Jun 18 2011

Vance Gilbert, Susan Werner and the Boston Folk Festival


I’m so glad I went…

It had been ages since I went to any live music at all, but I scored some inexpensive tickets to the Boston Folk Festival put on by WUMB, the all-folk station I fell in love with when I lived in Boston. Thanks to the internet, that station now also keeps me sane at the DayJob, and when fund-raising time came along, I could not in good conscience refuse to sign up. But it’s paid back already, in the discount I got for the tickets to the festival, and there are other perks.

It was a lovely day out at UMASS Boston, which is on a little point of land out in the bay. I could see the water as I drove up, always a treat. Plus: quite near my old stomping grounds, so I was more than a little nostalgic.

My companions for the day were Laurie J. Marks, her wife Deb Mensinger (yes, the Deb who recently had a liver transplant), and Laurie’s young student/protege Eddy Martinez.

Deb is doing pretty well, by the way — and thank you to everyone who participated in the auction to help with her medical bills. She was up and out in the fresh air, walking around, looking pink and healthy. She lasted the whole day (noon to 7PM). The change is amazing.

I’d show you pictures, but I didn’t take any. I’d have taken pictures but the organizers didn’t want people taking pictures, and we were warned that cameras might be confiscated! I did see some surreptitious cellphone picture-taking going on, though.

There were three stages running simultaneously: the Big Stage outside for the major sets; another stage indoors in a lecture hall in the science center; and a third, the “coffeehouse”, in what looked like a lounge.

There were a handful of performers I especially wanted to see, whose names were the reason I got tickets at all.

Vance Gilbert — ages ago I was at an Open Mike at the Old Vienna Coffeehouse, where Vance was the MC, and also played a few tunes.

This is a guy who has stage presence to burn — plus excellent guitar, and the most delicious voice. He’s local (to Boston), he’s loved. They put him on the Big Stage.

(What do you mean, how can a voice be delicious? It can. It’s like caramel. Not that crappy wrapped-up caramel the texture of shoe-leather that makes your fillings pop out. I mean the liquid caramel. The stuff they drizzle on top of your drink at Starbucks. Yeah, that’s it! Go to Starbucks, order a grande Caramel Macchiato. Drink that: Vance Gilbert’s voice. You don’t need to add sugar, because it’s already sweet; you don’t need to add cream, because it’s already smooth; you don’t need an extra shot of espresso, because it’s already for sure going to wake you up.)

He does a lot of interacting with the audience — in fact, he interacted with our own Eddy Martinez, unbeknownst to Laurie & Deb & me. Eddy had gone off on his own, so we watched Gilbert as he singled out someone up front, one of the few young people in the audience, and ran some back-and-forth chat into a little comedic riff about how folk music needed more young listeners, and it was this young guy’s job to help make that happen. Later, we found out it was Eddy who he was talking to.

Only downside: more amusing chatter meant less excellent music from Gilbert, but I’m so very happy I finally got to see him perform again, in a more formal setting.

He has albums. Go buy some!

I also wanted to see Greg Greenway — but crap! They put him on directly opposite Vance Gilbert, so I had to choose. I’ll catch Greenway another time.

There were other standouts. Go listen to this clip offered by WUMB of a guy named Ben Wright, who is new and young. The sound system was a bit murky, so I couldn’t follow the lyrics, but his voice was good, and his closing song had some killer guitar playing. I had a sense that I was seeing someone at the very start of what is going to be a great career. He was not accustomed to being on stage, but I really felt that all he needs is mileage, and at some point his stage presence will click into place, and he’ll be unstoppable.

Well, I could write a lot more, about the other performers, but I only have so much time to spare for a blog post —

So let’s talk about Susan Werner.

I’d only heard a couple of Werner’s songs before this, and one of them just knocked me flat. But when I heard her play on WUMB’s Live at Noon segment — just herself and her guitar — that’s what really had me itching to hear more.

When you hear a recording, without having the liner notes on hand, there’s no way to know how many brilliant expert musicians were hired to make the artist sound good. Live, you know. Werner’s got the stuff.

She’s got outstanding guitar chops, a really expressive voice, and she absolutely knows how to write a song.

The thing that impressed me about her songwriting, oddly enough, is that she knows when to stop.

When you’re writing a song, it’s so easy to say too much, go too far, pile it on. But Susan Werner says one thing, and she says it beautifully.

She just says: “Look.”

Werner’s best songs just do that, and it’s enough. She just shows you. Without telling you what to think, without telling you what to do.

Halfway through the set, I leaned over and whispered to Laurie & Deb: “If she plays ‘Manhattan, Kansas’, I’m going to cry.”

And then she did. And I cried.

You can get ‘Manhattan, Kansas’ for free at Werner’s website and you need to go and do that right now
. I’ll wait. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll know what I mean about saying just enough. She has such a light hand with the lyrics, and is so precise. Just what’s needed, and no more.

Plus: she knows how to put on a show. I’ve focused on two serious songs here, but her range is huge. She had us laughing like loons at a couple of points. The whole flow of the show was expertly arranged without ever seeming arranged at all.

Also: She’s smart. And one of the smartest things she did was pick amazing musicians to be in her band. When the star is herself a stand-out instrumentalist, it would be easy to have merely adequate professional sidemen, so no one would steal the star’s thunder. But Werner is too smart for that. When you’ve got a diamond, you don’t set it it tin; you go out and find some silver and platinum.

Back ages ago, when I was trying to become a famous folksinger (I believe this was before dirt was invented), it was still rare for females to be good instrumentalists. Girls sang. Beating on your axe until it wailed wasn’t exactly feminine, and wasn’t encouraged. If a girl got famous, she got a band and handed the guitar to some boy, thus to give the audience unobstructed view of her appearance, which is what being female and on stage was all about in the days of yore.

That idea was already breaking down when I was on the scene — but I always said back then that it would be the next generation of women when we’d start seeing a plethora of excellent female musicians out there. Because of the lead time, see.

Oh, look! I was right. Love it when I’m right.

Because here’s Susan Werner’s plethora: Werner herself, Natalia Zukerman on bass and slide guitar, and Trina Hamlin on percussion plus simultaneous drop-dead amazing harmonica.

Here’s Hamlin all by herself:

Back in The Day, I knew exactly one female harmonica player. She was very pretty, stood up straight, and played — how shall I say it? Precisely and primly.

Trina Hamlin plays harmonica like people go bungee-jumping. Commit. Climb up. Trust the line. Let go. Over the edge. Risk your life. Fly.

At the Boston Folk Festival, we got to see these three women all at once and together.

I need more of this stuff in my life.