National Folk Festival 2017
Photo by Grant Britt
Thursday, September 8–Sunday, September 10, 2017
This stuff can be hazardous to your health, both mentally and physically. There's too much eye and ear candy in easy reach at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro. It's not really the festival's fault; its layout is such that, if you pace yourself, you can see every act on the three-day schedule.
That's the theory, but in practice it's hard. Once you get there, you want to take it all in, and by the time the day ends and you've walked from one end of the two-mile downtown staging area to the other several times, it's hard to do it again on successive days to fill in the gaps. So you just jump in and do the best you can.
Bruce Daigrepont opened the dance pavilion Saturday morning. By noon the dance floor was still a bit spotty, participants apparently needing some beer and more heat to respond physically to Daigrepont's lively Cajun melodies. He sticks mainly to waltzes for this early set, including the French country-and- western-flavored “Helping Hand” and “Unlucky Waltz,” the tale of a melody that becomes the soundtrack of a man's life from cradle to grave.
Across town at the lawn stage, the program listed Jose Gutierrez and Los Hermanos Ochoa, but the band onstage wa Los Hermanos Herrera. Gutierrez was unable to get a visa to visit from his home in Veracruz, Mexico, so, two weeks ago, the six siblings of Ventura, California's Los Hermanos Herrera were tapped as replacements to demonstrate son jarocho
, the call-and-response folk music of Veracruz's coastal plain.
Anchored by the percussive chop of the four-stringed requinto jarocho, an instrument also favored by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, the Herrera siblings put on a master class in vocal harmony and stringed orchestral magnificence at a pace so blistering that any misstep would have a straggler trampled to death by his fellows.
Down the street on the large city stage, Siberian natives Alash
demonstrated the mind-bending Tuvan throat-singing technique, one set of vocal chords simultaneously producing bass overtones with two-toned whistling notes floating above it. It should come with a warning label: trying this at home puts you at risk of sounding like a jaw harp caught in a vacuum cleaner.
Los Texmaniacs were the big deal on the Dance Tent schedule for the day. Texas Tornadoes alum and Texmaniacs founder/frontman Max Baca was mentored by Doug Sahm, who mixed the twelve-stringed bajo sexto with accordion, organ, and rock 'n' roll to create the San Antonio sound of conjunto. Polka was added to the Tex-Mex mix as well, by the Polish and German immigrants who settled in Brownsville, Texas.
Both Max and his nephew Josh were trained by conjunto pioneer Flaco Jimenez, and their instrumental explorations are extraterrestrial voyages that you can still wriggle to ecstatically without drifting too far from your moorings. Max cranks out rippling rhythms while Josh floats around him, dipping under and over the melody with ruffles and flourishes, cranking out the funkiest version of Bob Wills's “San Antonio Rose” on the planet. By the end of the Texmaniacs show, the tent is fully heated, sweat dripping off the participants and the canvas.
A step over to the family stage yields more down-to-earth entertainment as Brice Chapman, a rural Woody Harrelson lookalike, presented rope tricks while standing atop his horse, lariat twirling to Springsteen's “Born in the USA” and Ray Charles's “America,” blaring from tinny speakers. By the time the Treme Brass Band blasted out the trumpeting-elephant intro to “Joe Avery's Blues” and started its march through the city, the streets were packed with second-line celebrants wanting to strut, twirl, and stomp with the band. Following them was something akin to a rugby scrum, with partiers bobbing and weaving to the brass and boom as they jammed the street.
This year's festival was the last one put on by the National Folk Festival, part of an agreement that a city will continue the festival after the national partner departs. Next year, the City of Greensboro takes over the festival in perpetuity, and it'll be as good or better than ever.