Savannah Music Festivalby Martin Longley
Savannah Music Festival | Savannah, Georgia (April 4 – 9, 2018)
We could flit down from NYC to historically rich Savannah, Georgia, exchanging frostbite for mosquito-bite. Something of an enjoyable relief, when the spring snowstorms just refused to cease. When your scribe landed in town, the 29th edition of the Savannah Music Festival was in the middle period of its accustomed seventeen-day run. Right on the Savannah river, the downtown historic center boasts a preserved criss-crossing of wooden houses, only interrupted by numerous shaded squares, their droopy trees weeping moss. The pace is way slower here, although doubtless much agitated from the norm by each day’s prodigious flow of gigs, from midday to nearly midnight. The concept of the festival can loosely be termed American roots music, although the classical concerts mostly feature old European music, and many of the traditional roots gigs include artists from Africa, Europe, and Asia. Jazz, blues, country, classical, Cajun, flamenco, bluegrass: all are welcome here, with just about the only omission being any form of extreme experimental music, from whichever stylistic zone.
In their own way, though, Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives were on the edge of everything: ostensibly a country outfit, but revealing a penchant for menacing surf rock, vintage gospel harmony singing, and psychedelic rockabilly. All presented via Stuart’s darkly humorous comments and general Nashville-mocking. Stuart is from Philadelphia (the one in Mississippi), and formed the Fabulous Superlatives in 2002. His set at the open-air Ships of the Sea Museum was a festival highlight, selling out the venue, and eliciting a rowdy response from the crowd. “Savannah, Georgia, the surf music capital of the world,” he announced, before launching into a suitably twanging number. Guitarist Kenny Vaughan brandished his double-necked axe for a solo spotlight, and drummer Harry Stinson was also given a showcase. Stuart is generous to his bandmates, and even to himself. They left him alone, to sing and play mandolin on “Orange Blossom Special,” then all four players gathered around a single microphone, bluegrass-style.
The next day, at the same venue, the Irish folk combo Lúnasa met up with bluegrass troubadour Tim O’Brien, initially playing a few songs himself, notably “Grandma’s Hands.” Then, the Lúnasa boys gradually expanded the ranks until the entire collaborative crew were in place to play what the visiting Irish ambassador had earlier described as “greengrass.” Of course, there are many entangled roots between the traditions, and Lúnasa’s furious momentum and virtuosity weren’t impaired. This was a variation on the usual peppering of instrumentals with songs, and there’s quite a significant Savannah demographic with Irish backgrounds, all in the house to appreciate.
One more day later, still at SOTS, it was time for an Anglo-American soul double-bill, with Lee Fields & The Expressions, and an opening set from The James Hunter Six. London-native singer and guitarist Hunter has his soul’n’roll down to a fine art of period impersonation, his voice a tightly controlled yelp of emotional expression. “Chicken Switch” was a hoppin’ driver, full of scratchy guitar and poppin’ saxophones. Then “Whatever It Takes” announced the arrival of Hunter’s new album of the same name. Touches of reggae and ska appeared on several numbers. Hunter cried out, holding notes high, warbling around the edges of his phrases, then taking periodic soft, deep plunges. His guitar solos were often tantalizingly brief, to fit in with the general policy of keeping these original tunes down to a classic seven-inch two or three minutes. Another standout was “Baby, Don’t Do It,” a vintage chestnut by The “5” Royales, featuring an astoundingly high introductory scream. The Six also included a Hammond B3 organ and a tenor/baritone saxophone section. As the set reached its apogee, these players took a few extended solos, and the band demeanor took on a more manic state. Hunter took a longer guitar solo, shaking his axe, perambulating on one leg, and eliciting a spontaneous standing ovation throughout the crowd.
From North Carolina, Lee Fields adopted a subtler approach, guiding his similarly arrayed line-up through a slow and steady build-up. He seemed sincere and old-school, but the much younger Expressions operated on a more ironic level when it came to showbiz moves. As if disc and vinyl-selling was high on the agenda (as it has to be nowadays), Fields launched into “Special Night,” another title cut, followed by “Work To Do,” from the same album. “Time” had a cabaret feel, loaded with organ-surge, a heightened drama, the band cutting out sharply to spotlight his vocal. Fields strolled across the funky border, increasing the pace from the initial slow ones, issuing controlled screams, with an inflamed passion.
