Folk music ain’t what it used to be – at least in Jersey City – as evidenced by this year’s Hudson West Folk Festival, which takes place on Saturday, October 16 from noon to 10 p.m.
The annual all-day celebration of Americana, blues, and roots music moves to the state-of-the-art Nimbus Arts Center in the Powerhouse Arts District this year, with an eclectic lineup ranging from the “swampalachian” stomp of Swamp Cabbage, L.A. bluesman Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, Long Island Americana sextet Quarter Horse, Nashville superduo Side Pony, and much more.
The festival will not only feature an eclectic mix of performances and workshops but will also showcase the work of local craftspeople, artists, and photographers. Original stage backdrops will frame the performances, and the festival has teamed with Welcome Home Jersey City and Refugee Chefs to provide unique food and drinks.
Women loom large on this year’s bill, from Hudson Valley singer-songwriter Amy Rigby – a veteran of Manhattan’s early punk scene and Eighties Hoboken – to one-gal band Zoe Lewis, whose 10-album discography spans vintage jazz and world-beat music, to the three women and two men in the family folk band Miles To Dayton, to the Nashville duo Side Pony.
For Side Pony’s Caitlin Cannon and Alice Wallace, playing a folk festival seems a natural extension of their experience and influences. “Alice in her artistic projects executes traditional country and I lean more into alternative country, I like to push those genres and bend them a little bit,” Cannon said. Side Pony, she explained, is “the Alice-Caitlin smoothie you get when you put those influences in a Vitamix.”
“Where does that fit into the folk world?” she asked. “Well, now we have Americana, and folk festivals all over the world are incorporating other sounds, whether it’s alternative country or blues or an indie singer-songwriter. The umbrella has to stretch to incorporate all those genres that are being produced by up and coming artists. And we’ve all been influenced by all these different kinds of music – my songwriting heroes are Woody Guthrie and Patty Griffin – so it’s only natural that our music would reflect multiple genres.” Side Pony’s debut album, “Lucky Break,” released on October 8, brings Wallace and Cannon to Jersey City riding the crest of industry raves. Americana Highways called the album, “a fine display of songwriting,” raving “Wallace and Cannon know how to turn a phrase that can make you smile or make you feel something deep in your heart.”
Both women had solo careers before meeting and teaming up in Nashville. “It’s the only place where it’s acceptable to be writing songs even if you’re not making any money,” Cannon joked. “You’re either a working songwriter there or, next best thing, you’re an out of work songwriter. But we all seem to end up in Nashville, no matter where you’re from originally.”
Based on the songs on “Lucky Break,” fans at Hudson West Fest can expect a rollicking set soaring with harmony vocals, peppered with humor and sass, and mixing country pop with a bit of honky tonk.
“We wrote every song together, 50/50,” it’s absolutely a collaboration,” noted Wallace. “And we really set that bar for ourselves right from the get-go of making sure that we both felt connected and represented in every song that we wrote.”
For headliners Swamp Cabbage, the Hudson West Fest will represent a homecoming for singer/guitarist Walter Parks, a longtime Jersey City Heights resident who, with his wife Margo, played a large role in the local music community, booking the Fox & Crow, the Vault Allure festivals, and other events.
The couple left Jersey City for St. Louis in 2020, in part to help Margo’s elderly parents. “One of them had a hip replacement and the other started kidney dialysis, so they couldn’t help each other,” Parks explained. “This was in March, just when everyone started taking covid super serious. And then, everybody in the arts, you know, everybody’s work just dried up. It was a super, super tough decision, but when family is in need, there’s really no decision to be made, you just have to do it.”
Parks, who had been folk legend Richie Havens’ accompanist for years, started Swamp Cabbage in his downtime, teaming with a New Orleans percussionist named Jagoda. “Richie wanted two guitars on stage, but I said, what can I do to kind of weave in with Ritchie’s galloping style?” Parks said. “And I came up with this kind of banjo picking style on the guitar. You know, if you play it on a banjo, it sounds like a banjo. But when you play it on a guitar, it just sounds like something different.”
