The Clearwater Festival: A Festival With a Conscience

Taking place on the eastern banks of the mighty Hudson River this Father’s Day Weekend, Croton Point Park in Westchester County was the ideal setting for the Clearwater Festival (or “Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival,” to be more precise). Festival attendees were afforded views of the Hudson during their walks from one stage to another, with several of the stages being so close to the shore that boaters could float over and enjoy some music from the comfort of their own boats, and sails on the Sloop Clearwater were offered throughout the weekend, giving folks the opportunity to experience Pete Seeger’s well laid out plans to “build a boat to save the river.”

For folk music lovers who wanted to go beyond just sitting and listening to music all day, for those who wanted to learn how to make a difference without too much effort, then the Clearwater Festival was the place for you. Climate change experts spoke throughout the weekend at the Sloop Club Tent, numerous organizations doing important work throughout the Hudson Valley were represented in the Activist Area, and businesses specializing in sustainability and renewable energy were available to answer questions at the Green Living Expo.

But let’s face it: a large percentage of why you came to Clearwater was to see some good old-fashioned folk music. And boy, does Clearwater have its share of dedicated fans. Having never gotten to the festival so early in the day, it was surprising to see how many people had already set up their chairs on the lawn in front of the Rainbow Stage. (Festival attendees are allowed to set up chairs/blankets starting at 9AM each day, and have to be willing to let other people respectfully use your chair until your return.) And for those lucky early arrivers, to get everyone into the Clearwater spirit, singing songs of Pete Seeger, were Joanne Shenandoah and the Clearwater Family Band, featuring none other than Pete’s fellow musician-activists Tom Chapin, David Amram, Tom Paxton, and Guy Davis, to name just a few. Featuring special guests like Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, local favorites in Upstate New York, and the Chapin Sisters, who have definitely inherited their beautiful voices from their father Tom, this line-up was the perfect way to kick off Clearwater Festival weekend.

Unfortunately, though, the meteorologists got their forecasts totally reversed, as the remnants of Tropical Storm Bill were expected to hit on Sunday rather than Saturday, and the sky just opened up around 11:30 Saturday morning. A relentless rain was present throughout the rest of the day, but the Clearwater audience is a hardy bunch, and didn’t let a little rain dampen their spirits.

Venturing over to the Family Stage, figuring it would be a good time of day to check out what the festival had to offer the little ones (in addition to getting some shelter from the rain, as this stage provided some cover for the audience as well), the locally popular Catskills-based Story Laurie and Friends were putting on a fun and educational show. Providing a truly interactive experience, during one of their songs, Laurie passed out some vegetable seeds in little jars to the kids, and asked them to shake their jars along to the rhythm. The lucky kid who had the beet seeds got to “keep the beat with the beet!”

The rain having let up a bit, I ventured back to the Rainbow Stage to catch the incredibly inspirational Angelique Kidjo singing songs about women’s empowerment and anti-violence. During one song, she encouraged people to sing along, and when she didn’t feel people were singing loudly enough, she came out into the crowd and made sure they did. Kidjo had an amazing rapport with the audience, making you feel like you were seeing her in a small place, not a huge festival. Featuring some breathtaking percussionists, including a Senegalese drummer treating fans to an awesome talking drum solo during “Tumba,” I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such a large dance crowd at Clearwater. Looking around, there was not a single person without a smile on their face.

Heading over to check out Tom Chapin, the Sloop Stage was the perfect setting, affording views of the Hudson behind Tom. Showing off his virtuosity by alternating between the banjo, guitar, and autoharp, one couldn’t help but close one’s eyes for a moment and picture Pete Seeger standing up there on stage with Chapin, as they had done together for so many years at Clearwater. But Pete’s spirit was present in many of the lyrics sung by Chapin, whose songs had a very environmental (and anti-fracking) theme.

Popping over to the Hudson Stage, which offered views of a different part of the Hudson, Mike and Ruthy were performing. Bringing a slightly harder side to folk music, the band at times sounded like the Indigo Girls with a male counterpart, and ended with a nice big band finish featuring lots of brass. Surprisingly, brass and banjo sound great together – who would have thought?

