Folk fest fun

"How many of you have never been to one of my shows," Doyle Lawson asked the Great Lakes Folk Festival audience.

Many hands, including mine, went up. Lawson paused before drawling his conclusion: "You people really should get out more."

He's right, you know. Lawson, 66, has been performing professionally for almost a half-century. He's had his own group for 31 years; for six straight years, it won the bluegrass award for best vocal group. By all logic, we should have heard him before.

Many people haven't, though. That evening was the first time Pat Egan -- the gifted singer-guitarist for the Irish trio Chulrua -- heard him. The next day, Egan was at a singing workshop, alongside Lawson and the rest of his vocal quartet. His conclusion: "Hearing that sound ... was a religious experience."

It pretty much was. The Lawson quartet sang beautifully; so did Egan. It was a fine near-conclusion to what was -- despite the unfortunate loss of the Valley Court Park concerts -- a dandy event.

(This blog, and the two previous ones, are about the festival in East Lansing, Mich.; after this, I'll be back to my natural habitat of TV.)

Here are a few random notes:

1) My second-favorite sticker, on the bumper-sticker car: "If evolution is outlawed, only outlaws will evolve."

2) My favorite sticker (paraphrased): "Join the army, go to exotic places, meet interesting people, then kill them."

3) My two favorite jokes both flirted with being politically incorrect. My second-favorite was from Paddy O'Brien of Chulrua: When Jesus turned water into wine, the party was a great success. The next morning, Joseph had a hangover. He called down: "Mary, I've got a terrible thirst. Could you bring up some water? And don't let the young lad near it."

4) My favorite was from Lawson. It seems that a guy was depressed and called the suicide hotline. It ended up at one of those Pakistani call centers. The caller said he was feeling suicidal. The call-center guy on the other end got excited and asked if he could drive a truck.

5) Life isn't fair department: At one workshop, Ed Klancnik played the banjo well. He was asked about the extent of his banjo education. "One lesson, one hour," he replied. Next to him, an Iranian musician played a banjo-like instrument beautifully. The emcee asked if he had any music education. Yes -- grade school and high school and music college and grad school and ...

6) One of the festival highlights emerged from the audience. Mariachi Perla de Mexico was performing in its usual way -- a bit too much grandstanding, but incredibly good vocals and instrumentals. Then Marlez Gonzalez -- the spelling and such is approximate -- asked to sing one song. She was sensational. That's not something you expect from your random Michigan State University student, especially one with a 3.7 grade point average. Still, Marlez -- who grew up in East Lansing -- is also a professional mariachi performer, just like her brother and sister. It was a great moment.

7) Some musicians simply picked up the music from their parents and grandparents. Others had much further to go: O'Brien told a long story of the time a peddler came to his home, with all sorts of things -- including an old instrument. He begged his mom to buy it; a music career began. His fiddler, Patrick Ourceau, was a young adult before discovering Irish music. He soon was taking marathon two-day trips by bus and ferryboat, to the countryside of Ireland.

8) And yes, that thoroughly Irish trio has a fiddler named Ourceau, who speaks French as his native tongue -- and speaks English with a rich Irish brogue. Also, Klancnik's Slovenian polka band has an accordian player who's an Irishman (partly) named O'Berry. You meet some surprising people at a folk fest. Maybe next year I'll see you there ... and maybe next year, it will be much better, with a return to Valley Court Park. 









Let's count the folk-fest genders: One ... uh, one ...

By the second day of the Great Lakes Folk Festival, I realized something important had been overlooked. Missing from the music stages was ... well, 51 per cent of the human population.

So far, I've sampled eight acts with, by rough count, 35 performers. That breaks down to 32 men and three women -- 93-year-old singer Alberta Adams, the singer (C.C. Collins) who opened for her and a flamenco dancer

The three acts I haven't seen aren't likely to add any more women: It seems that the festival lacks a full-time female musician or singer under the age of 90; it has no women playing an instruments.

