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.




TV trip ended on a high note (at last)

It was at the very end of the TV tour -- final network, final day -- when we finally came across what had been missing -- a really superb, top-of-the-line new show.

That's "Boardwalk Empire," the richly layered Martin Scorsese series that opens Sept. 19 on HBO, in the "Sopranos" slot. We're not surprised that it's great; we are surprised that it's alone.

A typical fall crop might include several superb shows. Last year brought "Glee," "Modern Family," "The Good Wife" and more.

This season? "Boardwalk Empire," which starts just as Prohibition begins in a giddy Atlantic City, is alone at the top.

At least, this tour (organized by the Television Critics Association) offered some things with promise. I'll tell you more about the trip soon; first, here are some of the better things I saw:

-- A brilliant, break-out performance by James Wolk. That's in "Lonestar," a complex character-scam piece on Fox.

-- Two first-rate comedies -- CBS' "Mike & Molly," ABC's "Better Together."

-- A complex conspiracy thriller, NBC's "The Event."

-- "My Generation," a clever-but-complex ABC drama that visits teens at graduation time and 10 years later.

-- Some OK police stories; ABC's "Body of Proof" and CBS' "Blue Bloods" -- that stand out.

-- ABC's offbeat (and sort of fun) "No Ordinary Family."

-- Lots of PBS documentaries. "Circus," "God in America" and Ken Burns' "Baseball" sequel are excellent; and on cable, a sampling of National Geographic's "Great Migrations" looks spectacular.

-- The brilliance of British writers. I haven't seen PBS' "Sherlock" yet, or the "Torchwood" that is moving to Starz, but they are being written by the superb Steven Moffat and Russell Davies, respectively. I have seen the first hour of BBC America's "Luther" and it's compelling.





It will be a good "Dance" finale

Things get crowded during the Television Critics Association tour. On one busy Thursday, we met Yoko Oho, Sacheen Littlefeather, a Wallenda high-wire star, two White House photographers, two American Indian filmmakers and six PBS news people.

I also met a clown (for the record, the first clown I've ever liked) and twin jugglers. I was reminded anew of the rich variety on PBS; I'll be sending stories to papers in the months ahead.

Fortunately, I also got to see "So You Think You Can Dance," setting up next week's finale. Adechike Torbert is gone now, leaving the final three -- front-runner Kent Boyd, strong contender Lauren Froderman and perpetual survivor Robert Roldan. They'll have one more chance to gather viewer votes on Wednesday; this should be a good one.