Blogs > The Arts Whisperer

Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

folk music as entertainment and history

There's nothing more pleasing than a happy accident.  On Saturday afternoon my evening plans went awry.   Terribly awry and I was left with nothing to do that evening.  Anyone who knows me understands the only thing worse than staying home alone on a Saturday evening is staying home on Friday and Saturday night on the same weekend.  Since I was home the night before, there was no way I would not go out on this Saturday.

I decided to attend "Four Seasons, Four Years - the Civil War: A Musical Journey."  It was being presented by Caffe Lena at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs and the material was produced by Old Songs.  

I am neither a "folkie" nor a Civil War buff, but there is no denying the credentials of those involved with this project.   An added bonus was the 11 performers who are the cream of local folk artists. It was a brilliant experience that validated my personal axiom that you never can go wrong attending something presented by people who understand and practice quality in their lives and their art.

The premise of the piece created by Andy Spence (the artistic director of Old Songs) is to tell the story of the Civil War using authentic folk songs of the era.   There is a bit of narration to set the background for the song and at other times a letter or other correspondence is read to give a personal voice to the proceedings.  For the most part the narration is short and to the point.

The result is (depending on your point of view) an entertaining night that is an insightful educational experience or an educational experience that is enormously entertaining.  Either works.

The genius of "Four Season, Four Years" is that because of the authentic music of the era it makes a powerful emotional statement.  We've all read or heard letters written by those involved in the Civil War but the songs in the show represent a more general view of what was going on.  It is not the thought of an individual about a personal experience - the songs (though written by one person) represent the feelings of the population at large.  If it didn't they wouldn't have been performed or survived.

In my mind, this defines the value of any folk art.  It is created specifically for a moment in time and like the music in this piece, clearly expresses to us - 150 years later - the sense of what people were going through - their hopes, dreams. fears and concerns.  It is extremely honest, personal and very revealing.

Enhancing the experience was the interpretive skills of the performers.  There was never the sense that the songs were performed to satisfy the taste of a modern audience.  Because everyone of the eleven performers on stage are gifted individual artists they attempted to become a person performing the material during the Civil War. In many ways this song cycle was incredible theater.

Though most of the tunes are obscure songs there are a number of familiar songs in the presentation and often it was as if you were hearing them for the first time.  "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" has a rueful tone as it signals the end of a war in which everyone lost something. In much the same way when the show closes with "Home Sweet Home" the irony is sad and touching. The rendition of"John Brown's Body" begins almost as if a community chant and evolves into a powerful anthem. 

And speaking of anthems, when the performers build the emotions of  the first act ending with "Battle Hymn of the Republic," it is easy to visualize eager young men signing oaths to die for a cause.

The second act tells of those who died for a cause they didn't understand.  While the first segment sets up the political conditions that led to the war, the second half of the show focuses on the pain, suffering and misery the conflict caused for both side.    If the show could be improved it would be during the second act to offer less detail on every major battle by exploring the the thoughts of the participants.  It might sound callous, but the truth is history has made us almost immune to the suffering of that horrible war.  For example a touching rendition of "Tenting on the Old Campground" - about soldiers retiring for the night after a horrific battle doesn't need a set up.  We get the pain of loss through the music and the lyrics.   It is beautiful and painful at the same time. And when those emotions come from the music it is powerful.

Indeed, because of the music, I left Universal Preservation Hall thinking about the Civil War in a way I had never done before.   I really didn't learn too much I didn't know already but I felt touched by the people who lived in that period in a way I never felt before.

The future of "Four Seasons, Four Years - the Civil War: a Musical Journey" is uncertain. It is a work that should not be neglected or discarded.  At the least it should be presented on every area college campus.   It's an important piece - musically and historically.  

For information on the show contact Andy Spence at Old Songs, Voorheesville, NY  765-2815,

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Jazz on the Lake

Like everyone else in the area I love July and August in this area but this year I'm beginning the think September might be the best month of all.  So far this year I've enjoyed the wine and food festival at SPAC, the Greek fest in Schenectady and the Irish fest in Ballston Spa.

Now I think I might have a new favorite.  On Sunday I went to Lake George and spent a couple of hours at Jazz on the Lake at Shepard Park and had one of the most mellow and enjoyable days of the summer.

Jazz on the Lake is a two-day event that brings great music to the area. Admission is free and it is as low-key as the music it presents.  I arrived a little after one and sampled a bit of John Tank and the Palace Reunion Band.  It was traditional jazz that went  off into its own world in a nice way.  He closed with "Canadian Sunset" and you might recognize about half of it as the traditional number.  The other half was a pleasant journey to places on jazz can take you.

