By SARAH SCHREIB
Arts & Entertainment Editor
The Baltimore Folk Festival, featuring a range of acts from traditional string quartets to bluesy dancehall styles, stomping sing-alongs and a number of more electric folk bands, rattled The Ottobar on Saturday night.
As one would imagine for this type of event, the attending crowd contained lots of plaid and bearded faces.
Throughout the festival, which began at 6 p.m. and lasted until 1:30 a.m., attendees were able to pass freely between performances at the downstairs stage, where a majority of the electric, more modern-style bands performed, and the upstairs bar area, where many of the more traditional groups played using just microphones.
For most of the night, the livelier, larger audience remained upstairs, packed in a tight semicircle around the small stage, while the downstairs saw a sparse group of no more than twenty or thirty people for most of the night. Many different bands stopped their set to beg people to step forward toward the stage.
One of the biggest names of the night, The Bumper Jacksons, a bluegrass, roots-driven swing band, took the downstairs stage toward the end of the night. By this point the upstairs audience had migrated downwards and the floor was packed with people of all ages. Even the younger crowd who had lined the seating area for most of the night sprung up, bouncing and swaying to the beat.
The group’s instruments were among the most varied, consisting of a guitar, slide guitar, drum set, clarinet, trumpet and a trombone-shaped kazoo. Like most groups at the festival, the Bumper Jacksons played a mix of their own material and traditional songs. Lead singer Jess Eliot Myhre’s deep bluesy voice led the dancing audience through old gospel tunes like “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” and upbeat country songs like “Got My Whiskey.”
Meanwhile the most popular group for the upstairs crowd seemed to be Baltimore-based, traditional folk group The Manly Deeds, which includes brothers Adam and Jason Aud. Just back from a Halloween festival performance, the band members donned matching white jumpsuits that were filled with large string lights.
Once the lights were dimmed, the audience gasped at the flashy display, which included colored lights strung around the banjos and a multi-colored disco ball on top of the double bass. The highlight of their set was a rousing call and response sing along of “Minnie the Moocher,” with the entire audience bellowing back the “heidi-heidi-heidi-hi.” chorus. Because they quickly won over the audience with their costumes and amiable demeanor, the group members did not seem to care about talking to one another throughout the setlist or worry about minor errors.
“We’re not very good at this — at being a band,” one of the banjo players said.
Two other groups that performed in the intimate upstairs space were The Plate Scrapers and The Ampersand Stringband, both consisting of traditional folk quartet instruments: a guitar, a double bass, a mandolin and a banjo. The Plate Scrapers stirred up the crowd, particularly during an upbeat cover of Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” Audience members whooped and stomped along, calling out phrases like “Oh banjo!”.
Meanwhile the audience for The Ampersand Stringband was almost completely silent for the duration of their quieter, more-restrained performance. Each member was clearly skilled at their respective instruments, with a great deal of attention and praise directed to the intricate abilities of mandolin player Nate Lanzino and guitarist Cory Chubb. The group’s mellow four-part harmony helped bring a new take on old country songs like “The Streets of Baltimore” and even traditional folk songs like “Reuben’s Train.”
Venturing back downstairs, one of the most distinctive alternative folk groups was Big Hoax, a Maryland-based band that often changes its members and instruments. On this particular night, the band consisted of an electric bass, an acoustic guitar, a drum set and an electric cello.
In addition to the unusual use of an electric cello, the band also stood apart in its lead singer Luke Alexander’s use of a slight Irish accent which gave the performance a Celtic-rock feel.
Despite the group’s energy, Alexander in particular seemed to exude an almost manic presence throughout. With the persistent desire for the audience to come forward towards the stage, Big Hoax could not quite capture the excitement of its limited audience who stood static for most of the performance.
Another group that fell victim to the ambivalence of a smaller audience was Sweet Saro, the first performers on the downstairs stage. In spite of a sporadic crowd that was just starting to filter into the venue, the charm and pleasant vocals of lead singer Abby Becker did manage to engage many audience members.
Like other groups of the night, Sweet Saro excelled in creating smooth harmonies that held a perfect balance between traditional and modern folk music. The double bass, covered in some kind of Christmas sweater, was also highlighted in the performance and could be heard keeping time over the light tinkling of the mandolin and dramatic flare of the keyboard.