Falcon Ridge Folk Festival
at Long Hill Farm,
Hillsdale, NY
(26-28 July 2002)

It's impossible to tell how the retrospective view will treat an experience when you are still unpacking afterward. I'll go out on a limb, however, and predict that Falcon Ridge 2002 may be remembered most for the musician who wasn't there. I'm speaking of Dave Carter, who was scheduled to appear with Tracy Grammer at the festival; it would've been their third straight appearance since their Falcon Ridge debut in 2000. Tragically, Carter died of a heart attack exactly a week before Falcon Ridge began. With many still reeling from the shock of Carter's death, it seemed likely that Falcon Ridge would take on a memorial aspect. That's exactly what happened, but this did not dampen the festival spirit -- if anything, it turned into another way to celebrate the music and words that bring people to Hillsdale, N.Y., during the last week of July.

The memorials to Dave Carter were many. They began during the Emerging Artist Showcase on Friday afternoon with Don Conoscenti's dedication of his song "The Other Side" to an unnamed friend whose identity was not difficult to figure out. Guitar wizard Jeff Lang played a short instrumental version of Carter's song "When I Go" during his main stage set, then said simply, "Thank you, Dave Carter."

There was a moment of silence for Carter during the Friday night welcoming message by festival organizers Howard Randall and Anne Saunders. Signature Sounds set up a booth in Carter's memory; it was decked with prayer flags and filled with candles, flowers, photos and even the shaman's drum, cowboy hat and Buddha statue that appeared on the cover of Drum Hat Buddha. Blank books were available for people to write their remembrances of Carter and their messages of support to Tracy Grammer and Carter's family. Grammer was at the festival all weekend so that people could express their condolences in person if they wished.

The main memorial, however, was the tribute that took place on Saturday night during the time that Carter and Grammer were scheduled to perform. It's a tribute to everyone involved that this set went so smoothly, even though it was put together quickly. Jim Olsen of Signature Sounds was the master of ceremonies and a number of musicians played Carter's songs and made a few remarks about him. It's futile to single out high points in this set as almost everyone did a perfect job. Still, one thing I'll always remember is Olsen talking about how Carter had always wanted to hear Chris Smither sing "Crocodile Man." Then Smither himself performed the song. He was reading the lyrics straight off a piece of paper and he didn't get all the words exactly right, but that didn't matter since his voice and the song were made for each other. His performance had Grammer practically jumping up and down in the wings with glee.

Mark Erelli's rendition of "Cowboy Singer," the Kennedys' "Happytown" and Eddie From Ohio's "Farewell to Saint Dolores" also were particularly excellent. The other artists' performances were bookended by Grammer singing "The Mountain" to open and "Gentle Soldier of My Soul" to close the set; she was backed by two musicians from this spring's tour with Joan Baez. Grammer also spoke; she was clearly moved by the standing ovations she received by way of greeting and farewell. Considering everything she had been through, her composure was nothing short of remarkable.

As usual, there was no shortage of terrific music at Falcon Ridge and any write-up will be incomplete as there is no way to sample everything, or even to write about everyone I saw. The Emerging Artist Showcase was a strong beginning to the festival on Friday afternoon. A wide variety of styles was on display, from Walter Parks' "swamp music" to Kate Callahan's quartz singing-bowl piece. Although audience members get to vote for three musicians to return the following year as the "most wanted," I easily could have voted for no less than six, and handed out a few honorable mentions as well. Unfortunately, several sets were marred by sound problems.

Rhonda Vincent and the Rage turned in a fantastic set of hot bluegrass on Friday night. Vincent and her group clustered around a single microphone and different band members ducked in and out as they took their solos. They sometimes cracked each other up, too. The band's interplay was tight; they obviously have worked a lot together and it shows. Vincent gets the award for the most novel item in the music tent: a bag of Martha White blueberry muffin mix with her picture on the package! Vincent's CD The Storm Still Rages won the coveted "Drive Away Award," which goes to the first album played on the car stereo as we depart from Falcon Ridge.

