Sunday, July 29, 2007

Bloody Brilliant

Ten years ago, I wrote an article for the local magazine in Bryan, Texas, on a local musician named Ruthie Foster. She was about to release her first album. The lyrics of her songs told her story; I wove them into my article and used the rest of my words to try to convey what a big voice came out of this teeny woman - a voice that filled a room and your soul, and all at once made you want to know her.

I've seen her maybe a dozen times, in coffee houses (Sweet Eugene's, was it?), big bars (Third Floor Cantina -- remember that one?), Gruene Hall in Gruene, Texas, and Iota in Virginia. I had tickets to see her last November -- she was on tour with Bo Diddley. But I got that flu that brought down Washington -- the kind that made you weep when you thought about leaving the house. I was so sad to miss her -- I really wanted to see her bring down the house at Strathmore Hall.

So, imagine my surprise when I saw her in the lineup for the Cambridge Folk Festival. In Cambridge, England. Three miles away from my house.

I was talking her up on Friday night to a woman from Manchester. The woman asked me if Ruthie tours with a band or played with anyone else. "Sometimes," I said. "But I like her best when it's just her and her guitar." Saturday afternoon, she proved she doesn't even need the guitar.

Ruthie Foster, Cambridge Folk Festival from dceditors and Vimeo.

She played twice more at the festival, and the last one, in the smallest tent at the festival, was absolutely packed with people who wanted more. "Every year there's one artist that people just can't stop talking about," the BBC2 guy who introduced her said. "This year, it's Ruthie Foster." I'm so dang proud of her. She's better than ever.


All in all, it was an awesome festival. I (KT) was there all 4 days, and JT joined me on Saturday. We plopped in front of the main stage for, oh, 12 hours or so and heard some darn good music.

Hangin' Out at the Cambridge Folk Festival from dceditors and Vimeo.

We heard a fun 11-piece brass band from Romania called Fanfare Ciocarlia (Fahnfaray Cho-carla), famous for their accompaniment for Borat's Born to be Wild. They were great fun. I have a video of them, too, but it simply doesn't convey how many people were moved to get on their feet and bounce to the Eastern European version of an oompah band on speed. (Seriously -- click on the Born to be Wild link and you'll see what I mean.) "Tankyaoooww," the band leader exclaimed at the end of every song.

Other folks I/we saw that we liked were Four Men and a Dog, Bellowhead ("now we're going to play you a disco sea shanty, from the Oxford Book of Disco Sea Shanties," they quipped at one point), Fiddlers' Bid, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (they do a hysterical rendition of the Theme from Shaft), Ricky Skaggs (although it was a bit weird to be in England listening to Kentucky bluegrass) and Shooglenifty, which closed the festival with a spectacular light show and music that had everyone on their feet dancing a jig.

The big headliner was Joan Baez. She followed Fanfare Ciocarlia. She said early on in her set, "How do you pronounce the name of the band that just played?" [various shouts from the audience.] "Oh, right -- Bloody Brilliant," she repeated, as the audience laughed in agreement.

She was brilliant herself, with a voice that's as great now as it was 40 years ago. As she sang, I thought about how many generations she has sung to, and how many of her songs have been used as (and are meant as) calls for peace. "A lot of the songs that I was singing 40, 50 years ago are relevant again today," she says. "The good news is that a lot of those songs are very beautiful and I love singing them. The bad news is, I have to."

So I have my answer: Folk music is very much the same, no matter time or place. But perhaps sometimes with bagpipes.

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