Monday, July 28, 2008

2008 Lowell Folk Festival

Just returned from a trip to Lowell, MA this past weekend, where we savored the sights, sounds and smells that make this urban festival such a treat for the senses. It has been two years since I last visited Lowell for the Folk Festival, and I was amazed at all the activity emanating from new businesses that seem to spring up each year. Restaurants, bars and other businesses were all buzzing with activity, many hosting their own live music, augmenting the scheduled festival performances. The free festival takes place on several outdoor stages around the downtown area, which is centered around a National Historic Park showcasing the city's rich industrial history, with the textile mills and workers' housing that once hummed there now converted into parks, museums, condo's, gallery and office space.

The stage at Boarding House Park is the setting for most of the performances, with live broadcasts on Saturday afternoon on 89.7 WGBH. Over the three days of the festival, dozens of acts perform on that and several other stages, multiple times over the weekend. So if you miss someone at one day or time, you can usually catch them later. Or if you want to see the same performer two or three times, you can do that too. It's kind of like an outdoor First Night celebration without the cold (although the heat can be a challenge at times). The breadth and diversity of talent is always breathtaking. This year I saw the Lonesome River Bluegrass Band, Henry Gray and the Cats (boogie/blues piano player) , the Skatalites, (ska), Sister Marie Knight (gospel/spiritual), Jeffery Broussard and the Creole Cowboys (one of my favorite current Zydeco bands) , country music by Red Volkaert from Texas with Cindy Cashdollar, some French/Canadian and Irish fiddlers, a Croatian string band led by Jerry Grcevich and more. I don't know if it is possible to see and hear everything that is offered - I was there for part of all three days, and saw/ heard lots, but not everything (missed Mighty Sam McClain) but I enjoyed everything I did get to experience.

My favorite performance was probably by the Skatalites - Ska is a type of music I don't come across very often, and I liked all the horns, because they sounded jazzier than I would have thought - especially when they took turns soloing. The Creole Cowboys , who filled in for the previously scheduled Rosie Ledet, were excellent in the dance tent Friday night,with the ultra cool Classie Ballou on bass, but were more "subdued" for their NPR-broadcast set on the Boarding House stage on Saturday. It's always tough when you get a zydeco or cajun band to play to a mostly seated audience, but as usual there were several die-hard dancers forming a little dance-enclave off to one side, and here and there throughout the crowd.
A change this year from years past was the new location for the dance tent - instead of being conveniently located around the corner from Boarding House Park, it was several blocks away. Although it was more of a hike to get there, the new location allowed for a more open area surrounding it, more food booths, less crowding, and there was not problem with sound bleed between the two stages. However because I chose to spend most of my time between those two stages, I didn't bother to go over to JFK Plaza (the other big stage) because it seemed too far to travel between all three. And I missed the intimate "Market Mills" courtyard stage; that area was now being used to showcase visual arts.

Henry Gray was one of the featured artists this year (he's on the poster and T-shirt), and I was surprised not to have heard him before - although he has been around for a long time, out of Baton Rouge and Chicago. He plays rollicking boogie/ blues piano with a full band, including harmonica, and is a recent recipient of a NEA National Heritage Fellowship, this country’s highest recognition of traditional artists, plus some WC Handy and Grammy awards. That is what is great about this Lowell Folk festival - they always seem to find artists who may not always be household names, but are so good. Since I first discovered the Lowell festival around 1990 (?) I have seen so many great acts there over the years - from bona fide legends, to new discoveries and old favorites - Charles Brown, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Howard Armstrong, Peter Rowan, Beausoleil, Marcia Ball, Eddie Pennington, Doc Watson, Bill Kirchen, Shemekia Copeland, Donna the Buffalo, Treme Brass Band, Hot 8 Brass Band - the list goes on and on. And who can forget the "Tuvan throat singers" from a couple of years ago? Plus a host of great Polka bands, and everything else from Greek to Irish to Hmong to Puerto Rican music. It is a real melting pot of cultures, just like the city that hosts it, and this year was no exception.

One of the highlights of this great festival is sampling all the different ethnic foods, most of which are prepared and served by local community groups from various cultural and civic organizations.

They had a variety of Asian, Jamaican, Middle Eastern, Greek and other types of food for sale. This year I was in the mood for Asian, and enjoyed some Laotian noodles, spring rolls, teriyaki, and Thai curry. I was so tempted to try many of the others as well, but there's only so much one can eat! There's always next year.... and if you are reading this thinking, dang, how could I have missed this one? Do I really have to wait until next year? Well, there are a couple of options:

Although I have not been there yet, I am told there is a very similar festival that takes place in Bangor, Maine
Aug 22-24, the American Folk Festival, . The Creole Cowboys will be there as well, along with a host of other ethnic and regional acts from across America. Like the Lowell festival, this one also started out a few years ago as the National Folk Festival . The National Folk Festival, produced by the National Council for Traditional arts and funded in part by NEA grants, moves to different cities every few years, showing the locals how to "do" a festival, then they move on - a worthy use of tax dollars, in my opinion! This year's National Folk Festival was held in Butte, Montana. The seeds planted in Lowell over two decades ago have not only sprouted but have taken root and grown into a strong vine, and have borne other fruits as well, which leads to the second alternative to waiting a whole year to hear some great music in Lowell. Besides the annual Folk festival, the city of Lowell hosts a summer music series - not free, but reasonably priced - in Boarding House park as well. Some of the acts scheduled for the remainder of this season year are: The Neville Brothers, Bruce Hornsby, John Hiatt, Keb Mo, Dan Hicks, Levon Helm, and more. The full schedule is at

Click here for more of my pictures from this year's Lowell Folk Festival

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