With the in-person Richmond Folk Festival canceled, its streaming substitute is a digital bandage on an analog wound.
There is no way to replace the choose-your-own adventure randomness of the original. No spur-of-the-moment decisions like, should you stay with the Tuvan throat singers at the hillside site, or migrate through the crowd across the Brown’s Island bridge and dance to the rhythms of rural Brazil?
Virtualization requires trade-offs, but the organizers intend this year’s online replacement to be more than a placeholder. Instead of sprawling across the riverfront, this assembly of new performances and greatest hits sprawls across platforms.
“There is so much content,” says Stephen Lecky, director of events for Venture Richmond, which stages the festival. “There are four hours of television, 10 hours of streaming video, featuring 16 brand-new acts, 16 hours of radio. We are trying to let folks take in the festival in any way that they would like to take it in.”
So what to check out? A cross-generational collaboration between two local artists at the top of their game, Afro-jazz pioneer James “Plunky” Branch and breakout soul fusion ensemble Butcher Brown is a strong opener for the first of the two VPM television specials, running Saturday and Sunday from 6 to 8 p.m. The two nights alternate between live-in-the-studio sets, recorded at funkily photogenic Spacebomb Records, with performance videos from Folk Festivals past. Puerto Rican bomba y plena band Kadencia kicks off the second hour on Saturday.
The deepest dive is on radio, a curated set of performances going back more than a decade. The range of material allows the assembly of an idealized version of the event where familiar New Orleans jazz gives way to Irish laments, gospel segues into throat singing and music from North Africa has the driving beat and guitar pyrotechnics of rock. Saturday afternoon’s set from Lulo Reinhard/Daniel Stelter gypsy jazz from 2018 and the Lurrie Bell Chicago blues set on Sunday afternoon in 2012 are indelibly vivid memories. However brilliant the parts their sum is the charm. Through the blizzard of genres and the Babel of languages beats a universal human heart. The magic of the festival is that it gives people what they didn’t know they wanted.
The YouTube live streams of new videos are probably as close as you can come to the onsite experience, albeit with an enthusiastic guide who wants to show you everything. Here’s a rundown of highlights from each day:
Friday is all music, threading through Nova Scotian ballads, Texas fiddling, Pedrito Martinez Afro-Cuban, Indian dance, closing with the post-James Brown jazz blues of Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington. Saturday is a mélange of live performances, family activities, cooking demonstrations, closing with Memphis soul. A 2018 recording of a Balkans meets bluegrass jam session from the afterparty is a rare glimpse behind the scenes from the artists’ perspective. Sunday is another content buffet: Lakota hoop dancing, and a hardtack- and baklava-making segment. Indigenous Caribbean music leads into American gospel from the Legendary Ingramettes and Sherman Holmes. There are second helpings of Kadencia and Plunky/Butcher Brown for those who missed the Saturday broadcast. Gospel powerhouse Cora Harvey Armstrong opens the Sunday show on PBS and bluegrass artist Jared Pool and Friends, along with other video performances from the past decade, close everything out.
For those who want to make the socially distanced jump to the real world, there are home participation supplies to pick up at the Children’s Museum of Richmond. Artist Kevin Orlosky has designed a public participating installation piece at Brown’s Island: People paint rocks to represent individual responses to this odd season and place them within a defined boundary. From above, the communal emotions come together to form a giant hand. The Craft Marketplace will be open online. And for those who want to soften the harsh edges of this lockdown season, this year’s beer is Hazy Folk from AleWerks Brewing.
Temporary innovations may become permanent enhancements.
“Even when we go back to the festival on the grounds, these may be elements we continue to do,” Lecky says. “We would hate to go through a lot of great work and not continue.”
It helps that the Library of Congress has recordings of every Richmond Folk Festival performance. Streaming reveals an increased need for visual content.
“Next year, and in years following, we will do a lot more videotaping.”
To learn about this year’s Richmond Folk Festival: A Virtual Celebration, Oct. 9 – 11, visit the festival’s website at richmondfolkfestival.org.