I headed to the airport in the quiet North Carolina morning, anticipation mounting because I was going to one of my favorite music festivals in the whole world, the National Women’s Music Festival. They were the first big festival to book me, back when I was an unknown folk singer from way out in Arizona, in ’90 or ’91, and they’ve been kind to me ever since. Some women miss being out in the woods and while I love me some green, there’s nothing like live music in a nice hall with no worries about the weather, and sleeping in real beds after the last late night jam.
If only I’d thought to put the hotel information in my itinerary. After retrieving my luggage, I went to a bank of phones and called the number for one of the hotels listed on a big sign in the little Madison, Wisconsin airport and asked if this was the place that hosted the women’s music festival. I was relieved when the woman at the other end of the line answered yes. She said their shuttle was otherwise involved, but that I could take a cab and they’d cover it.
The cab driver answered “Huh?” to most of my questions so I quit trying to have a conversation with him. He dropped me off at the front door and I strolled up to the counter and gave them my name. Eyebrows knitted in concern, the clerk said I wasn’t listed. “Maybe it’s under the festival’s name?” I helpfully offered. “No” she replied. “You don’t have others from the festival here?” I added. Again the answer was no. It was then that I looked up and read the sign above the desk – Radisson. The cab driver misheard me and brought me to the wrong hotel. A young man in a Radisson uniform offered to take me to the right hotel, bless his heart.
As soon as I walked into the lobby of the Marriot, it felt like home. In the few feet between the door and the front desk, I heard and gave several delighted greetings and received a couple of warm hugs. Now we’re talkin’. After a quick check in I headed to the elevators and coming the other way was a grinning face I remembered from long ago – my first-ever girlfriend Lois. We were together in the 70’s and after many years with no contact, found each other recently through the miracle of the Internet. After a hug I headed upstairs to my room, but didn’t stay long. Lois and our friend Deb grabbed a quick dinner and then ducked into the room where a concert was already in progress.
It was great to experience the festival through Lois and Deb’s eyes. Neither one of them had ever been to a women’s music festival before. Often I’d sneak a look at them as they stared wide-eyed at all the happy women.
This won’t be a review of every act I saw and unfortunately, I didn’t catch everyone. With my busy schedule of emceeing (twice), performing and hanging with friends, I still had to find time to, I dunno, sleep. However, that first night I heard some really fine jazz from Lynette Margulies and Jane Reynolds, a great set of drumming from Sister Ngoma that had me doing a little booty shakin’ and half of the charming duo Nervous But Excited’s set. I would’ve stayed for all of them, but getting up at 5:30 that morning suddenly whapped me upside the head. I was very disappointed to have missed Ladies Must Swing, the act after them, especially since I adore swing dancing. The only dancing I’d witness that night would be counting the sheep sashaying across my brain as I dropped off to dreamland.
The next morning, the breakfast area in the lobby was hopping. I table surfed, had a little conversation here, a little conversation there. I sat with musician friends and dished about tours. Melanie DeMore cracked us all up with her comments about how she usually greets Mary Watkins, “Mary Watkins! As I live and breathe!” I talked with fans about the book I’m writing. I had coffee with Holly Near. In fact, I saw Holly a lot. We don’t know each other well, but she always had a friendly word for me. At one point we were walking down the hall as yet another fan stopped to compliment her. She graciously smiled and thanked the woman, and then continued walking with me. I told her she should change her name to Holly F***ing Near. Fortunately, she gets my humor and laughed.
One morning at breakfast I was introduced to Kay Gardner’s daughter Juliana. Not only does she look like her mother, but oh, that voice! Tears sprang to my eyes. Juliana was there because her mother’s work A Rainbow Path would be performed on the Saturday night stage.
Soon, it was time to meet my band for a rehearsal. I knew I had a great group – Kara Barnard on mandolin and guitar, Phyllis Free on percussion, Jamie Price on vocals and Martine Locke on vocals – but I was nervous about me. I usually perform solo. When I hear a hot guitar solo or sweet backing vocal I’m likely to stop because I’m listening to them. Then I realize, oh yeah, I’m supposed to be playing the guitar. During my new song “Mamaw’s Roses,” the harmony vocals were so gorgeous I started crying. Who’d have thought that bad-ass rocker Martine would call up some inner angel and sound like that? Or on another song that Phyllis Free could pound on a giant bucket and get beats so tasty I could eat them with a spoon? Don’t even get me started about Kara’s effortless accompaniment or Jamie’s sweet voice.
