[15 July 2014]
The Clearwater Festival has retained its focus on environmental concerns, particularly the cleanup of New York’s Hudson River, that formed its core even before the event officially formed in the 1970s. It was in the ‘60s that Clearwater founder Pete Seeger started doing small advocacy shows around and on the Hudson. Some of the funds he raised from the “folk picnics” were invested in the Clearwater ship that sails in pursuit of the educational objective to this day (a highlight of the festival is to take a cruise on the sloop). And part of the funds assist in the grassroots causes the Revival hopes to address, through the festival and through other exhibits or programs (you can read more of the mission on the festival site here).
Seated on the shores of the Hudson, the Clearwater Festival has been a fantastic day (or two) trip from New York to check out music. On my first visit to the fest in 2012, I caught Tinariwen for the first time, as well as Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Josh Ritter amongst others. This year’s festival included Lucinda Williams, Rufus Wainwright, Josh Ritter (again), moe., Toshi Reagon (Pete’s goddaughter), and many more over the two perfect weather June days. However, this year’s festival was more reflective than past given that the founders, Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi, had passed away since the prior fest.
Booths were plastered with their smiling faces in honor of their memory, many artists paid tribute to them during their sets and a special banjo-set was put together to salute Pete. However, “longtime fans… returned to the Revival not only to honor Pete and Toshi, but to continue standing against war, marching for civil rights and cleaning a mighty river” (Times Herald-Record). When you sit upon the shore of the Hudson in the park, gazing across the river at the hills, you will surely feel the urge of environmentalism embrace you.
As a music festival, Clearwater is on a rather small scale though it attracts some great talent. The festival has ample cuisine options at reasonable festival prices, free water, and plenty of activities for families if they aren’t watching music on one of the seven stages. This year one significant change the festival adapted was its main stage blanket policy. Organizers made it more artist friendly, if not entirely attendee friendly. In the past, droves of people would arrive as the gates opened to place their blankets in front of the main stage, staking claim so they could return for the headliners. That left many artists to perform in front of a sea of empty blankets which was sad for both them and the folks who really wanted to see said act and either had to stand in tiny inches between spread squares or on the cramped side that was allocated for dancing. Not a good situation. This year, the festival still allowed for the mad rush of place grabbing but if you came by and saw a blanket or chair left unoccupied, you could share the space until the owner returned. The scenario required caution given you may not know for what reason a person disappeared and could soon return.
But it made for a full field. When I arrived on the grounds for the second day, just in time for Ritter’s set, the field was packed. I ended up having to sit behind the hill, unable to see the main stage. Sigh. Ritter fortunately is able to project so his stories and songs were audible and it was only him on stage so there wasn’t too much to see. He opened with the sunny “Bright Smile”, apt for the perfect weather and he dedicated “Joy to you Baby” to Seeger”. More importantly, Ritter performed a few new songs that were received well by the crowd.
Next I trekked over to check out part of Houndmouth’s set. I hadn’t seen the band in the year but they sounded just as pleasant as if they had been resting all week and not perpetually touring (they had been at the Snowmass Mammoth Festival but I missed their set). They performed a rocking set that included “On the Road” and their breakthrough “Penitentiary” to great applause.
I didn’t stay long though as I wanted to check out Jocelyn Adams’ project, Arc Iris on the Sloop Stage. Her set time was delayed as she and the band set up their gear and play tracks from their self-titled debut that was released this past March. She and the band performed a strong set that dabbled in many genres, including avant garde jazz, freak folk and theater that reminded me of a mellower My Brightest Diamond at times. Adams’ (formerly of The Low Anthem) project received well earned praise from NPR’s Bob Boilen as it was exciting to see the band change their pace so frequently.
Bettye Lavette gave a strong performance and was pleased to share that she only had to come just up the road to get to the festival, unlike the rest of her band who were still Detroit-based. The “Great Lady of Soul” did display her Detroit roots proudly on her shirt however.
Meanwhile, Puss N Boots (Norah Jones, Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper) were making their first official live debut on the main stage having played a few small one off gigs in the past. They had a problem though—they had to avoid cussing as they were being broadcast live on the radio. Jones joked she was clenching a penny between her butt cheeks to hold her tongue. Their debut No Fools, No Fun, half of which is country/Americana covers and the rest being originals, has just come out. The ladies adopt each cover nurturing them beautifully. Their strong voices were clear and resonant (even way out in the parking lot) as they made Jeb Loy Nichols’ “GTO” and Woody Guthrie’s “What did the Deep Sea Say?” their own. A link to stream their set, courtesy of WFUV is below.
Puss N Boots:
Click on this link to check out the WFUV Archive of streams from the main stage, including Puss N Boots, Josh Ritter, Rufus Wainwright and more, and see below for a couple of back stage performances they recorded: