Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Living Witness

The concessions are falling like dominoes.

First, there were the many layers of clothing worn to the festival Friday evening night. Afterward, I partially lowered the two windows in the living room before bed because I knew it was going to dip down to 50 that night. But when I awoke to find my apartment was 67 degrees - when a mere two days ago it was still peaking around 82-83 most afternoons - I find myself shutting all the windows before it gets any colder. Bad as it was when the cotton blanket went back on the bed two weeks ago, now I'm adding the lightweight bed spread on top of it.

And then, horror of horrors, I not only considered wearing jeans to the Folk Fest Saturday afternoon, I actually did wear jeans. Summer, I pine for you.

How did things degenerate so quickly?

At least the sun was shining when Mr. Wright and I set out to walk to the Folk Festival Saturday, although I knew standing on wet grass in the dark, shivering and cold, was in my future.

What I do for music.

Our first stop was the Dominion Dance Pavilion, except that for some reason, there's no pavilion this year. What's odd about that is that there was a pavilion, at least up through Thursday, a fact I know because Mac and I walked by it several times last week on our way to the Pipeline. But by Friday evening, it was just a dance floor and chairs with no raised stage and no covering. We'd tried to see Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus there Friday, but with zero view of the band and a whole lot of drunk bros on the dance floor, we'd walked away.

Things were marginally better in daylight - at least we could spot Linda Gail Lewis, Jerry Lee Lewis' baby sister, if we squinted - in the distance, so we found chairs and sat down for some boogie-woogie piano classics: Hound Dog, Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, you know the genre.

The dance floor was crowded with people getting their groove thang on, including not a few swing dancers who actually knew what they were doing. One woman in a red top had her choice of partners, cycling through one man after another, but dancing every song.

Before heading up the hill, we made a pilgrimage to admire the James running fast and hard, a churning brown froth that guaranteed I won't be getting on the pipeline anytime soon. The architect focused less on the mighty river and more on structural issues, commenting about how strong bridge supports have to be to take the kinds of stress a swollen river places on them.

The climb to Second Street was worth it for the energetic sounds of New Orleans bounce, thanks to Ricky B and his band (which included a tuba, as all good NOLA bands should) whipping the crowd up.

"We're gonna keep it up until the sweat drops down your draws!"  Ricky B. yelled, pronouncing "drawers" exactly like my Richmond-born father does. Later, at another stage, I overheard an older woman tell a stranger that she'd just seen a musician tell the crowd, "He told us to perspire in our underpants!"

Let's just say it lost a lot in her translation.

The distinctive beat, the call and response and the sheer stage charisma of Ricky B. made for an outstanding set that managed to get old and young involved waving hands and pointing with one finger to signify that we are all one race. If only.

After snagging chicken empanadas from La Milpa, we ate them standing on the hill watching Vishten, an Acadian duo singing songs of great beauty. At one point, the male of the duo asked the crowd, "Will you sing along with us?" and the crowd roared its affirmation. "In French?" he asked and got mostly laughter.

Near the end of their set, just as the sun was about to slide behind the Lee bridge, a two-car train passed slowly along the overhead track behind the stage and the man in the passenger seat waved enthusiastically at the crowd, causing thousands of people to wave back. A few minutes later, the train returned in the opposite direction and this time the driver waved at us and got the same reaction.

Given the scarcity of two-car CSX trains, we had to assume it was a Folk Fest special.

Right on time, Mavis Staples came out, a fireplug of a woman in a black dress with a hot pink wrap jacket, ready to dazzle the crowd, some of whom had been waiting in place through one or two previous bands to ensure they got to see her.

We had a fine perch at a crest on the hill and when the couple in front of us decided to pull up stakes, they invited us to take over their prime real estate, although how anyone can walk away when Mavis is singing is beyond me.

Besides singing every song from the depths of her soul, Mavis took on the very festival that had incited her. "This is your 14th festival, and our first time here! What took you so long to invite me?" She also had family in the audience, so she told us all the food they'd brought her - spoonbread, collard greens and black-eyed peas - and called out to each one by name. She was none too happy when she heard cousin George had stayed at home, but assumed he must be in bad shape to pass up hearing her sing.

After talking about her years spent marching with Martin Luther King (and being thrown in jail for it), she sang "Freedom Highway," the song her father Pops Staples had written for the cause. If she'd come out and only sung one song, that would have been the one. I don't think I'll ever forget hearing that voice belt out the anthem of the civil rights movement.

At the song's end, she must have sung, "I won't turn around" 12 or 15 times before stopping the band and yelling, "Because I have come too far!" and I felt goosebumps.

But it got better. "Pops wrote that song in 1962. I was there and I'm still here. I'm a living witness!" Mavis hollered and the mostly older crowd testified along with her.

Hearing the first instantly recognizable funky notes of "Respect Yourself" - mind you, I had the song on a 45 - was like flashing back to my young self when I first heard it. As much as the lyrics had resonated then, hearing Mavis sing, "Take the sheet off your face, boy, it's a brand new day!" in 2018 (when white men just last year marched with tiki torches) all but ensured that the crowd would respond with cheers, applause and raised fists.

And, hopefully, by voting next month.

Add in a line such as, "Keep talkin' bout the President, won't stop air pollution," and we got yet another sad reminder of the current state of affairs.

Then it was back to 1967 and Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," which caused the middle-aged crowd to sing their hearts out, not that any of us could compare to Mavis' voice.

As the coolness of the evening set in, a stagehand brought Mavis a black scarf and she wrapped it around her neck to warm those golden vocal chords. It also looked quite stylish with her pink-accented dress.

When she promised to take us down Memory Lane, my '70s self knew at once what was next. As the strains of "I'll Take You There," another 45 in my collection, filled the dusk air, I didn't even need to watch Mavis sing. It was enough to take in that song as the sun sank in the west and know that I got to hear Mavis Staples before I died.

Which, given the cold and damp of the Folk Festival, could be any moment now. Oy, is it Spring yet?

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