Madison Monday: Gearing up for River Roots

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Yes, it’s not exactly Monday in Madison, but better late than never.  For those of you who might be new the blog, you can check out a list of previous Madison Monday posts here.

This day after Monday, I’m in the middle of a very complicated recipe for ciabatta and drinking a mojito.  Those two activities are more compatible than you might think.  In fact, the mojito helps you to care a little less about the fact that you might have dough in your hair.   When I say “complicated” ciabatta recipe, I mean it.  There are poolish and couche and all kinds of very intense stuff.

So instead of writing a new post today, I’m re-posting from right after last year’s folk festival (when it was still called folk festival) in preparation for this weekend.  Yes, it’s River Roots this weekend, so you know where I’ll be.  It’s not too late to buy a wristband…it’s never too late to buy a wristband.  So see you there, and thanks to the shout-out from

Re-post from May 23, 2011

The Tillers

The folk festival is over and I’m crawling out of my music, sun and beer-induced haze to report on the proceedings this Monday. As I wrote before, the Ohio River Valley Folk Festival takes place every May here in Madison, on the banks of the Ohio River in Bicentennial Park. In my humble opinion, this is quite simply the best festival on the planet. If there had been any chance of me being raptured on Saturday evening (and there probably wasn’t much according to the rules set out by those who believe in the rapture), I would have said, “No, thanks. I’ve found heaven right here.”

There was, as always, good beer, good music, and good friends. This year about 20 or so friends went in together on a VIP tent, which meant we had cover during the 30 minutes or so of rain on Saturday night, and a fire pit to grill some sausages and veggies on. Getting a tent was probably up there as one of the best ideas I’ve ever had.

Here are some highlights of the festival for me:

– The Greencards on Friday night. The festival gets under way at about 6:00 on Friday, and because it’s a Friday, the crowds are usually a little thinner. For years, my husband and I have never made it to the headliners on Friday and Saturday night because, big surprise, drinking beer all day makes you a bit sleepy. And in May in southern Indiana, it’s liable to still be cold at night. The solution? Get up in front of the stage and move. And The Greencards were the perfect band for that. This group is a mix of Australians and Americans playing their own funked up version of American folk music. They have a fiddle player, a mandolin and an acoustic guitar, but also an electric bass thrown in. Why not? They were fabulous. The fiddle player and guitarist did an awesome little instrumental solo. Then for their encore they did a great crowd participation version of “I Want You to Want Me” by Cheap Trick.

After the rain

– The Folk Jammers at the jamming tent. The folk festival is a laid back kind of affair, so I believe the Folk Jammers’ role in the festivities evolved somewhat spontaneously. But if you come, you’ll see in the Storytelling tent a group of mostly guys on banjos, guitars, mandolins, and other assorted instruments, just sitting around playing. And having a good time. Everyone’s welcome to join them, to sing along, to pick up a washboard and play. So I brought my fiddle down and played a few tunes with the very kind and patient Folk Jammers. What I love about this group is that they’re clearly just having fun playing music. Their tent is very popular, and not just when it rains, because that sense of enjoyment is deeply contagious.

– Music workshop by The Tillers. Every year one of the bands does a music workshop on Saturday in the Storytelling tent. Last year, it was the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and unfortunately, I missed it. This year, it was The Tillers, who talked about songcatching. They started with John C. Campbell and Olive Dame Campbell (of Songcatcher, the movie, fame). Then the Carter family and the Seeger’s. They talked about John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers and his discovery of Roscoe Holcomb. And of course, they played some tunes. On November 19th at Southgate House in Newport, Kentucky, they’ll be doing a benefit show to raise money for multiple myleoma research with lots of special guests, including John Cohen.

– The Wiyos. I don’t even know how to describe The Wiyos. They had the 3:00 spot on Saturday afternoon, which I officially declare the “Wow, they’re kind of cool.” spot at folk festival. Last year, I believe the Carolina Chocolate Drops were in that spot. Around 3:00 on Saturday, you’re usually on your second beer. Folks are beginning to filter in. You might be doing more chatting and eating than you are listening to the music. If you can draw folks in during the 3:00 spot, and make them stop talking long enough to listen to you, you’re doing good. The Wiyos did that. Every now and then I had to stop to say, “What did he just say?” The Wiyos are folksy in their instrumentation, but then they go in some weird directions. It reminds me a bit of kleismer music combined with gypsy music, and I don’t know, maybe like They Might Be Giants thrown in for the whimsy?

Uncle Earl (on stage, not in the beer tent)

– Uncle Earl’s impromptu concert in the beer tent. It’s really not a folk festival unless it rains some. In past years, we’ve stuck it out in the beer tent. Where else would you rather be in the rain? Or sometimes just packed it up and left when the rain lasted too long. This year, thank god, we had our VIP tent, and so during the rain, we all sheltered fairly comfortably (at one point we counted 30 heads under the tent) until the sun came back out and the rain stopped.

At some point, someone who had ventured out for a beer in the rain said, “Hey, there’re these women in the beer tent playing banjo and fiddle and an upright bass.” And I said to my husband, “That’s Uncle Earl!” So, sure enough, down in the beer tent Uncle Earl was playing surrounded by heaving masses of people packed in to stay dry. The folk fest coordinator, Madison’s own Greg Ziessmer, told us that they’d asked him if it was okay, while it was raining and no one was on the stage (there was some lightning, too, which had shut down the music) for them to go play in the beer tent. I’m hoping no one in the band was claustrophobic, because they were right in the middle of everyone, just wailing away. Only at folk festival.

By the time Uncle Earl actually took the stage, after the rain and after David Bromberg finished his set, the hours under a tent drinking heavily had taken its toll on the crowd. In front of the stage, it felt kind of like you were in a rowdy bar…a lot of talking, laughing, drinking, and not much listening to the band. And there were some sound difficulties. But just seeing Uncle Earl on the stage, a group of all women playing music together, was very cool and empowering. And their fiddler looked almost exactly like a friend of mine from graduate school.

Carrie Newcomer, from the tent

– Carrie Newcomer. Sunday is a mellow day for the folk fest, and usually has a kind of local theme. Greg Ziessmer and Kris Luckett played, and sang one of my favorite song’s, “Jack’s Home Town.” Jack is their two year old son, and the song is all about Madison. My parents came down for a few hours, their very first folk festival visit. The last act on Sunday was Carrie Newcomer, and it was the perfect way to close out the festival. The talking in the tent just stopped when she took the stage, and you just had to listen. She’s from just up the road in Bloomington and Monroe County, so she sang us some songs about Indiana. I’ve been listening on the folk festival sampler to “One Woman and a Shovel,” but I didn’t realize until yesterday that it’s based on a collection of stories by Indiana author, Scott Russell Sanders, called The Wilderness Plots. I have a collection of his essays I’ve been reading, but now I’ll have to check this out as well.

She also played, “If Not Now,” a beautiful song which felt perfect. It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’ve just spent the whole weekend doing pretty much nothing. The yard needed to be mowed, the house cleaned, the laundry done, and on and on. But sometimes you also need to sit back and savor the moment, sitting under a tent full of friends next to the beautiful Ohio River in a town you love. If you’re not going to savor that moment now, then when?

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