Live Review: Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival — 5/4/19

Odetta hartman @ Kingman
Odetta Hartman performs at the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival on May 4, 2019. (Photo by Matt Ruppert)

The Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival was held in northeast DC last weekend. It featured numerous local bands and artists, as well as a few that came from out of town for the festival. With four stages of music, the festival ran from noon to eight o’clock.

Unfortunately, I had planned to leave a few hours early. The weather forecast called for thunderstorms, and I didn’t want to be caught in the parking lot getting soaked while I waited for a ride home. Fortunately, I’d already seen the last couple acts of the day, the Hackensaw Boys and The Dustbowl Revival.

Baltimore-based folk band ilyAIMY opened the festival on the main Kingman. ilyAIMY stands for “I love you and I miss you.” A quartet, ilyAIMY consists of guitarist Rob Hinkal; Heather Aubrey Lloyd on the acoustic guitar and djembe (a West African drum), percussionist Rowan Corbett, and cellist Kristen Jones. As it turns out, I have history with Rob and Kristen: I met them at the Gangstagrass concert at Hill Country last August, where I recognized fellow Oberlin alumnus Kristen’s obscure Star Trek: The Next Generation t-shirt. We briefly reconnected after the band’s performance.

Stream Cicada by ilyAIMY on Spotify:

After making it through registration and hiking to the stage, I caught about ilyAIMY’s last several songs. Heather wrote “Goodheart,” which took fourth place in the songwriting contest at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Ironically, she called it her “least bluegrassy song.” Rowan introduced the next song, “The Blacksmith,” a traditional song he plays with his Celtic band, Tinsmith. (Rowan is also a member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and tours with Rhiannon Giddens.) Heather, who backed Dar Williams on her Promised Land tour and recently got married, introduced the last number as a song about “coming late in life to the things you love most.”

Che Apalache, a four-man string band based in Buenos Aires with members from Argentina, Mexico and the United States. The founder of Che Apalache, Joe Troop (fiddle), a North Carolinian multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, and composer moved to Argentina in 2010, where taught bluegrass and old-time music for a living. Pau Barjau (banjo), Franco Martino (guitar), and Martin Bobrik (mandolin) came to Joe for lessons, and became his best, most dedicated students. In 2013, they decided to form a band and hit the stage.

Joe described Che Apalache’s music as “worldgrass,” and their debut album is titled Latin Grass for its mix of styles. (They’re releasing their next album later this year in Sand Point, Idaho, when they open for the Avett Brothers; they finished with “Over and Glory” from that LP.) The world music theme further expanded to include a song in Japanese about a coyote.

Che Apalache is a political band. Joe described one song as about “people who use religious fundamentalism to bolster their political campaigns.” Another song told the story of a friend of his who is undocumented; Joe said that the stories of the undocumented don’t get told often enough. They also played a song for unity entitled “The Wall.”

Stream Latin Grass by Che Apalache on Spotify:

Third up on the Kingman Stage was local favorite Justin Trawick and the Common Good, who has shared bills with major national acts like Blues Traveler and the Avett Brothers. Justin’s music falls loosely within the Americana genre. On Saturday, his backing band had a somewhat bluegrassy favor, with electric mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, and Justin on the acoustic guitar. with the help of a lovely lady who performed under the name “Jersey Fresh,” he also incorporated hip hop into his show.

Watch Justin Trawick and the Common Good perform “Ten Long Years” for Sofar Sounds in DC:

As Justin began his set, the sun came out. He began with “Ten Long Years” and “This Is Love.” A cover of “I Will Survive” was a highlight of the set, and “Five and Dime,” featured Jersey Fresh rapping. Justin mentioned that he will be at the 9:30 Club on July 27 for the Circus Life Podcast 6th Anniversary Concert.

After Justin Trawick played, I head over to the Fraser Stage to catch Odetta Hartman, who I interviewed in March. Alex Freedom accompanied her on percussion and a variety of electronic sounds; Odetta played acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, and violin. Odetta used to live in DC, and she hosted this stage last year; she walked five blocks from her home to get to the festival. This year, she released the acclaimed album Old Rockhounds Never Die and toured with the Ballroom Thieves.

Read the Parklife DC interview with Odetta Hartman

On Odetta’s first song, she played the violin, accompanied by, among other things, the sound of gunshots. Next, she strapped into an electric guitar and played the title cut of her album, then introduced a “song about the power of music to drive away bad spirits.” She followed with a love song, then a new song, and then she let hair down to do a couple of spooky songs.

After the spooky songs, Odetta told the audience, “We started on a sinking ship, now we’re going to the underworld of my nightmares.” Odetta introduced the next song as a “good old-fashioned murder ballad, which she played on the banjo. A traditional song she learned from Zora Neale Hurston came next. She then played two new songs, dedicating the latter to her friend Mark Fletcher. She admitted that the was under the weather, but she said that she thought she’d sweated out all toxins during set. Odetta closed with “Cowboy Song.”

Stream Old Rockhounds Never Die by Odetta Hartman on Spotify:

The last act I was Jess Eliot Myhre, who performed while the techs set up for the Ballroom Thieves. Jess acted as the MC for Fraser Stage Saturday, and regularly performs with DC roots music band The Bumper Jacksons. Her first song, “These Things Will Come,” was about what you do when you’re done being mad at someone, and was followed by “Keys to the Kingdom,” a gospel blues song.

Every year, Jess hosts a Patsy Cline tribute show. She shared the nugget that Patsy initially hated the song she chose to play Saturday, “Walking After Midnight;” she thought it was stupid. “She changed her mind,” Jess said, “after it sold a million or two copies.” After the Patsy song, Jess got her ukulele and played “I Sing the Body.” She followed that with an Appalachian traditional on guitar. To close her set, Jess played “White Horse,” a song a she dedicated to the younger generation in recognition of their activism.

Listen to a  playlist of songs by Jess Eliot Myhre for The Bumper Jacksons on Spotify:

All in all, it was fine year to be on Kingman Island for some lovely bluegrass and folk music, regardless of impending thunderstorms. Parklife DC heartily looks forward to the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival 2020.

Here are some more pictures of artists performing at the Kingman Island Bluegrass & Folk Festival on May 4, 2019. All photos copyright and courtesy of Matt Ruppert.

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