IN TUNE: Inspiring as it was for the older crowd at the Clearwater Festival to see the emergence of a new “Woodstock” generation – frightened by the yawning gap between America’s rich and working poor, determined to make their world a better place – it may have been an even bigger kick for the long-timers, beginning with an ever-smiling Pete Seeger himself.
Billy Bragg, Arlo Guthrie
Seeger, 91, launched the weekend festival before a crowd that grew into the thousands at the Rainbow main stage in Croton-on-Hudson, just up the Metro-North line from the Tappan Zee Bridge.
Meanwhile, hugging the river a short distance away, hundreds crammed into the Hudson Stage area for sets by Dar Williams, Josh Ritter, Toshi Reagon, The Felice Brothers and one of the event’s hottest bands, The Low Anthem. Kayakers and jet skiers pulled up alongside.
The early-afternoon sun beat strong on Croton Point Park as Billy Bragg lamented how the songs Woodie Guthrie sang against a rich government dominating a defenseless proletariat are becoming frighteningly relevant in America today. He was in a hotel room after a recent gig in Annapolis, Bragg said, when he turned on the television to see Newt Gingrich talking about “American exceptionalism.”
It made him think of another recently coined expression: “Democratic capitalism… an oymoron if ever I’ve heard one.”ALL PHOTOS: PROPERTY CLIFFVIEWPILOT.COM No re-use without hyperlink
The British Bragg said the U.S. needs a game changer, something along the lines of the 1978 “March Against Racism” in London, an event that he said convinced him to ditch his office job and become the folk punk-rocker who has spent most of his career fighting for the masses trying to scratch out a living in an economy tilted toward bankers and lawyers.
“It wasn’t the Clash that changed my life: It was being in that audience, being with those people, feeling that I was not alone,” he said.
If voters in his homeland could rise up as they did last year and block the British National Party from winning any seats in Parliament, Bragg said, we could do the same to rich conservatives who ignore the majority of us whom they were elected to serve.
“Singer-songwriters can’t change the world. The only people who change the world in this equation is the audience,” he said. “I’m sorry to do this …but the responsibility rests with you. I have an undimmed faith in your ability to change the world.”
Cheers rose when Bragg followed the new “I Keep Faith” with “There Is Power in a Union.” But the 53-year-old Bard, of all places, Barking , wasn’t finished: Reworking Bob Marley’s “One Love,” he had the crowd singing along with his plea to help African nations unable to help their own people because of financial obligations to the U.S. and other countries:
“One love / One heart / Let’s drop the debt / And we’ll be all right….”
The penultimate set of the night belonged to Woody’s son, Arlo, who said the seeds of grass-roots opposition in America began sprouting earlier this year in states such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio. “It’s awesome to see so many people re-taking the country,” he said.
11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
John Sebastian, Suzanne Vega, the Indigo Girls, Chris Smither, Justin Townes Earle (Steve’s boy), The Jersey Shore’s own Joe D’Urso, Jorma Kaukonen, The Klezmatics, The Kennedys and Drive-by Truckers, among many others. Although you can drive there, Route 9A was packed yesterday. Far easier to park free in Tarrytown & hop a quick Metro-North ride ($5.50 roundtrip). You then can either line up for a school-bus shuttle or walk the mile or so from the Croton-on-Hudson station to the park. Go to: clearwaterfestival.org .
Boosting the same themes driven home by his dad, and Bragg, Guthrie said he recently began reading the “pre-ramble” of the U.S. Constitution – “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union” – then immediately stopped and thought, “Oh, God. Glenn Beck ain’t gonna like this.
“You can’t be anti-union and pro-American at the same time!”
Between those raised-fist bookends, Janis Ian played a touching main-stage set that included the familiar “Society’s Child” and the oft-recorded, achingly bittersweet “Jesse.” Like Patty Griffin, Ian has a way of touching that place in the heart that turns on the waterworks.
Ian noted how she and her partner of 21 years, Patricia Snyder, had to go to Canada in 2003 to get hitched, and how some in Albany today are finally defying opponents of making gay marriage legal in New York:
“We’re married in London Janis Ian
But not in New York
Spain says we’re kosher
The states say we’re pork.
“But love has no color
And hearts have no sex
So love while you can
And screw all the rest.”
The Essex County native based her set on her own strong belief that “art saves souls.”
“Music is the one thing we can cling to. No one can destroy it,” Ian said. “That’s what makes it so seditious…. It’s not for nothing that Plato got rid of all the artists. One ‘We Shall Overcome’ and you have lost the fight.”
