Caramoor American Roots Music Festival: Katonah, NY 24 June 2017

by Carene Lydia Lopez on June 28, 2017

Once again, I’ve allowed myself to fall behind in my concert-going reporting. I’ve got June to catch up on, then earlier this year, and then there’s last summer. But I’m going to report on the last festival and then go back to the rest of this month.

Peter had asked me what I wanted to do this past week since he was going to be in town. I told him to choose and then he bought tickets for the Caramoor American Roots Music Festival in Katonah, NY, which surprised me because it meant devoting most of a weekend to being out of town. He picked me up Friday afternoon and we drove to a hotel in Danbury, CT. There was an Outback attached to it, which excited him for some reason. I think he’s spent too much time in Oswego. He had complaints about the porterhouse, which he told the waitress about and then she brought over the manager. I told him he was nuts to expect anything good – Outback is the McDonalds’ of steakhouses.

Music at Caramoor started at noon. Peter was going to bring a chair and snacks and, based on my music festival experiences, I told him to check the website for what he could bring in. He didn’t and just decided not to bring anything.

Turns out this was the most civilized music festival I’ve been to. It’s on an estate. The Rosens, who bought the original farmhouse and turned it into their country home (based on an Italian villa) in the 1920s, loved art and music. They used to hold concerts in their huge living room and then later they built a theater on the grounds and in her last years, Mrs. Rosen would dress up and personally greet each guest.

Different types of concerts are held on the grounds. It’s not crowded and the grounds are beautiful. People not only brought chairs (the dreaded chair people) but coolers full of food, wine, and beer. There was food and wine available for purchase. And they were giving free house tours throughout the day.

There’s no long line to enter. You park your car (there’s also a shuttle from the Metro North station that runs two hours before the music begins and for an hour or so after the show is over), walk over to one of several box office tents, show your ticket, and pick up a map and program. One of the bands was playing as you enter the main field. We later saw that it was Cole Quest and the City Pickers.

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Cole Quest and the City Pickers Caramoor American Roots Music Festival Katonah-20170624-05214

There were sculptures and gardens throughout the grounds. There was also Sonic Innovations, a collection of art/sound pieces throughout the grounds. There were wind chimes along Cedar Walk and a stone pyramid that emitted sounds dependent on pressure and weather changes among other pieces.

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The main field (Friends Field) had a large stage and a tent at an angle on the audience right side and then room on the grass for blankets and chairs at an angle on the audience left side. Under the tent, some people had set up their chairs or blankets but there were also a lot of chairs provided by Caramoor. I noticed the volunteers were all wearing orange polo shirts and the signs were in orange. That morning I was making a choice between two blouses and chose an orange blouse. Turned out I was wearing Caramoor orange.

Peter and I found seats and settled in for the first band – Spuyten Duyvil, who have opened the festival for the last seven years. The one song I recognized was “Shady Grove.” I believe the rest of the songs were originals.

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Spuyten Duyvil Caramoor American Roots Music Festival Katonah-20170624-05222

There were four locations for music with some overlap. The last location – the Venetian Theater – was where the headliners would be performing. You could buy a day pass, a ticket just for the headliners, or a ticket for both. We had tickets for both since Rhiannon Giddens was the headliner.

The bands were playing at all three locations at various times. At Friends Field, they were electric and on Cedar Walk, they were acoustic. At the Sunken Garden, they were mostly acoustic with one or two artists plugging in. We didn’t see any of the shows at the Spanish Courtyard (in the middle of the Rosens’ house), which had lots of seating, but managed to see everyone except for the NERFA presents Young Folk at the Founders Tent and Jefferson Hamer at Cedar Walk. Peter worked out the system while we were watching Spuyten Duyvil and I was impressed with his managerial skills.

The crowd skewed older with some younger couples with their children. The sound guys looked like sound guys everywhere and did a perfect job. The weather was perfect – sunny with a few clouds and an occasional breeze after an evening and morning of constant rain. And bathrooms! There were two actual buildings with real bathrooms.

