These are the last installments in the diary of journalist Doug DeLoach, who attended all 17 days of the 28th annual season of the Savannah Music Festival. Georgia Music extends a huge “thank you!” to the staff and volunteers at SMF for once again presenting exceptional musical experiences, to Frank Stewart, Elizabeth Leitzell and Sarah Escarraz for their beautiful images and to Doug, for capturing the music in words and sharing with us.
Sunday, April 2
Sarah Jarosz opening for Richard Thompson at the Lucas Theatre exceeded even your expectant correspondent’s lofty expectations. At age 25, small in stature, steeped in talent and gifted with a gorgeous singing voice, Jarosz still presents as a wunderkind. With a new trio – Anthony Da Costa on guitar and Jeff Picker on bass – who are every bit as complementary to the music as her previous bandmates, Jarosz captivated the SMF audience just like she did a few years ago when she opened for David Grisman. Opening with “House of Mercy,” the setlist hit all the right notes including an amazing instrumental duet with Picker, which featured a medley of Tim O’Brien reels (with Jarosz on mandolin). For an encore, a mesmerizing a cappella version of “Jacqueline” left the crowd in a group-groping swoon.
In his sixth decade as a performer, Richard Thompson remains a powerful musical force in the universe. Wielding his signature model Lowden acoustic guitar and singing in that unmistakably resonant voice, Thompson performed some of his finest material including “Bathsheba Smiles, “Walking on A Wire,” “Dry My Tears,” “Beatnik Walking,” “Wall of Death” and one of the hardest-rocking versions of “1952 Vincent Black Shadow” your discerning correspondent has ever heard. In tribute to ex-Fairport Convention bandmate Sandy Denny, he sang “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?,” which Denny wrote and recorded in 1968 BJC (Before Judy Collins). Between songs, Thompson delighted the crowd with witty, often self-deprecating, banter, at one point referring to himself as a “folk-rock dinosaur.” The remark drew a hearty laugh, but we also knew better: A few dinosaurs still roam – and rule – the earth.
Edgar Myers’ Quintet for string quartet and double bass was originally written in 1995 to be performed by the composer and the Emerson String Quartet. Sunday’s performance at Temple Mickve Israel attested to its status as one of the more delicately beautiful modern chamber ensemble works in the repertoire. The Dover Quartet, making one of multiple appearances during this year’s SMF, proved equally adept at handling the piece’s sanguine, almost humorous, passages, as well as the work’s difficult and fast fourth movement. The centerpiece of the program, Tchaikovsky’s monumental Serenade for Strings in C Minor, Opus 48, was given a stupendous rendering by a large ensemble of more than a dozen players led by Daniel Hope with Simon Crawford-Phillips conducting. In his introductory remarks, Hope said the ensemble was dedicating the performance to SMF director Rob Gibson who was largely responsible for the unique presentation.
Monday, April 3
The evening fare started off with a spectacular recital of works written for piano and cello featuring Wu Han and David Finkel, who have enlivened many past SMF programs. The highlight was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Sonata in D Minor Opus 40 (1934), which Han described in her opening chat with the audience as “the greatest sonata in the 20th century.” Han and Finkel gave the piece its due, letting the music ebb and flow as Shostakovich demanded and applying just the right dose of emotional intensity or playful realism where it belonged. At the conclusion of the fourth and final movement, when the audience stood to applaud, a rare smile of pride and bemusement shared between husband and wife testified to an extraordinary interpretation.
A solo performance by Noam Pikelny, banjo wizard of the Punch Brothers, kept the Charles H. Morris Center audience in stiches with dry witticisms and enthralled by a quiver of instruments including a 4-string National tri-cone plectrum guitar. The latter, explained Pikelny, was purchased after he read a critic’s assessment declaring that the instrument possessed “no musical purpose whatsoever.” Pikelny’s playing was full of quirky turns, deft phrasing and sharp articulation even at breathtaking velocities while his original songs resonated with keen observations and an affinity for the darkly humorous side of life.
Next onstage was a trio dedicated to preserving Appalachian music generally and the music of Doc Watson particularly. David Holt (guitar, fiddle, mouthbow) and T. Michael Coleman (bass) spent many years playing with the late blind bluegrass master while Bryan Sutton (guitar) was heavily influenced by the North Carolinian’s unique style and innovative spirit. “This mountain music originated from a time when African-American music met Scots-Irish music,” Holt explained as he tuned up a fretless banjo from the 1860s made with wood and stretched groundhog skin, strung with cat-gut. The band then drove home the point by launching into a rollicking rendition of “Georgia Buck,” a traditional song that dates back to the earliest days of American vernacular music.
