July 24, 2012
Folk music is in robust health. How else could two nationally recognized folk festivals coexist less than two hours from each other on the same New England weekend?
Well it’s not just the 100 or so miles between Lowell, MA, and Newport, R.I. that separates the equally iconic Lowell Folk Festival and Newport Folk Festivals; there are subtle differences in philosophies that make each a distinct choice for music fans.
In Newport, the programming makes connections between the very traditional aspects of folk music and its more popular appropriations. Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Jackson Browne–two of the featured performers at Newport this year–may not be folkies per se, but they certainly embrace the sturdy songwriting ideals at the heart of folk music.
In Lowell, the festival sticks to “traditional” folk, and defines such music as that which is part of a cultural life shared by an identifiable community–be it ethnic, regional, religious, occupational–and passed along by conversation and practice. The hallmark of the Lowell festival, now in its 26th year, is its ability to show how wide that definition stretches. This year, “folk” runs from Hawaiian hula dancing to Azerbaijani music played on the kamancha fiddle to honky-tonk country from Nashville.
“Me, personally, with my heritage, I’m looking forward to the polka group,” says Lowell Folk Festival spokesman Phil Lupsiewicz, referring to Pan Franek Zosia and the Polka Towners, noting the band’s unique incorporation of twin fiddles.
The festival begins Friday evening and continues through Sunday. There are six outdoor stages scattered around the blocks in downtown Lowell near Boarding House Park, Dutton Street, and Merrimack Street. Performers typically have multiple sets throughout the festival and hit different locations.
So, as Lupsiewicz advises, you can move around from the mellower, shaded St. Anne’s stage to the more frenetic dance pavilion on Dutton Street or just pick a spot and let the variety of acts come to you.
“We celebrate all different cultures at the festival,” Lupsiewicz says. “But as people have lived together they see how there are not a lot of differences, but actually a lot of similarities. The irony is we’re all people, and we all like music.”
Some picks to check out in Lowell this year include Lunasa, an Irish band that stretches the Celtic tradition with modern dynamics; singer Claire Lynch, who blends country and bluegrass influences into a rich Americana blend; guitarist Magic Slim and his band the Teardrops, purveyors of the electric Chicago blues sound; New Orleans pianist Davell Crawford, whose playing swings and sways through the rich tradition of Crescent City sounds; and Zimbabwean guitarist and songwriter Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, whose work was championed by Taj Mahal and Bonnie Raitt to help him set up a foothold in this country. All of the performers went through a selection process overseen by the National Council for the Traditional Arts.
Admission to the Lowell festival is free, and a variety of ethnic delicacies and crafts are sold at the event. Street performers, family activities, and musician workshops are also part of the weekend.
For band schedules and other festival info, check online at www.lowellfolkfestival.org.
Scott McLennan is a music correspondent for the Boston Globe and former entertainment columnist for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. His work as taken him from the Newport Folk Festival to the New England Metal and Hardcore Festival and many musical points in between. Scott also writes about skiing for Hawthorn Publications.
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