The festival’s core venue was the Charles H. Morris Center, where three shows were presented on most days, one around noon, two in the evening. Indoors, it had a cooler, more relaxed and intimate atmosphere, more of a close-listening environment. Its air conditioning mission could be described as refrigeration. Hawktail played a winning acoustic set, last visiting as a trio in 2016, but now a quartet with the addition of Dominick Leslie on mandolin. Brittany Haas (fiddle), Jordan Tice (guitar), and Paul Kowert (bass) were already one of the best folk roots combos around, and now the extra instrumentation allowed for even more variety, as each member stepped forward at different points of the set, as well as offering some amusing between-tune repartee.
A few days later, also in the Morris Center, another double bill presenting a pair of contrasting approaches to the traditional repertoire. Anna & Elizabeth could be described as avant old timers, even though they’re quite young. They keep long hours in deep archive exploration, unearthing old songs, and refreshing them with what sounds like an alternative rock sensibility, even if the actual end-product is usually extremely quiet and sparse. Anna Roberts-Gevalt is primarily a singer, whilst Elizabeth LaPrelle sings and plays an electric guitar, just a touch too loudly for the surroundings. They also played banjos, and rolled their own scrolls of narrative drawings, projected onto a rear backdrop. There was also a shadowy third guest-member, who switched between saxophone, synth, and drums, all played very lightly.
Anna & Elizabeth made strange hand gestures, mimicking each other’s signs, slowly building a lullaby, taking two voices to craft a song. Anna has the dominant role, at least until the points when sidekick Elizabeth reveals that she’s not a mere sidekick. Her voice had a resonant power, a deep, restrained holler, as she negotiated a sailor-song. Despite these positive points, there was also the sense that A&E’s extra curricular musical habits might be entering the old-timey zone, and this would be fine if they’d succeeded in making some new balance. Instead, there were parts where rather than sounding experimental they just came across as not playing well enough, unintentionally atonal, just slightly, unnervingly astray in their intonation. A detuned banjo and drone-box matched with wandering-tone vocals, as a scroll of an endless shore-scape rolled by, fiddle and tenor saxophone layering steadily, with the repeated refrain of “I don’t want to die in the storm …” was a haunting conclusion, but still didn’t evoke the affecting aura that they were probably aiming towards.
With the other half of the bill, the opposite was the problem. Singer Moira Smiley’s grand vocal ensemble concept, The Voice Is A Traveler, turned out to be a bland, new age-y creation, as if its participants had spent too long at drama skool, rather than inhabiting the hardcore sawdust-and-vomit-floored folk club circuit. Smiley appeared the next day as part of Jayme Stone’s Folklife, which was a better prospect, a more direct celebration of old-time tunes, with close harmony vocals, hard-picked banjo, soaring fiddle, all gathered around a central bluegrass microphone.
Sometimes, when an act plays two sets, they can sound very similar, but the Australian acoustic guitarist Tommy Emmanuel managed to deliver a pair of quite different performances. The first was full of his wisecracking comments, the second had him just shut up and play his guitar. He’s so road-worn that the Emmanuel show has become something of a high-octane entertainment-rush, a showman delivering an extreme-sports guitar work-out. He’s easily qualified for this work, but acoustic is just a word that describes the nature of his guitar: the reality is that it’s cranked up into orchestral monster volume. Emmanuel is a percussive kinda guy, rapping and hammering on strings and body, needing great amplification to enlarge these source sounds. It’s as if he’d just sprung out of his cage. Did he bring his own lighting engineer? The flashing beams operated at a level unseen during the rest of the festival.
Emmanuel is a certified show-off, but he carried off readings of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Day Tripper,” and “Lady Madonna,” impatiently working up a Beatles medley. His own tune, “The Duke,” is dedicated to John Wayne. The second set had more of a Celtic mood, then shifted to a sudden “Waltzing Matilda,” and Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues,” all establishing a more driving and focused nature. He used a drum brush on his strings, sounding like an amalgamation of Derek Bailey and Kid Koala, then in a master-move, brought out an ultra-reverb-ed “Moon River,” co-penned by child-of-Savannah Johnny Mercer.
MARTIN LONGLEY writes for The Wire, Downbeat, Jazzwise, Songlines, and the All About Jazz website.