This year's 43rd annual Kent State Folk Festival takes on an international flavor during its opening night. It kicks off on Thursday, November 5, with a concert by Puerto Rican jibaro musician Edward Colón Zayas. The cuatro master, recent winner of a National Heritage Fellowship, will head up a trio of musicians at the Kent Stage. Dayton's Rondalla Puerto Rico and Cleveland's Isla del Encanto folkloric dance troupe will join them.
Festival coordinator Bob Burford is excited about the opportunity to bring in Colón Zayas, not only for his brilliant music but also as a means of reaching out to the local Latino community. "The music is very accessible," he says. "It's roots music from Puerto Rico, music that is very relatable."
The November 14 closing concert, Banjo Dance, is a performance by Dayton's Rhythm in Shoes. "[It's] the history of Appalachian music in dance, performed by an 11-person ensemble, including Chardon's own Paul Kovac from Hillbilly Idol," says Burford. "It's an amazing 90-minute show that has played in performing-arts centers around the country."
In between, grizzled veterans Jorma Kaukonen and Greg Brown (November 6), bluegrass legend Del McCoury (November 7), Americana band Old Crow Medicine Show (November 11) and the exhaustingly exuberant neo-hippie troupe Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (November 12) will perform.
Burford gladly takes on the challenge of keeping the festival ethnically and generationally diverse. "When booking the Kent State Folk Festival, you're always trying to reach out to different audiences, because you don't want to have five concerts that appeal to the exact same people," he says. "There's no real joy in that. So we try to put together a real diverse lineup, not just in the obvious ways, but shows that appeal to our core audience, which is more the 45- to 65-year-old folks. There's so much happening with younger bands like Edward Sharpe that we want to make sure we're paying attention to that as well. When we say folk, it's way beyond the traditional boundaries of folk music."
One of the big draws each year is the Folk Alley 'Round Town series of free concerts. Bars, restaurants, churches, coffee houses and galleries open their doors to some of the area's best and most widely divergent musicians. "In 2000 we had 10 venues; this year it's 37," says Burford. "The city is really embracing it. We have a lot of Northeast Ohio's great bands. We have Cats on Holiday, Carlos Jones, Hillbilly Idol, Mo' Mojo, the great guitarist Pat Sweany, who's coming back from Nashville. There's killer bands playing everywhere. We have wonderful singer-songwriters and solo artists. We have people playing dulcimers in quilt shops."
In this 40th anniversary year of Woodstock, the Water Street Tavern is hosting Country Joe McDonald in a free performance on November 13. (For those of you too young to know or too stoned to remember, Country Joe was the leader of the infamous "Fish Cheer" at Woodstock). Folk Alley starts at noon on November 13 and runs into the wee hours.
If you're not too sleepy on November 14, there are hands-on workshops at the Kent State Student Center from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Take a banjo lesson, learn to clog (dance, not drains), do some shape-note singing or take in the Cleveland Chinese Music Ensemble. The workshops are free — there are about 20 to choose from.
While you're tooling around Kent, stop by Water and Main and tour the new Folk Alley mobile studio. "This is a new vehicle that we purchased earlier this year with a private gift," says Burford. "It took its maiden voyage to Newport, Rhode Island, where we recorded some of the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival for NPR. It's a state-of-the-art traveling studio that also sleeps four to five people. On Friday, November 13, we'll be doing some live reports on WKSU about what's happening at Folk Alley 'Round Town. Maybe we'll excite some people to say 'Hey, we better head to Kent.'"