One of my perennial favorite workshops is "The Blues Is Still the News." It's first thing in the morning, which alone can induce the blues for musicians used to staying up late. It usually develops into an informal picking session with musicians enjoying themselves playing bluesy songs which they may or may not have recorded. Jeff Lang, Chris Smither, Kris Delmhorst (with ringer Mark Erelli) and Trina Hamlin were the participants this year, and Smither had the audience and his fellow musicians in hysterics with his delivery of Mississippi John Hurt's "Candy Man." The double-entendres were only enhanced by the ASL interpretation of Dave McCloskey, whose look of utter innocence needed neither words nor signs for explanation. As for Smither, his wry stage presence was extremely enjoyable in every set where I saw him, from the Friday night song swap to his own main stage set Saturday night.

Railroad Earth was an interesting hybrid of jam band and bluegrass outfit, but their main stage set started very late on Saturday night, so I didn't stay up for the whole thing; it was just too late for 10-minute jams. I caught them the following morning when they teamed up with the Paperboys in "The Celtic Roots of Bluegrass." I was a little disappointed by this workshop because I had hoped that it would be a real workshop -- both bands following songs from their traditional Celtic beginnings through their evolutions into bluegrass. There was no such analysis, however; each band played a mix of traditional and new pieces with a slight edge to the trad pieces. The real enjoyment in the workshop was watching each group's chops. By the end, everyone was playing on all songs and they finished with blistering versions of Tom Waits' "Cold Water" and Townes Van Zandt's "White Freightliner Blues."

The subsequent "Rolling in the Aisles" workshop should have had parental advisory stickers attached, although there were some kids in the audience who enjoyed it greatly. The combination of Eric Schwartz and Da Vinci's Notebook quickly took the workshop into the territory that Tom Lehrer lauded in "Smut." Some of the audience loved it, while others hastily departed. Some of us laughed and squirmed at the same time. I felt a little sorry for Zo Lewis as she attempted to keep the humor on a slightly more subtle level. Eric Schwartz has a big following at Falcon Ridge, but it was Da Vinci's Notebook's first appearance at the festival; it will be interesting to see whether the warm reception they got from a crowd in Moxy Frvous withdrawal leads to their return in the future, or whether their sometimes politically incorrect humor offended too many people. They do have some terrific songs, like "Title of the Song," which is a perfect sendup of boy band songs, and "The Gates," which could be a sequel to Stan Rogers' "White Collar Holler." Their main stage set was graced by several Eddie From Ohio cameos, most notably Julie Murphy Wells' leading lady role in the Meat Loaf tribute "Three Little Words."

The Paperboys cleared the air in no uncertain terms with one of their trademarked high-octane sets. There was a healthy share of tunes from their upcoming album Dilapidated Beauty, along with old favorites like "Molinos" and "After the First Time." Tom Landa even threw a quip from Beck's "Where It's At" into the opener, "Still the Night." The Paperboys' energy and enthusiasm are always a delight, and if I had to pick a band to follow around on tour, I couldn't think of a better candidate. A bonus was the return of Paperboys alumnus Cam Salay on banjo. If you have yet to see the Paperboys live, you have a treat in store; go see them the next time they play near you. The line to get into the music tent after their main stage set was prodigious.

Sunday afternoon's two closing musicians on the main stage were Greg Brown and Ani DiFranco. Both are able to take slices of stream of consciousness and turn them into real, memorable songs. Brown's informal set was fleshed out by the presence of the Falcon Ridge House Band and Jeff Lang. DiFranco had the audience sitting in rapt attention as she sang, ranted and spoke. The only thing I've seen like it was the last time she played at Falcon Ridge in 1999. That year she was the Saturday night closer and you could've heard a pin drop during most of her set. This year there was the occasional shout of, "We love you, Ani!" but she still had the crowd in the palm of her hand.

Full of good music as this review has been, there was even more. It's impossible to cover everything that happened at Falcon Ridge, because it's as much an experience as a musical event: enjoying a fruit smoothie during the hottest part of the day, watching the angel on stilts wander through the mosh pit, slogging up the hill while swearing this is the absolute last time you are going to do it this weekend, watching shooting stars and satellites during the night sets as the lanterns in the tents up the hill glitter and wink, falling asleep (hopefully) to the thump thump thump of the dance tent in the distance. Wait, I think I know that song they're playing in the dance tent. What the heck is it? It can't be ... Vsen's "Josefins Dopvals?!?" That's it! I don't believe it. Scanfolk at Falcon Ridge! What next? After all of these years of requesting Vsen on the survey, somebody finally heard me and brought one of their tunes, if not the actual band, to Falcon Ridge.

Ah, well, wait till next year.

[ by Jennifer Hanson ]
Rambles: 31 August 2002

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