Concert Review: Old Songs Festival
Altamont Fairgrounds, Altamont, NY, 6/21-23/07
By Glenn Weiser, Metroland, June 27, 2007

Keep It Traditional
Old Songs Festival- Altamont Fairgrounds, June 22-23

Green Grow the Rushes, O,” a love song by the 19th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns, was once so popular that Mexican troops fighting the U.S. Army in the Mexican War of 1848 corrupted the title of the song, which they often heard American troops singing, to gave us the nickname “gringo.” But where could you hear this Burns gem performed locally today?

Well, Enoch Kent, a Scottish-Canadian octogenarian, sang a heartfelt rendition of it at the 27th Old Songs Festival in Altamont last weekend, underscoring the importance of the Voorheesville-based organization’s mission to preserve folk-music traditions through its annual three-day event at the end of June. This year’s slate of acoustic blues, British ballads, Celtic, Cajun, old-time string-band music and more drew around 3,000 or so fans, and musically was as good as ever.

Having been on the bill last year as half of the Celtic duo Byrne and Barrett, I returned this time to review Saturday and Sunday’s music, which consisted of workshops and smaller performances at more than a half-dozen locations within the fairgrounds, and a closing concert on the main stage at the end of each day (there was also a Friday evening concert, which I didn’t attend). While I couldn’t take in everything, I did manage to hear a representative sampling of performers.

At 11:15 AM Saturday on the Main Stage was Bodega, an energetic band of young Scots on harp, guitar, fiddle, bagpipes, and a djembe added for an African flavor. That worked well enough, but when the band jammed a reel (a 4/4-time dance tune) into a 6/8 work song as an instrumental it seemed contrived.

In the Sheep Barn at 12:30, three duos—Magpie, Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, and Ellie Ellis and Ron Gordon—served up some tasty blues. The technically brilliant harmonica player Annie Raines, however, appeared to commit musical plagiarism by taking entire solos note-for-note from both Sonny Boy Williamson II and Little Walter and inserting them into other songs without attribution (ironically, one song she borrowed from later was Little Walter’s “You Know It Ain’t Right”). Later, mandolinist Ron Gordon contributed a rippling solo to his and Ellis’ version of “Texas Easy Street.”

Next was a concertina consortium at Area 3 in which a half-dozen squeeze box players, including British bards John Roberts and the incomparable Louis Killen, recounted the history of the instrument, reminisced about collecting them in the early days of the English folk revival (guitars and banjos were at the time rejected as inauthentic by many folkies there), and performed tunes and songs, including Killen’s reflective arrangement of the Aussie anthem “Waltzing Matilda.”

The following act, the Magnolia Sisters, was a fine, all-woman Cajun band from Louisiana consisting of a fiddler, button accordionist, guitarist, and triangle player. They performed waltzes including the standout “Blue Eyes,” two-steps, and songs in French with excellent close-harmony duet singing by the guitarist and accordionist.

Back at the Main Stage at 4:15, it was Malinese musician Mamadou Diabate and his ensemble, consisting of sidemen on a marimba-like instrument called a balaphon, a cajón (or Spanish percussion box), and a bass guitar. Diabate himself pays the kora, a harp-like instrument capable of producing fast, cascading melodic runs. The band delivered a hypnotically atmospheric set in which the kora and balaphon wafted over the cajón and the bass’ simple harmonic lines.

Among the highlights of the evening concert, emceed by folkmeister Michael Cooney, was the singing trio of Herdman, Hills and Mangsen, who harmonized superbly on a musical setting of James Whitcomb Riley’s famous 1885 poem, “Little Orphant Annie.” Finest Kind, another vocal trio, sang a three-part cappella arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” in which the harmonies were a-changin’ in each well-crafted verse. Lastly, local pickers the Whippersnappers shined on a heart-melting double-fiddle-and- guitar rendition of the Shetland slow air, “The Old Resting Chair.”

Sunday saw the performers regrouped in various workshops—Fiddle Styles, which ranged from Klezmer to Celtic to jazz, and the Far Flung Colonials session, an Anglo-Saxon hootenanny, were memorable—before the seven-act finale at 3:30 PM, featuring among others slide-guitarist/songwriter Pat Wictor, zesty New Zealand traditional singer Danny Spooner, and our local old-time outfit, the Stillhouse Rounders, led by Mark Schmidt, a former student of North Carolina fiddle legend Tommy Jarrell. Fans of folk and acoustic music who missed Old Songs this time will want to be there next year.

See the article on the Metroland website 
Index of Metroland Articles by Glenn Weiser    ©2007 by Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.  

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