Footwear key to folk festival fun

Posted Aug. 21, 2008, at 4:35 p.m.

Last week I purchased a pair of comfortable black and purple slip-on sneakers for five bucks at the mall. I didn’t buy them because they matched any particular outfit, or because I have a fondness for cheap-o Chuck Taylor rip-offs; I bought them because I’m planning ahead for the American Folk Festival.

You see, for someone like me (an easily excitable music nerd), the folk festival is like an all-you-can-eat buffet. I want to cram as much into the three days of the festival as humanly possible. I map out my game plan for seeing bands days in advance, so I don’t miss too much. And this has taught me a valuable lesson: Wear comfy shoes. Preferably ones that are good to dance in. If you’re going to be on your feet from noon to 10:30 p.m., you need some serious arch support.

So my new kicks are going to help me out, as I go around the world in three days (musically speaking) right in my own backyard. Here are my picks for what’s really going to be hot at the folk festival this year. You can refer to the supplement published last weekend in the BDN for schedules, or snag one of the ubiquitous pamphlets that get handed out during the festival.

The Junk Yard Band: There’s always one act each year that, when I see the name announced, I go, “Dude! Sweet!” This year, it was these guys. The Junk Yard Band plays go-go music, a genre wholly unique to the Washington, D.C., area. It’s not go-go in the sense of go-go dancers – it’s a syncopated, deeply rhythmic blend of funk, jazz, R&B and Latin styles that is one of the few truly regional traditions still existing in the U.S. The Junk Yard Band has been around and at the top of the go-go game since the 1980s, and uses handmade and found instruments to add to the polyrhythmic stew. When this band plays, the Dance Pavilion is going to blow up, yo.

Hassan Hakmoun: The belly dancers in and around Bangor can get their shimmy on when Hassan Hakmoun takes the stage. Hakmoun plays Moroccan Gnawa music, a trancelike style rooted in both Islamic devotional singing and the more rhythmic traditions of sub-Saharan Africa. The sublime and the earthly meet in Gnawa, and Hakmoun is one of the world’s foremost practitioners of it.

Jason Samuels Smith and Pandit-Chitresh Das: An African American tap dancer and an Indian classical dancer walk into a bar. OK, that was a lame joke. But it’s not all that far from the truth: Smith and Das met backstage at the American Dance Festival in North Carolina in 2004, and recognized in each other both dance genius and a kindred spirit. It’s a testament to both artists’ vitality that they manage to respect each other’s traditions, while creating something innovative and engaging.

Diunna Greenleaf and Blue Mercy: You know why I love seeing a blues act at the festival each year? Because, for someone my age, you get to see people your parents’ age and older hang out at the beer tent by the Railroad Stage, patiently waiting for someone such as Greenleaf to start playing. And then, when they do start playing, those folks start dancing, singing, hooting, hollering and generally letting loose, in a way that only the blues can inspire. It’s the reverse of watching your kids at the playground. And then there’s also the fact that Diunna Greenleaf is a powerhouse blues diva who will rock your socks off.

Chino Nunez and Friends Orchestra: Ay, mami! Salsa music. This is why I bought new shoes, people. Eileen Torres comes back to the festival again this year to teach us all how to dance correctly during Nunez’s set. Watch out for Bangor’s Latin dancers. Like zydeco, any and all Latin music is always a festival favorite.

Johnny Hiland: This guy grew up in a mobile home in Woodland, aka Baileyville, in Washington County. He’s legally blind. His refuge was his guitar – and by the age of 8 he was playing in his family’s bluegrass band and touring Maine. Now he’s a nationally renowned session musician that has toured the world. He is respected by guitarists as diverse as Ricky Skaggs and Steve Vai. And he’s kicking off the folk festival this year with a set of razor-sharp, freewheelin’ country guitar music. Not bad for a Down Easter, yeah?

Emily Burnham, will be taking the Monday after the festival off in order to sleep for a good 12 hours.

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