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newport sign be present

Sunday at Newport Folk: slightly cooler, a little less disorientation, a lot more exhaustion than Friday. I’d moved on Saturday, then had a long morning trying to return my truck and get myself down to Fort Adams. By the time I arrived I was tired and hungry, and frankly not at all sure I wanted to be there.

I bought lunch from one of the food trucks, but I was so tapped out I could hardly enjoy either it or the upbeat set from Lake Street Dive on the main stage. (I do love Rachael Price’s voice, and I got a kick out of seeing Hozier come up and join them for a tune or two. He always looks so moody in his videos, but his grin was a mile wide that day.)

After lunch, though – and a gallon or so of water – the rest of the afternoon definitely improved.

our native daughters

I wandered over to the Quad stage to catch Our Native Daughters and was absolutely stunned by their vocals, their songwriting, their fiddling and banjo picking and their bold presence. I could listen to Allison Russell sing all day long, and Amythyst Kiah wowed the (mostly white) audience with the anthem “Black Myself.” Serious power there, folks.

After that, I hopped over to hear Molly Tuttle (a Berklee alumna) and Billy Strings in a soulful, rollicking set that included – to my utter surprise – a cover of Cher’s “Believe.” (It worked, surprisingly.) I got some tacos and returned to the same spot, sitting in the grass with my back against the fort wall, to listen to the Milk Carton Kids and take a few deep breaths. I saw them open for someone – maybe Glen Hansard? – at Berklee years ago, so hearing them at Newport felt like coming full circle.

My reason for going back on Sunday – and the day’s real magic – came at the end: the festival’s closing set, known as If I Had a Song. It was a singalong, featuring too many great musicians to count. But the first one was small and green.

kermit the frog Newport stage

Yes, that is Kermit the Frog. And yes, he cracked a few jokes, and invited the crowd to sing along as he performed “The Rainbow Connection.” Pure magic, y’all. (I adore the Muppets and he is my favorite.) Jim James – wearing a fabulous rainbow-cuffed jacket – joined him, but I only had eyes for Kermit and his banjo.

The magic just kept coming after that: Trey Anastasio (and our Berklee students) playing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Rachael Price and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band giving us all chills with “We Shall Overcome.” Brandi Carlile and Alynda Segarra jamming out on “If I Had a Hammer.” Our Native Daughters leading the crowd in “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus.” I was standing in the front area, clapping and grinning and singing my heart out.

One of my favorite parts of Newport was the generous spirit of collaboration – everyone up there, singing together, and having so much fun doing it. Hozier came back out with Lake Street Dive for “Everyday People,” and then he joined Mavis Staples (who looked tiny next to him but brought the house down with her vocal power) for “Eyes on the Prize.”

Robin Pecknold (from Fleet Foxes) came out onstage for “Instant Karma!” and stuck around for “Judy Blue Eyes,” which featured Judy Collins herself in an amazing magenta dress. They sang “Turn, Turn, Turn” together, and then Colin Meloy and the Milk Carton Kids came out to sing “This Land Is Your Land.” (Meloy called it “just as much of a national anthem as the one we’ve got.”)

The last song, which made me cry, featured Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and as many musicians as could cram onto the stage, swaying with their arms around each other, singing “Goodnight Irene.” Our string students joined in on that one too, adding their notes from the back of the stage.

I looked around: sunset light, fans and musicians singing together, banners blowing gently in the breeze. It was a picture-perfect ending to a weekend that embodied the sign at the top of this post: be present, be kind, be open, be together.

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newport-folk-banner

Last month, on the same weekend I moved, I spent two days at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island.

Why, you ask? The answer I’ve been giving: because I am a crazy person. And I might be, honestly. But more than that: I love folk music, and I’d scored a press pass through my day job at Berklee. Several of our students were playing the festival on Friday and Sunday, so I volunteered to go down and write about them.

It was exhausting and crazy and so hot (I got a wicked sunburn on Friday). But was it worth it? Absolutely.

I drove down on Friday with some friends. At the top of my list that day was the all-female trio I’m With Her – both because our students were playing with them and because Sara Watkins is amazing. (I’m a Nickel Creek fan from way back.) My friend Jackie and I snagged seats up close to listen to them, and they were fantastic.

im-with-her-newport

I’m With Her also includes Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan. They were smart and funny and energetic – I loved everything from their cover of Dolly Parton’s “Marry Me” to their original tunes like “Call My Name” and “Ain’t That Fine.”

