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Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Folk-In-The-Woods: The Best Little Festival You've Never Heard Of

Just A Little Stage In The Middle Of The Woods
To quote my good friend "it's about the people, the places and the music...and always in that order."   Nowhere was this more evident than at the 15th Annual Folk-In-The-Woods Music Fest near Port Huron.  There was definitely some of the coolest music I've heard all summer there.  And it's an ridiculously cool venue.  But it was definitely the people; the volunteers who pitched in to make everything happened; the musicians who went out of their way to prepare something special for their performance; and the crowd who let it all hang out while somehow managing to remain honest, polite and respectful to everyone there; it was the people who really made this a special event.  It was my first time there, and because of the people I met, I know I will be back every year to renew old friendships and make new friends.

No Better Place For Live, Local Music
Just as a fisherman is reluctant to give up their favorite fishing spot, it is with some hesitation that I share my review of Folk-In-The-Woods.  It's one of those quintessentially quirky little events that is just big enough to somehow work out, and small enough to be intimate, unique and special.  I fear that if it gets much larger, it may lose some of it's personality and soul.  Like Johnny's Speakeasy, the event runs on the simple "Don't Be One, Don't Bring One" motto.  However, it is simply human nature that if enough people we to show up, "One" would inevitably do something to ruin it for everyone else.   So, while I will share some thoughts and observations from the weekend, you must excuse me if I remain intentionally vague about the specific details.  If you want to attend in the future, keep your eyes and ears open, and look into following some of the acts mentioned here, and I'm sure you'll figure out how to get there.

The Open-Air Acoustic Side Stage
So what, exactly, is Folk-In-The-Woods?  It's an informal music festival started fifteen years ago by current host Connie and her late husband Dave.  Originally a mostly musician attended, private party in the woods, it slowly evolved into  a full fledged weekend music festival complete with entertainment, camping and food.  Connie, and her current husband Sean, have continued the tradition.  Set in the middle of a soaring woodlot on the grounds of their herb farm, Sean and Connie maintain a small stage and minimalist infrastructure to present acts both acoustic and electric.  A couple of portable toilets are provided for the women in attendance.  The "men's room" is beyond rustic and involves assorted pinwheel "targets" to entertain the boys while nature calls.

Funky, Functional and Funny
Their modest PA system provided excellent sound that could be heard throughout the grounds.  The sound man was in constant motion, handling two different stages as well as an impressive mix of acoustic, wind and electric instruments with ease and elbow grease.     Music started at approximately 6:00pm both nights of the weekend and lasted into the wee hours.  Ample parking and copious "rustic" camping sites are mowed into the fields surrounding the wood lot.  Most in attendance chose to tent camp as there is no water or electric available (though bringing my pop up camper in was not problem at all).  With a party atmosphere and BYOB philosophy there is simply no reason for anyone to drive home after a night of music and fellowship.  Most remarkable of all, the cost for festival--camping, a night full of music and complementary dinner--was just $10 per day!  It's hard to believe, but I head that they actually broke even or made a tiny bit of money on this year.  This is simply the best live, local music deal you will find.

"Staff" Shirts (get it?)
How do they pull it off?  Once again, it was the exceptional people at the event who made it all happen.  First and foremost,  Connie and Sean are beyond generous with their home, time and talents.  Every act found time to offer a heart-felt "Thank you Connie and Sean!" during their set, which was routinely met with a round of hearty applause.  Beyond inviting a couple hundred people to a music party in their back yard, both of the hosts are musicians as well (Sean on the bass and Connie on  saxophone) appearing with their own bands as well as "guesting" with others during the weekend.  In addition, various assorted family members, band members and miscellaneous  "band wives and girlfriends" all pitched in to take care of the countless little tasks it takes to pull of an event of this magnitude.  They were easy to spot with their tongue-in-cheek "staff" shirts.  From taking money at the gate, to passing out trash bags and water, and even collecting and sorting the trash, the volunteers kept things rolling smoothly all weekend.  There are simply not enough words around to thank "Meat" and the crew who spent the entire weekend cooking for everyone (and I mean ALL weekend, with little or no break)  High quality ingredients, simply prepared and lovingly presented under the trees made for a fabulous eating experience.

