Covering an all-day festival – especially one like Appel Farm this year – is challenging. And until I successfully perfect that cloning trick so that I can be in two places at once, I will inevitably miss things. I fully intended to see at least a portion of each performance, but, sadly, I did not see them all. Although I was back and forth between the two stage areas and passed the children’s stage each time, I didn’t really spend any quality time watching those performers. And, while the food booths and the crafts stands were very enticing, I sampled only some lemonade and sweet potato fries and purchased not a single handmade piece to take home with me.
This year’s Appel Farm line-up reminded me of the series at the local library that invites you to “travel the world without leaving home”. While most of the festival performers were American-born, the music that I heard on Saturday definitely had an international flavor.
I’d settled in by the time Avi Wisnia took the stage. Though a local guy, Avi’s musical influences come from far and wide. His web site says “think Ben Folds meets Norah Jones, if they had a love child in Brazil”. He and band – guitarist Toru and drummer Kim Garey – sounded great, but the highlight for me was when Avi played his childhood Fisher Price xylophone. “And,” he pointed out, “it’s color coded”.
David Wax – leader of David Wax Museum – seems to pull equally from the American folk tradition and the music he absorbed while living in Mexico to produce a uniquely fresh sound. With backing vocals – and donkey jawbone (really!) rhythms – by Suz Slezak, The Museum played an absolutely infectious set. And, instead of hopping in the van and driving away, Suz and David stayed on-site and joined both Nicole Atkins and Josh Ritter on stage later in the day.
And, in an-only-in-New-Jersey moment, the lovely Ms. Slezak was proposed to, on bended knee and bearing rings fashioned from aluminum foil, by three suitors. When asked for an explanation, one told her “we wanted to do something you’d remember”.
I saw Nicole Atkins for the first time last summer at the XPN festival and she dazzled me so that, while she played, I was madly texting friends, saying, “you should be here”. Since then, Nicole, now with a new label (Razor and Tie) and a new band (The Black Sea), released her second record, Mondo Amore, and has been doing, in her own words, “a ridiculous amount of touring”. Nicole and band played a powerful set, and the Appel Farm audience was clearly filled with folks like me who already had fallen for her music and provocative performing style.
As hard as it was to pull myself away while Nicole was still on, I wanted to hit the Grove Stage for the Red Horse performance, featuring Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka, and Lucy Kaplansky. While each has a solid standing in the music community, as a group they create contemporary folk music that is both old-school and accessible. They played their own individual songs, including, as Kaplansky said, “a medley of my hit”, songs from their collective 2010 self-titled release, and a stirring rendition of Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”, Gorka’s contribution to a tribute record for in honor of Mr. Zimmerman’s 70th birthday.
I got back to the Meadow Stage as Gogol Bordello was just about to come on. I confess that, before Saturday, I knew almost nothing (but what I read on the web site) about this band, a fact that astonished my much-hipper-than-me daughter. But I was definitely in the minority, because the crowd, bearing signs and dressed for the occasion, welcomed them with wild enthusiasm. And the moment Gogol Bordello blasted into their first number, I understood why. The music is more than high energy – it soars! And they are incredibly funny, but not in a slapstick way. Instead they challenge the audience to “get them” – and get them they do. If I we could have talked to them after their set, I’d have asked about their recent shows with System of a Down, which seemed to me like an odd match-up. But the aforementioned hip daughter set me straight. “No!” she emphatically told me. “Those two bands touring together makes perfect sense. Gogol Bordello’s music is rooted in gypsy tales and travelling, and SOAD is an Armenian powerhouse of tortured emotion, storytelling in extremes, and performance art. That’s a perfect pairing, in my humble opinion.” Well, there ya’ have it.
Since Gogol Bordello’s set ran long and because I was hell-bent on having a few moments of face time with Ani DiFranco, I didn’t get to watch all of the Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band’s performance. . The bit that I saw, though, was wonderful. And my companions, including a pair of teenage girls whose musical tastes don’t normally tend toward Appel Farm-style artists, stayed for the whole set and reported that Ritter was a stand-out. I’d expected him to sound folkier, so I was surprised by his intensity, and I was charmed by Ritter’s demeanor, which was just a shade shy of blissful. The man loves his work! While at the Grove Stage, I talked briefly with Gene Shay, the guru of all things folk music, and he imparted a couple Ritter facts: #1 – He loves traditional blues, Mississippi John Hurt, especially; and #2 – Early in his career, he played a show with Joan Baez, who said to the young man, “I’m going to take you out and get you a nice suit”.
I meandered back to the Meadow Stage and found Ani DiFranco, guitar in hand, standing on the steps leading up to the stage. XPN’s own Morning Show host, Michaela Majoun, gave an enthusiastic and reverent intro and then Ani DiFranco, to thunderous applause, came out. Her set included a selection of both old and brand new songs, and in the time between the tunes, she kept up an almost-intimate exchange with the audience. Seeing the show from in front was a treat, but watching from the rear of the stage – with DiFranco’s fans providing a brilliant backdrop – was wonderful, too. Some artists seem consumed by the music when performing, but in contrast, DiFranco’s interaction with the crowd was constant. It’s no surprise that she’s had such an enduring career and that her fans are so clearly devoted to her and her work.
When introducing the festival’s final act, Majoun quipped, “I guess this is the New Orleans portion of the show”, as NOLA resident DiFranco had just finished and New Orleans native, Trombone Shorty was set to come on. And speaking solely for myself, I was PUMPED to see Trombone Shorty. Not only had I just been in New Orleans to visit friends and attend Jazz Fest (Ani went to Jazz Fest, too. We compared notes on who we’d seen there), but I’d also seen Trombone Shorty a few times, playing himself on the HBO series, Treme. I knew the man could play and I knew he’d have a kickin’ band, but I was unprepared for the virtuosity, the range of material, or the way that everyone – young kids and parents, 20-something girls and gray haired guys, hipsters and geeks – EVERYone was totally into the performance. And, to top it off, when they came back for an encore, they all switched instruments; Shorty on drums, the horn player on guitar, etc. It was hard to tell who was enjoying themselves more – the audience or the band!
Then the show was over and the stage went dark. People gathered their family members and their festival accessories and headed for the exits. But there was still a charge in the air, long after the last note was played.
It doesn’t get any better than that.