by Thomas Staudter –
A folk music festival in Irvington—presented in the middle of the winter?
Carter Smith, the indefatigable impresario behind the long-running Common Ground Community Concerts series, acknowledged the idea was “counterintuitive.”
Nonetheless, Smith is partnering with the powers-that-be at the Irvington Theater (formerly the Irvington Town Hall Theater), where he already produces a handful of tuneful soirées each year, to present the Irvington Folk Festival on Friday, January 31 and Saturday, February 1.
For the complete festival schedule, visit: https://commongroundconcerts.com/the-irvington-folk-festival/schedule/
Performing at the festival’s Friday night gathering following an opening reception and Q&A session will be Dar Williams, a Chappaqua native and one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of her generation. Also on the bill: Antje Duvecot, an award-winning songsmith and guitarist now based in the Boston area.
On Saturday, there are two separate afternoon showcases, held at the theater and the Broadway Grill and Tavern on Main Street in Irvington, both which will feature the same six artists and acts—deer scout a.k.a. Dena Miller, Joshua Garcia, roots music sextet Greetings from Anywhere, Ursula Hansberry, Neil Nathan and Westchester-based “rad trad” duo Pluck & Rail.
There is a stand-alone set at the theater on Saturday afternoon as well, with Divining Rod, a genre-crossing duo led by multi-instrumentalist Miyuki Furtado. Following a dinner break and whiskey tasting at the theater, there is a full night of music with 14-year-old banjo sensation Nora Brown, International Folk Alliance’s “Album of the Year” winner Joe Crookston and the Dustbowl Revival, a rollicking sextet featuring dual vocalists Liz Beebe and Z. Lupatin.
Smith said the idea of the folk festival came to him while he was routinely communicating with the leadership at the Irvington Theater about booking dates in the upcoming year.
“I decided to go out on a limb and see if there were any back-to-back days available, and what came up was January 31 and February 1,” recalled Smith. “I know a lot of people associate folk festivals with the outdoors and warmer weather, but the more I thought about a two-day festival during the winter, the less crazy it seemed. First, there’s not a whole else going on; and second, after the winter holidays people are always looking for something to do.”
In terms of booking the festival, and with the intention that the event should be in line with the community-building mission of the Common Ground concerts, Smith said the first artist he approached was Dar Williams. An artist long known for her environmental and political activism, Williams had turned her eye to how people were working together to strengthen their communities for the challenges ahead in her 2017 book What I Found in a Thousand Towns: A Traveling Musician’s Guide to Rebuilding America’s Communities—One Coffee Shop, Dog Run & Open-Mike Night at a Time.
Smith acknowledged that Williams’ book had made a big impression on him, and in many ways he is emblematic of “positive proximity,” a term she uses to talk about the growing realization people are experiencing that their “living side by side” with others and neighborliness are actually beneficial to all parties. As a result, people are transforming local spaces, launching new projects and expanding the local “tent” through inclusiveness and smart, multi-platform communications.
As for Williams, she immediately accepted Smith’s invitation to perform at the Irvington Folk festival.
“Carter is a total mensch and definitely one of the people who gets it,” Williams said in a recent phone conversation. “The work he is doing engenders trust and action in the community, which is then woven stronger and tighter so that others can become involved. And he accomplishes this without really forcing the issue, just by presenting one concert after another.”
Added Joe Crookston, “People like Carter make it less hard for us to perform and connect with audiences. He understands why we are writings songs and singing them, and is truly interested in our work. He is, truly, a good soul.”
Now in its 18th year, the Common Ground Community Concerts series started as an offshoot of the Social Justice Committee at the First Unitarian Society of Westchester in Hastings-on-Hudson. Smith, a self-described “musically obsessed fan,” was involved from the get-go. First launched in a coffeehouse setting, the series eventually included shows at the Irvington Theater. A team of volunteers helps keep the series going, and Smith, a writer-editor formerly involved in the publishing business, remarked that he feels “blessed” to work with professionals that oversee the sound, lighting and ticketing for the shows.
“Folk music is everybody’s music,” Smith said. “I like presenting at small venues because concert-going should not be a passive experience. In these smaller spaces, there is a give-and-take between the musicians and the audience. Everyone listens intently, and afterwards there are opportunities to talk with the performers. It’s a great way to get the community together.”
Laurie Chock, now in her second year as chair of the Irvington Theater Commission, said, “Carter is a local treasure. His distinctive and eclectic taste in music has a certain sensibility, and it really brings people out. Consequently, the partnership we have with him is perfect. The idea of a folk festival at the theater won us over right away. It’ll light up the village for the entire weekend—Irvington will be buzzing!” (Visit www.irvingtontheater.com for tickets.)
But a folk festival—in the winter?
“I’d never heard of one,” said Crookston. “Maybe in Florida.”
Remarked Williams, “A winter folk festival—it’s right when people really need it!”