 "Wagon Wheel"--But I Actually Like It.
So how was the music?  Varied, eclectic and fantastic!  True to it's folkie roots, there were a variety of singer-songwriter, folk and bluegrass-based acts.  Most of the acts were drawn from the local Port Huron area--an unbelievable music scene I simply must dive into a little deeper.  I wish I could write about all of the acts here, as they were, without exception, fantastic.  As it is, I'll try to share some of the stand-out moments and acts that made an impression on me.  Opening act Joe Smith set the stage with a tasty selection of guitar cover tunes both classic and modern.  On the second day he did break my cardinal rule and covered the jam circle classic "Wagon Wheel".  However, by inviting his friend and Gasoline Gypsies' frontman Caleb Malooley to join him on harp, the song was transformed from festival cliche to a hard-driving, bluesy and soulful sing-along.  So I'll give him a pass on this one.  With Joe's set I started adding songs to my "gotta learn that one" list--a list that continued to grow throughout the festival eventually spilling over onto a second page!

The Uniquely Incredible Bronze Mambas
Friday night featured a distinctly more modern, electric-guitar driven approach to festival music including the bizarrely named and supremely talented "Butter Hair" contributing classic blues and rock covers featuring killer guitar licks and one of the very finest harmonica players I've heard (and I've heard a LOT of very good harmonica players!).  Early in the evening was a surprisingly innovative and entertaining set by the Bronze Mambas.  A pure modern rock trio, the band has a very unique, effects-driven sound.  Probably the coolest thing about them is their lack of a bass player (not that you'd notice, as a combination of electronic bass emulation, octavizers, and a lower-than-normal-tuned drum kit fill in the bass lines).  Totally not my cup of tea genre-wise, but I would totally go see these guys again, as I found them to be incredibly engaging and listenable.

The Likeable and Listenable Hare of the Dog
Two very unique acts really stood out on Friday.  The first was acoustic trio "Hare of the Dog" featuring Gasoline Gypsies' Caleb Malooley on acoustic guitar and Steve Briere on stand-up bass along with Caleb's girlfriend Autumn on vocals.  Their stripped down acoustic sound was as clean, crisp and polished as was their killer three part harmonies.  Presenting classics from Johnny and June Carter Cash and Gillian Welch to more modern covers from the Civil Wars, the trio blended great musicianship with affable likeability and commanding stage presence to deliver  an engaging and entertaining performance from start to finish.  The sound of the upright bass under the trees was so perfectly appropriate for the setting it is a wonder more acts didn't opt to go this route.

Connie (Center) and some of the Little Big Band
The second stand-out act was Connie's "house band" the aptly named "Little Big Band".  By my best count this was a 14-17 piece big band with drums, guitar, bass, keys backing up a mixed horn section (trombones, trumpets and assorted saxophones).  The band crammed onto the cramped stage and let it rip!  Not your typical offering at this type of festival, but the crowd ate it up, frequently breaking into raucous applause.  They played a good mix of golden-era big band classics with some more modern jazz numbers.  The band was as tight as they come, and the attention paid to the arrangements was obvious.  While each member of the band contributed to the sound, there was a trumpet solo in the middle that really floored me.  Wish I could make out who it was on stage, but I was content to just close my eyes and listen.

Some Native Howling Gypsies Action
While there were a LOT of great acts on Friday, the final set by The Native Howl set the standard for all other sets this summer.  Kicking off late into the night, and climaxing well after 3:00am, their high-energy folk-infused rock set may, or may not,  have drawn the attention of the local police department, but did bring an "early" end to the evening with the final two acts choosing forgo their set (although one did move to Saturday).  Driven by the killer guitar and bouzouki licks from Alex Holycross and perfectly complemented by the banjo and guitar styling of Jake Sawicki, the Native Howl's set of completely original material was as high-energy as you will find.

Hoycross and the Hair
With "thrash-grass" head-banging and hair tossing aplomb, Holycross and Sawicki kept the pedal to the floor and turned the volume up to max.  They drew and incredible amount of energy from the crowd with each song soaring to impossible new highs.  The crowd loved them.  By the middle of the set there were very few people left in their chairs, opting instead  to crowd around the stage, dancing and grooving to the howling rhythm.  In the middle of a new song, composed for the event, the band swapped members with their friends the Gasoline Gypsies, eventually replacing one band with the other in the middle of the song before coming back together in their "Native Howling Gypsies" configuration for the finale.  As the set drew to a close, Holycross took on the role of emcee, directing all the musicians onstage (include a special guest appearance from Connie and David Everitt from the Little Big Band) and passed out all the drumsticks, tambourines and other percussion instruments he could find to the crowd.  This truly organic band/crowd mashup ended the night on a perfect musical high note.

