Local Rhythms – Music Festival’s a Journey to Discovery

My first trip to Rhode Island for the Newport Folk Festival set the tone for years to come. I went to see headliner Nanci Griffith and came away a newly minted Mary Chapin Carpenter fan. The following year Chapin’s return was the drawing card, but after the 1991 Festival I promptly bought CDs by Patty Larkin and David Wilcox, two wonderful discoveries among many.

Subsequently, the two-day gathering, which commences Saturday in Fort Adams State Park after an Irish kick-off concert at the Tennis Hall of Fame Friday, has been a constant source of great new talent. I’ll never forget the year Moxy Früvous, the self-anointed “Canadian Beatles,” played an unannounced set and completely upstaged every act that followed. Or when an up-and-coming Alison Krause opened Sunday morning and made me feel like a member of an amazing new church.

Another highlight happened when Joan Baez, who’d introduced Bob Dylan to Newport fans in 1963, showcased then little known Dar Williams and Richard Shindell in a mid-90’s “Celebration of Song” performance.

The big names deliver as well. Joan Armatrading had the crowd swaying and singing in unison in 1996. Two years later James Taylor made a triumphant return – he was a “New Voice” in 1969, along with Van Morrison. Dylan’s 2002 appearance featured a fake beard and utter musical ferocity, and remains to this day the best performance I’ve seen on the Newport stage.

This year promises more eclecticism. I’m intrigued by Beolach, a young Celtic group from Cape Breton, and can’t wait to see 17-year old chanteuse and piano prodigy Sonya Kitchell. Rosanne Cash is co-headlining with David Gray. The latter seems to be coasting comfortably on an old album (“White Ladder”), while the former recently released arguably the best record of her 30-year career (“Black Cadillac”).

I’ve heard Darrell Scott’s name in a number of rarified circles, so the Nashville songwriter’s appearance on the Harbor Stage (there are three separate Festival performing areas) alongside long-time favorites Jeffrey Foucault and Chris Smither should be great.

It’s called a folk festival in the “music made by folks” sense of the word. This year, it’s leaning toward jazz and blues, though, with the astounding Madeline Peyroux, New Orleans groove-meisters the Meters, slide guitar ace Sonny Landreth and Grace Potter. Potter and her band, already quite familiar to local crowds, could be a breakout act.

On Sunday, purists will welcome Patty Larkin, David Rawlings (performing without longtime partner Gillian Welch), and the pioneering Odetta. Perennial Newport headliners the Indigo Girls close out the show.

What other great discoveries await for this weekend?

Thursday: Eliza Gilkyson, Colburn Park – This singer-songwriter proudly proclaims that she’s got “miles on her tires” – and a mature musical outlook to match. An Austin native raised on music (her father, a songwriter, wrote “Bare Necessities” for Disney, and her brother played in the punk band X), she has a sweet, soulful voice – a softer Lucinda Williams. This is a free show, so what’s holding you back?

Friday: WRSI “The River” 25th Anniversary Concert, Pines Theatre – This fine Northampton station is the radio equivalent of Newport Folk, and then some. Tonight, Los Lobos headlines a celebration show that also includes roots rockers the Mammals and the high lonesome sound of Amity Front. You can’t get this station outside of Massachusetts, but their web site is the next best thing, with free downloads of podcasts and artists you haven’t heard yet, but should.

Saturday: Rock the Whale, Whaleback Mountain – The biggest day of the year for local rock fans, and a great chance to get out and support a vibrant, growing music scene – sponsored by a Clear Channel station and the Army, no less! Hexerei headlines the all-day show, with sets from Stonewall, Broken Mindz, Spectris and several others. The forecast for Saturday – abundant sun and sound.

Sunday: Leon Russell, Claremont Opera House – A big name, a music legend, kicks off the Opera House season with a mix of growling, straight up “Okie Rock” and honest Americana. If you want a sense of what Mr. Russell is capable of, rent “Concert for Bangla Desh” and check his “Jumpin’ Jack Flash/Youngblood” medley for his boogie bonafides, and his backing turn on Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman” for his softer side. His work with Willie Nelson and New Grass Revival will undoubtedly have some time in the spotlight Sunday as well.

Wednesday: Pete Merrigan & The All-Stars, Sunapee Harbor – A few times every summer, Peter Merrigan puts his much-loved solo act on standby and invites some old friends by for a jam session. Tonight, former Mad Beach Band pal Lenny Austin stops by, along with Bob Gagnier and Sandy Alexander, for a show on the Ben Mere Bandstand, located on the harbor green. Bring your boat drinks!

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