NEW BEDFORD, Mass. Workshops have been a feature of summer folk festivals for decades.
At the "New Folks" workshops at the legendary Newport Folk Festivals of the 1960s not far from the site of Summerfest, this weekend's little gem of a folk festival such stars as Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs and James Taylor, for instance, got their start.
But at Summerfest, the concept is taken to a whole different level.
"There's no teaching going on, no hands-on instrumental instruction," Helene Korolenko, the festival's talent booker, said.
"It's just round-robin sets put together with themes. Some are just fun, some make you think. A few of the concepts make performers nervous at first, but they end up really enjoying it."
On paper, the six-stage event sounded more like an academic symposium than a festival. Such folk notables as Garnet Rogers, Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, Susan Werner and Ellis Paul joined a score of traditional and contemporary folkies in sets that were devoted to such subjects as history, crime, morals, modern urban life, Irish emigration and the battle of the sexes.
Though she was one of the strongest performers of the festival, Susan Werner seemed to squirm on stage, trying to come up with songs that fit the workshop themes. Even the workshop on "Great Love Songs" gave her pause.
"I don't know that the love I write about is all that great," she said, before interpreting the Tin Pan Alley chestnut "Time After Time" with jazzy acoustic guitar and elegant understatement. She also cleverly sashayed around the concept with the smartly satiric "Ain't I Lonely Tonight," a pep talk of deluded self-love.
Newcomer Richard Berman had the most creative solution to the "Great Love Songs" theme: a ditty sung from Oedipus' mother-loving, father-killing point of view, written as if the Greek mythological figure was just an ordinary guy chatting about his everyday problems in a therapy session.
History Is In The Making
In the "Songs of History" workshop, rising star Shindell offered his own "Reunion Hill" (RealAudio excerpt), a chilling Civil War reverie that's been recorded by Joan Baez.
"Did you make that story up out of whole cloth?" fellow singer/songwriter James Keelaghan of Canada asked.
"I did," Shindell admitted.
"That's the great thing about history. You can make it up," Keelaghan said. "Never let the facts get in the way of a good song."
Traditional folkies, such as Scott Alarik, Jeff Warner, Jeff Davis and Britain's Damien Barber, had no problem finding songs for the workshop topics.
Star worship isn't the point in an event like Summerfest, but it's possible to catch your favorite artist in as many as four different workshops in a single day.
"I would travel two hours just to see Kelly Joe Phelps sing one song," one middle-aged male fan said.
A round-robin with three or four performers can rob a set of the cohesion and momentum of a single artist's show, yet some performers, like Phelps, do well in short doses. His brilliant slide guitar and smoky voice weave an immediate, moody spell, but over the long haul, it was difficult to know if Phelps' songs fit the workshop themes because his lyrics were hard to understand.
The fest created some genuinely spontaneous moments, such as Paul's pretty guitar accompaniment to a plaintive Kaplansky ballad at the workshop called "Anything But Another Love Song." Paul's version of Woody Guthrie's "Hard Travelin' " was an urgent, rough-hewn gem.
In a solo showcase, Paul showed how much he's grown in recent years. A young 10-year veteran of the New England folk scene, Paul has recently hit pay dirt with a prominent place on the soundtrack of the Jim Carrey comedy "Me, Myself & Irene." He sang a commanding version of "The World Ain't Slowin' Down" (RealAudio excerpt), the catchy love theme of the movie.
One of the finest workshops, "Honoring Those Departed," revived the works of late songwriters. Roy Book Binder unearthed a song from obscure country singer Jimmy Murphy. Alarik sang a tender version of Stan Rogers' sea ballad "The Mary Ellen Carter."
The pleasures of a folk festival aren't merely musical. The expressive Irish-American singer Cathy Ryan was spied shopping for summer dresses minutes after her workshop on "Life's Passions" was finished.
"I just found a great dress for $20. I'm so happy!" she said. "Now I have to rush off to see Richard Shindell. His first album lives on my CD player. And later on I have to check out what Cherish the Ladies sound like now," she said, referring to the Irish all-female band for which she once sang lead.
"This is my favorite festival. It's so intimate," said Joe Knowlton, 45, of Boston. "You can talk to the performers and really get to know different sides to their music, seeing them go from stage to stage."