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Not Much Thrill in Hillsdale Fest

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Earle Hitchner

FALCON RIDGE FOLK FESTIVAL, Long Hill Farm, Rte. 23, Hillsdale, N.Y., July 28.

Every once in a while, it’s good to take the pulse of a folk festival dominated by American singer-songwriters and serving just a smattering of Irish music to re-appreciate what’s presented at an Irish traditional folk festival.

In this instance, the contrast was often startling. Many of the Saturday performances I saw at the 13th annual Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, attended by about 11,000 people over July 27-29, were amateurish and boring.

Among the handful of exceptions were New York singer-songwriter Dar Williams, the thinking person’s twang team of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Australian slide guitarist Jeff Lang, and Vancouver roots band the Paperboys.

In the “A Nod to Bob Dylan” workshop, the Paperboys’ skillful integration of “The Musical Priest” Irish reel within a rousing acoustic cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” was one of the day’s highlights.

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Less of an exception were the Sevens, an Irish/Celtic traditional group with Americana and world-music leanings. They exhibited ample energy but little finesse late Saturday afternoon on the main stage.

In an earlier main-stage showcase entitled “Most Wanted Song Swap,” fledgling singer-songwriters Beth Amsel, Deirdre Flint, Kevin So, and Christopher Williams displayed voices of marginal range in songs seemingly gleaned from self-help books or confessional TV talk shows.

One instantly forgettable song was about a young woman’s small breasts and her conflicted desire for a visit from “the boob fairy” (her phrase).

Native Virginian singer-songwriter Erin McKeown occupied the “Most Wanted Spotlight” slot on the main stage. She’s a composer with something fresh to say, but her voice was weak and her guitar playing brick-fingered.

The title of “The Grass Is Blue” workshop promised music with a bluegrass flavor, making Erin McKeown’s presence problematic. She’s not adept at bluegrass and consequently relied on a song or two from her earlier set on the main stage.

Also in this workshop were the much-hyped Nields, the sister duo of Nerissa and Katryna, who were piercingly off-pitch in their vocal harmonies. Only the Paperboys and the North Carolina quartet Acoustic Syndicate were clued into the workshop theme and turned in performances reflecting it.

A large crowd turned out for the Bob Dylan song workshop, enlivened by a couple of crisp performances, including singer-songwriter Lucy Kaplansky doing “It Ain’t Me Babe.” The Dylan covers concluded with a ragged sing-along of “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” to which the audience knew more verses than the musicians.

Plaguing this workshop stage was sound bleed from the nearby dance stage. To the organizers’ credit, however, the 8,500 square feet of wooden dance floor, with speakers on poles to better distribute the live sound, would have made many Irish cTilf and set-dancing enthusiasts envious.

On the plus side, it was a gloriously sunny day, the festival ran efficiently, and some performances rang true. On the negative side, it was numbing to watch so many mediocre, guitar-challenged American singer-songwriters. This thin diet of three chords and the truism only made me hungry for the next Irish trad fest feast.

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