By the time you read this on Saturday morning (or later), the fun will have past and you’ll have to wait until next year for such a great time as was had this evening in Kent, Ohio. First, a bit of a history lesson. The Kent State Folk Fest had been one of the oldest, and best known music festivals in Ohio, going on for more than 40 years. The recent changes at WKSU, Kent State, and other sponsors meant that this year, the fest would re-emerge under a new name- Kent State ‘Round Town. Around Town had always been one night of the week-plus-long music extravaganza, so the name fit. Around Town is the free night, with over thirty venues hosting music by local artists in bars, restaurants, churches, stores, and more. This isn’t the only change that has come with WKSU’s new station manager, but whatever.
Thursday night, the festival opened with Liz Frame and the Kickers, Good Old War, and Dawes on the Student Green at Kent State. Liz Frame was powerful, with a driving drum beat and electric double bass, which is fun to see and hear in action once in a while. Good Old War was a very good time, not just because of the great music, but because two of the three Ear To The Ground writers got a chance to hang out. I only got to hear a bit of Dawes, as I had my seven year old in tow and he wanted to get home. Most of what I heard was in between finding security and dealing with a lost key to a kid’s bike lock.
Friday included massive amounts of great music, good friends, and tasty food. With over thirty free venues in one day, there’s absolutely no way to see everyone you want, so there’s a decent amount of planning that goes into visiting Free Friday. All that planning goes out the door when weather and schedule changes shuffle the where and when of who is playing. That little detail was the only downside to the evening. For our group of music lovers, we started with dinner at Bar 145 in Kent for a few reasons, 1) we hadn’t tried it yet, 2) it’s a bourbon bar with burgers (I’m told the proper term is “gastro pub,” whatever that is), 3) they’re centrally located in downtown Kent, and 4) they were hosting the Speedbumps, whom we haven’t seen in a few years. Their blend of jazzy folk with saxophone is just as good as ever. Hey Mavis beings danceable folk with an approachable sound, easily distinguishable as roots music but not so foreign to modern listeners as to be off-putting. Womack Family Band, Johnny and the Applestompers, and Kent Shindig Allstars bring real, rich folk work to the forefront, and are great shows for anyone that enjoys Americana folk music. Hive Robbers made caffeine unnecessary with their upbeat and melodic tunes, but the coffee at Tree City is just as delicious whether it’s decaf or full-caf, and they have wine if you’d prefer a more chill mood to balance the buzz of music everywhere. Bethesda played an energetic set in possibly the worst acoustic space I’ve ever heard- a brick alcove on a rainy night. But they managed to pull it off quite well, with Alan Brooks at the mixer board, and the ability to overcome those obstacles is a testament to any group’s skill. Alan Brooks did play a bit during Bethesda’s intermission and was absolutely a joy to hear. His lyrics and guitar work are gorgeous any time, but especially with people you love. His sound is just jazz/bluesy enough to be romantic even in the rain and crushing crowds. Honeytown was dangerously good out in the open air, and I saw more than one person trip while trying to walk and listen to their lyrics. The Numbers Band is very much an experimental rock group, but it’s also a Kent area tradition for nearly two decades, and definitely worth a listen. All in all, the Free Friday music is worth every penny to go check out, and a terrific way to find early career locals and new-to-you greats.
Not to leave anyone out of the loop, there’s still more music this weekend. Saturday has musical workshops at a few places down town, ranging from instrument group-instruction, to copyright advice, to musical style primers (I’ll be learning more about klezmer, thank you very much). Those run in the afternoon, and in the evening you can check out Ashleigh Flynn and Black Prairie, with members of The Decemberists, at the Kent Stage. Sunday you can sleep in a bit and recuperate before heading to the grand finale, also at the Kent Stage, featuring Leon Redbone, Brewer and Shipley, and Alex Bevan.
If this is your first introduction to ‘Round Town and Kent’s legendary history of folk music, then welcome to the club and I hope to see you ‘Round Town next year.