You couldn’t see it coming as Ian spoke of how “every artist dreams all of their lives of creating work that strikes straight to the heart.” Then modestly, but proudly, the 60-year-old craftswoman hit the opening notes of “At Seventeen,” and the throng suddenly hushed.
A fan bolted up to the Rainbow Stage to snap her photo and Ian smiled widely and warmly at him (me), singing her divine, 1975 Grammy-winning piece of pop music history as if for the first time.
Martin Sexton took things in a slightly different direction, urging those gathered to follow their dreams, no matter the financial cost. Like Bragg, he had a corporate job, then chucked it – against nearly everyone’s advice – and moved from Syracuse to Boston, where he began busking at train stations.
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“Are you taking the chances you’ve been given or just basically getting by?” he sang, from his new “Sugarcoated” CD. “Livin’ the life that you always wanted, giving the time to those who make you smile?”
Sexton showed off his wondrous pipes, soaring high on the set-opening “Star Spangled Banner,” then kicking into the introspective “Freedom of the Road,” one of his grandest tunes. And while there were plenty of fan favorites, his latest work brought some lovely surprises, including “Found”:
“The less I see on my TV,Martin Sexton, right, with the author
The more I seem to know
The pain motivates us all
To grow old alone or go.”
Another surprise: A version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” done even bluesier than Joe Cocker’s, and brought gently to earth by: “I’ll light the fire, while you place the flowers in the vase that you brought today….”
“Sometimes it seems like Jesus lives and Elvis saves,” Sexton said, before kicking into the lightning-fast “Diner,” which kept his stage-left signer moving quickly — yet still dancing all the while.
The encore underscored Sexton’s follow-that-dream theme, as he delighted longtime fans with a passionate version of “Black Sheep,” about a man who doesn’t let the naysayers keep him from his emotional freedom. The exclamation point was a clap-along gospel mash-up that included bits of Ray Charles and “Amazing Grace” and even a little vocal beatbox buh-dum-dum, complete with a record scratch.
The most rousing set belonged to David Bromberg, who hasn’t lost an inch off his ….talent, as he drew catcalls and howls with his signature brand of low-down and dirty white-boy blues:
“I ain’t no lawyer
I ain’t no lawyer’s son
But I can get you off
Until your lawyer comes….”
Then, in a neat trick, he transformed the blues rag into “Wooly Bully,” New Orleans-style. A cornet player took a raunchy solo and Bromberg shouted, “It’s the same song!”
David Bromberg & his band
Followers of the masterful musician were rewarded with a little bluegrass, as well as another surprise, as Bromberg and both his mandolin player and violinist spun a wistful instrumental version of “Over the Rainbow.”
Just as quickly, Bromberg was back to blues, as pockets of barefoot dancers – many in tie-dyed tops and sundresses, bandanas and some funky old-school t-shirts — moved with the flow.
After shooing away a group who blocked the view of a gathering sitting all day beside the stage, a flustered Clearwater volunteer turned and said: “It’s very hard being an anarchist and telling people to follow the rules.”
No one seemed to mind on either side. Many shared blanket space, refreshments and food, or made room for others to pass through to their spots, or moved their chairs so those behind could see the stage (Spotted in the crowd: Richard Barone, Larry David).
They also listened intently when Guthrie, after a bottom-heavy version of the public domain classic “St. James Infirmary,” spoke of his first-ever memory: meeting the legendary Huddie William “Lead Belly” Ledbetter (Seeger’s group, the Weavers, had a hit with his “Goodnight Irene”) when he was 2 years old.
During a layover in Louisiana, the 63-year-old Guthrie said, he convinced his band to take the tour bus to Ledbetter’s grave, just outside Shreveport, in Mooringsport. There, he said, they sang the musical giant’s songs.
“Every once in awhile you feel like givin’ up,” the still-spry Guthrie said later, “then there’s something that makes you feel like you gotta keep on goin’.”
He proved it with Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” which had the majority in the crowd – old and young – singing along. Sweetly, gently, it reminded everyone: There IS power in a union.
(There’s so much more to know, not just about the festival but about Clearwater itself, founded by Seeger in 1966 to help bring attention to the then-terribly polluted Hudson River. The weekend event features rides on the 106-foot sloop Clearwater and instructional areas amid the vast amusement park of gift tents, food and refreshment stands and stages. Learn more about this amazing group’s efforts by going to: clearwater.org )
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