Whiskey, politics and folk

Early Friday afternoon, a hard decision had to be made: With 24 hours till stage time, and rain clouds on the make, should the Connecticut Folk Festival go ahead with its Saturday open-air venue in Edgerton Park, or retreat to the weather-protected auditorium of the Southern Connecticut State University? The director of the festival, Barbara Manners, considered her options and held her ground. Edgerton Park or bust! Jeff White was on the ground.

For the 16-year-old concert series, a more important decision could not have been made. Despite its consistently Grammy-laden lineup, the festival has always been more about community and goodwill, and the park was the perfect venue.

Starting leisurely in the afternoon before gaining more serious momentum in the evening, the music began as almost a side note for the bucolic escape. Kids tumbling down a hill in the left corner. Boccee ball in the right. And a game of Frisbee in between. People were obviously here not just for the music, but also very much for the community and relaxation offered by the idyllic park setting. As Yale senior put it, surrounded by friends as well as local residents, “Sit outside, drink some beers, listen to music? Yes please.”

For Manners, who is serving an exhausting second year as director, this was exactly the balance she was looking for. Surveying the scattered crowds of loungers and recliners, picnic baskets and wine bottles, Manners confided, “Folk is just about building community through shared values.”

The lineup for the day could not have been a better match for the occasion. Starting with Yale’s own Professors of Bluegrass — making their long-awaited debut at the festival — the acts then varied mostly from bluesy to soulful, with each musician bringing his or her own personal spin on the folk tradition.

It was certainly the combining of genres and styles, and the lively performers who were always quick with a comment or an aside, that kept the day interesting. A rather salacious Ruthie Foster, third on the billing, commented on her own style, “It’s like Otis Redding on one side, Sam Cooke on the other side and Ruthie Foster in the middle. A Ruthie sandwich,” before going into her cover of a Lucinda Williams ballad.

Playing just before Ruthie was the sweet-voiced Allison Moore, followed by Harry Manx, . On this occasion, Manx not only combined East with West, but also West with South, playing a banjo interpretation of Jimmy Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.”

“I told you Jimmy loved the banjo,” he remarked to the audience, which continued to grow steadily into the night.

Latecomers were then greeted not only by the Kettle Corn and the Kebab Cart (Mamoun’s is a CT Folk staple — who knew?) but also by the raucous sounds of the Holmes Brothers. “We guarantee you that by the end of this session you will be on your feet,” they promised the audience.

It only took one song before a group of kids started dancing and jumping in front of the stage. Maybe not your expected folk-music experience, but certainly keeping with the festival’s aspirations.

The record was then set straight by headliner and folk legend Steve Earle, who started his set with the fitting rallying cry “Come Back Woody Guthrie.” But for Earle, as with the others, it’s not just about the music. Singing about whiskey and politics and everything in between, he stopped to ask the audience, “Do you think that music can change the world? If not, then you’re just not singing loud enough!”

As his voice echoed off the trees at the back of the park, Earle then surprised the audience with some genre mixing of his own and welcomed a guest DJ to help with the second half of the set. Some were unnerved at first, but before long people were dancing, and Earle, like the opening acts before him, proved that folk isn’t necessarily an immutable style. As long as the heart is there, the form is always open for change.

There was only one point on which Earle and the rest of the festival refused to budge, and before leaving the stage he reminded the audience: “Don’t forget to vote in November, and don’t screw up.” Well, Earle may have used stronger words, but you get the idea.

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