Musicians join together for the Friday night “Mega-Band” jam at the fourth annual Baltimore Old Time Music Festival held at Creative Alliance on March 10 and 11, 2023. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Ken Kolodner and his son, Brad, want to do more than just celebrate and honor old-time music — they envision perpetuating and expanding the genre beyond any narrow preconceptions that might hinder its advancement. They see it thriving now and into the future as more modern artists continue to embrace the old-time sound or some version of it, reinterpreting and creating new songs to be added to the catalogue and handed down to the next generation.
In hosting the fourth edition of the Baltimore Old Time Music Festival at Creative Alliance this past weekend, the father-son duo successfully furthered its mission by welcoming an impressive list of outstanding musicians to the Charm City for not only memorable performances, but a busy slate of instructional workshops led by the artists themselves.
The community arts hub was packed on the evening of March 10 for sets that kicked off in the cozy lounge bar and on the main stage as well. Out in the main lobby, an open jam session had already begun, and it would last throughout the event as fiddlers and pickers and pluckers of all sorts of stringed instruments would join in communal fashion. The sounds set the scene as attendees mingled and music-related businesses, including local instrument makers, showcased their products in the vending area.
Listen to the Lonesome Ace Stringband’s 2021 live album, Lively Times, via Spotify:
The diverse lineup first brought to the lounge Sarah Kate Morgan, an acclaimed and award-winning Appalachian dulcimer player and singer-songwriter, before banjoist and guitarist Hubby Jenkins entertained the room with his multi-instrumental talents and shined light on the history of the songs he played.
A crucial recurring theme of the event, Jenkins pointed out that so much of old-time music is derived from instruments that were made by Black people, or are songs written by Black people or recreations of those songs. Moving through his setlist, clapping the bones along the way, he referenced Frederick Douglas, adding that the famous abolitionist from Maryland “heard his first inkling of wanting to be free in these songs.”
Brad Kolodner shared that, with Baltimore being a predominantly Black city, he and his father consider it a priority to educate music listeners on the roots of old-time and other forms of string music.
“This festival is a nice opportunity to get a little deeper into that story and show that Black folks have always been part of the tradition,” Brad said, adding that he looked forward to helping “recast the story of the banjo, and further the conversation about where this music comes from.”
On the other side of the building Friday night, a separate flock of onlookers was packed in tight to observe mesmerizing sets on the main stage by Nora Brown and Stephanie Coleman, the newly formed Ginny Hawker Trio, harmonica master and local legend Phil Wiggins, Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons, and the Toronto-based Lonesome Ace Stringband. The performances gained momentum on the way to a full-ensemble jam featuring just about every player in the house — a yearly exercise now referred to as the Old Time “Mega-Band.”
The Kolodners, who’ve been recording together since Brad was a student at Ithaca College, were the first to take the main stage, and it gave them the opportunity to share their excitement that another year of planning and coordinating had paid off. Like most of the artists over the course of the weekend, they were introduced by Baltimore native Cathy Fink, a Grammy-winning banjo player, teacher, and revered children’s music creator.
“It feels so good to be playing music at the Creative Alliance for the Old Time Music Festival,” Brad said as he took the mic. To his left, his father stood at the hammered dulcimer, an enchanting instrument that sits on a pedestal and has provided such a dazzling resonance to the tracks Ken has played and recorded with it.
Along with the hammered dulcimer, Ken would play a rare, custom-made instrument known as the hammered mbira, essentially a fusion of the African mbira and the hammered dulcimer. The use of the uncommon instrument highlighted Brad’s and his father’s effort to continue honoring the African heritage of the music, pairing it with the gourd banjo and bringing the most out of what they described as a sonically different texture than other dulcimers.
“Old-time is not my favorite name for a genre, but I think it’s fun to be able to show people, at least through our lens, that old-time is much wider than just the fiddle and banjo at a square dance, which is still super fun,” Brad said.
“But it’s more diverse than just a couple of white guys sitting on their porch in Appalachia playing fiddle tunes that maybe have problematic names.”
