The Clearwater Festival – The Great Hudson River Revival Spotlights Roots, Folk & Activism With Mavis Staples, Ani DiFfranco & More (FESTIVAL RECAP)

The Clearwater Festival – The Great Hudson River Revival – wrapped up on Father’s Day and served its purpose of sending off its attendees, performers, volunteers and staff relaxed, recharged and re-invested in environmental and social justice issues on June 15/16 at Croton Park on Croton On Hudson, NY. Almost every performer made a point of noting the wonderful spirit that exists at Clearwater and the good work that so many of the featured organizations are involved in. There was plenty of love, acceptance, caring and unity among the (mostly volunteer) staff, patrons and performers, as is typical at Clearwater. The festival is full of family activities (kids music, hands-on art projects, a story grove, and jugglers and stilt walkers (who were happy to put on a 20 minute show for a single child); messages of inclusion (signs and banners reminding us to celebrate our differences and similarities); and accommodations for people facing all kinds of physical challenges (from areas right up front designated for “folks in chairs” to ASL signers at every performance of every stage). And just like every year, I felt a sense of community at this festival greater than that of any festival.

However, this year there was something a little different in the air at this mostly folk festival. Sure, there was plenty of peace and harmony, but there was also a clear taste of anger blowing in the wind. Perhaps it was fueled by the antagonistic political climate we live in, or the erosion of human rights we have experienced, or the regression in environmental progress we are seeing, but the sense of urgency, determination and anger was palpable on most of the stages.

Saturday

Along with some amazing acts, Saturday featured the best weather one could image with temperatures in the mid-70s and beautiful cool breezes blowing off the Hudson River. The lush Croton Point Park was a wonder to see. After a heart-warming sing-along to remember Pete Seeger and celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday, the music got cooking.

James Maddock played a warm and relatable 75 minute set with just his acoustic guitar. He weaved his way through most of his material from Sunrise on Avenue C and his more recent release Insanity vs. Humanity. His lyrics brought us on a journey following down-and-out characters navigating through the world and into a beautiful love song he wrote with The Waterboys called “Beautiful Now”. Towards the end of the set, he gave voice to the anger that became a call to action from many performers. His song, “The Mathematician” was written to tell the story of all the taxi drivers and immigrants who are doctors, teachers and lawyers and as the song says, “I’m more than just a refugee.” Soon after he played his angriest song, “Fucked Up World” that poignantly brought up issues of reproductive rights, incarceration and economic injustice and tied them together with the chorus that also serves as the song’s title. The song starts with this evocative story, “Rachel’s in a state, she’s 5 weeks late, underage and doesn’t want a kid. Her options have all gone, she finds her daddy’s gun, you’re all so pro-life, look at what you did.”

The Mammals presented an upbeat set of well-written environment-themed songs offering clever lyrics, witty stage banter and harmonies. Where else can you get away with calling “My Baby Drinks Water”, written while breastfeeding, “a drinking song” or rhyming the words normal, geo-thermal, useful and carbon neutral as they do in “Sunshiner”, an alternative view of life in a mining town. The Lone Bellow played a well-received set. The three players crowded around one mic and kept shifting places and instruments with each new song. Their sound alternated between single voice and harmonies, acoustic and a cappella, male and female, as they rang out over the large crowd.

Ani DiFranco

Later that afternoon, Ani Difranco carried that “enough is enough” attitude through to the Rainbow stage. She played a number of lighter songs backed by New Orleans professionals, Terrence Higgins on drums and Todd Sickafoose on upright bass and keys. She was later joined by Gracie & Rachel (a duo that is on tour with her) for the end of her set which contained the four angriest songs: “Play God”, a powerful reproductive rights blues manifesto that entreats male lawmakers to “leave this one thing to me”; “Deportee” a Woody Guthrie standard depicting the dehumanization of immigrants; her version of the old coal miner rallying song “Which Side Are You On” with updated lyrics urging people to take action, “Too many stories written out in black and white. Yeah, come on people of privilege. It’s time to join the fight”; and “Joyful Girl” a defiant answer to critics that seek to marginalize her.

The night closed out with Mavis Staples the almost 80-year-old who helped provide the soundtrack for the civil rights movement. Mavis had angry moments too – calling for presidential impeachment and even talking about running for president herself. And although her set was filled with too many covers for this reviewer’s taste, her amazingly powerful voice and even more powerful presence were enough to send the crowd off on a determined, but positive note.