Their second-to-last song, “Overland,” featured our students, and Watkins asked the audience to sing along on the chorus. “This is for anyone who’s facing some uncertainty in their lives,” she said, before singing us the lines we would join in on:

Goodbye brother, hello railroad
So long, Chicago
All these years, thought I was where I ought to be
But times are changin’ – this country’s growin’
And I’m bound for San Francisco
Where a new life waits for me 

I welled up at that third line, but I sang along on every repeat of the chorus, watching our students play their string instruments in the background. I got to interview them afterward (in the artists’ tent, which had free snacks and comfy, non-folding chairs!), and they were excited and thoughtful and so sweet.

I wandered over to the Fort stage to buy some frozen lemonade and catch the end of Sheryl Crow’s set, and as I walked up, I heard her say, “Let’s soak up the sun, shall we?” I broke into a grin, and joined the crowd dancing to – yep – “Soak Up the Sun.”

james-taylor-sheryl-crow

Then – then! – Crow said casually, “I have a friend who was telling me about playing at Newport a long time ago.” (beat) “James Taylor, why don’t you come out here and tell this story?”

Dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, Taylor walked out on stage and told us about the time he was playing Newport in 1969 and they interrupted his set to break the news of the Apollo 11 moon landing. (No big deal!) Then he grabbed a guitar, and he and Sheryl played “Every Day is a Winding Road.” I could barely believe my ears, or my eyes.

I wound up my Newport Friday at the standing-room-only Highwomen performance – Brandi Carlile and her bandmates brought down the house. I especially loved “Heaven is a Honky Tonk” – their tribute to some of the great outlaw musicians – and “Redesigning Women.”

I’m not usually much for crowds, but I loved the Newport atmosphere: relaxed and fun, with lots of families, and musicians who seemed genuinely glad to be there. I spent a while talking to a woman named Mary Lynn who was selling her gorgeous leather goods, and wandered around on my own, soaking it all in. And one of the best parts of Friday? I knew more adventures were in store for me on Sunday.

More Newport photos and stories to come.

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gold-red-lily

It’s August, somehow, and I’m in full summer mode: iced chai, tan lines and freckles (and lots of sunscreen), stovetop cooking (when I cook anything), and all the berries I can eat. Here’s what’s saving my life, in these hot, hazy, still-transition-filled days:

  • Late-summer flowers: black-eyed Susans, deep blue and pink hydrangeas, the first dahlias, day lilies in every shade of yellow and red and orange.
  • Running into Phoenix, my little golden doodle buddy, and his person on my morning walks.
  • My friend Jen Lee’s brand-new, free YouTube video series: Morning, Sunshine. Go check it out if you’d like a dose of connection and compassion.

boston-harbor-view

  • The views out my new apartment windows: Boston Harbor on one side, the local park (usually with a friendly dog or two) on the other side.
  • My Rothys, which I’m wearing all. the. time. 
  • The silver triangle Zil earrings I bought at the SoWa market last month.
  • Texts from friends checking in on my move and transition.

iced-chai-blue-bikes

  • Iced chai – from Darwin’s when I can make it to the Square, and from the BPL or Tatte when I can’t.
  • Ginger peach MEM tea in my favorite purple travel mug, every morning.
  • Susannah Conway’s August Break photo project.
  • My favorite LUSH face mask – it’s Cookie-Monster blue and smells like citrus.

frame-up-book

  • Impulse grabs from the BPL’s new books shelf, and piles of ARCs for Shelf Awareness.
  • Morning Bluebike rides across the river.
  • Rosé and raspberry-lemon sorbet after a long evening of unpacking.
  • Eating my breakfast granola out of a real bowl.
  • Trader Joe’s veggie beet wraps, berries and cherries, yogurt, granola, hint-of-lime tortilla chips and sourdough bread. (Not all at once.)

hot-chocolate-woodcut-journal

  • Bryan Nash Gill’s “Woodcut” journals – I bought a four-pack at Trident a while ago. And good pens.
  • Colleagues who make me laugh.
  • Listening to some of the artists I heard/discovered at the Newport Folk Festival – about which more soon.
  • Having enough brain space (finally!) to make this list.

What’s saving your life these days, my friends?

