Falcon Ridge Folk Festival
at Long Hill Farm,
Hillsdale, NY
(27-29 July 2001)

Call it divine intervention, but the weather could not have been more cooperative for all three days of folk music nirvana otherwise known as the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, held the last weekend each July in Hillsdale, New York. Seasoned Falcon Ridge veterans understand that having three days of glorious weather -- mid 80s, low humidity -- is no small blessing in the Berkshires, where the temperatures can skyrocket, along with the humidity, leaving audiences to scorch and sear in the mid-day breeze-starved heat and sun.

But apart from perfect conditions, the line up of performers at this year's event at pastoral Long Hill Farm was perhaps its best ever, despite some notable absences. Festival organizers presented a perfectly balanced smorgasbord of about 40 acts on four stages, a list that included veteran songwriters such as John Gorka, Annie Wenz, Lucy Kaplansky, Kim & Reggie Harris, Dar Williams and Vance Gilbert. Newcomers included Mark Erelli, Stacy Earle, Moxy Fruvous' Jian Ghomeshi, Mary Gauthier, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, Erin McKeown and Jeff Lang. Apart from the individual performers, many of the groups that performed this year on the mains stage were sensational, a list that would have to include Tom Landa and the Paperboys, Entrain, the Nields, Acoustic Syndicate and Wild Asparagus.

Of course, there is also an 8,000-square-foot dance stage where contra, square, swing and world beat dancing, among other genres, goes on from late morning to the wee hours. One has to love these dance fanatics' energy.

I am among those folk music purists who steadfastly believe that singer-songwriters are best heard in intimate venues rather than on huge stages with mountains of sound equipment and a sea of restless music fans out in front. Yet, having said that, I am convinced that Falcon Ridge is unique in that it fosters a kind of camaraderie of spirit, even among the multitudes -- 2,000 strong, give or take, on a given day. Essentially, one must suspend such purist sensibilities for one weekend a year and contend with a crowded concert atmosphere even if some singer-songwriters seem to be straining on stage now and then to be heard. Falcon Ridge isn't about intimacy, especially on the main stage, where the evening performances are often the most widely attended, which can make for quite a crowded scene. But the smaller workshop stage, though it too can fill up fast depending on the folks assembled to play, is cozier and more like the intimate venues where we're all used to seeing these singers play. This year, the best symposiums held on the workshop stage addressed the creative process, from individual approaches to songwriting, to the challenges of working with dual harmonies.

Not surprisingly, there is much more to an event such as Falcon Ridge -- which began as a festival 12 years ago at the foot of a ski slope in nearby South Egremont, Massachusetts -- than music. To wit: the music business workshops held Friday afternoon were all fascinating this year and those who either spoke or were involved in the presentations did an excellent job and knew their topics. Vance Gilbert was a scream in his "Assessing the Stage Performance" workshop. I admire the courage of those would-be performing songwriters who exposed themselves to Vance's warped sense of humor. He also wreaks havoc on the sign language (ASL) people Falcon Ridge employs for every performance on every stage -- so much so that Gilbert has made his wacky conversations with signers part of his Falcon Ridge act.

Artist managers Charlie Hunter (Richard Shindell, Carter & Grammer) and Gabe Unger (Lori McKenna, Erin McKeown) gave a thorough workshop on the basic steps necessary in becoming a singer-songwriter, either as a sometime performer or as one who would choose the profession as a career. Equally helpful was a presentation on house concerts, that intriguing new private form of musical venue that seems to be happening all over the country.

To be sure, Falcon Ridge isn't perfect. I still hate the way the sound often wafts over from the main stage and disturbs the music going on at the workshop stage. I hate the violent scurrying that goes on at 6:45 a.m. as camping "tarp runners" claim all the close, stage-front-and-center positions, then don't show up there until the late evening when Dar Williams comes on. There is little accommodation for the press, making interviews difficult. I'm also not a fan of having to exchange cash for the "funny money" that you must use to purchase food, but that's a minor gripe. I should add here that the Sunflower pizza (with the black olives) is habit-forming and something I look forward to every year.

