One of the best parts of summer here in Southeastern New Hampshire is the Prescott Park Arts Festival. Prescott Park is located between Portsmouth Harbor and the historic Strawbery Banke Museum district in downtown Portsmouth. Every year since 1974 the Prescott Park Arts Festival has brought live music, community theater, food festivals, dance performances and movies to its outdoor stage.
(I played the PPAF in 1991, “The Cornerstone Season,” doing a 6 pm Twilight Series concert on Saturday, July 20th.)
This past August 4th was the date of the PPAF’s 15th Annual Folk Festival. The five-hour event started off with The Coloradas, a Maine-based quintet, and then segued through sets by singer/songwriter/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan and the high-energy, very eclectic quartet, The David Wax Museum. The headliners were the Grammy-award winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.
On this appropriately warm and humid evening, the Carolina Chocolate Drops were a quartet: Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, Hubby Jenkins and Leyla McCalla.
From the opening raucous salvo of “Black Annie,” featuring Ms. Giddens on fiddle and lead vocals, Carolina Chocolate Drops performed with an impressively high level of skill in constantly changing combinations of acoustic guitar, 4 and 5-string banjo, violin, cello, mandolin and bass drum. The hour-long set was an extremely entertaining, informative and dance-inspiring journey through American string band music both old and new. The Chocolate Drops even made stops along the way to pay tribute to Woody Guthrie (“Goin’ Down The Road”) and Alan Lomax. They encored with a four voice, a cappella rendering of “Read ‘Em John,” a traditional song from the Georgia Sea Islands and found on the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ 2012 CD, Leaving Eden.
Now, the last time I attended a concert where both Woody Guthrie and Alan Lomax were mentioned, I was the performer. Hearing someone else talk about the history behind the music and songs being played was quite exciting, to say the least. But, had I picked up the August 1 – 7 edition of The Wire, an excellent local arts and entertainment newspaper, I’d have known that entertainment and education are equally important to Carolina Chocolate Drops.
In a concert preview/interview entitled “The Roots Show,” author Matt Kanner wrote that “The Chocolate Drops have always made a point of educating their audience about the roots of American Music.” In Kanner’s conversation with Rhiannon Gibbons, Ms. Gibbons explained the band’s reasoning behind this approach: “We are really committed to that, because we’ve learned all this stuff about the music, and it’s just stuff that’s so not known in the general public. It’s like, we can’t not at least talk about it a little bit.”
“Hallelujah,” I say. “Hallelujah!”
At the close of Mr. Kanner’s article, Ms. Gibbons says in regards to how Carolina Chocolate Drops hope their audience responds to their shows: “I think the best reaction to hope for is the people who want to sit and listen can enjoy the intricacy of the stuff we put on, and the people who just want to dance their butts off can dance their butts off.”
On the evening of August 4th at the Prescott Park Arts Festival’s 15th Annual Folk Festival, I think that both the performers and the audience got exactly what they were hoping for.
Here’s the best video I could find on YouTube with Carolina Chocolate Drops in the line-up that performed at Prescott Park. The song, “Milwaukee Blues,” is not on any of their albums.
Left to right in the video that’s Leyla McCalla, Dom Flemmons, Rhiannon Giddens and Hubby Jenkins.
Five days later, on Wednesday, August 8 (my birthday!), I returned to Prescott Park for the seventh show of the PPAF’s River House Restaurant Concert Series to see and hear singer/songwriter/acoustic guitarist Suzanne Vega.
Not long after Suzanne Vega emerged on the scene – her first album came out in 1985 and her second, Solitude Standing, was released in 1987 – her songs became very popular with my female, high school-aged guitar students. (One young lady performed five Suzanne Vega songs in her March of 1999 senior recital.) Thanks to a very well done book of transcriptions and Ms. Vega’s gorgeous recordings, I spent many a pleasant guitar lesson teaching eager fingers to master the chord changes and fingerpicking patterns to several of these superbly written songs.
On a perfect New Hampshire August evening, Suzanne Vega and her accompanist, the brilliant and ever-dazzling electric guitarist Gerry Leonard, had the Prescott Park stage to themselves. The duo performed two sets of songs drawn from the entire span of Ms. Vega’s twenty-six year recording career.
It was an immense pleasure to sit beneath the stars with my wife and several friends and listen to Ms. Vega sing and play “Gypsy,” “Luka,” “The Queen & The Soldier” – those older, wonderful “teaching songs” – mixed in with a host of more recent, equally wonderful and even brand new compositions.
Here’s an exceptional clip of Suzanne Vega, with Richard Thompson on back-up guitar (!), explaining and performing “Gypsy.”
A similarly stunning recording can be found on Suzanne Vega’s 2010 CD Close-Up Vol. 1, Love Songs.
August is not even half over and there are several more shows of the Prescott Park Arts Festival penciled in on our calendar. Here’s to hoping that those artists live up to the level set by Carolina Chocolate Drops and Suzanne Vega.