Tuesday, April 4
An all-(Antonín) Dvořák program at Trinity United Methodist Church featuring Daniel Hope & Friends plus David Finkel, Wu Han and the Dover Quartet brought together a galaxy of chamber music stars who showed the audience how the brilliant Czech composer masterfully melded folk, popular and fine art music forms. The relaxed, joyful mood of the concert was captured during the performance of Dvorak’s familiar Slavonic Dances when Han and pianist Sebastian Knauer, seated at the piano prior to a four-hands section, could be seen playfully gesturing and joking around on the bench.
A brisk walk to the Charles H. Morris Center brought me to a double-bill featuring the Máirtín O’Connor Trio paired with Molsky’s Mountain Drifters. Led by the button accordion specialist and former member of De Dannan and Boys of the Lough, Cathal Hayden (fiddle, banjo) and Patrick Doocey (guitar, vocals) kept the audience in high clover with a wonderful set of jigs, reels (including the delightfully named “The Floating Crowbar”) and original tunes. The Mountain Drifters, which includes Bruce Molsky, Stash Wylouch (guitar) and Canadian Alison de Groot (resonator banjo), performed traditional American folk and old-time fare including songs about lost love, family tragedy, union support and a waltz named for a train engineer named Isambard.
Wednesday, April 5
Hump Day of the SMF’s final week was distinguished by a recital at Trinity United Methodist Church and a Brazilian-themed event at the Lucas Theatre. The recital featured the SMF debut of renowned young violist Lawrence Power with Sebastian Knauer at the piano. In a program that included works by Hector Berlioz, Manuel de Falla, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Sergei Prokofiev, Lawrence elicited new appreciation from the unfortunately small audience (one of the few days of inclement weather being partly to blame) for classical music’s often overlooked string instrument.
At the Lucas Theatre, “Masters of Brazilian Music” featured the Danilo Brito Quintet opening for an ensemble led by the iconoclastic Hermeto Pascoal. In a bravura display, mandolinist Brito led his band through a set of choro songs, waltzes and ballads that lured the audience into a lush Brazilian dreamland. When one band member broke a string on his 7-string guitar, Brito sent the band offstage to affect repairs. He then played a solo that was so exquisitely beautiful, so technically brilliant, the audience responded with a roaring, standing ovation.
The highly anticipated SMF debut of Hermeto Pascoal and company was highly entertaining and occasionally bewildering. The eccentric octogenarian albino, who helped develop bossa nova jazz in the Sixties and worked with Miles Davis in the Seventies, is widely known in his home country as o Bruxo (“the Sorcerer”). For Wednesday’s concert, Pascoal conjured up a program that leaned variously toward Seventies’ era fusion jazz, traditional Brazilian folk and pop styles, and the anarchic edges of free improv. Throughout the performance, Pascoal walked around the stage, fiddling with toy instruments, snorting a chorus of “Happy Birthday” through the mike, and directing his musicians with hand gestures signaling when they should play or where they should stand. At times he appeared to lose focus, but, about two-thirds of the way through the set, Pascoal sat down at the piano and played a gorgeous ballad with charming elegance and graceful precision. At concert’s end, the Sorcerer gathered his apprentices in the center of the stage, forming a flute-and-soprano-sax circle, before leading them off the stage, leaving the audience in a state of perplexed bemusement.
Thursday, April 6
One of the festival’s busiest days got off to a marvelous start with a solo piano recital by SMF regular Sebastian Knauer. The program began with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue No. 4 in C-sharp Minor from the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BMV 846-869 followed by another Bach composition, the English Suite No. 2 I A-sharp Minor, BMV 807. Knauer gave the Bach pieces an appropriately disciplined reading but with a light touch that comes with deeply felt familiarity. Likewise, an exceptionally delicate presentation of Satie’s Gymnopedies, Nos. 1 and 3 and Gnossienses Nos. 2 and 4 reminded the audience why these works occupy such an exalted place in the standard repertoire. For a finale, Knauer performed the original version of Rhapsody in Blue, which was originally written for solo piano by George Gershwin. I cannot imagine a more pleasingly perfect version of the piece in a live setting than the one Knauer played in Savannah.
Back at the Charles H. Morris Center, Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge shared a bill with Aoife O’Donovan. The American-born singer with the most Irish of names gave a beguiling performance of original material mostly drawn from her album, In the Magic Hour. Highlights included the album’s title track, which showcases O’Donovan’s natural affinity for the blue note, and “Porch Light,” which, we learned, was not an immediately comprehensible concept for her Irish friends and acquaintances, owing to a dearth of porches on the Emerald Isle. For her final number, Lage and Eldridge joined O’Donovan onstage for a splendidly nuanced version of “The King of All Birds.”