Catching some of Kate Pierson’s set before the rain started to come down in buckets again, the heavy influence from Pierson’s years playing with the B-52s shined through in the best way possible, but with a definite folk twist. Seeking shelter under the large pagoda in between the Hudson and Rainbow Stages was next on the itinerary. From there, hearing the sounds of Los Lobos, who had just started playing on the Rainbow Stage, was enough encouragement to get people to say, “Screw the weather, now let’s go dance!” Playing in their signature Tejano style, they took a break to satisfy a loud fan’s request for some Grateful Dead by playing “Bertha,” which had everyone up and dancing for the rest of the set, which ended with a rousing rendition of none other than “La Bamba.”

Taking a break to get some food, choosing what to eat based on which line was the shortest (I had somehow forgotten to eat all day; I guess that’s what happens when there’s so darn much good music to see), I enjoyed a tasty black bean quesadilla, attempting to eat and walk back as fast as I could to the Rainbow Stage to catch indie rock icon Neko Case. Seeming to have a large and loyal fan base in the audience, it was not hard to see why she attracted such a crowd. Her banjoist/pedal steel guitarist Jon Rauhouse was amazing, adding a haunting quality to her already offbeat tracks. A particularly funny moment of the set came when Neko apologized for getting distracted by a hawk versus magpie battle going on in a tree at the back of the concert field. Of course everyone turned to look and, sure enough, there was a little magpie circling around and taunting a poor hawk who was sitting in this huge pine tree just trying to chill out and enjoy the music. (This battle went on throughout the rest of the night, believe it or not.)

Next up on the Sloop Stage was Gill Landry of Old Crow Medicine Show. It was definitely worth the trek over, as it was impressive to see Landry doing his solo thing. He really managed to fill up the “room” all by himself. A particularly poignant song he sang was about garbage, which was simultaneously funny and sad, and really stuck in your head.

Perhaps what many people were eagerly awaiting all day was about to happen next: David Crosby was getting ready to grace us with his presence. Truly appreciative that people had come out in this nasty weather to see him, even going so far as to say that he wouldn’t have come out in this weather if he was us, Crosby put on an amazing show. His voice has held up remarkably well over the years, and his sarcastic-ness and sense of humor brought lots of laughter to an otherwise weather-worn crowd. Playing a lot of newer tunes, and perhaps sensing that the audience wanted to hear some his old stuff, he ended his set with an exceptional cover of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free”, followed by the classic Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song “Déjà Vu”, featuring some impressive scatting at the beginning and end. He definitely ended on a high note.

Up next was Guy Davis on the Hudson Stage, adding a blues element to the evening. His solid yet gravelly voice and his uncomplicated chord progressions make his music approachable and appealing on many levels. Getting a bit political at one point, he further endeared himself to the crowd with the following comment: “I don’t believe in assassinations, but I think someone should throw a pie in Donald Trump’s face!” in light of the fact that the government gets health care for free, while the rest of us have to pay for ours. Davis did a remarkable cover of Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay” and dedicated the song “I Wish I Hadn’t Stayed Away So Long” to Pete Seeger, “who was a man of the world, but wished he was home more.” Perhaps most impressive was Davis’s harmonica-playing skills; at one point, I could have sworn there was an accordion player up there with him, but no, it was just Davis on the harmonica.

This year’s line-up was perhaps the most diverse yet. An unlikely choice for a Saturday night closer, if only because you don’t generally hear about him that often, let alone think of him as a folk singer, Citizen Cope’s set was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Although a bunch of people had left after David Crosby, since everyone was drenched and probably just wanted to dry off and warm up, there were an impressive number of brave souls who did stick around, and it was well worth the wait. Citizen Cope, a.k.a. Clarence Greenwood, really blew the crowd away with his trance-y mellow rock. He sent everyone on their way home or back to the campgrounds feeling groovy, ready to get some rest before another fabulous day of folk.

Day 2 of Clearwater started out on a much more pleasant note than expected, with the rain (well, most of it…) having worked its way out of its system the night before, giving way to a beautiful sunshine-y, albeit humid, day. Kick starting people into the Clearwater spirit, Tom Paxton and Friends, who included Magpie, Josh White, Jr., and David Amram, chanted songs of the Earth. Spouting inspirational lyrics about how wonderful it is that coal was never discovered in the scenic hills lining the Hudson, and thanking Governor Cuomo for listening to the people of New York and banning fracking, this group reminded the audience of what Clearwater is all about: educating the public about how important it is to keep the Hudson River clean.

The 12:00 hour was a reminder of what is perhaps the toughest thing about Clearwater: getting to see all those amazing bands you were hoping to see. On Sunday, between noon and 1:15, there were three bands I really wanted to see all playing at pretty much the same time, so I worked it out that I could catch a little bit of all three of them (the fact that Todd Snider was running a bit behind schedule helped). Starting off at the Sloop Stage, was Cabinet, a super fun bluegrass/Americana band who is quickly growing in popularity. They really got people in a dancing mood for the rest of the day. Banjoist Pappy Biondo was extra notable, in that his picking fingers barely moved, making the myriad of notes coming from his fingers that much more remarkable.

The gospel sounds rolling down the hill from the Rainbow Stage were beckoning me to book it on over to check out The Blind Boys of Alabama. Sharply dressed as always, the band members never fail to impress with their spot-on harmonies and inspirational words. Each “Blind Boy” having his own distinctive voice, together their voices meld together to create sheer musical bliss.

Having never had the opportunity to see Todd Snider before today, I was actually glad he was running behind schedule so I could catch more of him than expected. Sporting a pink heart sewn onto his jeans, Snider sang everything from poignant songs that touched your heart, including a song he wrote to honor a deceased friend about enjoying life while we’re still on this Earth; to silly songs involving lots of statistics, proving that there’s too much to think about today; to tough songs about how hard life is in East Nashville where he is from, inspiring him to write a song called “Helicopters Above My House Again”. Snider ended with the traditional “This Land Is Your Land”, a touching ending to an otherwise funny and ironic set.

Being near the Food Court, I grabbed some yummy Indian food on the way up to see none other than Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn. A musical super couple on the banjos, they opened the set with their own unique take on “Someone’s In the Kitchen With Dinah”, played in a minor key, during which they went way beyond just strumming on the old banjo. Playing in vastly differing styles, Bela and Abigail successfully utilize what can sometimes be thought of as a twangy and somewhat overbearing instrument, and produce a beautiful mix of sounds. At one point, Bela came out with a banjo ukulele, which made me even more jealous of his musical abilities; that guy can master anything banjo-related. He somehow managed to make the audience laugh without saying a word, having such a high command of the banjo that he can produce a comedic effect through the instrument alone.

The Hudson Valley Song Swap was next on the agenda, eager to hear the music this region inspires, and I was not disappointed. Led by Matt Turk, who hails from just a few towns down the River from Croton, it was impressive to see the vast amount of young talent we have right here in New York. Joined by Julie Corbalis, Fred Gillen, Jr., and Carolann Solebello, these four musicians took turns choosing songs, and passed solos down the line from one band member to the next, in true song swap fashion. Sticking with the mellow acoustic theme, and taking advantage of the shade surrounding the Sloop Stage, I stuck around for Tom Paxton, who has such a soothing and consistent voice that it’s hard not to get sucked in to all he has to say (so much so that a bird started singing along to one of his tunes).

Deciding to brave the heat of the mid-afternoon sun to check out a band I’d been wanting to see for some time, The Lone Bellow were up on the Rainbow Stage. Mixing folk, soul, and even some heavy metal, these guys can rock. With their flawless harmonies at the root of it all, female vocalist Kanene Pipkin’s voice was especially noteworthy, at times being hard to tell whether she was singing or if it was an instrument playing those tough notes. Obviously grateful to be there, The Lone Bellow graciously thanked WFUV, a wonderful locally-based (Fordham University, to be exact) independent/NPR radio station, for being the only station to play their music.

