Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
I must admit, summer is not my favorite season. A two-hour drive to the best music festival in the area, however, provided a diversion from the bane of living. More than 30 bands were scheduled on three stages. As Levon Helm said, “If you pour some music on whatever’s wrong, it’ll sure help out.” The music was the balm. Here are some highlights…
SATURDAY, JULY 14:
I arrived in time to catch Samirah Evans & Her Handsome Devils, a talented band from New Orleans, in mid-set. Dancers filled the Yonder Stage floor, soaking up a slew of fine covers such as Chris Kenner’s “Something You Got” and Dr. John’s “Such a Night.”
A last minute change in schedule kept the Crescent City vibe going, with the Grammy Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band taking the stage with a gusto that never let up. They played prime cuts from their recent album “Rebirth of New Orleans” (Basin Street Records): “Exactly Like You,” “I Like It Like That” and “Why Your Feet Hurt.” Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” and Bobby Womack’s “It’s All over Now” coaxed the wallflowers onto the floor and singing along. Closing out with their classics “Feel Like Funkin’ It Up” “Do What You Wanna,” the eight-piece RBB had the 300 or so patrons in a frenzy under the sweltering tent.
Running up to the Main Stage, I caught Bay State favorites Lake Street Dive, a quartet that blended rock, jazz and soul, in mid-set. Lead singer Rachael Price had the tone of an alto saxophone when she sang, and upright bassist Bridget T. Kearney complimented Price perfectly on harmonies. Mike Olson (trumpet and lead guitar) and Michael Calabrese (drums) added vocal harmonies as well, especially on “Don’t Make Me Hold Your Hand” and “Elijah” from the band’s 2009 eponymous album. Many packed the Meltdown Stage later in the evening to hear some more from this fine band.
Fifteen minutes later, Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express took the same stage and rocked the thousands on the sun-scorched field. Backed by four pieces, Prophet sang like Ray Davies and played his beat-up Telecaster with a wild grin of someone who has been to the edge and back, often trading solos and riffs with guitar maestro James DePrato. Offering a shout out to Alejandro Escovedo, Prophet cranked out “Always a Friend” at a slightly more frenetic tempo than what Escovedo usually favors. “Temple Beautiful,” “Castro Halloween,” “The Left Hand and the Right Hand,” “Willie Mays Is Up at Bat” and “White Night Big City” – all from Prophet’s recent masterwork on Yep Roc – mixed melody, guitar mayhem and often surreal imagery and characterizations. Crowd favorites “Summertime Thing” and “You Did” closed out the all-too-short hour-long set.
During the intermission, I heard various concert-goers chatting about the next act – evidently, some had caught a recent gig by one of the great rise-from-the-ashes stories in American music. Taking the stage, the Extraordinaires locked into a tight Daptone instrumental groove and then introduced the star of the show, Charles Bradley, “The Flying Eagle of Soul.” Decked out in cool gold-brown suit, Bradley embraced the crowd with his arms and his raspy voice, digging into cathartic renditions of “Life’s Filled with Sorrows,” “No Time for Dreaming” and “Loving You Baby.” Old soul fans raised a hand or beverage when Bradley launched into the sneakiest of love songs, “Slip Away.”
Back at the Yonder Stage, singer-guitarist J.D. McPherson brought swagger to the bandstand. Jimmy Sutton (upright bass) and Jason Smay (drums, formerly of Los Straitjackets) brought the rock and roll spirit alongside some saxophone and piano. Vocally, McPherson sounds like a blend of Roy Brown and Eddie Cochran, plays guitar with a nod to Sun Records and Chess Records, and writes songs that are retro and fresh at the same time. “Dimes for Nickles” sounded right at home with Ike Turner’s “You’ve Got to Lose.” Neanwhile, “Country Boy” and “Fire Bug” from the just-released “Signs and Signifiers” album had swing dancers out in full force despite the intense afternoon heat.
What can be said about Los Lobos? For over 30 years, they have been the ambassadors of American music from both sides of the border. True to form, polkas and cumbias held sway with rock and roll, blues and soul. Just look at the impressive set list below:
– Canto Veracruz
– El Cascabél
– La Pistola y El Corazón
– Los Ojos De Pancha
– Saint Behind The Glass
– Chuco’s Cumbia
– Will The Wolf Survive?
– The Neighborhood
– On Main Street
– Wicked Rain
– Kiko and the Lavender Moon
– Let’s Say Goodnight
– Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio
– West L.A. Fadeaway
– Don’t Worry Baby (with Jim Fitting of Treat Her Right on harmonica)
– Mas y Mas
This was simply jubilant, poetic, soulful music – viva Los Lobos!
Closing out the night was a rambling yet engaging set by Arlo Guthrie & the Guthrie Family Reunion, which was simulcast on NPR. With colorful hot air balloons rising above the main field to greet the moon, three generations paid tribute to Woody Guthrie on his 100th birthday, mixing their own songs with his classics and recently discovered gems, creating a string of music that was awe-inspiring. Cathy Guthrie of Folk Uke, who described herself as the “trouble maker of the family,” brought laughter to all ages with her sunny take on a relationship gone wrong, “Shit Makes the Flowers Grow.” Arlo Guthrie performed his father’s “Oklahoma Hills” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” with a spirited rasp and drawl. “My Daddy Flies That Ship in the Sky” tipped a cap to Woody’s gift at showing pride through the eyes of a child in WWII; likewise, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion led all the children and adults on stage through “Take Me to Show-and-Tell” (from “Go Waggaloo”), which became an instant sing-along.
The political and social edge became more pronounced, and the songs even more riveting. “Coming into Los Angeles,” Arlo’s tale of a drug bust, resonated with the outrage of Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” guitars blazing and vocals rallying for mercy in the chorus. Arlo’s story of his father’s desire “to give a name, to give a voice” to migrants who crashed in a plane in 1947 made an insightful preface to “Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos),” a song that seems timeless given Americans’ polarized, media-driven attitudes about the border with Mexico in our century. Songs from the 1930s and 1940s that Woody had left unrecorded/unfinished (a sublime “Airline to Heaven” and heart-rending “If I Could Hear My Mother Sing Again”) also got a spotlight, with kudos being offered to Wilco and Janis Ian respectively for completing a melody to each song decades later.
Arlo’s final observation about how songs can be transformed or reinterpreted through generations was apt, especially when the Guthries closed the night with “This Land Is Your Land,” including the rarely
performed final verse that most in the audience had never heard, especially if their prior exposure to the song had been in a school setting. I have attended hundreds of concerts and heard countless songs; few performances have moved me as much as hearing this upbeat take on what makes the USA great, and the recognition of what needs to be done to make it better for all. Hearing thousands sing the chorus with conviction, I knew I was not the only one smiling and crying as the sun set on the Berkshires.
David Wilson’s review at Berkshire Fine Arts