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fear choice mountain lyric frame

Last week, I saw an Instagram post from a local friend about a folk concert happening that night in Cambridge. An hour later, my husband called: “Want to go?”

I’d usually say no to anything that started at 9:30 on a Tuesday night (and oh, was I exhausted the next day). But I said yes, and we went. The Arcadian Wild puts on a good show, but the music wasn’t even my favorite part: it was the serendipity.

My friend who invited us knows the two guys in the band from way back: her husband worked with both of them during his youth-minister days in Florida. But it also turns out that Lincoln, the mandolinist, is the son of a couple who are close to some other friends of mine. I texted my friend Frankie to let her know where we were, and whom we were hearing. (She responded with delight.)

As the evening went on, I realized something else: the photo above, which I snapped during a visit to Frankie’s house in West Texas months ago, is a lyric from their song “Rain Clouds.” (I’d been struck by the words, but forgot to ask her about their origin.)

I’ve been gone from Abilene, where I spent my undergraduate (and several more) years, for a while now. But I still go through there at least once a year, and keep in regular touch with many friends from that community. So many of my stories, even now, begin or end in Abilene. And this one struck me as especially sweet: that a line about courage and fear, in the middle of a song about love and friendship, was the latest thread connecting my two lives.

Not surprisingly, I’ve been humming that song ever since.

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January sunrise pink clouds gold blue

Thy mercy, my God, is the theme of my song
The joy of my heart and the boast of my tongue…

A few Sundays ago, I walked into Church of the Cross, a low-key, welcoming Anglican congregation in the Fenway where I’ve visited off and on. It’s friendly, but not overbearing; people are kind, and a few of them remember my name by now. I like the mix of spontaneous prayer, raised hands and the rhythms of ancient liturgy. It reminds me, in this and other ways, of St Aldates, my beloved church in Oxford, where I still am at home.

Thy free grace alone, from the first to the last
Hath won my affection and bound my soul fast…

A small praise band provides the music: classic hymns, newly minted praise songs and some that fall in between. Inevitably, there’s a song or two I know, and a handful that are wholly new to me. I’ve learned the notes of the Alleluia before the gospel reading, and the later proclamation: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Without Thy sweet mercy I could not live here
Sin would reduce me to utter despair…

On that Sunday, I looked up at the screens to find a song I had totally forgotten about: a lilting, joyful tune written by Sandra McCracken to a set of lyrics from the 1770s. I learned it years ago, from an orange-covered Caedmon’s Call album that I think I still have somewhere.

But through Thy free goodness my spirits revive
And He that first made me still keeps me alive…

I thought I had outgrown this song and most of its kindred, or set them aside, long ago. My faith, these days, is complicated and shaded by doubt more often than pure joy. But I realized that day, as we sang this one, that I still know all the words.

Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart…

That song kept me company for days afterward, running through my head as I brushed my hair in the morning, as I walked to and from the train station, as I ran errands on my lunch break or after work. It wasn’t in there every moment, but it showed up often enough that I had to admit: it’s still mine.

‘Tis all by Thy goodness I fall to the ground
And weep for the praise of the mercy I’ve found…

One of the gifts of my Southern Baptist childhood – probably, of being steeped in any faith tradition for a long time – is the steady repetition of the same words that carry and embody deep truths. Lots of memory verses and hymns still rise to my recall, sometimes without my conscious effort. Some songs immediately take me back to youth group, or college chapel services, or those Easter pageants I loved so much. And though I am far from the places and the person I was then, the truth of them is still in there, knit deep into my soul.

Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son…

It’s not always easy for me to believe the truths I know: that God loves me, accepts me for who and what I am, sees all my flaws and mistakes and loves me anyway, wants the best for me. I have no trouble reassuring my loved ones that grace and love are real for them, but I have a much harder time accepting that for myself.

All praise to the Spirit, whose whisper divine
Seals mercy and pardon and righteousness mine… 

This song is still with me, weeks later, lodged in my heart like a bird on the wing. Some days it’s a declaration, some days it’s a prayer, some days it’s a desperate hope. Some days it’s all three. And always, always, it is true.

