Boston Folk Festival provides plenty of thrills

A review of the Boston Folk Festival with Dar Williams at UMass Boston on September 13, 2009

, Staff

Faced with three stages of music and only one afternoon in which to enjoy it, even the most gluttonous connoisseur of folk music will leave some dish untried. For the reviewer, whose duty is to sample as much as possible, an event like the Boston Folk Festival becomes an athletic event, in which one appreciates each performer as quickly as possible before rushing off to have a taste of the next.
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The real standout of Sunday’s festival, to my ears, was Joe Crookston. In two different “song swaps”, his songs were consistently arresting and entertaining. Writing in a vein that can only be described as “Americana”, Crookston’s songs delivered familiar themes in new terms. Jake Armerding appeared beside him on both stages, providing tasty fiddle accompaniment and his own songs. Aremerding’s recent album, Her, is an appealing collection of songs centered on love and its related emotional turmoil, but, as he puts it, staying positive and “not so much mining that tragic territory” of breakups and infidelity. This is not to say that the songs don’t address the rougher spots on the course of true love, but they don’t dwell there; the songs for the most part are centered on& the transformation that those rough spots bring, rather than on the pain they inflict. At the festival, these songs were delivered with professionalism and polish, but I felt there was a certain detachment in the performance, which was not present when he joined in with the other musicians’ songs.& &

Along with Crookston, I was struck by Geoff Bartley’s writing, particularly in his haunting “Cut By Wire”, detailing a breakup through a novel metaphor of ceramics. Bostonians should know Geoff Bartley’s name and his music. Hell, they should name a street after this guy. I’d suggest the one that runs in front of the CanTab, where he’s held an open mic since Jesus was in short pants, but that might be a little presumptuous. I had a chance to talk to Bartley after his set with Armerding and Crookston, and was impressed by a man with a good word for every performer whose name came up, and more than this, a real understanding of the songs that each comes up with. Bartley is a perfect treasure in this city, and every fan of good writing should make it a point to hear him play, and soon.

While most of the festival had a local flavor, Lou and Peter Berryman came from Wisconsin to sing their light-hearted songs of love, loss, and cheese. The Berrymans have been playing together full time for thirty years, and it shows in their easy onstage harmonies and deceptively simple songs. With an old-fashioned dedication to craft, they crank out songs in a style that seems to have gone out of fashion: interesting and singable melodies married to clever lyrics and novel songwriting conceits. While younger folk fans might find their work seems dated, many of them could stand to listen to this stuff a little more closely. The humor might be corny at times, but the writing is solid and and the sentiments expressed come through with a directness that’s not heard in many of today’s more contemporary writers.

The festival was headlined by Massachusetts native and folk superstar Dar Williams, who played a solid hour-long set to a full house at the end of the day. Williams’ writing epitomizes the New England songwriting that came to life in the 1990s, relying on a personal and confessional style that eschews complexities of melody and lyric for an emphasis on autobiography. Her set drew from all phases of her career, going back to her 1991 release The Honesty Room for “The Babysitter’s Here” and highlighting several songs from her most recent release, Promised Land. Williams can be a strong lyricist, but her limited rhythmic and harmonic palette make the songs run together over the course of a set.

Some other artists put in noteworthy performances. Kerri Powers, in addition to being extremely tall, has a good knack for story-telling songs with radio-ready tunes. While one could wish for a bit more consistently ambitious subject matter, her malty alto is fine to hear, and should buy her time to search around for more songs like “Magdalene” or “Tallulah, Send a Car For Me”.

Tripping Lily is an engaging fourtet from Nantucket whose lineup reads like an ethnic joke and whose sound is a pop-informed acoustic folk. The instrumentation – guitar, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass – says bluegrass, but the band’s sound has none of the hallmarks of that style. Their sound has more to do with the generation of songwriters that included Dar Williams, Shawn Colvin, and the like, confessional and personal songs with pop hooks and rounded harmonies. Lyrically, the band has some room to grow, but with a regular performance schedule one can expect that they will fill in this space in short order. Those wishing to get in on the ground floor (be a fan from way back!) can hear a full set from the band at Passim on September 21.

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