“I grew up in Florida, an area of the country that was quite unique in terms of its sound,” Parks continued. “It wasn’t quite New Orleans, it wasn’t quite Nashville, but the southeast part of the US – meaning like, Southeast Georgia, Northeast Florida – they had a whole different thing going on there. A lot of people know it is as Southern rock, you know, Lynyrd Skynyrd, 38 Special, and the Allman Brothers came from there. Besides having more of a rock edge, I think there’s also a black influence in the sound that’s different from country music. If you listen to Skynyrd, you listen to some of the grooves, there’s a kind of a funkiness to it, almost a James Brown quality that you don’t hear in country music.”
Coincidentally, Parks had just returned from a tour before the covid lockdown and was in the process of reassessing his own music. “I just didn’t want to play with bass anymore, it was just too much sound on the stage,” he said. “I still had Jagoda on drums playing his New Orleans style. And I got a call from my buddy Rob Curto, who’s an accordion player I’ve known for years. He’s one of the best musicians that I have met in my life. He’s an accordion player, but he knows how to really throw his whole body and his whole energy into the music. He just doesn’t stand there, he understands the energy of rock and roll, he’s got the capacity for jazz and classical harmony.”
This version of Swamp Cabbage – Parks on guitar, Jagoda on drums, Curto on accordion – will be on display at the Hudson West Festival. “We worked some things out, like the Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ accordion and electric guitar and New Orleans style drumming. Oh my god. I mean, people’s jaws drop. On one hand, it’s absurd that the accordion is playing the Who. But when we pull it off with the intensity that you would expect a Who song to be played with, people who just can’t believe it.”
But, Parks added, Curto brought more to Swamp Cabbage than his intensity. “The irony of it is, and this is really important because we’re getting ready to play at a Folk Festival, it took an Italian- American guy living in Philly to expose me to Irish reels and old Scottish hymns. This is stuff that really, I should have in my blood, but here comes this Italian American guy from Philly, and he says, ‘listen to all these reels, and these jigs, we got to play this stuff.’ So I just cranked up the electric guitar, and he comes in with the accordion and we got this guy playing a New Orleans style drumbeat, it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard. It’s a laughably weird concept, but it’s completely natural and very rootsy. So now we’re playing all this folk music, this Irish music and Appalachian music and mixing it with my swampy, bluesy style and this New Orleans drumming groove, I have, frankly, never heard anything like it.”
This year’s festival has also dedicated two slots to local up-and-coming performers, according to festival board member Laura Foord. “This time around we wanted to take a closer look at the talent pool in our own backyard and so we held a Talent Search last July-August,” she stated. “Musicians in Hudson County were invited to send us videos and links of their original work and performances. And we were quite surprised and pleased by the responses we got.”
A panel of six DJ’s and other local music industry professionals reviewed the submissions and chose two artists to perform at the Fest, Mark Aaron James of Downtown Jersey City and Brett Altman of Hoboken. “The idea is to highlight, give a boost, to someone who might not be well-known and who lives right here among us,” added Foord. “So I’d like to see them get as much attention as possible, before, during, and after our Fest.”
Tickets for the Hudson West Festival are $37.75 online from laurahudsonwestfestorg.ticketleap.com or $40 at the door. The Nimbus Arts Center is located at 329 Warren Street, Jersey City.
Proof of vaccination is required for entry and the audience will be asked to wear masks in the theater and workshops.
Noon – Doors open
1 p.m. Miles To Dayton
2 p.m. Mark A. James
2:30 p.m. Side Pony
3:30 p.m. Blind Boy Paxton
4:30 p.m. Brett Altman
5:00 p.m. Zoe Lewis
5:45 p.m. Dinner Break
6:15 p.m. Quarter Horse
7:15 p.m. Amy Rigby
8:15 p.m. Malcolm Holcombe
9:15 p.m. Swamp Cabbage
2:00 p.m. Jagoda
3:00 p.m. Amy Rigby
4:15 p.m. Side Pony
6:45 p.m. Zoe Lewis