Bopst picks: Folk Festival edition

There are over 30 amazing musical acts scheduled to take one of seven stages beginning this Friday. With many of them coming from all over the country (and the world) it can be challenging to figure out which acts are must-sees. Luckily, we have Chris Bopst to give us his picks for who we need to see.

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Oh yes, October in finally upon us. The weather is getting cooler, football season is in full effect (hail to the Redskins!), Halloween is just around the corner, and if you are like me (a lifelong music nerd) the real reason for October excitement means it is time for the 2011 Richmond Folk Festival. Now in its 7th year (three as a national; four as a local), the annual music fest brings an array of performers from around the world to our humble southern abode for our free listening enjoyment.

For whatever reason, the powers that be have allowed me to continue as a member of the programming committee for the festival, and I greatly relish my infinitesimal role in making the three-day event a yearly reality. And it takes all year to put the thing together. My part consists of going to meetings, suggesting, and then voting on artists and groups for inclusion in the festival. It’s a pretty cushy gig. I am not asked to help with any of the logistics of making it happen and for that I am thankful–far more qualified people are saddled with those time consuming duties while I get to wander around, taking in all the great music. I live in fear that one day my cake gig will come to an end and they’ll ask me to do something of importance, but until then, I’ll just keep adding my precious two cents and take supremely thankful advantage of the hard work of others.

This year I am sad to report that there won’t be any GO-GO music at the festival. There was initial discussion of bringing back one of the genre’s defining groups that was featured in year’s past (Trouble Funk, EU, Rare Essence, Chuck Brown, etc.) to keep GO-GO in the line-up, but despite my proclivity for the Virginia/DC/Maryland based form, I argued against it for the simple reason that we should always feature new artists and musicians at the festival. I think that is important. There’s a great big world of music out there, and I believe the festival should always concentrate on exposing the most of it instead of bringing back performers that have already played  before.

Original P

To give the music of the Chocolate City it’s due this year, The Original P, featuring founding members of Parliament Funkadelic (the group sold their equipment to Trouble Funk when they split with George Clinton in 1977) Clarence “Fuzzy” Haskins and “Shady” Grady Thomas will be providing their trademark funk, R&B and soul gumbo that provided the initial inspiration for GO-GO. The 12-piece band plays P-Funk classics such as “Flashlight”, “Standing On The Verge of Getting Off”, “Up For The Down Stroke” and many others the duo helped to bring to the mainstream without Clinton’s drug addled baggage spoiling the fun. Would they be better with their beloved, deeply troubled front man sharing the stage with them? Yes they would. But we don’t have a time machine to make that happen. I was skeptical about the group until I heard them in action and they were a billion times better than anything I’ve seen Clinton do in the last 20 years. They are the real deal.

The Old Bay Ceili Band

On the aggressively joyous tip, The Old Bay Ceili Band plays a particularly brutal brand of traditional Irish music. Hailing from Maryland, the 8-piece band specializes in Irish square dances known as ceilis played with fevered intensity on fiddles, flutes, percussion, button accordions and piano played for an unlimited number of couples in a long line or proceeding around in a circle (such as in “The Walls of Limerick”, “The Waves of Tory”, “The High Cauled Cap”, or “Bonfire Dance”). The musical equivalent of a shot whiskey, it is raucously stoic music acknowledged worldwide for it’s melodic precision and the body movement it provokes.

The Git-Hoan Dancers

Speaking of body movement, The Git-Hoan Dancers are a vision to behold. Performing dances and songs from the almost extinct traditions of the Tsimshian people from the Pacific coastal areas of northern British Columbia and southeastern Alaska, the visually stunning troupe dress in ceremonial Native American attire with craved wooden masks covering their faces. Lead by Tsimshian carver and performer David Boxley, the tribal percussions, coupled with the ritual ornamentation of the dancers, makes for some engrossing entertainment. They remind me of seeing The Residents, minus the tongue-in-cheek post-modernism or a primitive KISS without all the epic amounts of suck. Best of all, their sacraments are a little creepy, but the deeply spiritual usually is.

Punch & Judy

One of the things I’m most looking forward to seeing is the slapstick puppetry of Punch & Judy. I had no idea that this type of silliness had such a long tradition until it was brought up at one of the early programming meetings this year, but it does make sense. With its roots in the 16th-century Italian commedia dell’arte, human beings have long enjoyed embracing comedic absurdities. Started in Baltimore in 1897 by Edward Ross, Horn’s Punch & Judy is America’s oldest children’s entertainment acts. And like the best slapstick comedy, it will either please you immensely or annoy the living fuck out of you. Puppeteer Mark Walker keeps the jesting tradition alive and well with a boisterous comedic flare and slyly sarcastic wit with his one-of-a-kind specialty act.

Musical Competitions

Every year, the Virginia Folk Life program is a mystery to me. John Lohman, the tireless director of the program, comes to the programming committee meetings sporadically having a full plate of musical concerns that preclude him more times than not from our little gatherings. He is a quality dude, quick with a laugh. I hadn’t seen much of him this year, so I only heard in fleeting bits and pieces what he was planning for this year’s folk life program until the following message appeared in my inbox about a week ago.

Hey all,

Thought it was a good time to let y’all know what’s going down at the Folklife Area…  I’m attaching a little description (minus some final edits), but some highlights:

First, the Wayne C. Henderson Guitar Contest!  That’s right, we’ve invited 6 of Virginia’s hottest young pickers to go at it for a coveted Wayne Henderson guitar — a sunburst D-18 built specifically for the RFF!

Another highlight will be the Step Competition, featuring about 6 chapters of various black fraternities and sororities from VCU, Virginia State, etc. This is going down as our last set on Saturday and should be out of control.

We’ll also be demonstrating contests in flatfoot dance, turkey calling, Brunswick stew making, and even a “viewers choice” quilt show.

A lot of work went into this for a number of us, but the most thanks goes to my lovely wife Tori, who has worked ridiculously late hours and has still managed to feed our child….

How he manages to put on a folk festival within a folk festival year after year without losing his mind is anybody’s guess. However he does it, John’s hard work in putting together the Folk Life area is one of the festival’s crowning achievements. Truth be told, I have to admit that I often forget to drop by the area in the orgy of entertainment options on the island, but that’s what makes the festival great. No matter how much you see, there is always something you’re going to miss. This year though I am making it a priority (as should you) to catch as much of Lohman’s continually engaging programming as possible.

Well, those are just some of things that I’m looking forward to seeing this year. And, as always, I can hardly wait for it to begin.


photo of  The Git-Hoan Dancers by US Mission Canada

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Chris Bopst

Chris Bopst believes that god is nothing more than the summation of us all. At least, that’s what the goose bumps tell him.

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