Review by Fred Rudofsky
Photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
The weather was hot and humid, but the music was cool.
I caught the very last notes of Martin Simpson, the opener, who had played solo on the Main Stage and won major applause from the crowd.
Thirty-One Tigers recording artist Elizabeth Cook strode out onto the stage next with guitarist Tim Carroll and upright bassist Bones Hillman, dedicating “Columbus Stockade Blues” to its author, the late Doc Watson. Her voice was as enthralling as ever, and she had the crowd mesmerized. Cook’s one of the best singer-songwriters in any genre, and her range was incredible, going from the sass of “Sometimes It Takes Balls to Be a Woman” and the romance of “All the Time” to the paradoxes of attraction in “El Camino” and vivid characterization of tragedy and hope in “Heroin Addict Sister.” In between songs, Cook’s rapport with the crowd was candid and spontaneous, sharing stories of her life and impressions of the festival grounds, including her love of kettle corn. On a roaring train song, “T-G-B”, Carroll took the lead and played some rollicking licks on his Gretsch, smiling at his wife Elizabeth as she strummed her Gibson center stage.
Cook’s renditions of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again,” Gram Parsons’ “Hot Burrito #1” and Lou Reed’s “Sunday Morning” were mesmerizing. Fittingly, on a perfect Sunday afternoon she also featured a trio of songs from her excellent new release “Gospel Plow” – Marty Stuart’s “Hear Jerusalem Calling,” the traditional “Every Knee Must Bow” and “If I Had My Way,” which featured three-part harmonies and an unexpected melodic nod to Little Willie John’s “Fever.”
Chris Smither played a fine set, joined by a few musicians. His gravelly voice and deft picking made “My Phone Never Rings,” new songs “What It Might Have Been,” “What They Say” and “Place in Line” from “Hundred Dollar Valentine” as well as Jimmy Reed’s “Take Out Some Insurance” (from the “What I Learned in School” EP) real treats to hear.
By mid-afternoon, the heat was intense, so it was a surprise to see Richard Thompson, dressed in black from head to toe. Hearing Thompson play an acoustic solo set is one of the great experiences in live performance. Opening with an echo-laden “When the Spell Is Broken” and following it with “Walking on a Wire,” he got the crowd hooting and hollering. “Valerie” rocked; Thompson sounded like three guitarists at once. “Saving the Good Stuff for You” transitioned from bittersweet memories (“I’ve had wives/ And I treated them badly”) to the realization that it all has lead up to bliss.
Thompson’s penchant for wry double entendres and infectious choruses made the sea-shanty “Johnny’s Far Away” – a tale of debauchery by “a ceilidh band…known as The Drones” on a cruise ship from “Sweet Warrior – a natural sing-along for the crowd. Of course, the crowd expected and got “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” a tour de force tale of love, loss and transcendence, and the wonderfully self-loathing “Crawl Back.” Closing out the set. Thompson opted for the dark humor of “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” an as-yet unrecorded gem, and scathing “She Twists the Knife Again.”
Sprinting down the hill, I caught Lee Fields & the Expressions owning the crowd that had gathered at the Yonder Stage tent. Backed by six pieces, Fields brought an intensity that rivaled that of Charles Bradley from the night before, asking the crowd after each song “Are you happy?” with a grin before diving into the next number. This was soul music of the highest order. “You’re the Kind of Girl,” “Love Comes and Goes,” “Faithful Man” and “Honey Dove” galvanized the crowd, and by the end of the set dozens approached the stage to shake hands with Fields as his band blasted away the blues.
Though there were headliners to see at the Main Stage, I saw no reason to leave. The Lost Bayou Ramblers, a young band from south Louisiana, brought an intriguing mix of traditional Cajun sounds with a rock-based rhythm guitar. “Valse de Meche Perdu” from “Vermillionaire” addressed the wetlands crisis that threatens the cultural and ecological foundation of Louisiana; “Maree Noire” from the recent “Mammoth Waltz,” took aim at the BP oil spill disaster. For “Bastille,” the group called up Gordon Gano of Violent Femmes fame. He raised a fiddle to his chin and played dueling fiddle with Louis Michot, then took the lead for the traditional “Dancez Avec Moi Toujours.”
It was no surprise to hear a slew of Violent Femmes songs, but the sight of dancers ages 18 to 60 cutting a rug like they were on Red Bull and singing at the top of their lungs was. “Gone Daddy Gone,” “A Hobo’s Lullaby” (a Woody Guthrie song), “I Did Too Many Drugs,” “Add It Up,” “Good Feeling” and the iconic “Blister in the Sun,” which had Andre Michot (pedal steel), Cavan Carruth (guitar) and Paul Etheredge (drums) locked into a frenetic vamp with the fiddlers, closed out the set.
The final band, C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band, brought the zydeco and then some. The early part of the set was dominated by familiar songs: “Zydeco Boogaloo,” “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “Jambalaya,” “Hot Tamale Baby” and even Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman.” These were played with gusto, but had me wondering if the set list was going remain so conservative. Soon as I had that thought, Chenier jumped into his late father’s “Everybody Calls Me Crazy…” and followed it with a great rendition of “Turn Around and Say Goodbye” from the recent “Step It Up!” on Alligator Records. At that point, I put away my notes and just enjoyed the energy of this impeccable band as the evening rain began to fall outside the tent.
David Wilson’s review at Berkshire Fine Arts