T he Connecticut Folk Festival has changed its form several times over the years. This year it even considered changing its location—from its longtime Edgerton Park site on the edge of town to the central downtown location on New Haven Green.
The grassy locale has not changed, but several other things about the festival have. For one thing, the whole event is now free, not divided into separate free and paid segments. For another, the programming is continuous on one day—not spread over several nights or overlapped. The result of these shifts should be a more community-oriented, open-ended and inviting event. Not that the CFF ever felt uninviting, but, with folk music, it seems one can never be too gracious.
Or grassy-ous. The expansive lawn of Edgerton Park frames and informs the Folk Festival like few other areas could. There was talk that the festival would shift downtown to New Haven Green this year, and that would be fine—the Green already hosts just about every other genre of music. What’s crucial is that it be an outdoor setting with room with lie back on a blanket and gaze at the sky. Or dance about. Or just mill around with abandon, enjoying the smiling faces which surround you.
The Connecticut Folk Festival is a time of comfort and community. It’s a sort of harvest festival for folks who work in offices. It’s a beautiful marker of the transition of seasons in urban New England.
This year’s festival is sweetly streamlined, eleven straight hours on this coming Saturday, September 8th, in the same tranquil location. It starts at 11 a.m. with the Beth Patella Band. A singer/songwriter of eclectic tastes, Patella has resuscitated her performing career after a decade on hiatus, returning with a pronounced jazz/blues bent.
The still-new but already established CFF tradition Singer/Songwriter Competition is held at 11:30 a.m. The contestants in this third annual contest are Fred Arcoleo, Loretta Hagen, Hannah & Maggie, Brian Kalinec and Jake Klar. There’s a panel of judges, but audience reaction is also factored in.
Keeping with the multi-performer mood, the Connecticut Artist Song Circle follows. Song circles are one of the natural formats of this festival. This low-key gathering of local artists Shawn Taylor, Amanda Kaletsky and Kate Callahan is what the festival is all about—sharing tunes and good spirits outdoors with new friends.
By 1:30 p.m., it’s time to shrug and say “Whatever.” A good-humored jammy guitar band from Woodbury, the band name Whatever doesn’t just denote an open-minded aesthetic; it’s the title of a curious beaten-down-by-love song in the band’s repertoire, punctuated by a cawing crow.
At 2 p.m. comes John Ciambriello. The Christian-based singer/songwriter performs regularly in nursing homes and also rocks out with his band After Autumn.
Half an hour later, Anne Marie Menta, a busy local performer, blends folk, pop and rock influences into her original tunes, and at 3 p.m., distinct performers Kristen Graves and Glenn Roth—she a chirpy lyricist, he an instrumentally minded fingerstyle guitarist—have been doing some shows together lately.
At 3:30 p.m., Professors of Bluegrass, comprised of actual Yale profs (including Yale Provost Peter Salovey on bass and vocals, Matthew Smith of the Philosophy department on fiddle, Davenport College Dean Craig Harwood on mandolin and others), go on. Somehow they haven’t yet convinced the university to offer a degree program in their music of choice. They have, however, earned tenure at the Connecticut Folk Festival, returning every year.
At 4 o’clock, we have The Levins. Folk music isn’t always upbeat—unless it comes from the harmonic, optimistic, old-timey Levins. They are not, by the way, another Yale spin-off like the Professors of Bluegrass, bearing no relation to outgoing Yale University president Richard Levin.
4:30 p.m. brings the other key song circle of the CFF, the Grassy Hill Song Circle. It’s a chance to relax with some fresh faces on the national folk scene. Putnam Smith (from Maine), Danielle Miraglia (from Massachusetts) and Kevin Neidig (from Pennsylvania) fill in the circle.
Stick around at 6 p.m. to celebrate a victory, and hear a couple of songs by whoever won the Singer/Songwriter Competition earlier in the day. Then, at 6:15 p.m., in rolls The Sea, The Sea—otherwise known as Connecticut State Troubadour (really) Chuck E. Costa and West Virginia native Mira Stanley.
Then it’s back to full-band oomph at 7 p.m. with String Fingers, a multi-instrumentalist ensemble that blends strains of old folk, new folk, Americana, jazz and even rock, followed at 8 p.m. by Pesky J. Nixon, a fun-loving four-piece which has become a favorite of the Falcon Ridge Festival and has scored on folk and roots radio charts.
From there it’s on to the fest’s finale at 9 p.m. featuring headline attraction Cheryl Wheeler, a New England folk institution since she moved to Rhode Island from her native Maryland in the mid-1970s. Wheeler writes about people and places she’s known, with such familiarity and empathy that her songs have been successfully covered by artists such as Bette Midler, Garth Brooks, Holly Near and Dan Seals. Wheeler’s comic sensibilities gained her membership in the funny folk group Four Bitchin’ Babes, but most of all she understands how people need to gather on hilltops and lawns this time of year, to celebrate their lives and their friendships and their experiences in the breezy September air. She’s an ideal choice to close the 2012 Connecticut Folk Festival, a gathering which remains full of surprises yet always promises comfort and bliss.
While some delight in the music, others hear it as full-bodied soundtrack to the sights and sounds of future New Haven, courtesy of the Green Expo which augments the concert experience. The expo is an overwhelming event in itself, with over 75 information tables, plus workshops, kids’ activities, performances and food vendors. It offers a valuable glimpse of green trends in consumer products, home energy awareness and global environmental movements. The expo is also wonderfully self-aware, arranging non-polluting pedicab transport to and from the park and Renewable Energy Credits (donated to by 3Degrees) to cover the electricity used to power the expo and festival.
The Folk Festival and Green Expo always felt freeing, even before it was completely free of charge. There’s nothing to match its spirit of giving, gathering and gamboling in the grass.
Connecticut Folk Festival and Green Expo
Edgerton Park, 75 Cliff Street, New Haven (map)
Saturday, Sept. 8 from 11am-10pm
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photographed by Judy Sirota Rosenthal.