Ectofest is an idea whose time was going to come, eventually; the ectolist community has too many talented people and too many good contacts with the artists they admire for them to be satisfied with, oh, say, Lilith Fair. And now that good idea has been made reality with the first annual festival. Which was, in short, from this vantage point, an entire success.
Disclaimer #1. The festival was organized by Chuck Stipak and Meredith Tarr; and as I’ve met Chuck a number of times at various shows and Meredith is a good friend, there’s the faint possibility of conflict of interest here.
Disclaimer #2. On the other hand, the lineup for the all-day festival was not my own ideal list of performers; though to be fair I had seen several of them on previous occasions and admired them.
In the offing, it seemed to be an event not to be missed.
I took a morning train from New York to Brewster, where the Ectofest-shirted driver ferried festival-goers the ten minutes or so to the site, a small fenced park on the edge of a lake, with a concrete-floored pavilion serving as the stage. They were still setting up when I got there, and I wandered past the tables offering food & drink, T-shirts and other festival merchandise, information on the two charities benefitting from the festival (The Women’s Center of Greater Danbury and Interfaith Ministry of Greater Danbury), and of course performer’s CDs. Everything necessary for the experience. Not to mention sunny weather.
So I plopped myself down very near the stage (where it was shady even at the noonish hour) off to stage left and prepared myself to absorb a day’s worth of music.
The opening act was a pair of guys who call themselves Drama Chic (pronounced “chick”). One played acoustic guitar, the other sang (the guitarist adding good baritone harmonies). It was good but very ordinary folk music with forceful vocals, better when it explored the Am-G-F-E sequence or segments (under my tyrannical rule C and G chords would be outlawed). A perfectly acceptable beginning.
Following was another local artist, Rob Brereton, a virtuoso on the Appalachian dulcimer (the figure-8-shaped, unevenly-spaced-fretted, play-in-your lap kind, not the hammered dulcimer). He did a couple traditional tunes—an Irish jig, plus an air variously called “Waly Waly” and “The Water Is Wide” which I know I’ve heard in another version (maybe on an old Judy Collins record?). He did an amusing yodeling song on guitar, and was joined by one member of his three-member group Boys’ Night Out for an equally amusing song which may have been called “The Vision of Martha Stewart” (mockingly portentous in the vein of “I Shall Be Released”). He played a very nice version of Neil Young’s “After the Goldrush” and a really striking instrumental version of Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me” back on the dulcimer. A set of quite a bit of variety and interest.
The first of the featured female singer-songwriters was Rachael Sage. My first reaction to her, several sets ago, was that she was good but a little conventional for my taste; there’s a little bit of Broadway in her chord sequences, and her songs, even when sad or angry, have a strongly upbeat energy to them that took me some getting used to. Her lyrics are always very articulate (both as written and as delivered), and she has an individual style (some whispery talking vocals, for example). She delivered a very good set with her band (percussion, bass, and violin) augmenting her electric keyboard. True to my taste, I much preferred the minor-key ones, which seem to draw somewhat from Jewish folk music; best of all was “Among All God’s Creatures” which builds from a single repeated note (like Tori Amos’ “Beauty Queen”) to a powerful groove (full of open 5ths), over which the violinist added wailing Middle Eastern motifs. I enjoyed her set a lot.
Festival organizer Chuck Stipak stepped up to the plate as a performer with the world premiere of his duo the Ectoplasms; his acoustic guitar was accompanied by the first electric guitar of the day. Their music is still folky, however, droning atmospherically on D or braving the conventional terrors of C-G; but Chuck also offered a song he wrote at age 13 (full of cloudy 60s major 7ths), and the finale, over a Bo Diddley beat, was a joke song about how he wished he were several of the day’s performers (who had all arrived by this point), but would settle for being just him. An interlude of fun.