I came up for Steven Bernstein and the Millennial Territory Orchestra.   The draw was this great trumpeter (and slide trumpeter) was leading featuring the songs of Sly.    It was a superior set that went everywhere in one of the fastest 90-minutes on record.    It was jazz at its best as it used coentemporary tunes to engage the audience while making each song its own

Not every number was a Sly standard.   In fact the final number was a new improvisation.  Bernstein explained to the audience it was a number new to the orchestra as he felt without risk it wasn't jazz.   It was pure jazz in the best possible sense of the term.

My only regret about the day was I didn't allow myself time to stay longer  I would have liked to hear
at least some of the John Benitez set with Donald Harrison Jr. but I had to leave. 

I did so promising to come back for two days next year.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Irish 2000 Music Fest - 2012

September is Festival Month.  Although many are themed by musical genre - jazz, blues or bluegrass - often the music has a cultural affiliation.  

Yesterday I attended Irish 2000 Music Festival at the Saratoga Fairgrounds in Ballston Spa.   There were three stages of continuous music that covered every aspect of what one associates with Irish music.  There were enough traditional groups to satisfy anyone who has cried to the lyrics of "Danny Boy" and there was cutting-edge Celtic alternatives.  Best of all there was everything in between that help connect the two different styles of music.

The crowd was equally as diverse.  They ranged from grandma and grandpa to the newest arrival in the family.   The connecting device was that everyone was dressed in a shade of green.  If you have an allergy to the color green avoid the Irish Music Fest.

The walkways were filled with vendors of merchandise and food.   Most of the merchandise was Irish in some form - even the jewelry seemed dominated by green stones.  All the merchandise was Irish-oriented and yes, mostly in hues of green.

About the only thing not dominated by green was the food.  There was an endless line of food vendors featuring corned beef sandwiches, sausage and peppers, fried dough and any deep fried concoction that guarantees to induce a heart attack.   And what would an Irish Fest be without a number of pizza stands?

I was impressed with the fairness of pricing overall. I had one of the best corned beef sandwiches ever, served with cabbage on a hard roll.  It was only $8,  a price few pubs or restaurants match.  The beer prices were also fair.  $4 for domestic, $5 for Guinness, etc.   Considering the festival draws a thirsty captive audience the vendors could gouge.  They didn't.

This is the type of principle that makes the Irish Fest such a great event.  The mood is welcoming.  The music is eclectic and of high quality and the vendors try to serve.  All in all its a successful model of how to offer your customers a good time.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Saratoga Wine & Food Festival at SPAC

For most people the end of summer is Labor Day. Which means the start of fall is the day after Labor Day.  For me, the start of fall is the weekend after Labor Day because it is when SPAC holds its annual Wine and Food Festival.

Normally I avoid such things.  I find them crowded and impersonal. I've always thought of such events as a place where people go just to be seen.  Those impression tend not to hold true at the SPAC Wine Festival.  The vendors are friendly and willing to spend time answering questions and almost everyone I spoke with seemed genuinely proud of the product.  They were all extremely knowledgeable.  I learned a lot.

The people who attend are also very friendly and considering there are appears to be more than a thousand people in attendance that's a surprise.  People are dressed  for comfort.  You'll find  guys in cutoffs and ladies in elegant sundresses.   Mostly the attire is summer daytime cocktail party.

Don't go to the Wine Festival for the booze.   It is a wine tasting event and the pours are just enough to let you test the product.  You'd have to sip at a lot of booths to be greatly affected by the wine.
 But isn't that really the purpose of such an event?  To taste as many new varieties of wine as possible?  To accomplish that the taste buds should not be numb.

Bottom line is the wine fest is almost like a giant cocktail party with the wines being the topic of conversation.  Indeed standing at a table with strangers it  is easy to strike up a conversation by offering an observation on something you just tasted or by asking a question of the stranger who just tasted something in which you might have interest.  Don't expect to make a new life-long friend but you can have some friendly conversations.

There is a lot of food to be sampled as well.  Because the Italian Trade Commission there was a strong Italian influence.  More important there was a great number of cheeses which complimented the wines,  Most tables had pieces of Italian bread to absorb the wine and water to cleanse the pallet.  Best of all several area restaurants had booths there and offered unique samples of their food. For us common guys several booths were pumping out a lot a pizza bits.

The weather held up most of the day but about 4 pm, when many people were getting ready to leave anyway, a storm swept through the grounds.  It never seemed dangerous but most people who were still at the Fest took shelter in one of the many brick buildings on the SPAC grounds.  It was no trouble and even a little exciting.

All in all - a very nice start to the fall season.