Saturday, October 12, 2013

RVA, I Love You Back

I gave myself over to the Folk Fest today.

Yes, it was a shame about the rain, although I can't recall a wet FF since the very first one, so we've been very lucky.

Walking down 5th Street, the smell of the river wafted up on the breeze most agreeably. It was going to be a fine day to be waterside.

I was there right when  things got started, taking the Gary Gerloff trail to the Altria stage to see Newfoundland's the Dardanelles.

"This is only our third time in the U.S.," guitarist Tom said as a light rain fell on us and the stage. "We didn't expect anyone to show up. We thought we'd be over there with the kettle corn."

By the middle of their enthusiastic set, a FF volunteer was spreading straw on the field in an attempt to fill puddles.

They did jigs (but not the Irish kind) and bouzouki player Matt showed off his magnificent voice doing a song a capella, rendering the crowd as quiet as the Listening Room.

Afterwards Tom drolly observed, "There's not many crowds who would stand in the rain for an unaccompanied ballad."

It may have been the ultimate crowd compliment.

Next up was polka whiz Alex Meixner who already had people dancing before 1:00 with his wild take on traditional music.

Hands down, my favorite was his rendition of Aaron Copland's "Hoedown" from "Rodeo," a piece I never dreamed I'd hear done polka-style and could hear again tonight.

Near the end of his rollicking set, he yelled, "In 100 years, there'll be no emo music. In 100 years, there'll be no screamo music. But in 1,000 years, there will still be polka!"

You can't argue with the truth.

Alash was a trio of Truvan throat singers, a remarkable, almost primal sound if you've never heard it before.

The pavilion was all but full as the three played unfamiliar instruments and sang "songs about how they can sing," according to the interpreter.

Back at the dance pavilion, the Marshall Ford Swing band got people two-stepping on the slippery, grass clipping-covered wooden dance floor.

But when they did a Texas waltz, people started grabbing their honeys for some slow dancing, Texas-style.

Singer Emily Gimble was the real deal (her Daddy's Johnny Gimble, a swing fiddler of great renown) and her voice went a long way toward their authentic sound.

From there, it was back up the hill for food from La Milpa, a welcome sight since I can't seem to get myself to southside to eat there.

Scoring a steak taco, chicken and cheese empanada and a pork tamale, I took my lunch up to the Community stage for Stooges Brass band.

Two of the musicians pitted the right and left sides of the audience against each other in a noise-making match, which was fun, but I kept thinking that they had nothing on our own No BS Brass band.

The crowd was huge, though, so the New Orleans band must have been doing something right.

I left because I wanted to catch fadista Nathalie Pires, having just this past year discovered fado music with RVA's own fadista.

Her voice was beautiful, although a guy near me said he thought it was lost on the enormous Altria stage, and the songs of longing seemed perfect for a gray, rainy day.

By that point in the day, the ground around the Altria stage felt like a saturated sponge and finding a place to stand was challenging given that I hadn't worn boots.

So once she finished, I was happy to leave there, more so because I couldn't wait to hear Mighty Sam McClain, a 70-year old R & B singer I'd interviewed for Style.

From the second he opened his mouth, I was in thrall to his gorgeous voice, an instrument he discovered at 13, but one he'd been using all his life in church and in the cotton fields.

He was dressed in a tuxedo jacket and jeans and moved awfully well for a septuagenarian, executing hip thrusts, head bobs and shoulder shakes to punctuate his songs.

Things got funky fast and all around me people were dancing which seemed to please Sam.

After every song, there was major applause, hooting and hollering and each time, Sam smiled handsomely and said, "I love you back!"

Eventually he said, "I'm gonna squat, like B.B. King," and sat down on a stool for a slow song about love.

"If you're gonna love, you're gonna feel some pain," he warned. Amen to that.

Things got going again with "New Man in Town," a song he said had been used a dozen times on "All McBeal," and a song that got him dancing in place.

The crowd went nuts when the band started covering Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," sending the funk factor off the charts.

The band got the word that their time was up and people yelled for them to keep going.

Sam dutifully closed with a short song and thank-you to his maker before shaking hands and leaving the stage with the black towel he had used throughout the set to wipe the cascading sweat off his bald head and face draped over one shoulder like a the star that he is.

My last stop was back up the hill for Spanish Harlem Orchestra, a band the Folk Fest has been trying to get for nine years.

The only downside was that by then the field was a marsh and there was absolutely nowhere to stand that didn't involved my feet being partially submerged.

I wasn't going to miss this amazing salsa band, so I backed up to the gravel path, sacrificing a close-up view for the sake of a hard surface to stand on.

Bandleader Oscar Hernandez kicked things off and the percussion never let up which should have been a very god thing but the field was way too wet to dance.

I feel certain my Bronx-born, Puerto-Rican friend Gerry would say that it's just wrong to listen to salsa dura when dancing is not an option.

But we had no choice and the music was hip-shakingly stellar, as evidenced by how many Richmond musicians were in the crowd.

By the time I headed back up the Gary Gerloff trail, my shoes were soaked through (and even so, a woman next to me at SHO had pointed at them and told me they were such cute shoes), my feet were cold from being wet so long and I was ready to take a break from the festivities for a bit.

Every year we rave about how lucky we are to have this annual celebration of music right in our back yard.

And every year, I am in awe of those who make it happen, choosing myriad musical stylings to expose us, to enthrall us, to make us shake our booty, and to make us remember just how wonderful it is to spend three days celebrating music of the world.

There aren't many crowds that would stand in the rain all day long just to hear music they've never heard before.

We're a credit to ourselves, my friends.


  1. Great stuff Karen! It was fun and more to come!

  2. Great write up as always, can't believe we didn't see you!