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