Review and photographs by Stanley Johnson
My first trip to the Maple Ski Ridge in Rotterdam came with the realization that, although I had never been there, I had seen the place many times from a distance at various locations in Schenectady. So it was with a kind of déjà vu that I made a pretty easy trip (four left turns from the I-88 exit on the Thruway) to the small but spectacular ski center for the fifth annual Rhythm on the Ridge Roots Music Festival last weekend.
The first things I saw on the way were the many piles of branches and broken trees from the recent tornado damage. As we pulled into the festival lot, my next thought was, “Where are all the people?” Well, it had been a very wet week and initial weather forecasts had called for a wet Saturday as well. But it didn’t rain: in fact, within an hour of arrival we had a patch of blue sky overhead. The ground was very soggy but not muddy. There were probably less than a hundred spectators, many of whom were musicians.
Perhaps the attendance was limited by the completely local line-up of American roots musicians without any big name headliners, and perhaps American roots music is too much of a niche genre to draw big crowds, but I think a lot of people just plain missed the ski lift on this one.
Maybe the laid-back, country atmosphere and small audience was exactly what worked so well at this site. A bigger crowd would have required more food vendors and more restroom facilities. But a bigger crowd might have made for some of the frantic, gotta-keep-movin’-or-we’ll-miss-something vibe that can make the Old Songs Festival or Friehofer’s Saratoga Jazz Fest less than relaxing.
As it was, rural Rotterdam was just right for kicking back and letting the bands kick the music into overdrive with the energetic mix of bluegrass, blues and mountain music, often played at either breakneck speed or with a high, lonesome sound that expressed yearning or great sorrow.
We got there just as Dan Johnson & the Expert Sidemen were on the outdoor stage. “Sleep On the Way,” the title track of their debut album, and “Low Down Lonesome Blues” joined new songs from their new sophomore CD Bound For Abiquiu. The band was joined by M.R. Poulopoulos on guitar, and throughout the next two days many groups featured guest artists sitting in.
We took a tour of the vendors, bought some jewelry and visited the snack bar area, where Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh were leading a family sing-a-long session on “Skip to My Lou, My Darling.”
Nearby in the ski rental area of the lodge, Holly & Evan were covering blues classics “Hesitation Blues” and “My Babe,” as well as their own “I’d Rather Be Dead by the Side of the Road Than Spend One More Minute With That Man of Mine. Sitting in on rib bones percussion during “Gospel Plow” was Joe Pasko.
Back outside, Ramblin Jug Stompers were treating spectators to songs from their Hobo Nickel CD, including “Fry Pan Jack Enters Into Heaven,” “Jug Band Music” and “Overseas Stomp.”
The Keeners brought to mind the original folk-boom sound of bands like the Clancy Brothers, the Brothers Four and others. “I’d like to say we’d tone it down a little, but we probably won’t,” I heard them say, and they lived up to their words, propelling songs at a rapid pace.
The Rebecca Angel Band roused the outdoor audience while singing “The day I turn 50, the world is my toy. The day I turn 50, I’m half dead already; nothing can stop me now.”
The closest thing to pure bluegrass was probably played during the set by the Hilltown Ramblers, who played “Rocky Top,” as well as a number of songs from their debut CD It’s About Time.
We did miss a number of good acts between the various stages, including North Carolina twosome NiKki Talley & Jason Sharp, folk duo 2Late and festival host band Flood Road.
But we did catch Matt Durfee’s intense set on the Lodge Stage, with songs like “Shinin’ Like a Light,” “If Thoughts Could Do That,” “A Million Drinks” and a song about Amelia Earhart that featured a mix of driving fingerpicking and bold chords on the guitar. Durfee followed a sing-a-long on “Everyone Wants to Be Right” with the marvelous “Kid Gloves.”
Last up in the fading evening light (because there weren’t any lights) were Red Haired Strangers, who added jam band stylings to their high energy set, particularly in the best version of “Deep Ellum Blues” I heard that weekend (there were at least three).
Most interesting, as well as most distracting, were the Spun Out Fire Artists, who accompanied the Red Haired Strangers set. They whirled and twirled objects of real fire, thus providing a source of light in the gathering twilight. Although some parents were concerned for their children, I didn’t fear any danger because the ground was so wet and each artists had an assistant with a big blanket in case things got too hot.
As we headed home under a sky full of stars I was already looking forward to the next day, which wound up being the kind of gorgeous late spring day that makes living in the Northeast a joy.
We arrived too late for the pancake breakfast open mic, strolling in to a haunting version of “John Barleycorn” by From the Heartland. The duo’s set was followed by the sound of a bagpiper walking on the hill above.
Indeed, the hill looked so inviting with the long grass waving in the breeze, that many parents and youngsters ventured up and down the slope during the day. I wished that the chair lift had been functioning because it would have been a great ride.
But then we might have missed the massive, nine-member Hill Hollow Band, which included such non-traditional instruments such as saxophone, pedal steel guitar and bongos. The band played many traditional favorites with unexpected stylings, such as a jazzy medley of “John Hardy/Railroad Blues.” I really enjoyed their take on “Little Sadie” and the gospel finish.
Everest Rising brought a mix of traditional and original songs, including some furious picking on a full speed “Little Maggie” and several lighter, almost pop songs from their CD New Home Found. Part of this airy sound was achieved with a bowed bass. They finished with an excellent “I Know You Rider.”
The Bald Mountain Rounders, which included Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh, returned a more traditional sound to the stage with old favorites such as “Cripple Creek,” “Roll On Buddy” and “Wabash Cannonball.” The trio finished with an appropriate spiritual, “Keep On the Sunny Side.”
Festival creator, soundman and member of Flood Road J. Peter Yakel introduced the final band, the Lazy Suns. The band’s alluring mix of country, rock, pop and mountain music was an excellent way to cap the festival. Songs including “Cool Apple Green,” “Troubled Sea,” “Everyone’s Got a Dream,” “Stoneytown” and “Find Your Way” made me feel like this is a band to follow.
As we headed home again, I noted that this was one festival that didn’t leave me exhausted and muddy, and it was still daylight. I hope the fest will be back again, maybe with a bigger audience, a program, stage lighting and, yeah, the chair lift would be cool. But even without all that, it’ll be one for the calendar.
Excerpt from Kelly de la Rocha’s story at The Daily Gazette: “Spontaneous music-making is part of the appeal of the event, he [organizer J.P. Yakel] noted. ‘People can bring their instruments and just start playing. They meet people, they’re out in the parking lot, a little band kicks up and next thing you know, there’s music going on the other side of the lodge. It just kind of happens,’ he said. Musician Dick Kavanaugh, a member of the duo Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh, was relaxing at a picnic table Sunday while the band From the Heartland played acoustic guitar onstage. Kavanaugh and his partner, Deb Cavanaugh, are regular performers at the festival. ‘It’s nice to be part of something that’s starting to grow. We’ve become part of the scenery,’ the Princetown resident said with a grin. The scenery was lovely at the festival, despite the mud produced by recent rains. Kids jumped gleefully in a bounce house, while 6-year-old Aiden Keeler of Troy launched muddy basketballs toward a hoop with surprising accuracy.”