THROUGH THE LENS: Photos of the Week – Social Distance and Social Activism
Danielle Ponder - Musikfest 2020 - Photo by Jim Gavenus
This week I am focusing on three significant artists in their respective genres of roots music: Danielle Ponder (R&B), Alexis P. Suter (blues), and Chris Shiflett (Americana). The first two performed last week as part of Musikfest in Pennsylvania (which is a story unto itself), and Shiflett performed in January before the lights went out. While Shiflett may be more recognizable due to being in Foo Fighters, Ponder and Suter are no less noteworthy in their respective areas.
Musikfest: A Festival Blueprint During a Pandemic?
My MerleFest buddy Jim Gavenus caught two socially distanced shows (Ponder and Suter) last week at Musikfest in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Musikfest began 37 years ago and has become a staple of that area’s music scene ever since.
But in order for it to be held this year, significant changes were necessary, and the festival involved both live shows and streaming sets. With a significant amount of preparation and appropriate safety measures in place — mask wearing, social distancing, and with safety being foremost on everyone’s mind — the fest was able to go on, albeit with fewer artists and a smaller audience than usual. Its success could serve as blueprint for other festivals during the pandemic.
Jim’s first set was the R&B artist/activist Danielle Ponder from upstate New York. With a legal degree, she worked as a public defender for five years providing criminal defense to indigent defendants. Two years ago, Ponder left her job as an attorney to pursue music full time. But that did not mean she also left her activist roots. Ponder continues to build on her previous 15 years of organizing and speaking up for marginalized communities and working for criminal justice reform, and that shows up in her music. Earlier this year, when she was in Melbourne as fires were raging in Australia, she collaborated with Melbourne’s cinematic soul troupe Karate Boogaloo to create the song and video “Look Around,” a commentary on what the world is facing.
As she said in a recent interview with music website Backseat Mafia, “Fires were raging through Australia and smoke covered the sky. It felt like all of our human sins had gotten the best of us and we were paying a price. I didn’t know that when I arrived back home in the US, the world would only get darker. I feel like my past self wrote this song for my future self knowing what was to come.”
Touching on themes of feminism, criminal justice, personal liberation, and racial justice, Ponder also created a multi-media performance piece, “For the Love of Justice.” When I saw it a couple years back, I was overwhelmed not just by its power but also by its intellectual vigor.
Alexis P. Suter
Jim’s other set at Musikfest was by Brooklyn’s Alexis P. Suter Band, which specializes in rollicking roots music mixed with funky blues. While Suter’s current band has been together for the past 20 years, individually she’s been performing much longer, having signed with Epic/Sony in Japan in the 1990s.
Suter was, as some say, “born to the breed.” Her mother was a backup vocalist for Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Harry Belafonte, and Mavis Staples, among others. She and the band gained regional fame when they warmed up the crowds at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble in Woodstock, New York. One of her six albums was recorded live at the Ramble. Having been compared to Big Mama Thornton, she and the band has toured with Helm and his band, B.B. King, and many others.
In describing herself, Suter uses a quote from Elmore magazine: “Suter is as fascinating to watch as to hear. A stunning, ample woman with the face of a cherubic African queen, her molasses contralto can whisper and purr, then swell into a pulsating wave of sound that radiates from the depths of her being.” Jim is in full agreement.
Chris Shiflett may be best known as lead guitarist for Foo Fighters, but during the past few years he’s been building some cred in the Americana world. This was apparent in his numerous sets and other appearances during AmericanaFest last year promoting his second solo album, Hard Lessons. With pedal steel in his backing band and his edgy guitar lines leftover from his punkish days, he made quite an impression in Nashville and was a highlight for numerous festivalgoers.
What may be not as well-known is his weekly Walking the Floor podcast that often features musical guests such as Lucinda Williams and Brandy Clark. But in the most recent episode, he turns political with guest Matt Stoller, author of Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, talking about why we should be thinking about anti-trust enforcement right now.
C. Elliott caught Shiflett in January, before the shutdown.
Now the photos.