Next, we walked over to the Sunken Garden and Cole Quest and the City Pickers. We passed a hammock with a blue pillow on Cedar Walk and Peter made note of it. Turns out Quest is Woody Guthrie’s grandson and they did “Do Re Mi” along with their orginals. The nice thing about all acoustic is the band has to balance themselves out with the instruments and vocally and between the instruments and the vocals.

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Cole Quest and the City Pickers Caramoor American Roots Music Festival Katonah-20170624-05235

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We walked in the other direction back to Friends Field for Kaia Kater. She’s an African-Canadian Americana music artist, who studied the music in West Virginia. She plays an excellent banjo. It was just her and an upright bass player and they did a nice a cappella song. When she played a waltz, she said that anyone who danced would receive a free CD. A mother and young son danced and then the mother went up to the stage to get the CD and Kater told her she could pick it up at the merch tent after the set was over. I thought it was presumptuous to think the artist was going to stop mid-show to go get a CD, which she’d said she didn’t have with her on stage.

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Peter was hungry and, as always, I could eat, so he went over to one of the food trucks for some burgers and pretzels. Michaela Anne was next at Friends Field. She was one of Peter’s favorites of the day but at this point I wanted to slit my wrists. I love Americana or American roots music but a full day of it is just so depressing. And all the songs start to sound the same. One of the joys of music festivals is the different types of music and being introduced to music that you might not have considered. It was just too much of one type of music. And the grounds were filling up.

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The Eddie Barbash Band at Cedar Walk was interesting. Barbash played alto sax with a fiddler and banjo player. Barbash is a founding member of Jon Batiste’s Stay Human (the Stephen Colbert’s Late Show band). All acoustic, so they had to balance each other out. And adding a sax to American roots music was a bold choice. After a short listen, we walked over the hammock, which was empty. Even the blue pillow was gone. Someone did leave their empty plastic cup next to it, so I cleaned that up. The hammock was big enough for us to share and a lot of people walking past us made comments about us having the best seats in the house. It was a great place to listen to the chimes in the trees.

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After a short rest, we walked back over to the Cedar Walk site for The Brother Brothers, the first of twin brothers that day. They played fiddle and acoustic guitar and sang very quietly.

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The next band at Friends Field was River Whyless, whose instruments included a harmonium.

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Back at the Sunken Garden was my favorite act of the day, Anthony da Costa. I found him totally charming and I liked his songs. Peter said that he makes a habit of hooking up with female musicians, using them to advance his own career, and then dropping them. I could totally see it. He’s performing at Rockwood Music Hall on July 8 and I’m considering going to see him.

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Next at the Sunken Garden was The Lonely Heartstring Band (the other act with twin brothers). Another of many good bands that day but, as I said, too much of a good thing.

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I left Peter there because it was time for my house tour (he didn’t want to take the tour). I walked through Friends Field and stopped to listen to The Mammals (feat. Mike + Ruthy), a band that used to include Tao Rodríguez-Seeger. They were good and eventually Peter showed up (he’s a fan of Mike + Ruthy) and I went off to the house tour.

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There was a fountain near the house.

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Each docent had about eight people and the tours were each right behind the other. The Rosens imported whole rooms from Europe (furniture and wallpaper). Big wooden doors were commissioned. In the new wing (built after the couple’s death) is the door from their Manhattan townhouse.

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Also in the new wing are some of their art collection (European and Chinese) and small room reproductions of their library and living room from their Manhattan townhouse that included a beautiful carved jade screen.

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This piece was used as a book cover for their telephone book.

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A Diana chandelier and Neptune door knocker from the townhouse.

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And the old rooms in the house.

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The living room/concert room. There is a prototype of the theremin and a newer one. The docent demonstrated it since one of the men didn’t understand how you could play an instrument without touching it. He’d never heard of a theremin. I told him if he’s heard the Star Trek theme song, then he’s heard a theremin. Mrs. Rosen (or her father) knew the inventor and she would tour Europe playing the theremin. Her father was an ambassador under Lincoln and Mr. Rosen was a lawyer.