There were other solid performances by folk stalwarts Tom Chapin, Margo Thunderbird, Joel Rafael, and David Amram as well as newer artist Chogyi Lama; not-quite-dance-bands The Big Takeover, The Rad Trads and Los Cintron at the Dance Stage; and kids sets by Magpie and Joanie Leeds.

Mavis Staples

Sunday

Sunday’s weather brought the threat of rain (which, thankfully, underperformed), but also the promise of a younger generation to carry on the tradition. Sure there were plenty of Clearwater types like Guy Davis, Antigone Rising, Del McCoury, The Zen Tricksters, and Tom Paxton; but, the day was peppered with younger acts with equally inspiring messages including two rap acts – Immortal Technique and Rebel Diaz.

The Late Show’s Gospel Choir started the day off on a spiritual note, playing traditional gospel tunes and decked out in purple and gold gospel robes. Scott Sharrard brought every note of his electric guitar to the show. The former lead guitarist for the Gregg Allman Band played several songs from his fifth solo album, Saving Grace. Festival favorites, Antigone Rising brought their world-class stage banter to the Rainbow Stage as they shared war stories from the road such as “That Was The Whisky” which led to their “no brown liquor” rule while on tour. Thom Chacon’s set conflicted with a few others so I only caught the last few songs on the smaller Sloop Stage, but enough to know he is someone to check out on tour and definitely CD worthy. His delicious deep and gritty voice and story-telling songs were compelling.

Antigone Rising

The best performances of the day were turned in by three younger (though not young) acts: Birds of Chicago, Immortal Technique and The Slambovian Circus of Dreams.

Birds of Chicago, a duo consisting of husband and wife Allison Russell and JT Nero, were joined by guitarist Champagne James Robertson and played a stripped-down set. If you’ve followed roots, Americana or indie rock, you’ve probably heard of them and their immense talent. There is something about this musical couple that shouldn’t work, the pairing of her beautiful voice with his gritty one; his sarcastic wit with her warmth; her grace with his gawk; yet it absolutely does. They are better together than apart. As beautiful as their songs are, their songwriting is equally moving. That is captured in songs like, “You’re Not Alone”, a song written for their daughter as they are on the road, but shared with all children who have been taken from their parents forcefully or naturally; “Barley”, written for Allison’s grandmother who was prematurely lost to Alzheimer’s and sent out to all of those who came before; and “American Flowers” a Woody Guthrie-esque song made up of several short stories illustrating that this country is mostly made up of good people trying to do their best.

Birds of Chicago

Perhaps the most unexpected and moving performance of the day was turned in by rapper Felipe Andres Coronel who goes by Immortal Technique. The rapper shared his knowledge and political views with the audience at his 60-minute set. He showcased his partner DJ Static’s talents and taught folks the difference between “a real DJ and a dude who presses one button”. Joined by rapper Poison Pen, their straightforward and political flow was compelling. He had to deliver his last song to an audience a cappella and un-amplified due to the blown generator and unfortunately ended early. Not sure if he was going to get to his legendary “Dance With The Devil” during the set but later he continued his charismatic agitation in a Q&A session on the Workshop Stage but when asked made it clear that that rap was not appropriate given the front two rows lined with kids. But kudos to Clearwater for acknowledging the protest power in rap and giving it space at the festival. Later, the dance tent closed with rap act Rebel Diaz. Although the set was sparsely attended, though some dancing kids and break dancers hit the dance floor, their energy, politics, and edification were certainly dynamic (and a good way to end the festival).

Rebel Diaz

The other band that brought a new sound to the festival was Slambovian Circus of Dreams who played a late afternoon set at the Dance Stage. The 5-piece is fronted by Joziah Longo on acoustic guitar and top hat, and features Sharkey McEwen on electric guitar and mandolin, Bob Torsello on bass, and Felipe Torres on drums; but the magic comes from Tink Lloyd who plays “all that stuff over there” which includes accordions, cello, flute, theremin and anything else she can find. They started out in nearby Sleepy Hollow and have a penchant for combining rarely combined musical styles to positive effect. Their music may be rooted in folk, but the other elements bring it to a completely new place. They finished their set with “The Trans-Slambovian Bi-Polar Express” which is a song they introduced as being inspired by Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and Jethro Tull.

It is important to point out that there is much more to this festival than one or two reporters can cover; there are world-class storytellers, activist training, Native American sundown ceremonies, crafts and a marketplace, artisanal food, sailing trips on the Clearwater – the boat tasked with leading the cleanup of the Hudson River – and so much more. I cannot think of a festival better suited to families and lovers of folk music. Whether your aim is to relax to some music and restore yourself on the weekend or recharge your activist bones and commune with fellow rabble-rousers, you should come!

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