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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Community Gathering

Photo by Celeste Chudyk
Photo by Celeste Chudyk

On a day seemingly made for early July (as opposed to mid September), thousands of fans braved the ever-present sun to take in eight hours of acoustic driven music at the 9th annual Boston Folk Festival, sponsored by WUMB radio. Acts, both local and international played on four separate stages set about the UMass campus on Sunday, September 17. Whether in the mood for contemporary country or traditional Celtic music, fans could find something for everyone. With numerous craft booths, food vendors, and activity areas ringing the stages, it was almost sensory overload. The over arcing theme of the day was community, comprised of the fans, performers, and volunteers who helped make the day more than just a concert.

Kicking off at the early hour of 11 a.m., fans gathered at the Field Stage for an hour long set by artist Eliza Gilkyson. The veteran Gilkyson played a collection of songs that ranged from breezy folk to more up-tempo, politically driven songs. The singer/songwriter introduced one of her more raucous numbers by explaining that somewhere, in Texas, a village is missing its idiot. While the statement drew an ovation from the fans lounging in their lawn chairs, the day was less about political activism and more about personal involvement. Gilkyson dedicated the final song of her set to WUMB radio, which she declared is, “the voice of our community.”

The atmosphere among the fans was both comfortable and cordial. There was a real sense of camaraderie among those who identify themselves as folk fans. It was the kind of event where you could leave your blanket and belongings to get a free-trade coffee without fearing someone would poach your spot. And as opposed to hearing that old concert staple, “Down in front!” you were far more likely to get a tap on your shoulder, and a kind request to just slide to your right, a teensy bit, if you wouldn’t mind, so others could see.

Richard Taylor agreed. A representative of the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston, Taylor was manning a booth promoting the group’s various folk concerts and workshops while observing the goings on. After relating a story about running into a concertgoer who recognized many fans from other events, Taylor said, “That’s not unusual, this is really a folk community. That’s the nature of what happens at these kinds of festivals.” Taylor believed it was the fact that many members of the audience also played acoustic music and knew what it was like to be up on stage. Many audience members brought their own instruments to the event and gig bags could be seen everywhere. Taylor summed it up by saying, “There’s a real sense of ‘We’re all in this together,'” a sentiment surely shared by the performers as well.

Performer Liz Carlisle concurred. The 22 year old Harvard grad played a packed set on the Coffeehouse Stage (otherwise known as the Ryan Lounge in McCormack Hall). Playing songs primarily from her recent release, Five Star Day, the country artist held the audience in rapt attention. Carlisle, when asked about the atmosphere of the event, said “A lot of the people who have played at this festival are really members of the community, and they’re walking around and they know all the volunteers, they know a lot of the other performers, and it’s way more than just getting up there and doing a one hour set.” Carlisle, who moved to Boston from Missoula, Montana for school clearly understood the heart of the Boston Folk Festival, having volunteered herself prior years.

Carlisle’s simple, heartfelt songs were surely a highlight of the afternoon. The singer/guitarist has a knack for writing straightforward lyrics about specific things that a broad audience can relate to. When she describes the crisp, cool Montana mornings that she misses, you really get a feeling of sincerity. She whole-heartedly believes in both her music and its message. And while she made a slight Red Sox related faux pas (questioning why the games matter at this point in the season, with the Sox behind 10 games), Carlisle is an up and comer on the local music scene, not typically known for its country artists.

One of the best received sets of the day was submitted by Canada’s The Cottars. A youthful, high-spirited group from Cape Breton, The Cottars performed a stirring selection of 16th century Celtic music augmented by contemporary flares. Led by brother and sister duo Ciarán and Fiona MacGillivray, the band plays traditional instruments like tin whistle and bodhrán alongside keyboard and guitar. Sixteen-year old violinist Claire Pettit got the audience clapping by performing several jigs, both classic and original. Ciarán’s dry wit (“We never play requests, unless we’re asked to”) belied his age, as the teen is truly a performance professional.

The group’s music is especially easy for a festival audience to respond to. You don’t have to know all the songs by heart to fall for the band’s sound. And while the band’s age might at first come as a shock to some, to Ciarán it’s only natural. “In Cape Breton, everyone starts young,” says the band-leader. “It’s nothing in Cape Breton to start playing an instrument at 4 or 5.” Fiona agrees, adding, “Even in places like Cape Breton, which is extremely isolated and relatively pure, Celtic music can get lost among younger people, who are listening to the Top 9 at 9. It’s imperative to us to continue with the traditional music.” The roar of approval that met the band as they closed their set with a four-person step dance routine indicates audiences feel the same way.

In the end, from the concert stages to Stonyfield Farm’s Mooville (“An udderly organic experience”), the sense of community that many spoke of was ever present. And while it can be slightly odd listening to centuries old music obscured by the sound of 21st century jet engines, UMass Boston is home to the heart of that community. WUMB radio is the only station nationally that is completely dedicated to folk music. The Boston Folk Festival is a testament to the popularity of the genre. Or, as Liz Carlisle thinks, “There are many genres within folk, but folk is a community. It is a way of presenting music where people are able to get closer to the music. And I think people like that.” Those at UMB on the 17th sure did.