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dog jack book blanket

I’ve had a couple of real duds lately: books I got pretty far into and then decided to jettison. But here’s the good stuff:

A Dog Called Jack, Ivy Pembroke
I love a sweet, witty chick-lit story once in a while – even better if it’s British. I grabbed this one at the library and happily curled up with it on a snowy weekend. It’s the story of Jack, a dog left behind by his previous owners who wins the hearts of a whole street in London. So lovely and fun.

Gmorning, Gnight!: Little Pep Talks for Me and You, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonny Sun
It’s no secret I’m a Lin-Manuel fangirl (I even got to meet him last year). My husband gave me this warm, witty book of his good-morning and good-night tweets, illustrated. I’ve been flipping through it at night and – no surprise – it is so fun and encouraging.

The Weight of a Piano, Chris Cander
It took me a while to get into this novel – about two women, one in modern-day California and the other in 1960s Soviet Russia, who are linked by the Blüthner piano they both love. Despite the slow start, it’s a compelling story and the writing is really good. Especially enjoyable if you’re a musician.

The Farmer’s Son: Calving Season on a Family Farm, John Connell
Returning to his family’s farm in Ireland, John Connell wasn’t sure he wanted to stay. But helping his father (with whom he often clashes) through a calving and lambing season helped change his perspective. Beautifully written; a bit like a modern-day, more sober-eyed James Herriot. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 7).

On Being 40(ish), edited by Lindsey Mead
Lindsey is a lovely Internet-to-real-life friend of mine, and I’m so proud of her work in editing this collection of smart, funny, honest essays. They address the experience of turning 40, navigating the next decade or so, and looking back on the experiences that led to 40. I’m 35, so I’m a little younger than the contributors, but I found much to ponder and relate to here. My favorite essay was Veronica Chambers’ “A Game of Two Halves.”

Correspondents, Tim Murphy
Since high school, Rita Khoury, the daughter of a large Lebanese-Irish Boston family, has longed to be a journalist. In the wake of 9/11, she’s sent to Beirut and then Baghdad to cover the U.S. occupation and its effects on ordinary Iraqis. She becomes close to her interpreter, Nabil, and a handful of other colleagues. Murphy tells their story with warmth and compassion. Vivid, compelling and so deeply human – highly recommended. To review for Shelf Awareness (out May 14).

Most links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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There once was a man who thought love was war
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before…

I think of this song every year around this time, though I usually hear it in my friend Jenni’s voice instead of Tom Russell’s. Jenni is part of the folk trio JamisonPriest, and I heard her sing it long ago, at a few of their gigs in Abilene.

There once was a woman, a pretty young thing
She sold her soul for a diamond ring…

I love contemporary songs that somehow feel old: Russell released this one in the early 2000s, but his rough-edged voice and the plainspoken lyrics make it seem like a world-weary folk classic. It is not, perhaps, traditional Ash Wednesday music, neither a somber hymn nor a choral setting of a religious text. But it comes back to lodge in my heart every year, when we remember that we are dust.

They’re all lovesick, they’re love tired
They stood a little close to the edge of the fire…

I did not make it to an Ash Wednesday service this year. But on my way to the train after work, I walked by the Old South Church, where two clergy were standing outside in the cold, offering ashes to willing passersby. One of them, a woman I know slightly from our mutual connections to Harvard, greeted me and then marked my forehead with ashes. “Remember that you are dust,” she said, “and to dust you shall return. But today, you have life as a child of God.” My eyes filled with tears.

They’ve got holes in their pockets, holes in their minds
They’re holy people in an unholy time…

Like most folk songs, and like faith, those words and this song tell a story or two and then leave you with a few words and images you can’t quite explain. I don’t understand Russell’s lyrics in the strictly logical sense, but they resonate with me at a deep level. And there’s a reason we refer to “the holy mysteries”: I can’t fully grasp the story I have lived with all my life, but it still draws me in.

Headin’ for the church at the end of the line
Ash Wednesday…

We are right where we always seem to be, when Lent begins: still in the middle of winter, snow-edged sidewalks and bold blue skies, bare branches and biting winds. The green spears of daffodils and crocuses are poking through the earth, but there’s danger of frostbite a while yet. It’s almost Easter, a friend joked the other day, and I said, Oh, no. We’ve barely begun.

We’re all lovesick, and love tired, as Russell has it, or (to quote my singer-songwriter friend Rachel) “proud and aching and sore.” But we are also – I will keep saying it all my life – wholly, deeply, unbelievably loved.

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