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This “painting” was actually taken off a bridal chest and hung on the wall.

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The dining room.

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Mr. Rosen’s small utilitarian bedroom.

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Mrs. Rosen’s dressing room, which included a very old blow dryer.

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Her bedroom with one of her dresses on the bed.

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After the tour, I met up with Peter at The Social Music Hour: Old Time Music and the Grateful Dead on the East Lawn. This featured all the musicians that had played during the day. They were performing a hillbilly version of “CC Rider,” a song that I’d only heard as blues or rock, and I leaned over to Peter and said that this might be the whitest thing I’ve ever done in my life. He was laughing so hard that I thought he was going to fall over.

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The day’s music was over and we had a half-hour until the headliners. We tried to get something to eat but the vendors were almost out of food. We managed to get two chicken wraps. And I got a glass of rosé. No photos were permitted in the Venetian Theater, so there’s no photos of the artists. We had our tickets scanned again and sat under a big tent with folding chairs facing the stage. Each chair was folded so you could see the number, the row numbers were painted on the floor, and there were long pieces of wood nailed to the floor so that you couldn’t move the chairs back.

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Sarah Jarosz was introduced as a bluegrass music prodigy and an Austin native, who studied at the New England Conservatory. Jeff Picker played upright bass and Anthony da Costa played acoustic and electric guitar and contributed vocals. Jarosz played banjo, mandolin, and acoustic guitar. It felt very much like more of the same until she told us to sing along if we knew the words and I heard the opening chords to “When Doves Cry.” Most of the audience didn’t recognize the song until she started singing. Da Costa was very good on the guitar. He was able to show off more than he had been able to in his earlier solo performance. Jarosz mentioned that we were a very well-behaved audience and called us trained music-listening professionals. She was right – I think most of the people were Caramoor subscribers.

The couple in front of us, who were very into Jarosz, left during intermission. Even if you weren’t familiar with Rhiannon Giddens, why would you leave before the headlining headliner? And what a wonderful show they missed. Giddens delivered, as she always does. It felt like the tent was pumped full of oxygen the moment she hit the stage. Her current band includes only one (former?) member of Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hubby Jenkins (banjo, electric, acoustic, and slide guitars, mandolin, bones). The rest of the band are the musicians from her latest album Freedom Highway. Dirk Powell (electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, fiddle, accordion) co-produced the album and co-wrote some of the songs with Giddens. The other members are Jamie Dick (drums, percussion) and Jason Sypher (upright bass). On and off stage singing back-up was her sister Lalenja Harrington (who also co-wrote one of the songs) and her nephew Justin Harrington added a rap to a song about police brutality (“Better Get It Right the First Time”). Kaia Kater joined the band on banjo for an instrumental and Sarah Jarosz joined the band for George Jones’ “The Selfishness in Man,” which was sung by Powell (the song was written by Leon Payne) and for the Staples Singers’ “Freedom Highway.” Other songs were “Spanish Mary,” “The Love That We Almost Had,” “She’s Got You,” and “Come Love Come.” Giddens played her 1858 banjo reproduction while Hubbins played the bones on another instrumental. Together they performed “Children Go Where I Send Thee” and an a cappella version of “Just One More Day.” On “We Could Fly” the guitar would not sound out of place on a Lucero album. There was a Cajun/Creole waltz and two-step. She blew the roof off with Odetta’s “Waterboy.” “Purchaser’s Option” was written after Giddens was doing research and found an ad in a New England paper for a Negro wench for sale. She had a nine-month old baby, which would be at the purchaser’s option.

For her encore, she did Aretha’s “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” and finished with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s “The Lonesome Road” and “Up Above My Head.” During the call and response during “Up Above My Head” the spirit filled me and I was singing out (along with the rest of the audience) and after the show the guy in front of me told me I had a great voice, which is always nice to hear.

Giddens’ mix of roots, gospel, blues, and everything American was the perfect ending to the day.

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