various artists,
Main Stage Live:
Falcon Ridge Folk Festival

(Signature Sounds, 1999)

If you're an up-and-coming singer-songwriter, one place you can rub shoulders with the "big names" is at a folk festival. Luckily, there are quite a few of them to attend. Even if you're restricted solely to North America, performers (and their fans) can wear out their car tires or frequent flier miles traveling to and fro some of the best-known festivals, including Kerrville, Telluride, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Rocky Mountain Folks, Edmonton, Philadelphia, Ben & Jerry's and, of course, Falcon Ridge.

Falcon Ridge, administered and produced by Anne and Howard Saunders and based in New York's Hudson Valley up near the Massachusetts border, has only been around since 1988, but it's earned numerous accolades and fans over the past decade. It's also recently joined the ranks of festivals that have released CDs of featured shows. Main Stage Live covers performances recorded over the summers of 1995-99.

Not every artist on this CD will appeal to every listener, but there are listeners for each and every artist represented here. The disc takes risks. It doesn't stick with safe, well-known performers but instead opens with a relatively little-known band from western Massachusetts, Wild Asparagus, which specializes in traditional dance music. Although guitarist Ann Percival also sings, this particular track, "St. Stephens Day March," is all music. It's a nice, upbeat invitation to the rest of the disc, and I'm impressed that it wasn't "hidden" somewhere in the middle. This CD allows bands such as Wild Asparagus and Viva Quetzal, a band comprised of three South American musicians and four New Englanders which performs music of the Americas (their contribution to this CD is the flamenco-driven "Montilla" with vocals in Spanish), hardly household names even in the North American folk community, to gain more recognition and fans.

Unfortunately, it's too late for June Rich, a Philadelphia band that Philadelphia magazine once compared favorably to the Indigo Girls and featured the vocal harmonies of Vanida Gail and Jackie Murphy. The band broke up in fall of 1998, a good year after their July 1997 performance of "No Answer," a song about needing to take a day off solely to yourself. Gail and Murphy, however, each have been performing along the U.S.'s Northeast Corridor, so if this song whets your appetite, seek out their solo work. (Gail, incidentally, put in an appearance at the 1999 Falcon Ridge Festival.)

However, it's not too late for Kim and Reggie Harris, native Philadelphians who are now based in upstate New York. Best known for their spirituals and freedom songs, the Harrises perform with Magpie (Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner) on "All My Relations," an earnest cry for peace throughout the world and within our own souls.

Some of the other artists involved already have huge fan bases. Dar Williams, Greg Brown, Patty Larkin, Richard Shindell, Vance Gilbert and Moxy Frčvous are some of the performers whose fans might seek out the CD based on the fact that their personal favorite is included. Of course, Dar Williams fans, for example, might discover Peter Mulvey or The Kennedys while they listen.

Mulvey's contribution, "If Love is Not Enough," recorded in July '99, is the disc's most recent track and features his dynamic vocal range, including his scat falsetto. Maura Kennedy takes lead vocals on The Kennedys' "River of Fallen Stars." Both she and her husband, Pete, share guitar duties on this song filled with musical metaphors and lines such as:

And the jangle dreamers and the red guitars
Flow like a river of fallen stars
And the jingle poets sing their songs
While the pilgrim travelers listen from afar
seem to be written for a folk festival audience.

I've often found that folk festival performers, in general, sound better live than on their recordings. No, I'm not knocking their CDs. It's just that these singer-songwriters often have a way of connecting with their audiences that is a difficult nuance to capture in the studio. Vance Gilbert is a case in point. Introduced on this album as "one of the shining lights in folk music," Gilbert's humorous segue to "The Hey Lah Dee Dah Song" helps me recall the amusing anecdotes that add to his live shows. The song itself is a lighthearted reminder about living, aging, and simply being.

Moxy Frčvous, well known for its humor, is represented here not only by the 1997 recording of "Present Tense Tureen" but also by what is mentioned in the CD booklet merely as "Moxy Intro." It's better known to Frčheads and Falcon Ridge attendees as "The Killer Tents Song," all about how the "tent army" was "encroaching" just a bit closer that year. (Frčvous went on to perform the song again during their 1999 appearance.)

Greg Brown is another artist I prefer to see live than merely hear on his CDs. Brown is a natural to play festivals, what with his t-shirts, sunglasses and fisherman's hat (if a stream is nearby, he may be found fishing in it). His "You Drive Me Crazy" is a fun love song about a seemingly mismatched couple who truly do love each other.

I sometimes wonder why certain songs are chosen for live compilations. While I understand that occasionally one song be included simply because its recording sounded the best (the guitar may have dropped out of half of the other songs taped that evening), I still try to read into the selection process.

For example, Richard Shindell is best known for his own thought-provoking compositions. The song chosen here, however, is the traditional "Paddy's Green Shamrock Shore" -- not the typical Shindell song. It works, though, and introduces listeners to a side of Shindell, a strong side, indeed, with which they might not have been familiar.

The introduction to Dar Williams' "If I Wrote You" perhaps explains why it was selected over one of her more humorous or even rock 'n' roll style tunes. In it, she confesses that while the song probably is about her, she dedicated it to the late Townes van Zandt -- to someone who "had to be taken on his own terms," along with "a whole generation of singer-songwriters." "And we are very grateful to him for that," she concluded, "for being able to do what we do as genuinely as we do it."

Her words perhaps capture the spirit of Falcon Ridge just as the Greg Brown's ode to Falcon Ridge, printed on the back of the CD booklet, remind me of the warmth and camaraderie that a good festival, such as Falcon Ridge, can create. Patty Larkin's "Open Arms (Don't Explain)," with Jennifer Kimball on backing vocals, gives the CD a gentle conclusion. Originally dedicated to her parents, this song, which unfortunately does not show off her impeccable guitar-playing skills, does serve as a metaphor for Falcon Ridge.

OK, I want to use Larkin's lyrics to give this review a heartfelt ending that might be misconstrued by non-festivarians as too staged and sentimental to be believed. Might we listen to this CD and fall into Falcon Ridge's "open arms," escape the "stranger's world" momentarily, and listen to the music? Sure, that does sound pretty corny. However, as a folk festival veteran, I choose to close my eyes, live in the reverie, and perhaps plan next summer's vacation right now. Where's that road map of New York state?

[ by Ellen Rawson ]

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