Monday, October 16, 2023

2023 Richmond Folk Festival Re-cap

The Richmond Folk Festivals was this past weekend. Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I didn't go down to the festival on Friday. I regret that a little bit, but I certainly made up for it on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday started off rainy and cloudy, but that didn't bother me one bit because I dressed for the weather and I also know that rain means less of a crowd. It wasn't crowded at all during the time I was there on Saturday.

On Saturday we started off at the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Virginia Folklife Stage to see Virginia Meets the Virgin Islands. This talk/demo paired the St. Croix band Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights with the female Virginia gospel quartet The Legendary Ingramettes. This was a wonderful way to start things off. 

After getting some food and checking out a few minutes of the Hindustani violinist Kala Ramnath, we headed back over to the Virginia Folklife Stage for the Piedmont blues guitarist Gail Caesar. Gail was kind of shy and subdued on stage but her talent was apparent. 

Then it was over to the Altria Stage for a full performance by Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights. The Altria Stage is the main stage with the biggest capacity, but it's also uncovered open-air so I think people were choosing other stages over this one during the part of day where it was raining. We got right up front for what felt like a rare opportunity to see a quelbe or scratch band from the U.S. Virgin Islands. This is a type of music that I have a particular interest in. It was excellent and we stayed for the whole set.

Once that was done, we went back once again to the Virginia Folklife stage for a performance that ended up being incredibly good. It was billed as "Danny Knicely and Chao Tian - Appalachian traditions with Chinese dulcimer". What I didn't realize was that there would also be a tabla player plus a guitarist and bassist. Chao Tian was featured on an extended solo improvisation that was mesmerizing.  The Chinese dulcimer sounded great on fiddle tunes, but they did some full band Chinese tunes as well. Danny closed the set with a John McGlaughlin piece which was a showcase for the tabla. I was blown away.

It was getting to be 4pm now so we went back over to the Altria Stage for local Richmond salsa band Bio Ritmo's Folk Fest debut. Bio Ritmo has been around for 30 years so finally performing at the Richmond Folk Festival seemed like a big deal for them. It took a while to get the ten piece band set up but they started hot and never let up. The rain had stopped and I actually saw blue sky for a moment during Bio Ritmo's set. Unfortunately we called it quits for the day after this. I would have loved to have stayed longer but we needed to get home to our dogs and I wasn't sure if I was going to have a parking ticket. I didn't, thankfully.

Sunday was chilly and windy but no rain. I expected it to be packed on Sunday but it wasn't too bad. It seems like they've made improvements on logistics and getting around from stage to stage. This was the day for seeing groups we hadn't seen the day before, so I had a fairly precise itinerary planned out and still some decisions to be made. We started Sunday with State of the Ozarks String Band on the CoStar Group Stage over on Brown's Island. It's been a while since I've heard old-time fiddling, so I enjoyed this set a lot. I particularly liked the guitar and 3-finger banjo accompaniment.

After that we went over to the Altria Stage for Grupo Mono Blanco, a band from Veracruz which is a Mexican state along the Gulf of Mexico. That might explain why it had a little islandy sound to it. We had to cut that set a little short to go back to Brown's Island to catch the Native American Smoke Dancers (Haudenosaunee social dance). They had three little ones dancing with them. It felt very special.

At 2pm we had a dilemma because Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band were on one stage, while Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper were going to be on another. We started with Baba Commandant but only stayed for a couple songs because there would be another opportunity to see them later in the day, but this was the last chance to see Michael Cleveland. It was a quick walk over to the Altria Stage to catch the last half of Michael Cleveland's set and boy did he and his band not disappoint. That was some top notch bluegrass!

Lutchinha, performing on the Altria Stage

It was hard to decide what to see next, but we stayed at the Altria Stage for the 3pm performance by Lutchinha, a band that plays Cabo Verdean music. Cabo Verde is an African island in the Atlantic ocean where they speak Portuguese, and the music is a perfect blend of those cultures. I had not researched this band and wasn't sure what to expect. I couldn't really put a finger on it but I loved every minute. We had back up plans in place but ended up staying for the entire set and actually missed some other 3:00pm/3:30pm things that I maybe wanted to see. It was worth it though.

When that was done we went to the Folklife stage for the first and only time that day and saw Rodney Stith play his classic soul music. He had a superb band with him, both singers and instrumentalists. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this set.

Now it was getting to be 5pm, when each stage has its last performance of the festival. It was time to choose and we went with Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band over Cyril Neville. This was a tough call, but having gotten a taste of Baba Commandant earlier in the day I knew that I wanted to see their full set and this time it was going to be in the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion. Even better! Usually I go to the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion a lot, but this was the only time all weekend that we saw a set there. 

Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band
Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion
with a guest sitting in on trumpet

Baba Commandant was a great way to finish off a great weekend of music. Their guitarist is awesome. I love that African style of guitar. The bassist kicked total butt. The drummer was bad ass, and Baba Commandant himself seemed to be channeling some kind of inner spirit. We ended up right at the front of the stage and the energy was intense. Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band is like a band you'd go see in a night club on tour. 

I'm writing this the next morning, feeling a little bit funky from all the over consumption of food and drink over the weekend. It's always bittersweet when the Folk Festival is over. It almost brings a tear to my eye. Over and done with in what felt like a blink. Every single band and musician we saw was good this year. No duds whatsoever. I wish there was another day but it's time to move on and get on with the week.

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