As for some of the musical bright spots of the three-day musicfest, Dar Williams played a song I've NEVER heard anywhere before, "Farewell to the Old Me," that was as good as anything the Chappaqua-born songwriter has recorded thus far in her short but dazzling career. Nerissa Nields, too, debuted a new tune taken from a dream that she had experienced just days before -- a pretty tune that was a real keeper judging by audience reaction.

Dave Carter performed an ersatz Christmas song he hade just finished the evening before as part of a $15,000 commission, he said, to pen something for the Yuletide season. He added that he did it even though he "had issues with Christmas" and that we were the first to hear it. The song was typically clever and poignant, with typical Carter cynicism slipped in for a bit of edge. And Jian Ghomeshi, proving he has musical aspirations beyond the wackiness of Moxy Fruvous, singlehandedly revived the protest song genre with a great tune called "While the World Is Watching" that had the entire audience singing the chorus.

Another highlight was Mark Erelli's debut on the Falcon Ridge main stage, where he ran through a number of tunes from his just released Compass and Companion CD that had the audience begging for more, especially after a rollicking rendition of the rocking "My Little Sister" with its spoken word break that Erelli handled with confidence and style.

And I can't remember the last time a Falcon Ridge audience rocked as much as they did when the SKA-influenced band Entrain took the stage with their phalanx of horns and catchy new world, driving beat rythyms. Entrain definitely has a future, not just at Falcon Ridge but in the music business as well. Keep an eye on this hugely talented group.

Certain performers were conspicuous by their absence this year, particularly Richard Shindell, Greg Brown and Cliff Eberhardt, all of whom cite scheduling conflicts for skipping Falcon Ridge 2001. While these three heavyweights were universally missed, I'm not convinced it isn't a bad idea for any artist to skip a season, particularly if he or she has played Falcon Ridge more than five years in a row.

A case in point is Dar Williams, who may have benefited from a year off given her somewhat disappointing performance on the main stage Saturday night. No doubt it was a cold night and keeping her guitar in tune was a problem. Ditto for the sound men who seemed to be completely out of it. Even Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, so amazing in their debut on the main stage last year, gave a so-so performance, with most songs sounding hurried and out of sync with the makeshift band they put together for the show.

Conversely, all the performances on the workshop stage were brilliant and a joy to behold (even if Dave did fluff the lyrics to his Preston Miller song at one point). Tracy's mandolin licks during Dave Nields' (nee Jones) solo song was nothing short of sensational, and she deserved the huge applause which followed.

I kept thinking of last year's Falcon Ridge, when Shindell gave a stirring performance of "On A Sea of Fleur de Lis" on the workshop stage -- the best version I've ever heard bar none of one of the first songs the New Jersey native ever wrote. Likewise, hearing Gorka perform "Love Is Our Cross To Bear" with Kaplansky on harmony this year on the workshop stage was a high point of the weekend for me, just as Shindell was last year. Witnessing the jovial banter between Dar Williams and Nerissa Nields, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky, Chris and Meredith Thompson and Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer, as they talked of how they write their songs as well as the ways in which they produce certain harmonies, was a special moment of the festival for sure. Falcon Ridge seems to inspire many of these otherwise private artists to expose their personalities much more than they would at a coffee house, theatrical venue or music club.

There is something about the ambience at Falcon Ridge that allows everyone to relax, let their guard down, performers and audience alike. For three days in the beautiful Berkshire Mountains, life slows and one's cares and woes are swept away into the verdant hillsides, at least for a little while. In many ways Falcon Ridge is like an extended family picnic. Only with great music. And everyone is invited. See you at Falcon Ridge 2002.

[ by Ralph DiGennaro ]
Rambles: 4 August 2001

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