Yesterday Copley Plaza. Today Lowell. The same but very different — as in free performances by great artists and bands, but you sure could catalog differences.
Regular readers here and at Marry in Massachusetts know my and my family’s jones for the Lowell Folk Festival. We’ve done all but one or two of its 26 years, from back when it was part of the American Folk Festival. We think it is without question the nation’s best free music fest.
Pix Note: These are Creative Commons. Credit Mike Ball once and do what you want with them. Click on a thumbnail for a larger view.
Boston and the immediate environs really try to be music central. Festivals like Summer Arts Weekend and the Bean Town Jazz Festival really contribute. Despite the great Berkelee College, various college and conservatory music programs and such, Boston still generally lags real jazz and blues towns in music. Minuses and pluses are another post, but suffice it to write that what’s here are few and either predictable or overpriced or both. Boston is not Chicago, New York or even Cleveland.
We can accept that this area is more for college-aged types, with all that implies.
All that sneering implied, let’s praise what the area has. That area to us includes Lowell. The LFF and vaguely related summer music series are astonishing music pleasures. They’re half hour by car and within easy striking distance in time and money by train from North Station. Let us pause briefly to heap praise.
The festivals are kind of masochistic, sort of death marches. They tend to go for several days and produce the prix fixe dinner syndrome. You’re there. They’re serving up more than is reasonable. How much do you, should you, can you consume?
The LFF has long been like that. With up to eight stages having performances at a time, from noon until late, there’s that all-you-can-eat problem. Plus, this generally comes with built-in conflicts. While many artists/bands perform twice a day and even two days in a row, there are bound to be numerous times when you want to hear and see two or three or four at the same time. Then with all that, how much is too much?
I used to work with a woman from Lowell. She and her hubby go to the festival, but they spend most of their time drinking and eating at the many restaurants, bars, and festival stalls. They catch maybe three shows in a day.
I do like many other anal-retentive sorts, scheduling when the lists of performers ad their places in the LFF grid appear, about a month before the weekend. That often involves listening to their clips on the LFF site and the band sites. You can’t know everyone when the festival folk work so hard to include the best in a vast spectrum of folk music, in its broadest meaning.
In many ways, the very limited menu this weekend in Boston is superior. There are a few thing perking at a time. When we went to Copley Plaza Friday evening, for example, the great, but very prescribed, carte simply appeared. That was Sierra Hull and Highway 111 (bluegrass wunderkind and another Alison Krauss protegé; she’s top right), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (which finished their elongated set bringing on the oxymoronic Hull and bluegrass god Del McCoury for numerous ensemble pieces [wait, what, acoustic guitar and mandolin with horn-heavy NOLA?!]), finishing with R&B queen Irma Thomas. All was free, each followed in order, and you parked your feet or butt while the glories came to your eyes and ears.
It was a festival for those who don’t want to think or choose. It worked too.
Yesterday, our bully-pulpit preaching, correct-side-of-equality Mayor Menino spoke (very lucidly) and enjoyed the Copley show. We did as well, but maybe not as much as the couple of dozen swing dancers performing on the sidewalk while the NOLA jazz band was on state. (Those dancers are on the right. There was much more dancing at the LFF, in the Dutton tent built for dancing and at the Kennedy Plaza dance floor [see left where some folk even danced with their dogs].)
The LFF as always has that astounding range of styles. We started with the Ethel Caffie-Austin (gospel) Singers. The leader is above left in white hair and pink dress. We were particularly impressed with member Quandora Louise Hornbuckle to the right of her.
We did the famous bluegrass singer Claire Lynch (top left). She’s shown with band member Mark Schatz hamboning.
Five hours of non-stop music later, we punked out when the rain got heavy, missing a couple of acts. Yet, we got that five straight hours of terrific music. I think the rain may have taught us a lesson about enough being enough. However, when I get next year’s sked in front of me, I may not be able to control myself.