Monday, August 18, 2014

Adventures in Audio #4: Hot August Music Festival

Continuing on my quest to catch live music at 50 different venues:

The Baltimore, MD area Hot August Music Festival tuned 22 this year and has grown from being held in a backyard barn into a must anticipated hootenanny that  fills the Oregon Ridge Park with multigenerational and genre smashing music fans.  And I, being of part of that crowd, sweating under the  warm August  sun and hollering under the night sky, had a great time, but maybe it didn’t click entirely why until the drive home.
On that drive, I was listening to Jazz Inspired on whatever public radio station I could get to come in on the BW Parkway. Host Judy Carmichael was interviewing musician  Gene Casey and asked him how and why we can get kids involved in with jazz.  And to paraphrase, Gene first said that kids like to dance, all kids love to dance, they just can't help it. And second, in our insecure world, with so much upheaval, kids and most people are attracted to and seek things that have roots, something that is rooted in tradition and rooted in real. So much of popular entertainment these days is artificial, disposable and shallow, reality tv is the prime example of this, that there is almost a hunger for deeper things. I just love everything about that idea, and this very real need to seek music that has deep roots. 
All Roots music, whether it be jazz or folk or bluegrass, has the old soul feeling, traditions that have been playing long before you or I were born.  And in which much of our modern American music is built upon, even that newfangled rock and roll. Many of us fight and claw away at finding the next new thing, to stay on the edge of the everything shiny, and beat those hipsters at their own game,  but as  our hands reach and grasp forward to the future and what’s next, our feet, and maybe some bits of our hearts, are planted in the past, to the music that feels  solid beneath our feet, that grounds and anchors us during the storms in our own lives, and also connects us to all the other souls, past and present, that have also sought shelter in the shadow of  gritty vocals, and the 12 bar blues.
And that is why I had such a great time at the music festival on Saturday. My life has had it share of upheaval lately, and I need some roots.  At its heart, Hot August, is a roots festival, this year it was very heavy handed towards bluegrass, but it is also not afraid to be progressive . Roots music, although built on a foundation on tradition, is not about staying the past. It is not about exclusively playing and covering the songs and artists of yester years. It is adding new voices and stories, to be nourished from those roots, but growing in our own crooked ways.

A few of my favorite festival highlights:
This was the first time that I have seen the Baltimore based Bosley play, but I do believe that I had a huge smile on my face during the entire set. With a nod to soul music and crooners of years gone by,  singer and band leader Bosley Brown not only howled,  through a pretty ferocious set list in a good, cool cat, daddy-o fashion , but he also had blue suede shoes and was not afraid to use them . . . to dance, jump and jive his way across the stage.  The energy of the band was electric and contiguous. And you have to get it up to the band who, with the exception of the backup singers, were in full suits, at high noon, in August, in the Mid-Atlantic. They didn’t sweat, they shined.

Houndmouth hailing from the Indiana-Kentucky line is just about the perfect storm of a band for me; their music will break your heart into a million pieces in the most beautiful way possible.  Raw and intense storytelling  vocals shared between all members of the band and backed by the music itself, that dances on the line between quiet and folksome and shaking your wild soul.

At many festivals, bands, even headliners, will have shortened sets, some just 45 minutes. This is to maximize the amount of bands you can pack into a day. But such short sets can lead some groups to speed through their time, giving their audience a condensed analogy of their music. But for the Hot August Festival , the wise organizers gave all the bands pretty hefty play times, ranging from 90 to 120 minutes. This allows the bands, the time to not only develop a relationship with the audience, but also play a large numbers of their songs , or in the case of the relatively new Houndmouth, ALL their songs, and a few new ones and a cover or two. I was so impressed by their set that I found myself actually taking notes, jotting down a snip of a lyric or two that struck me, or noting that I need to send this song or that song to a friend because I know it would become their new favorite song.  Caring and sharing, that is what the music community is all about. 

Nickel Creek
The members of Nickel Creek have been making sweet music off and one together for 25 years, exploding on the music scene as a trio of preteens.  A family band from the start, brother and sister, Sara and Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile, whose father played standup bass in the early years, grew up mixing traditional music with the excitement and creativity of their youth   In 2003, they won a Grammy for best contemporary folk album, and in 2007 they decided to venture off separately and work on new musical projects.  Seeing them reunited once again makes you feel that you are part of some great family reunion. 

The chemistry on stage was so gracefully and comfortable.  I also noticed how they used the stage and the space on that stage, playing close together one minute, far apart the next, playing off the energy of each other. Talented way beyond what you think should be allowed, they also drew the audience in with their charm, wit and undeniable joy.  At one point, you start to think that maybe Chris Thile sold his soul to devil, for when he plays that mandolin of his, he becomes so engaged and entranced that you have to believe that you are witnessing something supernatural.  

There was a moment in the middle of the set that they lost power. They stepped off stage and played completely acoustic for a song, and the large crowd fell silent in awe.

Old Crow Medicine Show
I recommend seeing Old Crow to everyone, everyone.  Even to those folks who, I or they, think they aren’t into the bluegrass-old timey country-dueling fiddles-thing.  Their shows are so fun and before you know it, you are down and clapping your hands raw, and  throwing around words and phrases like 'hootenanny' and 'burning down the barn.' 

They’ve grown a bit since I’ve seen them last, adding a new, very enthusiastic , band member, a drum set and a piano, so I don’t know if they can still be referred to as a that little string band, especially, now that they are the newest members of the Grand Old Opry.  No, they aren’t that little band anymore, but there is still a sense of authenticity with them, and it all goes back to the feeling of being rooted in something deeper.  

Their music and especially seeing them live reminds me of my  forefathers who came to this country long ago with little or nothing to their names. Their lives were humble and at many times very bleak, but during the darkness moments or even in joyous ones, they would pull out their simple music instruments, their banjos and fiddles and if they had nothing, they would stomp their feet in perfect time and rhyme.  And their voices would ring out with songs of their old lives and countries and their new lives and new hopes.  And some of that same blood still sloshes through my veins, and it still aches to find solace and joy in music and to be part of and join my own voice into a story that is bigger than I am. 

This song is not from their newest album, but it is a song that I played 567849 times as I drove my life back to Virginia this spring. I also love the random tourist in the white shirt in the back of the video. He's like, "What is happening? I got no time for this, I'm leaving. Wait, they're good. I'll stay, I guess."

I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday. But the bitter sweetness of music festivals is that you know that in a day or two, this festival will become just another notch in all bands’ touring schedules and the sweaty and goofy grinned crowd will just blend into the blur of all the other crowds, but for one split second, that one last meaningful smile and wave as they leave the stage, you know, maybe just for that instant, that we are all in this together.

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