I'm sure that's a coincidence, but it's a bizarre one. Here is an event that's debut (when it was, temporarily, the National Folk Festival) was propelled by two great female fiddlers, Eileen Ivers and Natalie MacMaster. It soon followed with an all-female Irish group (Cherish the Ladies), a half-female French-Canadian group and a flurry of other talented women, mainly singers and fiddlers. And now, almost, nothing.

Enough about that. Sunday night (Aug. 15), after the festival ends, I'll share some of my favorite jokes and stories I heard and signs I saw. Since there's still a chance to go to the event -- for people living near East Lansing, Mich. -- I want to mention some acts to make sure you catch; I'll include their Sunday performance times:

1) Doyle Lawson. He plays the mandolin beautifully and sings well, but he does something more: He hires great talent, then hones them beautifully. It's a tight ship, with jokes, songs instrumentals and top skill. (4:15 p.m. Sunday, MAC Stage)

2) Mariachi Perla de Mexico. Sure, these guys go overboard in playing to the tourists. In one 50-minute set, they included "La Bamba," "Beer Barrel Polka," comic dancing and, I believe, a bull-fighter song and a chicken dance. Still, they are remarkably good -- six fiddlers, two wondrous trumpeters, two guitarists, lots of great voices. (Noon, City Hall Stage; 3:05 p.m., MAC Stage)

3) D.W. Groethe. This guy is the opposite of the mariachis -- no flash, no flair, just a small cowboy, alone on stage, singing and reciting poems. That works because he writes poems and songs with stark, spare brilliance. (3:15 p.m., City Hall Stage,

4) Cedric Watson. He showed up at the accordion session and held his own with masters of the instrument. He showed up again at the fiddle session and did the same. He led his Creole group zestfully, rotating between both instruments and singing in French. He does it all well and -- at about 27 -- has been working on it for less than a decade. (Noon, Dance Stage)

5) Alberta Adams. There were, I'll admit, some problems with the set I saw. It wasn't that she was brought on late and only did four songs; it was the fact that she used too much of her time talking about the band players and getting us to applaud them. Hey, these guys are good and we had already let them know that before she began. Once she was onstage, we wanted to focus on the wondrous vocals of Alberta Adams, this festival's token woman. (4:15 p.m., City Hall Stage)





A sorta-great folk festival

Each August, the Great Lakes Folk Festival has been rather great. This year, it's merely semi-great ... which is still pretty good.

This blog entry is strictly for people near East Lansing, Mich.: If you have a chance, catch the last two days of the festival, Aug. 14-15. The event is half as good as it used to be, which still makes it twice as good as almost anything else.

The problem involves dropping the Valley Court Park concerts. During the day, under the searing sun, they were sparsely attended; at night, they gave the event its festival flavor.

At other stages, people can merely sit in folding chairs and clap politely. At Valley Court, this became a party -- blankets, food, families, teen-agers, dancers. Now that part -- for this year, at least -- is gone.

Still, catch the event. Stripped down, the festival still is a chance -- for free (remember to throw money in the buckets) -- to catch great and varied music in a sweet setting. On the first night, I caught:

-- Chulrua, an Irish trio. Sticking to the traditional style, it lacks the crowd-pleasing size and swirl of Solas, Cherish the Ladies and others. Still, these three guys play and sing great music and it's a joy to hear Paddy O'Brien talk about music, tell jokes or do anything in that wonderful Irish accent.

-- D.W. Groethe, a wonderful cowboy poet and singer. A ranch hand by day, he writes pieces that are sometimes funny, sometimes emotional, always very wise.

-- A convergence of four great accordionists -- O'Brien, Cedric Watson and two others. They talked, played and entertained us greatly. There are more such sessions coming up, all on the City Hall stage -- fiddlers (noon Saturday), banjos and fiddles (3:15 p.m. Saturday) and singers (2 p.m. Sunday). Pat Egan of Chulrua is a particularly good singer. There should be good times ahead -- even if they're only half as good as last year.




