Rain, Rain, You Can Stay; I Have a Poncho, So It's OK
I had thought about going to the Clearwater Hudson River Revival earlier in the year, but then I ran into the big problem I always hit with festivals: what if I shell out this money and I wind up drenched, irritable, and surrounded by thousands of mud-caked hippies? Even though it was pretty cheap ($65/day in advance) and a portion of the money was going to a good cause (in Clearwater's case, preserving the Hudson River), it's still hard to justify spending money you probably shouldn't be spending in These Difficult Times when faced with the possibility of weather-induced madness.
So, I thought, "Maybe next year, Clearwater." Until Wednesday of last week, when my friend (thanks. Josh) forwarded me an e-mail from the DJ of "Crash on the Levee," a roots music show on WFDU, a station I would listen to more if, in fact, I could get its signal in my apartment (I know, I know, it streams on the Web...OK, I'll go stream it now). That e-mail brought word of a drawing for free tickets to your day of choice at Clearwater. I figured I'd used up my contest-winning mojo after getting the Hank Jr. tickets, but ultimately thought it couldn't hurt to press my luck (no whammies!). The winners would be chosen Friday morning.
Friday morning came and went, and no word, so I figured I was back to being a loser. Then I checked my e-mail as I got ready to leave for work and, lo and behold, I'm a winner (thanks, Jerry Treacy). Clearwater, here I come! On about five hours' sleep after the Old 97's show at Maxwell's!
Now, having gone to the Revival, I can't recommend it enough. The music was great, the vibe was cool, and, really, the hippies weren't that dirty.
For those who don't know (and I'm sorry, people who do know, you'll have to read this, too), the two-day Clearwater Hudson River Revival, held in Croton Point Park in Croton-on-Hudson, NY, is in its 40th year. Its figurehead is Pete Seeger, who has devoted a good deal of his 90 years to cleaning up the Hudson River and getting the young and old to join him in his quest. Mr. Seeger performs throughout the weekend, though he is far from the only musical act of note. This year, on the day I went, the festival hosted Alejandro Escovedo, Old Crow Medicine Show, Allison Moorer, A.C. Newman, Richie Havens, Dr. Dog, and Susan Tedeschi, among others (Sunday featured Taj Mahal, Arlo Guthrie, the Persuasions, Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and a bunch more).
But music isn't the only thing going on at the festival. There's also kayaking, trips on the Clearwater sloop, a slew of arts and crafts vendors, a green living expo, and, of course, an activists' area where you can find information about just any cause you might be interested in, from saving Darfur to keeping violent toys out of the hands of your children. And there's also some creative marketing involved to get people interested in your cause.
I spent some time checking out just about every area, but the bulk of my day was spent moving around from stage to stage. As soon as I got in, I headed to the Hudson River Stage, where Pete Seeger was playing with a group of fourth-grade students (and some adults) from Forrestal Elementary School in Beacon, NY, known as the Kids from Room 12. They sang songs about the river, President Obama, and preserving the earth, with Mr. Seeger strumming the banjo (and letting loose a solo or two) and urging the crowd to join in the fun.
As I walked to Grand Central in the morning, I figured it couldn't hurt to print out one of the photos I took of Mr. Seeger at the Teachers College show earlier this year, on the off chance that he might sign it at the festival. I didn't want to harass a 90-year-old man into signing a picture for me (like these mongrels), but, I figured, if I saw him signing things at the festival, I'd be upset that I didn't have one of the photos to sign.
So, after the show, I headed around to the backstage area to see if I could get the photo signed. A few other people had the same idea, so when Mr. Seeger emerged, he begged off, saying he was late getting to another stage before walking away. As several of us followed him, he began looking for one of the golf carts, so he could make a quicker getaway. The Seegermobile followed close behind, and soon he was on his way to another gig. Or just to get away from us. Either way, cool with me.
I went back to the main stage to see Alejandro Escovedo, who was playing in his trio format (with Susan Voelz on violin and David Pulkinhgam on guitar). Before his set started, though, Mr. Seeger came back to get some grapes and chat briefly with Escovedo (two more people asked him to sign as I lingered in the background, but they were rebuffed for the same reason as before).
