Greater New Bedford Summerfest
New Bedford, Massachusetts
July 2-3, 2011
For hundreds of thousands of New Englanders, July 4th music means the annual Boston Pops mega-concert along the Charles River. But for discerning fans of folk and roots music, the real action occurs 60 miles to the south in the old whaling city of New Bedford, MA, where over the past sixteen years the Greater New Bedford Summerfest has emerged as one of the Northeast’s best festivals of traditional and contemporary acoustic music from the U.S., Canada, and the British Isles. With 52 acts this year, most making multiple appearances on seven stages spread among the cobblestone streets of New Bedford’s waterfront historic district, Summerfest’s only real imperfection was that even two full days weren’t enough time to hear everyone.
From the festival’s opening notes—guitarist Pete Kennedy leading the Saturday mainstage crowd in a singalong of the show tune “Oh What A Beautiful Morning” on a perfect summer day—to the last fiddle and squeezebox notes of the concluding Celtic jam on Sunday night, Summerfest presented a hearty and diverse menu of rootsy styles and sounds that lent itself to sampling in workshops or heftier portions in feature sets. A few steps took the listener from the driving Acadian dance tunes and French-language songs of the harmonious, percussive trio Vishtèn to the slick newgrass of the Ohio quartet Newfound Road, or from the sweet country blues covers and soulful originals of Boston singer/guitarist Danielle Miraglia to the soaring, politically charged harmonies and hand-clapping rhythms of Kim and Reggie Harris, longtime channelers of the power of African-American gospel music and civil rights songs.
A commendable Summerfest trademark is workshops that match up acts that have different styles but a common spirit, encouraging them to join in on each other’s songs with often brilliant results as the musicians connect. For example, the Saturday set that combined the versatile musical catalysts Pete and Maura Kennedy, the Celtic/Appalachian quintet Annalivia, and the eclectic QuasiModal String Band included a crisp, pulsing version of the vampire (or werefox, if you prefer) ballad “Reynardine” from Annalivia, mountain harmonies and banjo/fiddle runs from the QuasiModals, and a rocking version of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” led by Maura Kennedy and highlighted by an amazing improvised triple-fiddle break from her stagemates that led to a mid-song standing ovation.
Contemporary singer/songwriters were well represented in the festival lineup, including the quietly powerful John Gorka and his current Red Horse trio partner Eliza Gilkyson, whose captivating songs are alternately meditative and sharp. English veteran Steve Tilston, backed on the Whaling Museum stage by a stoic pair of old whaling ship figureheads, mixed classical, flamenco, and blues guitar styles in a set that ranged from the wistful, autobiographical “On the Road When I Was Young” to the populist “Pretty Penny,” an acerbic look at the world’s bankers. Caroline Herring evocatively captured the underlying tensions of her native deep South in image-rich songs like “Mississippi Snow” and “The Dozens.”
Saturday’s fine weather gave way to dark clouds on Sunday, but the morning was brightened by the choral voices of the annual Sacred Harp participatory sing, offering old-time spirituals to rouse the early shoppers at the nearby craft stalls. Back at the Customs House main stage, a joint appearance by the dynamic Quebec quartet Le Vent du Nord and the fresh-sounding Canadian/Scottish/Irish band The Outside Track provided the rare opportunity to hear a French hurdy-gurdy and a Scottish electric harp wailing and plucking together on an instrumental break. Even what Le Vent introduced as a slow Quebec tune (“We’re not awake yet!”) soon turned into a foot-stomping romp. New to me on the Garden Stage was English singer and multi-instrumentalist Zoë Lewis, whose cheerful, optimistic mix of piano boogie, ukulele calypso, and guitar folk was a delightful discovery, accompanied by mewling seagulls. A “Meet the Artist” unplugged hour with the always personable Jez Lowe offered an extended opportunity to hear some of the stories behind his always catchy songs of hardscrabble life and sly fun in his native North East of England.
The festival also presents a variety of local performers, including longtime New Bedford singer/guitarist/humorist Art Tebbetts, a versatile trouper whose Saturday set covered everyone from Bing Crosby to Bruce Springsteen in an entertaining mix of 1940s pop standards, English music hall ditties, and newer songs. And for a break from the music there are dozens of craft booths lining the streets, as well as food vendors.
Look for Summerfest again next year on the first weekend of July. [www.newbedfordsummerfest.com]
—Tom Nelligan (Waltham, MA)