Perhaps what many audience members were waiting all day for, folk-poet legend Ani DiFranco was next to perform on the Rainbow Stage. Wishing a “Happy Father’s Day to all you fathers, and Happy Solstice to all you humans,” Ani started off her set with a classic, “If He Tries Anything,” getting the crowd ready for an upbeat set. Following up with some new tunes, which Ani appreciated us cheering for “because it might suck,” those songs most definitely did not suck. On a more somber note, Ani sang a song written by Peter Mulvey in response to the recent South Carolina tragedy, for which he asked eight other musicians (including herself) to write a verse; it was a very touching collaborative effort.

Literally just as Ani had finished up her set, the skies opened up and the wind started howling (it was almost as if the weather gods were watching over us during this set), so as many people as could make it sought shelter under the pagoda once again. Luckily the storm didn’t last too long, but it was long enough for a rousing sing-along to get started. Clearwater fans sure have some talent, belting out “This Land Is Your Land” to drown out the rain. Meanwhile, for those who were lucky enough to have been over near the Dance Stage, the Dustbowl Revival was keeping things moving and people grooving with their bluegrass and swing beats.

Once the rain died down, the rest of the day turned out to be gorgeous, and people were pumped for the last few bands to play Clearwater 2015. The indescribably fun Guster really got folks psyched up for the rest of the evening, with each band member showcasing just how multi-talented they were, being able to seamlessly switch back and forth between instruments like it was nothing. Lead singer Ryan Miller is absolutely hilarious, shouting out “Look at us – we’re a jam band!” after a more improvisational than usual version of “What You Wish For”, and teasing (in the nicest way possible) the American Sign Language interpreter who was present on the side of the stage during each act by saying, “I have total control over you, but you’re awesome! Say ‘I’m awesome!’” After playing one of their better known songs “Satellite”, featuring an exquisite trumpet-trombone battle, Miller announced that since the band’s set was cut a bit short due to the weather, the band was going to play its last song and then go right into its encore without leaving the stage so the Sloop could keep moving on down the River. Their non-encore last song was the uplifting “This Could All Be Yours”, and then they went into a lovely acoustic number, all standing around a single microphone, helping to wind things down a bit before releasing the audience from their hold.

Psyched to have the opportunity to see a band from right in my own backyard of the Catskill Mountains make it to such a prominent slot at the Clearwater Festival, The Felice Brothers were definitely appreciated by many more folks than simply their neighbors. Seeming to have quite the following, these guys have really taken off, having to rush back here from a festival they had just played the night before in Minnesota. Lots of people in the audience knew each and every word to their often lyric-intensive songs, a good indication of a loyal fan base. Their combination of zydeco and Americana styles gives them a gritty yet thoroughly enjoyable sound, and make them fun to dance along to.

With one more band to close out the festival, I couldn’t imagine who could top The Felice Brothers, and having not known too much about The Mavericks, I have to admit my expectations were not very high, but those expectations were definitely exceeded. The Mavericks were a fine, albeit an unlikely, choice to finish up the evening. Fronted by Raul Malo, the Miami-based band with Cuban roots had an incredible stage presence, making it seem like each band member was playing more than one instrument at a time. They really helped fuel the crowd with the energy everyone needed to make the trip home after a long weekend of beautiful music.

If you weren’t able to make it to Clearwater this year, definitely add it to your calendar for next year. The music seems to get more and more eclectic each year, yet you can always expect to see your old favorites from the folk music world. But perhaps most significantly, Clearwater is a festival you can feel good about coming to, with each stage being powered using renewable energy sources, and working towards a goal of zero waste, not to mention educating the audience about the importance of keeping the Hudson River, such a precious resource we have right in our backyard, clean.

Many of the Rainbow Stage performances can be heard via WFUV’s Discover page.

Ani DiFrancoClearwater FestivalDavid CrosbyGusterNeko CaseThe Felice Brothers