No Name Band on the Acoustic Stage
After a long night of live music, and apparently some campfire jamming lasting until dawn, the sun rose on another great day of music.  By 8:00am I wandered from my campsite back to the stage and was astonished to see that either an army of magic fairies or--more likely--some dedicated volunteers had already cleaned up the stage area, emptied the trash and reset everything for the next day. Saturday had a decidedly more folkie feel than Friday, featuring more acoustic/traditional instrumentation and making a lot better use of the excellent acoustic side stage.  Kicking things off was two you men; friends from the local music scene.  They had no real band name, instead choosing to make a name up during the set, a recurring gag to kill time while retuning between songs (a must with the heat and humidity of a July afternoon).  Their mix of cover and original material was very good and a lot of fun to listen to.

Whiskey Before Breakfast?
Next up was Heritage String Band.  A decidedly old-tyme band with fiddle, guitar and hammered dulcimer.  Lots of traditional music from them including the lyrical version of "Whishey Before Breakfast" belted out with overwhelming enthusiasm by a couple of their folk-singer friends.  Joe Smith repeated his set (with the before mentioned Wagon Wheel cover) followed by a great duo act Jake & Dutch.  Following them was a fantastic classical guitarist who played a killer cover of of Classical Gas.  Most of these acts chose to use the Acoustic Side stage, and there was something special about watching them play with a backdrop of pine trees moving slightly in the faint breeze--seemingly always in time with the music coming from the stage.

Most of the Barone's WSG Alex (Native Howl)
Fifth Avenue was a very unique band with throwback female vocals on top of a talented 7-string bass player who can--with the help of a looper pedal--handle bass, rhythm and melody all by himself.  Throw in a friend on drums and you had a funky, cool band.  Up next was bluegrass act The Barones and their slightly newgrassy approach to music. Hey, they covered a Steeldrivers song, so you know I loved them! This quirky group features KILLER vocals from most members of the band and an eclectic mix of instrumentation ranging from classic bluegrass instruments to a ukelele and even a glockenspiel. When Alex Holycross from from The Native Howl joined them on stage with this bouzouki I was blown away with his approach to bluegrass flatpicking...sort of a Jamie Johnson meets Zac Brown meets Jimmy Martin thing.  I would love to see him in a pure bluegrass setting someday (maybe a SeMiBluegrass jam?).

The Gasoline Gypsies Doing Their Thing
Crowd favorites the Gasoline Gypsies hit the stage next, and--true to their form--hit it running at full throttle.  Their choice of "Abilene" as an opener was inspired as it got the crowd up dancing and let drummer Joe Makowski unleash his mad drum skills early.  True to form, Rob's energetic rhythm, Steve's  enthusiastic bass work and Caleb's rock-star leads combined into an hurricane intense wall of sound that washed over the crowd and got everyone up and dancing.  Mixing crowd favorites from their last album with newer material the set was definitely upbeat and high energy.  It was hard to believe, but the crowd was even bigger than the night before and they were all once again crowded around the stage listening to what the Gypsies were saying.

Vox Vidorra
While the night could have ended on the Gypsies' high note, the crowd was in for a tasty and delicious surpise.  The band Vox Vidorra from Grand Rapids took the late night stage.  Lead singer Molly's soundcheck vocals took the pumped up crowd and rendered them silently speechless--and it was nothing compared to what was to come during the set.  I honestly can't tell you what genre they belong to.  Soul is probably close, but there's some rock, some Latin, some funk, some Reggae/Ska and some classic jazz in there somewhere.  Somehow, this schizophrenic mix of musical styling perfectly complements Molly's powerful, soulful and sultry voice.  With Tina Turner moves, KoKo Taylor soul and  Aretha Franklin attitude she dances, struts and sings her ass off across the stage, backed by three incredibly talented, multi-instrumentalists (they take turns playing guitar, drums and keys--sometimes switching in the middle of a song).  With Vox Vidorra you don't have a choice, you WILL be up dancing for the entire set.  I love the "double peace signs" or "double Vs" the crowd holds over their head while Vox Vidorra plays.  At least five people (myself included) downloaded their album before they left the festival--it's that good!

Pauly Z Taking It Out With A Drum Solo
I could write an entire review of the final act, local party band the Poltroons, but let's just say that they took out the night with a fun, sometimes irreverent two hour set of originals and cover tunes with a cool vibe.  Drummer Pauly Z wrapped it all up with a killer drum solo.

So there you go.  Folk-In-The-Woods.  The best little festival you've never heard of.    I guess I'll just have to go see all of these bands when they play locally to get my fix of the cool, friendly vibe you find where good people play live music in the middle of the woods.  Happy Folk to you all!  See you next year. 

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