"Dance": The winner is ...

This was the big one tonight, wrapping up the "So You Think You Can Dance" season. And the winners are ...

-- Lauren Froderman, pulling a mild upset. From the beginning, Kent Boyd seemed to ride a wave of destiny, never being in the bottom three. Still, judges kept pointing out the remarkable work of Lauren, who was only in the bottom once. We were reminded of that tonight, as she leaped between styles and moods. One moment, she was a hip-hop dancer, taut and tough, full of muscle and menace; the next, she was a ballroom dancer, being glided along as if she had no moving parts. This is the chameleon-like quality that makes her hard to describe and impossible to ignore.

-- Kent. His runner-up finish was a giant leap for a farm kid from small-town Ohio. He emerged as one of the show's most memorable dancers ever.

-- Robert Roldan. Easy to overlook at first, he kept getting better in any style. He even managed to have dignity while departing in a Bollywood costume.

-- Napoleon and Tabitha D'Umo. When judges brought back the year's best routines, they kept returning to ones choreographed by this gifted duo. Travis Wall was also strong, but this was their year.

-- The guest stars. I was especially impressed by Quest Crew, Luke (the 7-year-old tapper) ... and, of course, Ellen DeGeneres. Her surprise appearance -- re-creating (sort of) Alex Wong's superb hip-hop duet with Twitch -- was a masterful mixture of comedy and serious dancing. Don't call Ellen a quitter, just because she won't return for "American Idol." A quitter is someone who, say, leaves the Alaskan governorship mid-way in her first term; Ellen finished her "Idol" term gracefully, then added a "Dance" exclamation mark.

-- Twitch and Wong and others.

-- And the show in general. Despte two injuries, this was a great season. We'll be looking forward to it next summer.




"Dance" nears its big finish

As the final three dancers had their last chance to impress voters, "So You Think You Can Dance" reminded us of a remarkable moment, early on. There was Kent Boyd, 18 and overwhelmed. "I'm a frikkin' farm guy and I'm dancing next to Alex frikkin' Wong!" he said.

Wong -- already a brilliant Miami Ballet soloist -- had seen worlds that Boyd could only imagine. He and Billy Bell were already stars when Boyd was an unknown kid in small-town Ohio.

And then:

-- Wong was injured and had to leave the show.

-- Ashley Galvan, one of the two strongest women, was injured and had to leave the show.

(An aside: Did you see the "Rosemary's Baby" scene where Rosemary's husband linked with Satan-worshippers and then someone else suddenly went blind, letting him have the role he had coveted? I'm just asking.)

-- Bell fell short, never quite able to project a personality that matched his immense ability.

And there was Boyd tonight, transformed into the front-runner -- and transformed into a real-life version of Billy Elliot, the blue-collar kid (in a movie and a musical) who savored dance.

"You get to the point where I just want to dance," Boyd said Wednesday. I'll forgive him for switching the subject in mid-sentence (we do that sometimes in the small-town Midwest) and appreciate this as the perfect Billy Elliot statement.

Tonight's show gave Boyd all the advantages. He opened it with a vibrant Bollywood number, closed it (along with fellow finalist Robert Roldan) with a dynamic number done to a pulsating drum beat. He got to show off his natural goofiness in the first two numbers, then get dead-serious in the third.

That third one was a beauty, almost matching the exquisite number the other two finalists (Lauren Froderman and Roldan) had done earlier. Indeed, of the 10 duets tonight, only one (Roldan's opener, a blandly choreographed Broadway number) was so-so.

The result? I think Boyd will be named champion Thursday, with Froderman as runner-up. I also think this was a truly gifted trio.

This was the youngest finale ever -- average age, 18.7 -- and maybe the best. And if Wong hadn't been injured, it would have been even better. Really, you should see "Rosemary's Baby" sometime.