The Lowell Folk Festival

Wikipedia: The Lowell Folk Festival is the longest running, and second largest, free folk festival in the United States. Only Seattle’s Northwest Folklife is larger, both in attendance and number of performance stages.

It is made up of three days of traditional music, dance, craft demonstrations, street parades, dance parties and ethnic foods. All of this is presented on six outdoor stages throughout the city of Lowell, Massachusetts.The festival is held from Friday through Sunday on the last full weekend of July each year.

Lowell is a working-class town that in recent years has done a pretty good job of revitalizing itself, turning old mills into condos, holding (since 1990) the festival as well as a summer music series about which I will be posting more later on.

We don’t go every year, just when the stars align, we’re not on vacation, etc. But when we do go – as we did this year – we now typically go on Friday night. The bands tend to be livelier and it’s a hell of a lot cooler.

The downtown area becomes one big party, with several tents and outdoor venues featuring a variety of music. Additionally, the clubs, restaurants, and bars are all jumping, with music spilling out onto the street. Lowell hasn’t really tried to modernize the downtown area in terms of aesthetics. If you look at the tops of the buildings, you still see old businesses whose facades scream “1902!”

Club owners take advantage of the cash influx and bring in local bands to play. My son’s other band, The Color and Sound, has played there the last couple of years. (Local bands are unaffiliated with the festival and not on the schedule.)

First band we saw was C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band. You will likely recognize the name. His father Clifton – who died in 1987 – was the king of zydeco, its B.B King if you will. So well-regarded that Paul Simon name-checked him on the Graceland album.

Here’s Chenier’s band doing Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” (There is a whole community of people who dance to Zydeco and so the dance floor was packed. For the record, I asked my wife if she wanted to dance and she declined, not feeling comfortable with the style. Hey, I tried):

Spotify link

Chenier performed in a tent and just outside of it was a gauntlet of ethnic food stands: Liberian, African, Brazilian, etc. We went for Burmese. As exotic as that all sounds, really it’s a lot of things like chicken and rice. Good stuff.

None of this should be surprising for anyone remotely familiar with Lowell as it is a city of immigrants. Per Wikipedia,”The city continued to thrive as a major industrial center during the 19th century, attracting more migrant workers and immigrants to its mills.

Next were the Catholic Germans, followed by a large influx of French Canadians during the 1870s and 1880s. Later waves of immigrants included Portuguese, Polish, Lithuanians, Swedes, Greeks, and eastern European Jews.” The latest wave were Cambodians who were escaping the Khmer Rouge after the purges that took place there.

We then wandered across town (venues are within 15-minute walk of each other) to see who was playing in the park. (This is where the summer festival is held.) We discovered a trio called Vishtèn.

Their web site says, “For over a decade, the Acadian trio Vishtèn has enlivened audiences with its mix of traditional French songs and original instrumentalists that blend Celtic and Acadian with a modern touch of rock and indie-folk influences.”

We dug this group from “the Evangeline Region of Prince Edward Island and the Îles de la Madeleine.” A different sound. Here they are doing a song called “Terre Rouge.”

Spotify link

After a couple of well-deserved beers at an outdoor bar, we wandered back to the tent for some blues by a guy named Toronzo Cannon. Billed as Chicago blues, I confess I never heard of the guy.

These guys came on and boy, we were not disappointed. This is one of the best blues bands I’ve seen in quite a while. Cannon told the crowd he’d be fifty next year and so, it’s nice to see a “younger” guy keeping the blues tradition alive. And smokin’.

Cannon dedicated this song, “When Will You Tell Him About Me,” to “all the ladies who have cheated with me.” That’s the blues baby. Balls, bluster, and braggadocio. Most people were doing the typical slow dance to this. But one couple who we’ve seen there before tried to do their ballroom dance bit to this. Didn’t work:

Spotify link

Cannon received some major nominations for his debut album, The Chicago Way, on the great Alligator label. I am definitely picking that up.

 

16 thoughts on “The Lowell Folk Festival

  1. This sounds awesome, Jim. I’m glad you had a chance to attend!

    The concept reminds me a bit of MusikFest, a fair and music festival held annually in early August in the former steel town of Bethlehem, Pa. Following the death of Bethlehem Steel and all the trauma that followed, the town managed to completely reinvent itself and today is a vibrant center for arts and culture. Undoubtedly, MusikFest is one of the highlights.