At intermission, your intrepid correspondent had to hustle over to the Lucas Theatre to catch Che Malambo, a dance troupe from Argentina. Under the direction of French former ballet dancer Gilles Brinas, Che Malambo perform a dance form developed by gauchos (South American cowboys) in the 17th century to showcase the participants’ strength and dexterity. The stylized dance movements are accompanied by native percussion instruments, particularly the bombos (large cylindrical frame drum) and the boleadores (lassoes with weights tied on the end, which are whirled about the body and head). The result is a spectacular study of the human form in motion and a moving rumination on the peculiar folkways of gaucho culture.
Like the voodoo music and dance performed earlier in the SMF by Chouk Bwa Libète, the choreography of Che Malambo is a stylized representation of a ritual. In the latter’s case, the ritual is also a form of competition in which the participants confront each other in large groups and in smaller settings of two, three and other configurations, setting up a tension-and-release dynamic. To the pounding of the bombos, the dancers move with grace and precision, leaping and twisting, clapping hands and stomping feet in unison in a manner reminiscent of a flamenco dancer. The sound mimics the rhythmic thumping of horses moving in a herd. The overwhelmingly visceral impact produces an unforgettably moving experience.
Somewhat dazed but not at all confused, I made my way to the outdoor pavilion at Ships of the Sea for the SMF debut of Nikki Lane. Your skeptical correspondent showed up wearing his skeptic’s hat, thinking about the number of times someone has foretold the arrival of the next Wanda Jackson or Patsy Cline or Kitty Wells. While I’m not saying Lane is in the same category, I’m delighted to report she’s got something quite special going on. A bona fide South Carolinian with a seriously sassy attitude, Lane has a soulful way of singing with just the right touch of twang and a suitcase full of stories from a life already packed with hard-won lessons.
I had to miss Parker Milsap (who was on the bill with Nikki Lane) to make it back across town to the Charles H. Morris Center in time for the repeat performance of the Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge half of the O’Donovan/Lage-Eldridge set, which I’d missed earlier in the afternoon, to catch Che Malambo (a conundrum exclusive to the Savannah Music festival). Why did I do that? Because, when I ran into SMF director Rob Gibson at Ships of the Sea and told him about skipping the gig, he said, “Dude, whatever you do, don’t miss Julian and Chris. Their concert this afternoon just might be the most amazing thing I’ve heard all week.”
Not surprisingly, Gibson was right. I’m not even sure what kind of music Lage and Eldridge are playing. Armed only with acoustic guitars, chops to die for and a preternatural talent for improvisation, this duo, who first met backstage at a Punch Brothers (Eldridge’s “day job”) show, is moving into a realm beyond Americana or chambergrass or folk-jazz or any other codification you care to mention. Using standard frameworks mostly plucked from bluegrass and jazz catalogs, supplemented by their own material, Lage and Eldridge embark on journeys with specific destination points, but without following prescribed or familiar routes. Once the journey begins, their eyes dart between their instruments and each other as they find their way, trading one incredible riff after another, heightening the tension and letting it subside, one man pushing the other down one untrodden path and then another. The music these two men created onstage was rooted in the American vernacular, but expressed in an entirely new dialect. Thanks (again), Rob, for the insistent tip.
Friday, April 7
Friday was all about the Acoustic Music Seminar Finale, also known as the Stringband Spectacular. All, that is, except for a lunchtime concert by jazz pianist Joe Alterman and his trio. A native Atlantan, Alterman spent most of the last decade in New York, studying and honing his considerable straight ahead chops with the likes of Les McCann, Joe Lavano and John Scofield. Now back in the Big A (his latest album is titled, not coincidentally, Coming Home to You), the young artist has assembled a powerhouse trio of homies with Kevin Smith on bass and Justin Chesarek on drums. Their set at the Charles H. Morris Center centered on classics from McCann, Red Garland and Ahmad Jamal. Reprising his tribute performance at the memorial service for Nat Hentoff, one of his mentors, Alterman delivered an especially poignant rendition of Erroll Garner’s “Gaslight.”
