June 3, 2014

Concert #715 - The 31st Claremont Folk Festival (Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden) (May 31, 2014)

Hard to believe, but this was my first-ever day-long music festival that I have attended. Prior to this, I have stayed away from such events, mostly because I tend to dwell too much on the negatives that go along with multi-stage music festivals - the heat, the crowds, you know what I mean. But this event was close to home and it featured a few tempting acts, so I broke my non-participating tradition and got myself a VIP ticket that came with prime reserved seating, but no other benefit. The ticket set me back 125 bucks, while regular tickets cost $40.

Organized by the Claremont Folk Music Center, the festival took place at Claremont's Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, the sprawling grounds that I have visited many times before. The event started at 10 AM and went on for twelve hours. In addition to the shows scheduled to take place on the garden's two stages, the festival offered music-related workshops, storytelling, activities for kids, vendor booths, food and local beer and wine.

Musical performers scheduled to appear
Ben Harper & Ellen Chase-Verdries (Ben's mother)
David Hidalgo & Louis Perez (of Los Lobos fame)
Dave Alvin & The Guilty Ones
The Gonzalo Bergara Quartet
The Chapin Sisters
The Coals
The Ooks of Hazzard
Blue Highway
Steve James
Rick Shea
Ross Altman
Peter Harper
Phoebe Bridgers
Old Brown Shoe

I showed up a few minutes after noon, while the Coals were performing on the main stage. They sounded good, but practically no one was willing to sit in the hot sun to watch them play. What went through the minds of the musicians as they were playing to empty seats, is anyone's guess. Sadly, the Coals were not the only act to find themselves in that predicament. The Chapin Sisters and the outstanding Gonzalo Bergara Quartet most definitely deserved to be heard by a larger crowd, but their early time slots worked against them.
The Coals playing to empty chairs
The lack of shade on a day when temperatures reached 89 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees C) was my main beef with the event, but I certainly understand that providing shade over the heads of hundreds and hundreds of people was a rather unachievable task.

But enough about the negatives. The festival offered lots of highly enjoyable moments which, in their totality, far outweighed the negatives.

The final performers of the evening were Ben Harper and Ellen Chase-Verdries, Ben's mother. They have just released an album titled "Childhood Home", their first-ever joint recording. The album is a relatively mild affair, something that could disappoint some fans, but everything about the album screams quality: the tunes, the intelligent lyrics, the delivery. Accompanied by a drummer, bassist and guitarist, Ben and Ellen played each and every song from the album, in precisely the same order they appear on the album. I liked them all, especially "A House Is A Home" and "How Could We Not Believe", but the song that impressed me the most was "Learn It All Again Tomorrow". Throughout their set, Ben and Ellen were in good vocal form, with Ben also being in his usual talkative mood, always ready to connect with his fans.

Ben Harper at the Folk Festival

Ellen Chase-Verdries at the Folk Festival
Midway through his set, Ben took a short and decidedly unusual detour: after he made a comment on the Neil Young sweats he was wearing, a young boy named Joseph approached the stage and addressed him with a request that Ben did not immediately understand. Enter Joseph's mother, who explained that her son wanted to sing "Heart Of Gold" with Ben. Without wasting a second, Ben pulled the boy up on the stage and the next thing we knew they were duetting on Neil's classic. Ben knew all the words, while little Joseph remained silent during the parts he did not know. The whole episode was very well received by the crowd.

Ben Harper & Joseph singing "Heart Of Gold"
Ben also played the piano on two songs, while Ellen picked up a banjo for the playing of a song or two. The other three musicians were not introduced by Ben, I'm sure it was just an oversight. As far as I could tell, the guitarist was Sean Watkins of Nickel Creek fame. 

Ben Harper and Sean Watkins
Ellen Chase-Verdries playing the banjo

Ben & Ellen's Set List
A House Is A Home
City Of Dreams 
Born To Love You
Heavyhearted World
Farmer's Daughter
Memories Of Gold
Heart Of Gold (duet with a kid named Joseph)
Altar Of Love     
Break Your Heart   
Learn It All Again Tomorrow
How Could We Not Believe
Plane Wreck At Los Gatos (encore, with David Hidalgo and Louie Perez) 

Ben, Ellen and the band left the stage at the end of their set and it took them four minutes to return for their encore. As it turned out, it was worth the wait - they reappeared with David Hidalgo and Louie Perez who had performed their own outstanding set just before Ben and Ellen took the stage. Taking turns at lead vocal, the four protagonists - Ben, Ellen, David and Louie - sang "Plane Wreck At Los Gatos", the classic folk song covered by everybody, from Joan Baez to Dylan to Odetta. It was a perfect ending to a great evening of music. 

David Hidalgo reviewing the lyrics of the encore
David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, two original members of Los Lobos, were a late addition to the festival's line-up. I have seen Los Lobos twice before - once at the Greek and once at UCLA's Royce Hall - but surprisingly, neither of those live shows have received my highest rating. Different story this time: David and Louie's one-hour set was nothing short of mind-blowing. They kicked off the proceeding with "Will The Wolf Survive", everybody's favorite Los Lobos number. I was amazed by David's voice - his distinctive vocals are as good today as they were thirty years ago, when I first heard their signature song. Then there's his guitar playing - starting with the extended intro and continuing relentlessly to the end of the song, David's guitar work on "One Time One Night" was one of the finest displays of fluid guitar playing I have ever heard. Not to take anything away from the exceptionally good sets delivered by Ben & Ellen and the Alvin Brothers, but David Hidalgo's rendition of "One Time One Night" takes the cake for the single best moment of the entire festival, to these ears at least.