Immensely satisfied with the practice, I sauntered down the hall to the day stage for my first emcee gig and checked in with my old friend Retts who was stage managing. We went over some details and I sat down to write out some intros. I thought about what I’d say to entertain while the set changes were going on behind me. I was assured that everything would go quickly, but I’m always ready with a funny tour story because you never know when a cranky amp will refuse to work or a mike will get plugged into the wrong input. Aside from my stories, I can always take off my shirt and that’s good for a minute or two of cheering. (No, I’m not that kind of entertainer, but I’m always wearing a pretty bra that makes it real handy to do a quick little bellydance. Costume? I don’t need no freakin’ costume. And before the rumors start, my bras aren’t any more revealing than the average bathing suit.) One time at that festival I was on stage for a half hour talking about my dog, my home, my partner … I was about to recount what I’d had for breakfast by the time they tapped me on the shoulder and said “We’re ready.”
Leela and Ellie Grace were on first. When I introduced them, I said that when I saw their names on the festival publicity, my heart did a little flutter and I really meant it. I heard them at a conference a few years ago playing in, of all places, a cramped hotel room. Their traditional folk and tight sister harmony was the highlight of that event and I knew they’d find a similar place at this festival. Their old-timey flavored set of banjo, mandolin and guitar ended with a riotous burst of clogging.
Stellar songwriter Chris Collier was on next and last, the energetic Summer Osbourne. I don’t know what she puts on her cereal in the morning, but I’d like some too. During her set, I saw a familiar face rounding the corner into the back stage area, her arms out and wearing the biggest grin. My partner, Pat, had just arrived after a 2 ½ day ride on her motorcycle from our home in Ottawa. It’d been over a month since we’d seen each other. I don’t know how long we hugged, but I think Summer got through two songs before we drew apart.
Melanie DeMore was a great way to start the stage that night. Her deep resonating voice is so expressive. Emma’s Revolution gave us a tight set of uplifting political music. Holly Near was next. I’ve seen her with a multitude of great pianists, but I have to say that the guitars, voices and banjo of Emma’s Revolution are my favorite. They complement each other so well. Pat’s rich alto and Sandy’s flexible soprano sound great with Holly’s voice – a little Ronnie Gilbert, a dash of Broadway and one hundred percent Holly. Refreshingly out pop duo Sugar Beach was on last. Aptly named, they were the dessert to a really great day.
Saturday morning I had a quick sound check and then tried to nap. My brain was buzzing with anticipation though, so I sat up, grabbed my guitar and ran through a few of the songs I’d be singing that afternoon. If nerves got the better of me while I was on stage I wanted to make sure my hands and voice would carry on without me. There have been times during a show when I looked down at my strumming hands in awe, like an alien had taken over my body. Yeah, that’s it, I was training the aliens.
I needn’t have worried. The aliens came through for me. My band was awesome; my songs felt solid and the stellar sound crew made me sound like a trillion bucks. At one point I looked over at Kara on my right. She raised her eyebrows, a smile filled her face and silently I replied, “Yeah. Freakin’ yeah.” (Well, it was another F word but I’m trying to keep this suitable for families.)
That night an orchestra – strings, wind instruments, percussion and harp – awed us with A Rainbow Path. I was transported. It would’ve been better without the chair digging into my back, but it’s a minor complaint. (I found out later that some of the chairs had issues. I learned to choose more carefully after that.) Big Bad Gina followed and although I loved their high energy set, I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I shuffled up to my room to catch some shut eye. I figured I’d catch the Gina girls at the Michigan festival in August. I could wake up in time to hear Toshi Reagon who was on next. But oops. Never underestimate the lack of sleep in a middle-aged musician. I overslept and made it back to the stage but only caught Toshi’s last song. Damn.