    Unlike the Lowell Folk Festival, MusikFest presents a mix of free and ticketed shows. As part of the latter category, they attract pretty impressive artists, which this year include Santana, Chicago and Jethro Tull! Their free shows include great acts as well. Last year, I was able catch some of them. The entire festival goes on for 10 days and includes two weekends.

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    1. That sounds pretty cool. The beauty, I think, of Lowell is that apart from paying 15 bucks for parking and buying food, all the acts are free. You can just wander from one to the other and get in. And you get to hear all this stuff that is otherwise under the radar. Plus, while the crowd is sizeable, it doesn’t attract the masses that those bands would. We’re thinking next time we go – whenever that may be – we’ll bring chairs and put them in the small park. Then we can wander around and have someplace to park ourselves when we come back.

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      1. I agree the idea that you don’t need to “commit” to a specific act but instead can sample different artists is very attractive. MusikFest offers plenty of free entertainment, so to some extent, you can have a similar experience there. But, perhaps, not surprisingly, for the top acts you need tickets.

        I find Chicago tempting, and their gig falls on a Sunday. Tickets start for less than $40. On the other hand, I feel I’ve already invested a good chunk of money in concert tickets this year, and at some point I should probably restrain myself!😜

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        1. I would LOVE to see Chicago. If that is, they are cranking out the good stuff. I can live for a very long time without the “If You Leave Me Now,” stuff. If they’re doing both, no sweat. The Cetera stuff is a good time for a bio break and a beer. I’d go if I were you. Forty bucks in the grand scheme of things is nothing. Plus you’d only otherwise blow it on frivolous stuff like food, shelter and car repairs. 😀

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  2. It looks like the festival caters for fans of all genres, which is a good thing. I wish we had something like this in Tucson, which is pretty much a cultural wasteland for diverse live music.

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  3. It really takes the collective will of a city to pull this stuff off. I would not have believed it of Lowell at all when I first moved to New England years ago. Recall that there was a movie made in Lowell a few short years ago called “The Fighter,” with Christian Bale. He played the boxer Micky Ward and that gave you a good taste of the other side of Lowell, a town that happily resists gentrification. Not too long ago it was the type of town where if you said, “I’m new to Massachusetts and want to go a bar and get beaten up and thrown through a plate glass window,” they would send you to Lowell. That part probably still to some extent exists but now there is that thin layer of hipness. But still, watch your ass.

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  4. I love these festivals. They have them all over where I live. You get the kinds of artists you featured sprinkled in with acts like Los Lobos. I’m real familiar with Chenier’s Dad. Queen Ida use to bring that sound up to my neck of the woods and people ate it up. Good time party vibe. The trio from PEI sound real good. That’s some pretty straight ahead paying with Cannon. Stripped down and old school no bs blues. Can’t go wrong. Good stuff. Sounded like a good night.

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    1. Yeah, it’s a good time. The rest of the weekend they’ve got western swing, jazz with Sun Ra Arkestra, bluegrass, Cuban son, Appalachian song, Afro Venezuelan, etc. They’ve even got polka if that floats yer boat! I’m actually tempted to go back tomorrow if only to see the Arkestra. But some of that other stuff is pretty tempting too. It gives you a chance to get introduced to a wide variety of stuff. The PEI folks were really good. I couldn’t find a “live” video that I liked as much as what I heard. Really unique sound. They packed ’em in. You guys know your music that’s for damn sure.

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      1. That fest sounds like a good one. Polka is why they invented beer. Yeah, that Acadian sound does it for me. It’s how those folks entertained themselves. I think that sound made it down south into Chenier’s music. Back to that great song by the Band. “Folk” Fests are cool. Music for “Folks”.

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  5. My wife and I visited Lowell in 1999. Mainly because it’s Jack Kerouac’s hometown. I’ll never forget the rows of abandoned, red-brick textile factories. And the touch of working-class seediness. I’m happy that Lowell has a good music festival going for it, the town is pure Americana, in my opinion.

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  6. Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue stopped in Lowell in 1975. As I recall (I had just moved to the area), Dylan wanted to visit Kerouac’s grave. As to Lowell, while it will never be mistaken for Lexington, it has made some important strides over the years. Some, not all, of those abandoned mills are now condos and/or businesses. Gone is all the manufacturing replaced by service industries like pretty much everywhere else. The music festival is a hell of a well-done thing, right up there with the best. (It’s all on the streets of the town). My son (who was actually born there), flirted with the idea of moving there for a bit. (And still may at some point). With the UMass Unversity, it’s got a good student base and per my son, a pretty lively music scene overall. And the Boston area is just too damn expensive to live anywhere near it minus a top-paying job.

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