Escovedo's set was solid as usual, with highlights being the frenzied interplay with Voelz and Pulkingham on "Everybody Loves Me," the aching beauty of "Rosalie," and, naturally, the set-closing "Castanets," which, like all the songs performed on the festival's two main stages, was also interpreted for the hearing-impaired by an ASL interpreter. It's a nice thing to do, though if I were deaf, I can't imagine the first place I'd want to go on a wet spring afternoon would be a music festival. In any event, I spent a lot of time watching the interpreters, and each had her own style (one seemed to be getting judged on her effectiveness and/or aided by another woman during A.C. Newman's set). Oddly, some kept signing during instrumental breaks, so, like Elaine Benes before me, I began to wonder if the deaf people weren't having a good laugh at the rest of us.
Many of the performers also seemed to be intrigued by the ASL interpreters, with Allison Moorer even asking hers, "What happens if you get a mumbler? I mean, what if you get Joe Cocker?" Moorer, who was accompanied on violin and mandolin by Eleanor Whitmore, seemed much more animated than the last few times I've seen her and, though I only saw the first and last few songs of her set because I was shuffling back and forth between her set on the Rainbow Stage and Old Crow Medicine Show's on the Hudson River Stage. But her set-ending versions of "A Change Is Gonna Come" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" were pretty damn great.
Old Crow Medicine Show, whom I haven't seen live in awhile, sounded much better than I remembered (I didn't hate them live, but it just lacked that oomph, or at times seemed to have overly manufactured oomph). The start of their set brought a surge of free-dancing youth to the front of the stage, which was supposed to be kept clear for those in wheelchairs (Clearwater is as kind and considerate to those in wheelchairs as they are to the deaf). They were allowed to overtake the area for awhile before some of the Peace Keepers (the Clearwater volunteers) told them (kindly and considerately) to keep the area and the wheelchair path clear. Peace was restored, and everybody kept smiling and dancing. I caught the first 45 minutes or so of their set before wandering over to see Moorer, though I made it back in time to hear them close with a particularly rip-roaring "Union Maid."
I guess I completely missed the fact that Mike Bub, formerly of the Del McCoury Band, is now Old Crow's bassist. That's quite a transition, from the reasonably reserved McCourys to the much more rambunctious (and less nattily dressed) Old Crows. No matter, he looks equally comfortable in both.
Mr. Seeger, Escovedo, and Old Crow were pretty much the top three acts I wanted to see, so I spent the rest of the day wandering around, checking out the activists and vendors, and eating some good pulled pork and a giant potato pancake.
I also caught some of A.C. Newman and Dr. Dog, two acts I didn't know much about heading in (though I knew that Jon Wurster, the best drummer Marah ever had and one half of the kings of comedy, Scharpling and Wurster, was playing with Newman). Both were good, and definitely worth further exploration on my part. The entertainment value of Newman's set was aided by the guy dressed up as a pirate (and brandishing a toy sword) who danced (and thrusted and parried) throughout the show. I was going to take a picture but I chickened out. Sorry. You'll have to settle for band photos of Newman and Dr. Dog (with Elvis Perkins in Dearland).
Mike and Ruthy, whose second of two sets was in the dance tent, sounded great in the little time I saw them, and they were joined by fellow Mammal Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Jay Ungar (Ruthy's dad), and Molly Mason. Ungar and Mason followed with the Waltz Hour, and for both sets, the dance floor was full of young and old, all having a good time, though from my spot in front during Mike and Ruthy's set, I saw two little boys mocking another young boy for what seemed to be the offense of dancing with a young girl. They'll learn.
When I was making my way out of the vendors area, I saw a crowd of people off to the side of the Circle of Song tent. I was about to walk by but I thought I'd at least see what was going on. As I headed over, I saw the yellow raincoat of Pete Seeger, and there he was holding court among a group of acolytes. I'd abandoned the idea of getting my photo signed, but I figured it was worth one more shot, since it didn't look like he was in a rush to get anywhere. But Mr. Seeger soon told the crowd he had to be on his way, though not before telling a guy looking to get a book signed that he should try to catch him when there weren't so many people around. I was getting the distinct sense that Mr. Seeger just didn't want to be bothered and, God knows, he's earned the right. So I wandered over to the Circle of Song tent to watch some of the ukulele players.
After awhile, I looked to my left, and saw both Mr. Seeger still there and people walking away with signed programs. D'oh. So I went over, and Mr. Seeger was talking to a young guy who was handing him one of his own CDs. The guy trying to get his book signed saw me and selflessly (thanks, dude) motioned me to ask Mr. Seeger to sign the photo.
And he did.
So now I have a photo I took of Pete Seeger signed by Pete Seeger. Pretty cool.
Oh yeah. I'm pretty sure it also rained a lot. Most of the day. No big deal.