She wasn’t the last on that night. One of the highlights of this festival is the performer jam on Saturday night. Musicians from every stage show up and each do one song with others jumping in to help. I’d had a power nap. Y’all watch out.
We started with a traditional tune, “Whisky before Breakfast.” With musicians like Kara Barnard and Leela and Ellie Grace, it’s national law that you have to do some bluegrass. The drummers cranked up – who says traditional folk can’t have a djembe or two? – and the rest of us sang or played guitar. Leela and Ellie closed with some fine percussion accompaniment a la their feet. Our 47 part harmony continued for many songs.
Sharon Katz told us she was going to rock it Zulu style and laid down an upbeat guitar riff. Melodie Griffis from Big Bad Gina slammed out a groove on the bass, the drummers amped up and girl howdy, we were rockin’. Wendy Quick, a member of Sharon’s band, showed us some dance moves. Martine Locke looked pretty adorable shaking her booty.
Big Bad Gina ripped out a rollicking blues tune and Holly Near sang the inspirational “Mountain Song.”
Somewhere in there it was my turn. I started my medley of classic women’s music with Therese Edell’s “Emma.” Immediately, Holly Near jumped up to join me. It was all I could do to keep focused. C’mon aliens, don’t fail me now. As I segued into other songs, various performers on stage accompanied me. The audience sang too. On Maxine Feldman’s “Amazon” I saw hands wave in the air and heard their voices joyfully rise with mine. The medley gathered in energy with Cris Williamson’s “Song of the Soul” and to end, Holly’s “Something About the Women.” I levitated with happiness. It’s for these moments that I do music.
We ended the round robin with a lively “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Kara Barnard tore the top off her guitar ripping out a great solo. Guitars, banjo and mandolin rang out with the audience on their feet singing along.
Now that’s a jam, baby.
The energy continued in the hotel lobby because some of us weren’t ready to quit. After a couple of songs the management graciously asked us to move. What, people were trying to sleep at midnight? We traipsed into a room where we could shut the door and jammed some more. We sang everything from Martine’s “Hallelujah” to rounds learned in Girl Scouts. Around 2 am I finally ran out of gas and floated back to my room.
I woke up way too early on Sunday morning. Damn hormones. Some women get hot flashes, I wake up at oh-dark-thirty every freaking morning. Maybe the energy from the previous night would continue to fuel me, I theorized, and besides, now I could go to breakfast and relax with everyone some more. I listened in on a conversation about Africa between Holly Near, Sharon Katz and my globetrotting wife (she works for a humanitarian organization). At another table I talked with a woman who asked how she could further support women’s music. I moved on to another group and laughed with performer buddies about all that had happened that weekend.
After a quick trip to the crafts area I high tailed it to the main stage for my second emcee gig. My batteries were certainly low at this point but I managed to sound somewhat coherent as I introduced the drum chorus, the festival choir and the WIA’s Got Talent finalists, Ginger Doss and Barb Neligan. Two judges would decide who won the prize of a performance slot for next year. I was glad I wasn’t the one to decide. I really enjoyed Ginger’s multi-layered pop/rock – how did she get a whole band in that keyboard? – and Barb’s very funny stand-up routine with banjo — because she’s from Nashville and there, “it’s the law.” Some other awards were presented as the judges made their decision and afterwards, in true supportive fashion, both were proclaimed winners. Ginger will perform on the day stage next year and Barb snagged the main stage slot.
Hilarious comic Dana Goldberg was on next. I introduced funny woman Julie Goldman after that, but couldn’t stay because my flight was leaving soon.
There was so much more – workshops, open mike, Living Room Stage performances, Mary Watkin’s set and Sharon’s Katz’s performance – that I didn’t have time to attend. If they offer a cloning workshop next year I’ll make it work.
As I sat at the airport, my brain ran a happy festival movie — a pastiche of lovely music, laughter and beautiful women including that amazing performer jam. Holly Near sang with me. I can die now.
If anyone has video and photos of this year’s festival, especially of the performer jam or my set, I’d love to see them. Tag me on Facebook (JamieAndersonOttawa or JamieAndersonMusic) or send them to tsunamiinc at aol dot com.