In curating this year’s lineup, Brad and his father brought in not only artists they would wait in line themselves to see, but those they observe drawing on influences other than old-time string band music to concoct a refreshed old-time sound, without worrying about “strict” genre boundary lines.
Presenting a blues-tinged take on old-time, Wiggins, Hunter and Seamons endeared the sold-out venue Friday in the trio’s first of two appearances. Wiggins is one of the most respected and talented harmonica players on the globe, and he rejoiced in the chance to be performing so close to his hometown Washington D.C.
Watch Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons perform with Phil Wiggins via Live at WAMU’s Bluegrass Country via YouTube:
The winner of the 2021 Maryland State Arts Council’s Heritage Award, to go with a long list of other honors, Phil toured for years with his longtime musical partner and Northern Virginia native John Cephas, who passed away in 2009. Phil shared the heartrending story of his parents’ migration to the nation’s capital in search of a better life, and he delighted with wildly entertaining snippets of his upbringing, fetching loud cackles from some older folks gulping wine in the back of the audience.
“No fools, no fun,” he wrapped up a tale of a day-long neighborhood gathering that ended in a nutty melee. Other artists taking the stage would echo those wise words.
Revisit Phil Wiggins’ work with his longtime partner John Cephas as Cephas & Wiggins with the duo’s 1996 album Cool Down:
And in one of the highlights of the weekend, he and his younger counterparts — remarkably impressive players from Seattle and award-winners themselves — offered up a stirring dose of the timeless roots music they’ve developed together, which includes both original songs and those learned over their collective years of touring and recording.
Sitting back just away from the mic as he cupped his hands around his 10-hole diatonic harmonica, Phil seemed to channel so much of his spirit and experience into the beautiful solos he blew with amazing delicacy and nuance. He moved and gratified the audience, bringing it to impassioned cheers as he softly faded into the distance.
Though they were quick-witted, both Ben and Joe expressed on the stage and off just how much touring and recording with Phil means to them, each praising their elder for all he’s accomplished and all the lives he’s touched with his music, including theirs.
Many ticketholders had come to the fest for the first time and had traveled to Baltimore from out of town, and, for the second year in a row, one of the premiere acts had to cross an international border to take part in the weekend.
A group that the Kolodners had hoped to bring to Charm City for some time, the Lonesome Ace Stringband is one of the most adored old-time squads out of Canada. Comprised of banjoist Chris Coole, fiddler John Showman and bass player Max Heineman, the unassuming trio took the stage after a kindly humorous introduction by Fink and absolutely invigorated the audience with razor-sharp chops and riveting melodies.
These tunes seemed to gain steam from a simple bounce to become rapid, absorbing grooves that had the entire audience boogying in place, hooting and howling with a drink in hand. Like all the musical guests, Lonesome Ace’s members sat in the audience themselves to watch the other performances.
“These are some hard acts to follow,” Heineman said. “What a great night of music.”
“We’d been bugging Brad, telling him to let us come down here,” Coole said with a proud smile and a touch of dry humor. “Here we are.”
An old-time band with unabashed bluegrass tendencies, Lonesome Ace Stringband tastefully and smoothly operates in the blur between the two realms, a friendly reminder there might not be much of a discernable difference to the average listener anyhow. The group reinterprets passed-down tunes and creates its own that it hopes will endure and be played by others further down the road, including selections from a forthcoming album shared this past weekend.
Having played more than 1,600 gigs, Lonesome Ace Stringband demonstrated organic synchronicity, hands and fingers moving at unthinkable speeds. These three fellows took their turns on the mic or came together in glorious harmony through a terrific set that gave way to the Mega-Band assembly.
The second day saw Creative Alliance full by late morning as a variety of workshops invited folks who are learning the craft to study under some of the respected artists who were in town for the weekend. Jenkins led a Blind Willie Johnson guitar class, while Showman, Coole, Coleman and others hosted classes focused on their respective instruments of choice. Hunter offered a class on playing the bones, while his friend Seamons later led a discussion on using roots music to confront racism.
