In Lowell, a celebration of diversity
LOWELL - There has been a folk festival in Lowell every year since 1987. And after 25 years, the organizers of the Lowell Folk Festival seem pretty much to have it down pat. So when there’s a broken generator at one of the largest stages, it’s nothing more than a bump in the road; somehow, somewhere, locate another one, swap it out, and accommodate the delay.
The organizers seem to have their musical formula down pat, too. It’s a mix of traditional music from America and around the world. And it’s not just a truism to say that the hallmark of the festival is musical diversity, because that’s what they strive to produce.
So, if you love what the Blasters once simply labeled “American music,’’ this year’s lineup had it in abundance: country, blues, polka, gospel, bluegrass, zydeco, and western swing were all represented.
Bill Kirchen has performed at Lowell before. In his first appearance, he marveled at the festival as “a beautiful thing,’’ and he echoed those sentiments this weekend. Kirchen plays something he calls “dieselbilly,’’ a mélange rooted primarily in honky tonk and vintage rock ’n’ roll. He paid tribute to the folk in the festival in various ways - by playing a blistering rendition of Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’,’’ and a sweet take on the country classic “Streets of Baltimore,’’ which, he said, he knew with certainty was a folk song, because its author (Tompall Glaser) set out to write one.
The Quebe Sisters, who have also appeared before, are one of a handful of contemporary bands keeping western swing alive. The three sisters are a double threat - all fantastic singers who combine to produce transcendent three-part harmonies, all fiddle players of a rank to have won Texas and national fiddle championships. Put that together with hollow body guitar and standup bass, and the effect was akin to melding the Andrews Sisters and Bob Wills.
Michael Cleveland brought the hard-core sounds of traditional bluegrass to the festival. At one of his performances, members of Irish music group Dervish, watching stageside, were simply agog at Cleveland’s fiddle virtuosity.
The African-American musical tradition was also well-represented - by various strands of the blues including a modern electric variety from second-generation singer Shemekia Copeland (she’s Johnny “Clyde’’ Copeland’s daughter); by the R&B-infused dance music, zydeco, presented in exhausting blasts by one of the music’s giants, Nathan Williams, along with his Zydeco Cha-Chas; and by gospel, sacred cousin to the blues, in the pure, sublime, a cappella version practiced by the Birmingham Sunlights.
If you wanted to go beyond American shores, traditions from Quebec, Greece, India, Colombia, and elsewhere were available. Hawaiian slack-key guitar master Ledward Ka’apana characterized his musical form as “tune for 20 minutes, play for two,’’ but his playing, from venerable island ballads to incorporations such as “Ghost Riders in the Sky,’’ was mesmerizing. With Dervish, it wasn’t tune, but story-tell, via masterful prefatory exposition by singer Cathy Jordan of the complicated stories told by many of the songs the group performed.
With diversity comes surprise: It’s hard to leave Lowell without having been bowled over by a type of music that you’ve never experienced before. This year, that experience came for this reviewer courtesy of the Ethiopia-by-way-of-Boston Debo Band, accompanied by the wild dance of the troupe Fendika. An agglomeration incorporating violins, trumpet, sax, tuba, accordion, and propulsive electric guitar, the band characterizes itself as playing Ethiopian music of all periods. But it’s heavy on a species of funk and spacey jazz married to traditional Ethiopian sounds and vocals. If George Clinton had come from Ethiopia instead of outer space, the result might have been what Debo Band gives you. It was - like the festival itself - folk music in the widest sense of the term.
Stuart Munro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org