LIVE REVIEW + GALLERY: Spruce Peak Folk Festival 2019 Day One
There are parts of myself that go missing if I don’t revisit them for a while, and it takes a toll. I think that’s an experience many adults have, actually, as a natural consequence of what I’ve heard described as “growing up.” When I feel awash with the burdens of adulthood, I usually take that as a sign from my subconscious, telling me it’s time to take a break and play. And the first thing I think of when I think “play” is being outside.
I would say that my room at The Lodge at Spruce Peak was overlooking the mountains, but even from the fifth floor, the peaks are rising well above me as I stand with a fresh cup of coffee, marveling at what I saw. I used to spend time in the woods, or at the very least somewhere near them, and to this day if I come within 100 feet of a pine tree and damp soil, I am quickly and delightfully reminded of some of my happiest moments as a child, experiencing it then at that moment as an adult. There’s no substitute for nostalgia, I guess.
I’ve been working in cities for the better part of 4 years, so it wasn’t until I visited The Lodge at Spruce Peak to cover the 2019 Spruce Peak Folk Fest that I realized how long I’ve been going without. But The Lodge isn’t your weekly hike in the woods. It’s the five-dollar latte splurge to your regular drive-through coffee, with extra fresh air on top.
I’ve personally been burnt out in the concert scene in Boston. It’s often crowded, a little dank– which can be endearing at times, I’ll admit– and I leave with ringing in my ears most nights. Nothing not to be expected or unique to Boston, but certainly pales in contrast to Stowe, Vermont.
So needless to say I was very much looking forward to arriving at The Lodge. I knew these shows would be different. But I don’t think I was quite prepared for how different.
The Lodge at Spruce Peak is working hard on making themselves more than a vacation lodge; something more akin to an actual community where the residents of Stowe, VT can come and be a part of a multicultural experience in tandem with vacationing tourists, something that puts The Lodge at a cut above the rest not just during ski and snowboard season, but year-round. Boasting its own Performing Arts Center, multiple on-site shops, rock climbing, golf course, gondola, fine dining, day spa, heated pool & hot tubs, and more, The Lodge stands well apart from any other destination in Stowe.
The Folk Festival began at 3 pm with Burlington, VT-born Francesca Blanchard kicking it off. Although rain interrupted Francesca’s French-American melodies, we got to catch up later when it had cleared. Francesca and I took a seat backstage, her sitting on the table and me on the bench just below her.
Francesca is a singer-songwriter who was born in France but moved to Burlington, VT when she was 10. When she was just 18, Francesca released her EP Songs from an Ovation, earning considerable attention and praise in Burlington. Even after spending time earning her BFA in Acting from Boston University, Francesca put out a masterful debut album, “Deux Visions,” and toured with it extensively as a headliner and an opener for multiple bands including Caravan Palace. Nothing to sneeze at in my book. I admire people like her, and immediately found myself writing her at the top of my list of people I look to for examples of power, grace, intelligence, and pure dedication. Not to mention selflessness–unsurprising for someone who had parents working for various humanitarian efforts, Francesca has given much of her life incorporating what she has learned in her music career into her volunteer work as a theater and music teacher in Ecuador and the West Coast.
I think Francesca is an example of pure human-hood we have been missing in recent times, if you know what I mean. Also, her song “Free” makes me imagine myself as the subject of an indie movie in a scene where there’s a blueish-twilight filter over the lens, and I’m boarding a train with earbuds in, camera being free-handed, shakey, following me as I look back one more time before embarking on a grand adventure I could not predict, no audio except Francesca’s pristine vocals and lyricism narrating my escape. I’ve thought a lot about that imaginary scene, but I didn’t decide on the soundtrack until I heard that song, okay?
Mostly, Francesca and I talked a lot about influence and transition. She told me she wanted to keep her French influences in her sound, but has felt a shift within herself recently. Although she certainly wants her audience to welcome change, Francesca told me she would rather risk her new sounds flopping than never try something new. I admired Francesca’s articulate ease in exploring change within herself and her music with me.
Following Francesca was Mipso, a 6-years and counting old Americana/Bluegrass quartet from North Carolina. And, man, do I love a good fiddle-driven song, despite my rock roots back in Boston.
In another image, one that is from real parts of my recent past, Mipso transports me back to house shows with a handful of local acts from Boston with similar notes of modern folk. There is red wine sitting opened on a second-hand coffee table. There’s too many of us in the living room, and some of us stand while others sit close together, cross-legged. There’s a lot to be said for musicians like that. I imagine Mipso was doing that when they started playing together in college–there is a sense of familiarity and smokey, rural comfort in their voices and overall sound.
My conversation with Libby Rodenbough was one about hard work and the safety-to—-risk ratio. We remarked together on our experiences in a less-trod millennial path of creative business and self-employment. We saw eye to eye on the facts of the two of us sitting together at that moment, having worked so hard in each of our artistic fields, but knowing it could not be done without certain supports and privileges. It does me a lot of good to hear that from someone I just saw play ethereal music like the sound was as undeniable as the very fact they were sitting in front of me.
And then, The Milk Carton Kids.
Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale joined musical minds in 2011 and have since released five albums and were up for a Grammy Award nomination for their album Ash & Clay in 2013 and in 2014 they were the Americana Music Association Duo/Group of the Year. They spent the night playing a healthy mix of all of their albums as the sun went down and the sky turned dark blue into the night, dark leftover clouds from the rain earlier in the day quietly coming in overhead. Their last song for the night was a cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. Slowly, they were joined on stage from some of the festival’s youngest attendees, Joey bending down to high-five a little one at the end.
When Joey approached me to shake my hand, he was calm and nonchalant. Which is why it caught me off-guard when he said, “So, Epstein–why aren’t we freaking out?”
When we sat down, I closed my notebook and put it aside.
I’m not sure if he meant to, but Joey had this way of making me feel like we were two life-long friends commiserating at the end of a long day about the state of the world. We spoke for over an hour as two people who just didn’t know what to do about it all. Eventually, the stage manager came over. “Listen, as much as I appreciate this conversation; I would like to go home and get some sleep.”
As we walked out, Joey said, “Oh, right, were we supposed to talk about music or something?” I had to laugh. I said it wasn’t necessary; just wanted him to know I loved what he and Kenneth were putting out. Having gotten to see the softness of his persona, his music with Kenneth makes all the more sense to me now. The comfort of The Milk Carton Kids’ music comes directly from the source; from compassionate people who are paying attention to the details of life.
Concluding the first day of the Spruce Peak Folk Festival. There were bubbles, and handcrafted whiskey cocktails abound (thanks to WhistlePig Rye Whiskey!), and my senses were joyfully overcome with the community around me. The sheer amount of hospitality from the lodge staff, event volunteers, and festival-goers was enough to insure that the following day was a guaranteed good time.