Ken Kolodner plays fiddle in one of the many open jams of the weekend at the fourth annual Baltimore Old Time Music Festival held at Creative Alliance. (Photo by Casey Vock)
Across the street at the Creativity Center, there were jams all Saturday afternoon, a family square dance, a flatfoot workshop and a look at Ottawa Valley Step Dancing led by the renowned Nova Scotian folk duo Mama’s Broke.
“This is an ambitious event,” said the younger Kolodner, who at just 33 years old already wears a variety of different hats as a leader of both the old time and bluegrass factions in Baltimore.
A reminder of the area’s wealth of talent and influence, Patrick McAvinue joined the Kolodners along with bassist Alex Lacquement for their early Saturday evening set in what was a vital showcase of highly skilled friends who play together in various Baltimore outfits, including the roots quartet Charm City Junction.
McAvinue, the 2017 IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year, is not only a masterful violinist, but is adept on the mandolin too, and the group’s overall dynamism was on display as all four players rotated to different instruments, with Ken and Brad both playing the fiddle and Alex dropping the bass to play the banjo.
Utilizing two stages, two classrooms, a dance studio and a jam space, the Old Time fest was born out of the Kolodners’ own experience at festivals, touring together and playing many community-style, come-one-come-all jam sessions aimed at letting people grow as musicians. Artists at the Old Time fest appear to let their guard down, and most could be seen talking to attendees who had gotten the chance to see them perform and then learn from them as well.
As workshops were taking place Saturday, the musicians would begin taking the stage too, and all the guests would play at least one more set either on the main stage or in the lounge. A former member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops who has played with the likes of Rhiannon Giddens and many others, Jenkins would perform two additional sets Saturday as part of his impactful visit to Baltimore.
Brown and Coleman also performed two full sets, showing off the absorbing sound and style of these two meticulous and celebrated musicians.
Brown, who began learning and playing traditional music as a child, is now known far and wide as a young hero to many fans of stringed instruments. Coleman, who grew up in Chicago and was playing fiddle early in her life, is herself an in-demand player, having recently appeared violin-in-hand on HBO’s Crashing. During the duo’s lounge set, which provided a dreamy look into their distinct influences, Coleman invited her father to join her and Brown for one of the heartwarming moments of the weekend.
Listen to Nora Brown’s 2022 studio album, Long Time To Be Gone, via Spotify:
By creating a consistently inviting platform and an intimate experience for both attendees and musical guests, the Kolodners have set up the Old Time fest to blossom as yet another enticing feature of Baltimore’s active music scene. And with careful attention on everything from the schedule to the branding, they’re effectively positioning it as the favorite annual stop they hope it to be for both established and up-and-coming musicians.
“We have a liberal view of what old-time is. It’s not just fiddle and banjo. It’s a lot of blues, and some gospel and country — it’s getting outside the range of just the string band.”
And even notable musicians who weren’t on the bill were there just to take it in or eventually hop on stage for the culmination of the event: a full-scale, energetic square dance called by Phil Jamison, a veteran caller of dances and a scholar of traditional Appalachian dance.
Dozens of attendees skipped, twirled and roared well past midnight as Jamison provided instruction from the stage and, to his right, Brown and Coleman led a gaggle of players — the second iteration of the Old Time Mega-Band — through a non-stop jam.
Guest musicians came and went throughout nearly four straight hours of playing. When the music finally subsided, some attendees didn’t know what to do with themselves other than rehydrate. Exhausted, the musicians on stage caught their collective breath, warmly congratulating each other on a job well done.
“I feel proud and fortunate that we were able to pull off three festivals in the past three years,” Kolodner said. “Whether you play, or whether you’re a fan and you’re just there, we try to make sure there’s something for anybody who wants to get into this music. … We have big plans for our fifth anniversary in 2024 and we’re excited to see how this festival can grow.”
Here are images of the fourth annual Baltimore Old Time Music Festival held at Creative Alliance on March 10 and 11, 2023. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.
Sarah Kate Morgan
Ginny Hawker Trio
Lonesome Ace Stringband
Phil Wiggins, Ben Hunter, and Joe Seamons
Nora Brown and Stephanie Coleman
Ken and Brad Kolodner with Patrick McAvinue and Alex Lacquement
Square Dance Called by Phil Jamison