Fortunate is the American city brimming with visionary artists who each year stake claim on a weekend to celebrate one of the most underappreciated, yet ubiquitous styles of music being played across the continent.
The third annual Baltimore Old Time Music Festival, held this past weekend at the Creative Alliance, has in just a few years’ time turned into an important gathering of some of today’s most influential fiddlers, banjo pickers, mandolin pluckers and folk guitarists.
Thoughtfully organized and curated by Charm City’s father-son duo of Ken & Brad Kolodner, the Old Time fest featured a packed schedule on March 18 and 19 as artists and fans filled the community arts and performance space for two straight days of live music and an impressive lineup of workshops led by some of the best of their craft.
Fiddlin’ Earl White led a presentation on Black fiddlers in Old Time music; percussive and flatfoot dancer Nic Gareiss spoke on gay people in traditional music; and a host of leaders in their field provided instruction through a host of both beginners and more advanced classes that ran all day Saturday concurrent to performances on both the Creative Alliance main stage and in the lounge.
The Kolodners, both widely regarded for their work on the hammered dulcimer and banjo among other instruments, have strived to make the Old Time fest a yearly reaffirmation of their belief that old time and traditional music is some of the most important music in America, laying the foundation for what have become other genres — but it’s also music still being freshly produced by a diverse web of contemporary artists from coast to coast and even abroad.
“I don’t want for this music to be tokenized,” said Brad, who plays alongside his father but also in a number of other outfits, including in Charm City Junction with several other nationally-recognized local musicians.
Like his father, Brad is also a music educator and the two of them have carefully grown the Old Time Music Festival through the past few challenging years by way of strong relationships and diligent planning, all while keeping busy themselves — the duo’s 2020 album, Stony Run, debuted at #4 on the Billboard Bluegrass Charts.
Stream Brad & Ken Kolodner’s 2020 album Stony Run via Spotify:
At this year’s event, Brad was adamant that old-time music and the culture around it isn’t just surviving, but rather is thriving — not off in remote areas, but in cities and places of major influence.
“People might think of (old-time music) as music only played in the mountains and hollers of the rural south … but that just simply isn’t the case. There are talented musicians playing and creating this type of music in urban, diverse and culturally eclectic settings, in this kind of setting, like we’re doing here.”
Kolodner exemplifies his perspective through his actions as a rising, prolific musician in demand — he’s one of several regarded banjoists featured on a new album by Australian fiddler George Jackson — and his growing network is seen in the terrific lineups he’s been able to bring to Baltimore since starting the festival in the spring of 2019.
After a robust kick-off concert Friday night, Saturday’s loaded lineup of performance and workshops brought the event to life in a way that might have seemed unthinkable at the height of the pandemic.
The sounds of stringed instruments could be heard down the street in any direction as musicians gathered on the shaded sidewalk outside Creative Alliance in the early evening for impromptu open jam sessions — all of which, the event directors pointed out in the program literature, were open to anyone regardless of “age, race, gender or skill-set.” And, in festive fashion, eclectic music lovers on hand found themselves in the presence of and in some cases even sharing in conversation with the artists they came to see or to learn from.
The main foyer, with paintings by local artists showcased along the walls, was bustling — several local instrument crafters and component makers were vending as what seemed like an infinite jam session played out with folks coming and going, violins, mandolins, or guitars in hand.
The event culminated Saturday night with two main-stage performances — first The Onlies, an up-and-coming old-time group out of Seattle, followed by the showcase of the weekend, a lengthy set by the Foghorn Stringband, one of the most respected and persuasive old-time squads, and one that has been at it for a good number of years.
Stream The Onlies self-titled 2021 album via Spotify:
The Onlies, comprised of fiddler Sami Braman, folk guitarist and singer Vivian Leva and two multi-instrumentalists in Riley Calcagno and Leo Shannon, delivered a renewing, delightful set — warm, vigorous and with crisp, graceful harmonies that helped shine light on this band as one that’s taking the torch and running with it after releasing their fourth studio album in 2021.
Forming back around 2000 and going through a number of changes including a name tweak and a couple lineup adjustments, Foghorn Stringband has flourished for more than a decade in its current makeup of Stephen “Sammy” Lind on fiddle, banjo and vocals, Caleb Klaudner on mandolin, fiddle, and vocals — original members, both of them — Nadine Landry on upright and vocals and Reeb Williams on rhythm guitar and vocals.
Watch Foghorn Stringband perform “Reuben’s Train” via the band’s YouTube channel:
With a sound real, clear and downright startling in its poignance, Foghorn Stringband captivated and allured with an unforgettable set demonstrating the true power and reach of traditional songs created with stringed instruments.
The heart-wrenching “’tits Yeux Blues,” elegantly decorated by Landry’s French accent, was simply stunning, glowing. An emotional turn as quick as the bows on stage throughout the weekend, “Banks of Old Tennessee / Kennesaw Mountain Rag” came next as a red-hot boogie with marked sentimentality.
Members of the audience began grooving, even whooping, in their seats and some would eventually struggle to stay put as the talented, accomplished Foghorn Stringband carried on, beautifully covering a song by the Carter family, “Homestead on the Farm,” as well as a track written by Eck Robertson, “Grigsby’s Hornpipe.”
Stream Foghorn Stringband’s 2018 studio album Rock Island Grange via Spotify:
The cozy set gave way to an even more intimate one, as The Onlies and Foghorn Stringband — groups closely connected, as Klaudner produced the latest Onlies record simply moved over to the lounge, where the picking and plucking would go late into the night as a small crowd took in two more incredible, eye-watering performances delivered by these bands.
Afterward, the main stage gave way to the raucous good time that is old-time square dancing, as the Earl White Stringband led the music from the platform and local folk musician Will Carlisle called the square dance with cinematic prowess and winsome fervor. The music chugged and feet stomped into the wee hours as the world-class musicians eventually took the stage together for what became a “mega jam” to close out this edition of the Old Time fest.
Sounds tastefully fitting to score the past and present of this country, and with substance that can absolutely grab not just the ear but the heart of any astute listener, old-time and traditional music is a vital, vibrant part of America’s musical identity. And, through the hard work of this event’s organizers, Baltimore is both a lucky and a wise city to devote this special weekend to it.
Foghorn String Band March 19 Setlist (main stage)
‘Tits Yeux Bleus
Banks of TN/Kennesaw
Lonesome Homesick Blues
Pretty Little Dog
The Onlies March 19 Setlist (main stage)
Billy In the Lowground
Look Up, Look Down
Why Don’t You
I Will Arise
Jack & May
The Lonesome Pine Special
Here are images from the second day of this year’s Baltimore Old Time Music Festival at the Creative Alliance on March 19, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.
Foghorn String Band
Jam Session & Vending in the Foyer
Danny Knicely, Early White, Victor Furtado and Mark Schatz
Hannah Read & Jonathan Vocke
Square Dancing called by Willi Carlisle
Brad and Ken Kolodner
Mega Band Monster Jam