Folk Beach, Day Two: 30A Songwriters Festival
Robert Ellis on January 14, 2017
Folk music festivals everywhere tend to be pretty casual affairs. The music is revered and celebrated, but not so much that everyone has to Take It Very Seriously. It’s about being human together, listening to each other, with music. There’s a certain camaraderie. In most cases, this arises from the fact that we’re all filthy and exhausted from camping in a field for the better part of a week. Here at 30A, we’re all just hanging out at the beach.
So it was that, on the morning of Day Two at 30A, the Cartoon Jazz Band boogied from “If I Only Had a Brain” into “Margaritaville” (complete with that clarinet solo I’m so sure Jimmy Buffett heard in his head when he wrote it). The whole shebang was a little bit tongue-in-cheek. And while there wasn’t so much singer-songwritering going on during the jazz brunch, the music was swinging and the performers eased through the set with that folk-music-at-the-beach kind of vibe.
Not for nothing, the food in this area is part of the allure, breaking from the fish-and-tartar-sauce sandwiches you find in so many beach towns in the rest of this state. Restaurants — even the sports bars — along 30A seem to have bought into the notion that folks who like to relax on beach chairs during the day might also enjoy a fresh and creative collection of flavors on their plates. Thus, if you were hungry during the jazz band, you could settle into a picnic table there with your biscuit, packed with a fried egg and bacon, sliced brisket, or pulled pork, a basket full of pancake hush puppies, and a bloody mary. Good morning, folks!
After brunch, I set out by bike to get my bearings — or try to. As mentioned yesterday, this festival stretches across 25 venues in something like a dozen towns along County Highway 30A. I say “something like a dozen” because it’s never quite clear when you’re crossing city lines. This feels like a strange, mystical parallel universe where every beachside venue has a beautiful, sizable performance space and a food truck or two parked (serving locally sourced hipster food?) nearby. For a part of the country not exactly known for its music scene, this particular region of the Florida Panhandle feels a bit like it was plucked out of Austin or Nashville.
As we ease into the third and final day of the festival, I’m having trouble making heads or tails of it, frankly. It requires that this festival-goer trash her time-tested formula for festival planning. I’ve found that prioritizing my viewing schedule based on a small handful of artists I MUST see at 30A will quickly throw the day into chaos, as venues can be seven miles apart and a decent parking space anywhere is gold (hence the bicycles). Instead, it’s recommended to choose a couple of venues to hang out at — or find a reliable cluster of venues — and commit to discovery. I reckon after a few years of coming back to 30A, the layout starts to make a little better sense, and I’m committed to that long game. But for now, it’s just about parking in a specific area and seeing what it has in store.
Night two, we stayed put near Quincy Circle, where there are four or five venues in a one-block radius. Dan Bern (for the second night in a row) and Kristin Hersh grabbed the bulk of attention so well, we missed a set from Robby Hecht and Sarah Lee Guthrie just a block away.
Bern and Hersh played in a sort of tent-cave at a bar called Bud & Alley’s. The beach itself became part of the show, as we could hear the gentle waves crashing a few hundred yards behind the performers. Earlier in the day, walking along that same stretch of beach (and in the nearby town square) I found the diversity that eluded me on Day One, forcing me to scratch one of two “cons” off my pro/con list about this festival. (The other con being how spread out things are; but that’s not really a drawback either, as it eases crowd concentration and, I believe, keeps things casual.)
Bern took audience requests, lulling my daughter to sleep with his delivery of “Tiger Woods” — probably one of the more comical moments of the night. Put plainly: it’s not typically a lullaby.
Hersh, perhaps best known for her work with iconic cult-following rock band Throwing Muses — though her solo career has been well worth following as well — delivered a short 30-minute set featuring tunes from her latest project, Wyatt at the Coyote Palace. Wyatt is a book of stories, artwork, and lyrics that comes with an accompanying CD of music, and I found it a bit difficult to connect with in this setting.
Luckily she also played “Your Ghost,” perhaps one of her very finest songs, which meditates on loneliness, nostalgia, heartbreak, and loss in equal measure, across a few short stanzas of unrhymed poetry. Though Hersh’s particular approach to songwriting requires more close consideration than Bern’s easy-to-swallow wise-guy-poet approach, the contrast from one set to the next felt like the right balance of the many things it can mean to “be a songwriter.” Definitely a quality this festival has, in spades.
Earlier in the day, I stopped back by the Folk Alley house just in time to chat with Korby Lenker, who handed me a book he published last year and a CD he has coming out this May. Lenker is a thoughtful songwriter and had just recorded a set for FA’s video series. As we talked, Robert Ellis set up shop for a couple of songs. Sporting an aqua blue captain’s cap he picked up somewhere along the strip, Ellis delivered one-take versions of tunes from his self-titled album, which dropped last summer. Of them, “Drivin’” was a clear and easy highlight, maybe the best-written song I've heard at this festival thus far.
“Thus far” is the operative phrase. Ahead today: John Prine. Say no more, mon amour.