With male leadership looking particularly shabby in recent months, I like to imagine what the world would look like with women in charge. And since my bailiwick is mostly filled by music coverage, I don’t have to look far to get a sense of what a gynocentric society might sound like, at least in Berkeley.
Fiddler, guitarist, vocalist and roots-music maven Suzy Thompson has been the producer and guiding spirit behind the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention since it grew out of the Berkeley Farmers Market string band contest in 2003. Running from Thursday through Sunday, the Convention presents numerous concerts, workshops, jam sessions, discussions and square dances at venues and sites around the city.
As Thomson sees it, old-time music’s low bar to entry and inherently communitarian ethos is an ideal antidote to the physical isolation fed by our addiction to iPhones and assorted gizmos. Playing the time-tested repertoire requires face to face interaction. “You can’t sit around and play tunes with someone on-line, not even on Skype, and you can’t dance with people on-line,” Thompson says.
“Anything that makes people have a human experience is good, especially right now. Being politically active is super important. But it’s also important to have joy and community togetherness and not have this other garbage.”
Activities start early Thursday afternoon and kick into high gear at Freight & Salvage at 5 p.m. with a free, open jam session hosted by Jim and Joyce Cauthen. The evening triple bill features the Foghorn Stringband, Bobby Taylor and Kim Johnson, and Del Rey and Suzy Thompson, who recently released a new album, Communiqué (Hobemian Records).
Featuring Rey on resonator guitar and ukulele and Thompson’s torrid blues fiddle (with Matt Weiner on bass), the women have performed together for more than three decades, though opportunities to play have become scarce since Rey moved from Santa Cruz to Seattle. On the new album, the trio explores tunes from the early 20th century, when ragtime and blues were very much in vogue.
Friday’s triple bill at the Freight features the Bay Area debut of fiddle great Bruce Molsky’s Mountain Drifters, the Red Mountain Yellowhammers, and the extraordinary duo of Anna and Elizabeth, who moved Thompson to tears when she first saw them perform. Featuring Elizabeth LaPrelle, who hails from rural Virginia and is widely considered the most commanding traditional singer of her generation, and Kentucky-trained banjo expert Anna Roberts-Gevalt, the duo “has a way of presenting really traditional music sung and played in a really old-time way, but their manner of presenting on stage is really artful and draws you in,” Thomas says.
“Theatrical isn’t exactly the right word, but they perform with this wonderful combination of spontaneity and theatricality at the same time. They also have this visual part, crankies, which are large-size scrolls, sometimes painted, sometimes using embroidery and fabric art, that illustrate a narrative ballad. When either sing, you see the action. The cranky gives an extra layer of understanding, and you can really enter the story. Long ballads are what people had when they didn’t have television and radio and electricity. Elizabeth actually performed at the Convention about 10 years ago when she was still in her teens.”
Anna and Elizabeth give a free performance for kids and families Saturday morning at the Main Branch of the Berkeley Public Library. The Berkeley Farmers Market String Band Contest runs from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with a special guest appearance by the Manning Music Fiddlers, followed by a square dance at Ashkenaz in the evening featuring the Foghorn Stringband, the Red Mountain Yellowhammers, and Bobby Taylor and Kim Johnson with rhythm guitar master Karen Celia Heil, and Phil Jamison and Evie Ladin calling steps.
The Thompson family’s ties to the East Bay old-time music scene run very deep. Suzy’s husband, bluegrass guitar master Eric Thompson participated in the original string band contests held at Civic Center Park (then known as Provo Park) in the late 1960s. In fact, “Eric went to get the permit from the City of Berkeley for the first one, and in filling out the form, under who’s putting on the event, he filled in ‘Nobody.’ Some people who judge the contest were participants back in the day, so there’s this continuum.”
Speaking of women taking charge, blues, jazz and soul singer Rhonda Benin plays the California Jazz Conservatory on Sunday afternoon with veteran pianist John R. Burr, bassist Erich Hunt, and drummer Alcide Marshall. Benin is behind the annual Just Like a Woman extravaganza at the Freight that’s become an increasingly visible and valuable showcase for women musicians. She’s already lined up a powerhouse program for next year’s show on March 31, but for now, she’s only confirming the stylist jazz/blues singer Frankye Kelly and the magnetic Oakland-reared soul singer (and songwriter) EC Scott. More information to come.
The East Bay choro ensemble Grupo Falso Baiano celebrates the release of a gorgeous new album Depois at the California Jazz Conservatory Friday night. Propelled by percussionist Ami Molinelli, Falso Baiano features reed player Zack Pitt-Smith, seven-string guitarist Brian Moran, and special guest Rebecca Kleinmann on flute. And Berkeley vocalist Destani Wolf plays Jupiter on Friday, which means downtown Berkeley will be overflowing with female awesomeness this weekend.