Forget about veal. Real cruelty involves a relatively sedentary life for 361 days of the year and then 4 days of non-stop dancing. My legs are killing me. The 2008 Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival of Music & Dance wrapped up Sunday night. I can still feel the sunburn and the creekwater. I can still smell the potato pancakes and chicken satay. And I can still hear the music.
Unless you’ve been before, or know about the bands already, the line-up doesn’t necessarily look that good on paper. It’s not Bonnaroo or Newport. There aren’t a lot of big names. So much the better. Grassroots is intimate. If you want, you can get right in front for most shows, then say hello to the musicians as they wander around the fairgrounds. And as for quality, I’m reminded of that Joni Mitchell song about the guy playing clarinet on the street corner: “Nobody stopped to hear him though he played so sweet and high. They knew he had never been on their TV.” The fact that Balfa Tojours and Walter Mouton and Preston Frank are not household names says nothing about their music. The Holy Trinity of Grassroots Louisianians contributed mightily to my pleasure, and subsequent pain, by playing music for which it is physically impossible to sit still. It was Walter’s 17th appearance at the 18 year-old festival. He’s been playing music since 1951 and announced this year that he was retiring, but promised to return to Grassroots if invited. You can bet he will be.
The headliners were off the charts. A magnificently disheveled Lucinda Williams read most of her lyrics from a music stand, Maker’s Mark and a red plastic cup at the ready nearby. Time magazine called her America’s best songwriter and I wouldn’t dispute that, but her band was so good I could’ve listened to them play “Chopsticks.” Doug Pettibone ripped into song after song, with a different vintage guitar for each one. The drummer played with such force, he lifted himself off his seat with each cymbal crash. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band was the other major national act. This is not some polite group noodling out “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They did play that New Orleans anthem, but it was, like everything else, deeply funky and loud. Young women were welcomed up on stage to dance, maybe to compensate for the fact that they didn’t quite have 12 members with them. Or maybe so the baritone sax player would have someone to spank during the version of “Dirty Old Man.”
But as John Nugent says of the Rochester International Jazz Festival, it’s not who you know, it’s who you don’t know. This year, the boy bands stole the show.
The balls-to-the-wall bluegrass of The Hackensaw Boys and the galvanizing gospel steel of The Lee Boys were major discoveries. The former play banjo, violin, guitar, upright bass and a couple of old coffee cans screwed onto a garbage can lid. They throw themselves into the music like a wagon train over a cliff. I hadn’t really budgeted to buy any CDs but felt compelled to get a Hackensaw Boys sampler. I’ll be playing it on Mystery Train in the weeks to come. There’s a video clip of them on Fab Channel, but before you watch, remember that old SAT problem: recorded music is to live music as…
a.) canned peaches are to the real thing
b.) Boone’s Farm is to Pinot Noir
c.) watching pornography is to making love
d.) all of the above
That last choice also applies to the YouTube clips of the Lee Boys. I don’t recall ever sweating through the top half of my shorts before but it happened at the dance tent on Saturday afternoon. We were right in front of the stage and I could’ve touched the pedal steel without even extending my arm all the way. The Lee Boys are from Florida, but they knew they were close to Rochester. They asked if anyone knew The Campbell Brothers and encouraged everyone to see them. With all due respect to our hometown heroes, the Lee’s took me a little closer to heaven. The seven-string electric bass player in particular was astonishing.
Add to that lots and lots of friendly people - including a guy who comes every year from a town pretty well known for live music (Austin, Texas), a man with a blue moustache, a woman on stilts with fairy wings and happy toddlers with painted faces - and you have a singular experience. Et toi!