Of the main acts, the only one I wasn’t familiar with was Sloan Wainwright; she is part of the Wainwright clan (Loudon’s sister, I gather). Accompanied by acoustic guitar and bass, she delivered a set of very sturdy folk, embellished by her deep, dark, powerful voice and slightly theatrical presentation. Her between-songs patter was amusing as well, particularly when she deconstructed “I Eye The Lady” (a comparison song become a recovery song, she pointed out) before she sang it. I was very favorably impressed. But the high point of the set (perhaps the festival) was the last number, when she called up the following performer Susan McKeown to duet on Richard Thompson’s old Fairport number “Meet on the Ledge.” It was fine enough when they were trading verses; but when they joined in the chorus, McKeown’s wailing Celtic roulades over Wainwright’s rich foundation, it was absolutely exquisite.
Susan McKeown is another artist it’s taken me some time to warm to; I think maybe I expected her to be more of a trad artist (her being from Dublin and all), and her more contemporary major-key songwriting just didn’t click with me. For whatever reason I enjoyed this set a lot better. She played acoustic guitar (and fine bodhran on one song) accompanied by another acoustic guitar, and the quasi-folky drony quality in most of the songs sat OK with me. Her setting of Emily Dickinson’s “kindly Death” poem is very fine (though straying major-keywards a bit), her train song (Wainwright had one too) pretty good, and her cover (back to the Fairport songbook) of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (which I’d heard once before) was splendid. She also persuaded the crowd to sing Happy Birthday to Meredith before she took her leave.
Next was Mila Drumless, I mean Drumke, with only her bassist and violinist to accompany her acoustic guitar. I knew this meant she wasn’t going to do the magisterial “Constance,” my favorite of hers (and co-written by her drummer). But she did do her fascinating “two-bass” song (albeit with her on guitar this time) with its almost Crimsoid arpeggio chorus, and her wonderful cover of Kate Bush’s “Under the Ivy,” and a handful of her other excellent songs. If I seem to be underselling her a bit, it’s paradoxically because I’ve gotten to like her work best of the festival participants, and so this was an average set for me. But a very good one, with her warm, rich voice in fine form.
There was a bit of a break at this point while the headliner’s major equipment was set up and the last of the three raffles for the day was conducted. It was only just getting dark at this point.
It was only fitting that Happy Rhodes, whose album Ecto gives both the mailing list and the festival its name, should headline the initial venture. She seemed very pleased to be there, and put on a long and excellent set accompanied by a drummer (the only kit drums of the day), bassist, and keyboardist (who did yeomanlike work keeping up with her on backing vocals), while she alternated between acoustic guitar and keyboards. On a day when nearly all the music could be loosely defined as “folk” and accompaniment was spare, hers were the most lush (her word), and further augmented by recorded backing tracks at a few points.
I’ve only seen her perform once before (at the Tin Angel about three years ago), and am not as familiar with her work as I ought to be (mostly the recent Many Worlds Are Born Tonight), and I had forgotten the startling range of her voice, from ethereal upper range Kate Bush/Tori Amos/Kristeen Young style to an amazingly resonant deep contralto (I don’t think even Sloan Wainwright can get that low). And on a couple of occasions the song called for her to “duet” the two registers in alternation, which she did with complete aplomb. Her sheer vocal ability was one of the things that most impressed me during her set.
She was relaxed and funny between songs, and as a treat offered her rendition of “The Ballad of Brave Sir Robin” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, delivered in her best schoolgirl high soprano with perfect diction (rolled rs and all) and complete straight face. It was hysterical. She also traded Python quotes with the audience while she tuned at one point.
I’ll leave to the real Rhodes scholars the full set list; suffice for me to say I recognized such MWABT numbers as “Ra Is a Busy God,” “Roy,” and “100 Years” (which closed the set). Her music is rich and fascinating, and I came away with the determination to catch up on her music a bit.
After two encores (the only ones of the festival), Rhodes took her leave, full darkness had descended, and in remarkably short order all the equipment was broken down and packed away. In fits and straggles the remaining celebrants repaired to a bar near the Brewster train station (named, with brilliant inspiration, Brewster Station) for very good chicken curry and festival “birthday” cake before stumbling off into the night.
Final verdict: a smashing success artistically, without a hitch logistically, and by all means let’s do it again next year.