Even though I don't understand the language, I did enjoy those three or four songs they sang in Spanish. 

David Hidalgo playing "One Time, One Night"
Inadvertently or otherwise, the concert announcer introduced David Hidalgo and Louie Perez as "Los Lobos", which was probably just a mistake on the announcer's part. Or did he say Dos Lobos? I will never know. By the way, Louie kept a low profile throughout their one-hour set and regardless whether or not they could be called "Los Lobos", the backing musicians deserve kudos for their contributions. I loved watching the band's young drummer (name?) who banged on his drums and cymbals with total abandonment.

Louie Perez at the Claremont Folk Festival
Performing just before David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, Dave Alvin & the Guilty Ones delivered a great set that was vintage Dave Alvin and a whole lot more. Let me explain: over the years, I have seen Dave in concert twenty times, but somehow his brother Phil managed to elude me time and time again. I'm happy to say that this streak of bad luck was finally broken Saturday night at the Folk Festival, when Phil took the stage as one of the Guilty Ones and I could not have been more thrilled. Not surprisingly, his many talents were prominently featured and what impressed me the most was his voice, which - at the not-so-tender age of sixty-one - has remained pretty much intact. By the way, the other three members of the band were Chris Miller on electric guitar, Brad Fordham on bass and Lisa Pankratz (Brad's wife) on drums - they were outstanding.

Dave & Phil Alvin at the Claremont Folk Festival
Phil Alvin at the Claremont Folk Festival

Dave and Phil deserve credit for their excellent song selection - mixing songs from their classic repertoire ("Dry River", Marie Marie", "King Of California") with songs from their new album of Big Bill Broonzy covers ("All By Myself", "Key To The Highway", "Southern Flood Blues"), they played for exactly sixty minutes, not at all bad for a multi-act festival. A couple of times during his set, Dave made everyone scream with his blistering guitar work.

Dave Alvin at the Claremont Folk Festival
Dave & Phil Alvin's set list

The Chapin Sisters kicked off their set at 3 PM, but regrettably, the hot sun kept most everyone away from the seating area. I endured the heat for about twenty minutes, after which I had no choice but look for cooler spots. I returned just in time to catch a few more songs, so I did get a taste of their live act. While their studio recordings are a bit too soft for these ears, I really enjoyed Abigail and Lily's live performance - they sang with confidence, harmonized like only sisters can, and - dressed in long white dresses - looked great, too. The songs I liked the best were "Crying In The Rain", the well-known Everly Brothers hit and "If I Could Only Win Your Love", the old Louvin Brothers classic.

The Chapin Sisters at the Claremont Folk Festival
The Chapin Sisters' set list (not fully followed)
Only a tiny handful of people paid attention to the outstanding Gonzalo Bergara Quartet ... blame it on Claremont's hot afternoon sun. Lead by gypsy-guitar virtuoso Gonzalo Bergara, these guys delivered a sensational set. Let me rephrase that: the songs they played during the fifteen minutes I lasted in the sun were outstanding. Gonzalo's guitar work was devilishly good and so was Leah Zeger, the band's violin player. 

The Gonzalo Bergara Quartet
Gonzalo Bergara
While wandering away from the festival's main stage in search of lower temperatures, I stumbled upon a few enjoyable events among which the performances of Rick Shea and Bartt Warburton stood out.

Playing at the Oak Tree stage, Rick Shea delivered a very well-received set consisting of his own material, plus a few covers. I have seen Rick playing guitar in a supporting role a few times before, I knew he could pluck those strings, but had no idea how well he could sing and write. Hearing his voice for the first time was a pleasant surprise and I was instantly hooked by his melodies and lyrics.

Rick Shea's partial set list
Mexicali Train
Mariachi Hotel
San Bernardino Waltz
Sweet Bernardine
My Darling Lives in Darlington
Sweet Little Pocha

Rick Shea at the Claremont Folk Festival
Ukulele-meister Bartt Warburton strutted his stuff at the shady Ukulele Island, with about twenty-five folks attending. Part performance and part workshop, his act drew me in almost immediately. Mixing humor with solid playing, Bartt's zany stage persona was a blast to watch. He was ably supported by Jason Arimoto, an accomplished ukulele player himself. 

Bartt Warburton (center) and Jason Arimoto (right) at the Ukulele Island
The Ooks of Hazzard, Peter Harper (Ben's brother) and Ross Altman were three more acts that I got to see in action, albeit only for a few short minutes.

The Ooks Of Hazzard
Peter Harper (center) at the Oak Tree stage
Ross Altman at the Oak Tree stage
The festival ended a few minutes before 10 PM. I got home sweaty and tired, but definitely happy with the way things played out, in spite of a few glitches. Organizing such a big event was no easy task, especially for a small business such as the Claremont Folk Music Center. They deserve our thanks and so do the unpaid volunteers who performed all sorts of jobs while having to cope with the heat and the many hundreds of attendees. 

I have two suggestions for next year's festival: First, all seating should be reserved. If you paid $40 for a ticket, you should be guaranteed of a seat. The organizers could also sell no-seating tickets, for say $20. Second, I would like better policing for the VIP section, as this year there was no policing at all.

Here are a few more random photos taken at various locations during the day-long festival:

The Chapin Sisters chatting with fans
Bartt Warburton at an instrument booth
One of the vendor booths
Drumming workshop for kids



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  2. Many thanks, Jennifer, for your kind words and please come again!