Shawn Mullins Friday afternoon set saw a field of swaying ponchos and umbrellas. His gritty Nashvillian baritone scored highest with his song portraits, singing of people with a detailed eye and compassionate heart. He ended his set with a rendition of James McMurtry's "We Can't Make It Here Anymore," which proved better than the original and had the crowd on its feet.
Friday at Folks FestivalJakob Dylan cancelled his appearance to join Eric Clapton's tour, allowing the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle to share his angst-filled solo work. Tim O'Brien moved into the pre-headliner slot. He accompanied more than half of his songs with his bouzouki, making jokes while tuning it, reinforcing the hominess of his music: "I left my bouzouki locked in my car. When I returned the back windshield was broken and there were two bouzoukis in the car." Every song he played was cheerful, even the ones he introduced as sad and depressing. "Megnas," a song about an Italian produce seller in O'Brien's town when he was a child, perfectly expressed his optimism.
The British Commonwealth was strongly represented at the festival. The Great Lakes Swimmers and Luke Doucet (with two-thirds of the White Falcons) were there from Canada. Missy Higgins and the Waifs brought their Australian accents and humor to the stage, and KT Tunstall hails from north of London.
Saturday at Folks FestivalDoucet's set was filled with robust guitar playing and sweet harmonies. There was balanced blend of the three guitars on stage—his wife Melissa McLelland playing acoustic and Rich Levesque on bass&mdas;that allowed Doucet's leads to sail on top in a way that brought out both the creativity of his playing and the richness of the backing instruments. The harmonies on "Cleveland" were some of the best of the whole weekend. Doucet showed his good humor, revealing how he traveled as a guitarist with Sarah McLachlan. She "required six weeks of rehearsal before a tour," he joked. "I never rehearse more than two days."
Backstage, Doucet and McLelland talked about the pressures of being a married couple traveling and playing together—McLelland has her own solo career with Doucet as her backing guitarist. He loves to improvise on stage and admits to being a bit of a tyrant as his own tour manager. McLelland, who has been a back-up singer for McLachlan, likes her harmonies tight and is more relaxed about logistics. She loves new places and new things, while Doucet isn't crazy about touring.
"When I'm working out a contract," he said, "playing onstage is free. It's being away from my daughter and my home and my wife that I get paid for."
Doucet was followed by a solo acoustic set from Melissa Ferrick, who wanted to "Win 'Em Over." She relied on vulnerability both when talking to the audience between songs and in her lyrics. She shared how she had actually used product to style her hair that morning, then improvised a song about it.
The Waifs brought a family vibe to the stage. Sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson talked about going home to Australia between tours and producing millions of babies. You would never know it to hear them that they took any time off. Thorn has a soulful voice that is the heart of the band, and her harmonica playing reflects the same gut-deep connection to the music as her vocals. Sister Simpson brings a strong sense of fun and play to the band, running across stage several times during their set to share a microphone with Thorn, and moving her own and Thorn's bodies around to match the lyrics of different songs. At the end of their set, they brought on Trina Hamlin for a spectacular jam on harmonica. Hamlin, who backed up Susan Werner earlier in the day, rocked out, inspiring The Waifs to a jam that had the audience dancing on their tarps.
Nanci GriffithNanci Griffith was smart enough to wear a knee-length black coat buttoned up to the chin for her set on Saturday. (The temperature was in the 50s by the time her set was done.) A consummate professional, she presented years of her catalog and poured her whole self into every song. She dedicated “Flyer”—about meeting an Air Force pilot on a commercial flight—to all those fighting in the war. She shared how she had been asked to sing "Across the Great Divide" at Ann Richard's graveside. She told about being brought the song "From a Distance," which no one would record, and knowing it was a hit. Each time she shared a story about a song and then played it with total focus and excellence, making the festival grounds seem bigger and the audience feel as though they were friends.
Amos Lee and KT Tunstall, the Friday and Sunday headliners, respectively, gave lessons in how to please a crowd. Lee is a born performer, getting the girls to scream when he took off his sports jacket, revealing a cowboy shirt buttoned to the neck. His past as a schoolteacher shows through, and the natural ability to teach comes across in his non-judgmental, heartfelt performance of songs like "Careless." He relies on classic R&B, folk and blues styles, and updates it by talking directly to the audience in his songs.
Sunday Night at Folks FestivalKT Tunstall closed the festival Sunday night with a happy set. It had finally been sunny during the day, and she got the crowd to do a pulsed wave (from the front of crowd to the back) which, she said, she'd invented herself. Her hit "Suddenly I See" is very representative of her repertoire and, although her lyrics were almost impossible to understand, it didn't matter much.
A smaller venue toward the back of the festival grounds featured performances by winners of the Folks Festival's Songwriter Showcase: Amy Speace and festival favorite Ellis, who played to a standing room only crowd.
Performers and festivarians alike withstood the downpours and cold with remarkable fortitude, and were rewarded with a gorgeous day on Sunday, great performances, and that Folks Fest good vibe all weekend long.