Tuesday, October 14, 2008

It pays to volunteer...

RICHMOND, Va. (Sunday, October 12) – One of the highlights of the National Folk Festival during its stay in Richmond was the Saturday night party. The event was invitation only – and the only way to earn an invitation was to be a performer, staff, or volunteer.

Like all parties, the event offered attendees a chance to relax, talk, or dance – but the real magic was in the jam sessions that inevitably started when musicians gathered together.

Ralphtafari takes a turn at the microphone, with backup vocals from Terry Montgomery (right).
The smile speaks for itself.Planners of the Richmond Folk Festival hoped to carry on the tradition, but for awhile it seemed like the party would be a dud – not much was happening upstairs at the hotel. Quite a few potential guests were at the hotel bar (some of the members of BeauSoleil, for example, were watching television in horror while their LSU Tigers were getting whupped by SEC rival Florida).

In the first hour or two of the party, the only signs of action were a group of musicians playing klezmer music in a hallway where it was being held. About midnight, however, Sharde Thomas and members of the Rising Sun Fife and Drum marched in, their pounding of the skins shattering the unseen walls of decorum.

Sticks and strings: Alonzo Pennington (with Telecaster, left), Tino Jackson, Ralphtafari, and Steve Lecky (on drums)
Thomas and her crew stopped after a few minutes, but the gauntlet was thrown, and shortly after midnight another group of musicians accepted the challenge with joyful noise of their own.

The action is too fast to keep up with.
In past years – with the possible exception of bluegrass jams – several members of the same band would anchor a particular set. Saturday night there was no such pattern. The only two constants were Ralphtafari (of reggae band The Itals) on a six-string bass and Alonzo Pennington (of the flat- and finger-picking father-and-son duo Eddie and Alonzo Pennington) on a Telecaster.

The front four: Tino Jackson (left), Alonzo Pennington, Ralphtafari, and Aubrey TurnerFor most of the jam, Pennington was accompanied by Tino Jackson (of E.U.) on a Stratocaster. Likewise, Gordon Jones, a local saxophonist invited to the party by a friend, sat in most of the session. The group went through a succession of drummers – including Tim Keiper (of Vieux Farka Touré), Andrew Field-Pickering (of the festival staff), Steve Lecky (Richmond Folk Festival manager), Terry Montgomery (sound engineer and jazz drummer from Montana), and Jimmy Breax (accordion player for BeauSoleil). Several players, such as Aubrey Turner (of Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife & Drum), Steve Weisberg (of Howard Tate’s band), and Peanut (of the Itals) took turns on the keyboards.

Jammin' with TinoDespite the ephemeral nature of the “house band” lineup, the playing was seamless and energetic. The dancing was equally energetic. The singing, though, proved a problem. Despite repeated pleas, few volunteers – such as Kada Porter of the Itals – stepped up to front what proved to be a stellar backing band.

Then the miracle.

Oscar takes a James Brown pose as he comes to the rescue of those searching for soul
A singer only known as Oscar had been performing elsewhere in the hotel for a private party. As he left the gig, he heard the noise and decided to investigate. He came, he saw, and he asked if he could take a turn out front. With no objections, he seized the mike and began to channel James Brown.

The voice in the crowd.
Oscar and the band whipped the partygoers into a frenzy. Oscar strutted, slid, and stutter-stepped his way across the dance floor. The least inhibited danced wildly. Others bopped their heads, stamped their feet, clapped their hands or pounded them on whatever was available. Everyone smiled.

Alonzo Pennington tries the longneck pick
The music lasted past 1 a.m., then 1:30. By 2 a.m., Oscar had taken a break. The long hours of working the festival, combined with the expenditure of energy dancing, had claimed most of the guests – only a handful of faithful remained. Jackson had packed his guitar and left, Montgomery had stepped away from the drum kit. Breaux, who had not played drums in some time, claimed the throne for himself. No one was singing, and with the party looking like it might break up, Oscar stepped up to the mike again and the real magic happened.

For most of the party, the band would play a song, stop, decide what to play next, and start again. But shortly after 2, the ensemble started a musical marathon that didn’t stop until nearly 3.

Whip that baby!
It began with more James Brown, but after a few minutes Pennington slipped into a riff from the extended jam in Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” Ralphtafari and Breaux shifted seamlessly, and Oscar danced away. After a few minutes of the San Francisco acid rock scene, someone slipped into Sam & Dave mode with “Soul Man.” Oscar did Sam Moore proud on the vocals.

From Sam & Dave, Pennington switched to the Allman Brothers’ “One Way Out.” Ralphtafari and Breaux adjusted accordingly – Oscar, however, sprinkled some James Brown vocals on top of the Allmans’ riff and backbeat. Like a good gumbo, the combination of ingredients worked perfectly.

Synchronized jukin'
All the while Jones pitched in with his sax, and eventually Ram Bhaqat (of Drums No Guns) strapped a drum to his hip and began assisting Breaux with the backbeat.

The Allman Brothers’ late, great guitarist Duane Allman first attracted attention as a session player at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Allman played for a number of musicians, including Wilson Pickett. Appropriately enough, the band trucked their way from the JB/Allmans hybrid into Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.”

Another lineup: Tino Jackson (far left), Alonzo Pennington, Kada Porter, Ralphtafari, Andrew Field-Pickering, Gordon Jones, and Peanut
The musical journey then passed through as varied territory as Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone”and “Ain’t too Proud to Beg,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” (This blogger probably missed something along the way.)

For nearly 45 minutes, the music did not stop. Pennington or Ralphfatari initiated changes on the fly. Breaux followed without missing a beat, and Oscar made no-look adjustments – as soon as he heard the new riff, he changed his tune. He rarely looked back at his compatriots during the sequence – and he never looked when they decided to swing to another song.

Yurika Chiba of San Jose Taiko gets the spirit.
As with all things, the jam had to come to an end, but the magic stayed strong as the musicians eagerly exchanged contact information and the non-musicians praised them collectively and individually.

Montgomery, who in 35 years as a jazz drummer in places such as Kansas City has seen his share of jam sessions, later said the jam Saturday night ranks in the top two or three of his life.

The hardy ones who remained will not soon forget what transpired, and will look forward to seeing what musical spells will be cast next year. You, too, can share in the magic.

But you have to volunteer.

Just getting' started...

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