even more so than in previous years. It was thrilling to first watch, then take part, in these massive dance fests.
While quite a few of the above-noted artists played this stage, there were two of note. First and foremost was Puerto Rican songwriter and activist Taina Asili and her eight-piece band, Banda Rebelde. Asili’s entire being exudes strength of spirit and a fervor for freedom that inspires her listeners to dance to the rhythm of rebellion. The other was Brooklyn’s Double Tiger led by Jay Spaker, also of John Brown’s Body and Tour de Force. His brand of socially conscious reggae was like a revival meeting, complete with audience participation and speaking in tongues. Without, however, the need for ganja.
Many festivalgoers stay pretty much around this stage, which, on the outer perimiter, is surrounded with chairs and open-air tents that are planted there for the fest’s duration, with music and dancing going on usually past 2 a.m. That’s dedication.
Now, check out the photos that I hope will make you want to travel to the Finger Lakes area of New York for this festival of festivals.