All week long, due to the fact that their classroom/rehearsal space was adjacent to your correspondent’s hotel, I had been hearing the young musicians (aged 17-22) selected to participate in the annual Acoustic Music Seminar (AMS) practicing and jamming outside my window – and, yes, I’m saying that like it’s a good thing. This year, under the tutelage of Mike Marshall, Julian Lage, Bryan Sutton and Aoife O’Donovan, sixteen of the best and brightest acoustic talents from around the country gathered ‘round to learn and play together and inspire each other. As it always does, the group effort culminated in a showcase concert at the Lucas Theatre during which the AMS students performed original or new adaptations of traditional or existing songs in breakout trios, quartets and larger ensembles. As usual, the quality of talent and level of enthusiasm is heartening to behold. Acoustic music, made in America by Americans – and at least one very talented Japanese banjo player – is in very good hands.
After hooking up with an old pal who lives on Tybee Island, we caught the first part of “Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation,” a multi-media project by four-time Grammy-nominated pianist, bandleader and educator Gerald Clayton. Co-commissioned by the SMF, “Piedmont Blues: A Search for Salvation” paid tribute to a particular type of blues style, which was popular around the tobacco warehouses and factories in Durham, North Carolina, during the heyday of the cigarette industry in the 1920s and ‘30s. In collaboration with theater director Christopher McElroen, the performance featured original compositions written by Clayton for The Assembly, a nine-piece jazz ensemble, which also featured singer René Marie and tap dancer Maurice Chestnut. Due to a last-minute flight cancelation, guitarist Alan Hampton was unable to make the gig. Julian Lage took a crash course and sat in with The Assembly, turning in a clutch performance. Overall, the music was inspiring at times, but also leaned toward the academic in its interpretation. I keep thinking about the difference between attending a lecture about the blues and watching a bona fide blues concert. The former may be informative, but the latter can be sublime.
A quick ride over to Ships of the Sea brought us to Justin Townes Earle’s solo concert. Here was another performer who surprised your wary correspondent with a terrific set that busted preconceived expectation. Earle is, of course, a son who grew up in the shadow of a father (Steve Earle) whose singing and songwriting talent brought success, but which also kept the father and son apart for most of the son’s growing-up years. Despite or perhaps because of the experience, the younger Earle has made his own way in a pressure-packed industry. His set carried the ring of truth and brave reporting under fire in songs such “Poor Fool” “Harlem River Blues” and “Champagne Corolla.” His guitar chops showed up in the form of Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “My Starter Won’t Start” and his between-song banter handily matched his father’s for sardonic wit and homespun wisdom (“Church ain’t over ‘til all the snakes are back in the cage.”).
Saturday, April 8
The last day of the 2017 Savannah Music Festival could not have begun with a more joyful concert experience than the one offered by Sanam Marvi at the Charles H. Morris Center. A former student of the late qawwali master Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Marvi is Pakistan’s inspiring singer of Sufi texts and a powerful advocate for world peace. Accompanied by tabla, dhol and harmonium (the latter expertly played by her brother), Marvi transported the Saturday afternoon audience onto an elevated plane with a set of poetic devotional songs, which rang with transcendent clarity despite the obvious language barrier. It’s hard to imagine anyone walking away from Marvi’s mesmerizing performance without at least a sliver of additional hope in their heart.
Faced with an overlap between Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers at 7:30 p.m. at Trustees Theatre and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at 8 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre, calling an audible was inevitable. Twenty minutes into Hornsby’s set, which was clearly delighting the crowd, but which sounded like the same old Grateful Dead-derived material to your jaded correspondent’s ears, I slipped out of my seat and over to the ASO show next door.
As it happened, the ASO was in outstanding form. With Robert Spano conducting and special guest Stephen Hough at the piano, the orchestra delivered a passionately beautiful rendition of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, Opus 34, No. 14, followed by a powerful performance of Piano Concerto No. 1 in F-sharp Minor, Opus 1. Hough set a commanding pace in the first movement and never let up through the remaining two sections. He handled the final movement, which presents an especially demanding challenge for the soloist, with dexterous control as it proceeds from bold orchestral dialogue to a relatively spirited middle passage and through to the rousing finale. At the conclusion, the roar of the audience and the expression on the musicians’ faces told the story.
Commitments back in Atlanta precluded my attending the official closing concert by the Wood Brothers at Ships of the Sea, but by all reports the sold out celebration on a lovely spring evening was a fitting finale to the 2017 Savannah Music Festival.
As a showcase for the rich diversity of musical offerings across the globe, the SMF has no peer. As an educational channel for aspiring young musicians immersed in jazz and acoustic music, the SMF offers a unique and invaluable opportunity. For live music lovers whose curiosity extends beyond the standard issue digital matrix, the SMF is a bucket list destination.
With luck, your faithful correspondent will return in 2018 to share the experience with you.