NC Folk Festival, 2021

first night, Friday night

The National Folk Festival roams around the country, usually three years per location, seeding state festivals. Greensboro had it from 2015-2017 and is now on its fourth stand-alone NC show. The pandemic meant that last year’s show was entirely virtual (featuring a lot of drone footage, for no real reason that I could tell, other than that it was possible). Travel restrictions also meant that last year was entirely local, and this year has no international acts, which were a staple of the national festival.

What that means is a deeper dive into Americana: more gospel and more hip-hop, which is totally folk, if you think about it for a minute. Who makes hip-hop? Mostly poor kids who can’t afford musical instruments and formal training. The local champion of the “hip-hop is folk” school of thought is a bit of an exception. Demeanor is part of an extended musical family that includes his famous aunt Rhiannon Giddens, who has done her best to help him along (as families do), and her colleagues in The Carolina Chocolate Drops. You can watch his 2020 performance on his website, linked above.

Songs of Hope & Justice

Last night my wife and I grabbed supper at the Poke Bowl on Elm and ate on the street as the collective known as Songs of Hope and Justice was introducing themselves. Originally organized by singer/songwriter Laurelyn Dossett and consisting of herself and some friends, the group has grown into a rotating swirl of performers, like an eddy in a stream — not a hurricane that blows through and wrecks things, or a maelstrom, but always around, agitating. Good performers, all, but to me it just felt a bit churchy. Not in a gospel way, particularly, but in a preaching to the choir way.

As we were transitioning to the next show, I was not at all surprised to see a group of a couple dozen Fred Cox protesters choosing that specific SoHaJ stage to disrupt, as opposed to any of the more commercial locations. Even there, people seemed to be actively ignoring them. I always wonder what the help / harm ratio for that kind of thing is. Does it help to raise awareness if that awareness is negative, if people’s first exposure to an issue annoys them and alienates them from your point of view? I’m sure somebody, somewhere, has studied this question.

Hot Club of Cowtown

I enjoyed Hot Club of Cowtown a lot more. I’d seen them live before, at the Mucky Duck in Houston, almost 20 years ago, and maybe once in Rochester before that, I don’t remember for sure. They play a weird historical mix from the early/mid-20th century called Western Swing, combining Django Rheinhardt’s jazz guitar and a fiddle style that is sweet and quick, but not frenetic and crazy the way Bluegrass often is. Lively, let’s say. More concerned with melody than with showing off their individual abilities (like The Commitments, if you happen to remember that 90s film about a soul band from Dublin).

I didn’t know that the band had recently re-formed with a new stand-up bass player. Or that they had broken up in the first place, honestly. I don’t pay nearly as much attention to music trivia as I did in my teens and twenties, when I haunted smoke-filled bars and dance clubs in Lexington and Rochester. I still enjoy a live show, but in a much more passive and mellow way. Sober, let’s say.

Molly Tuttle

Last night’s headline show was my first exposure to this singer/songwriter/guitarist from Palo Alto (now Nashville), who also plays fast and sweet, occasionally crazy-fast, showing her Bluegrass roots. She claimed to be a big fan of HCoC, but one who had never seen them live before.

My wife used to volunteer for the music logging team at the national festival. They archive all the performances somewhere. I’ll ask her about that and update the website with the address.

For now, get out and enjoy this free once-in-a-lifetime event, which is outside, with good weather and socially distant seating. Hey, it’s a pandemic, and a time of political unrest. You could be dead by this time next year.

Thanks for reading!