The Brooklyn Folk Festival Is Ten Years Old and Better Than Ever

by delarue

Over the past decade, the Brooklyn Folk Festival has become a New York rite of passage. Like Golden Fest, Rev. Vince Anderson’s Union Pool residency, the Brooklyn Cyclones and Shakespeare in the Park, it’s something that everyone should experience at least once. It’s held over a weekend every spring, with both daytime and evening lineups; a lot of people go every year.

The best thing about the festival is that it isn’t exclusively devoted to artists who play music by the greatest and most prolific songwriter of all time – whose name varies from language to language, but invariably translates as Anonymous. This past Saturday night’s lineup featured some of that repertoire but also originals drawing on a global expanse of influences, from high-voltage Romany dance music, to moody Balkan ballads,  ecstatic Afro-Colombian trance-dance chants, honkytonk, southern gothic and jug band sounds. Which makes sense, considering that the folks at the magical Jalopy Theatre – New York’s Americana music central – put this thing together.

By the time the nighttime lineup got underway, St. Ann’s Church on Montague Street was already packed with a diverse crowd of veterans and kids hell-bent on getting the most bang for the buck out of their all-weekend or allday passes. Italian pianist/singer Luca Ferraris kicked off the evening on the stage next to the beer stand with a dynamic set of originals and a few traditional numbers that ran the gamut from bouncy dance tunes with Romany or even Russian tinges, to ballads that sometimes sauntered unexpectedly in a jazz direction. A bassist joined him about midway through and became a vocal sparring partner. Even for those in the crowd whose Italian might be limited to restaurant menu items, the songs were infectious. 

In the church’s main space, pan-Balkan singer and song reinventor Eva Salina and sorcerer accordionist Peter Stan benefited from the rich natural reverb, which added yet another layer of mystery to their distinctive versions of songs from the catalogs of iconic Romany singers Saban Bajramovic and Vida Pavlovic. Nimbly negotiating the slithery sibilances of the Romanes language, the California-born Salina channeled resilience and grace in the face of longing and abandonment, sang a cartoonishly bouncy number from the point of view of a guy overjoyed with his three-foot-tall, extremely fertile wife, and didn’t shy away from the issues of displacement and exile that permeate so much of this repertoire. Stan sized up the sonics in a split-second and maxed them out with flickering torrents of bracing minor keys and chromatics that took on new dimensions, echoing off the walls.

There was a little overlap while one of the Jalopy house bands, Skalopy, played live dub reggae and some classic Toots & the Maytals material with a lineup that included both banjo and piano. Meanwhile, in the main space, Bulla En El Barrio built a frenzy of call-and-response with their hypnotically percussive chants, which draw a straight line back from Colombia to Africa. A succession of men and women took turns leading the choir over the thunder of the percussion; they closed with an original that was as rustic and otherworldly as any of the traditional epics.

They would have been a tough act to follow, but not for Jerron Paxton, who may be the most talented musician in all of New York. Playing a longer set than any of the other acts on the bill, solo, he nonchalantly showed off his spectacular chops as oldtime acoustic blues and ragtime guitarist, fiddler, banjo and harmonica player. This time out he didn’t take a turn at the piano, but he could have. In his genial Louisiana drawl, he entertained the crowd with stories from the kind of colorful past only a musician could have…but also didn’t hesitate to remind them of the sobering reality of how many ex-slaves died of starvation after the Civil War. And you wonder why so many old blues songs mention hunger. Moving methodically between carefree proto-bluegrass fiddle, wickedly precise blues fingerpicking, ominously ancient, hypnotically percussive banjo and some fierce harmonica blues, he made it all seem easy He encored on harmonica as well, with a breathless medley of 18th century blues tunes, including Abraham Lincoln’s favorite song.

Nick Panken, frontman of high-voltage Americana crew Spirit Family Reunion, didn’t waste time admitting that they had an impossible act to follow. And they’re a great band – but loud electric rock with drums doesn’t work in a space like St. Ann’s. In that context, the matter of who was playing before or after was irrelevant. The sound people really tried their best, and the band realized what was up, so their ballads worked out ok. But when they picked up the pace, the mix was just vocals, drums and Maggie Carson’s icepick five-string banjo lines. Their songs blend bluegrass, honkytonk and oldtime string band music and they can jam like crazy. And their fan base is crazy about them. But this was the wrong venue. The Jalopy is their New York home base when they’re not on tour; they’re best experienced there.

Speaking of Jalopy people, guitarist/singer Feral Foster – who’s been running the weekly Roots and Ruckus series there since forever – was next on the bill. Looking dapper in a sharp tan suit, he crooned, picked expertly in oldtimey open tunings and took a couple of unexpected and very successful turns into ragtime and slow blues. It’s hard to think of a more original songwriter in gothic Americana. Some of the songs were tongue-in-cheek but others were not: there’s an omnipresent dark undercurrent that always grounds them in grim reality. He’s at the Jalopy virtually every Wednesday sometime after 9 PM.

Finally, at around midnight, Birmingham, Alabama’s Steel City Jug Slammers took the stage, bolstered by Ernesto Gomez and one of his bandmates from Brooklyn’s Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues. It was amazing to watch Washtub Jay pick out swooping basslines on that clothesline string – without any tape on his fingers, either! – and play kazoo lines through a trumpet horn at the same time, and not miss a beat. Frontman Ramblin’ Ricky Tate played guitar and led the band through a sly series of shuffles and stomps as Maxwell Honeycup kept the low end going at the other side of the stage with his jug. By now, the crowd had thinned out, but these guys were not about to let anybody down.

That was it for this year’s Brooklyn Folk Festival, but a lot of these acts can be found at the Jalopy. Bulla en El Barrio are at Barbes on April 30 at around 10. Eva Salina and Peter Stan are at the American Folk Art Museum on May 4 at 5:30 PM, sharing the bill with irrepressibly fun, charming oldtimey chanteuse Tamar Korn, who can vocalize any wind instrument ever invented.. The Steel City Jug Slammers are at KGB Bar at around 9:30 PM on April 11. And Spirit Family Reunion are at the Knickerbocker, 35 Railroad Ave. in Westerly, Rhode Island on April 14 at 9 for $13 in advance.

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