BIRDS HILL PARK -- On Friday night, under a painted sky, Alynda Lee Segarra took the mainstage, opened her mouth and sang. And it was good. Very, very good.
The frontwoman of New Orleans' Hurray for the Riff Raff has quickly established herself as one of the roots scene's most exciting new voices -- and not just because of her slow-burning fire of an alto. Segarra takes Americana traditions and bends them to fit her rules. Her songs may sound timeless but, if you listen carefully, you'll hear the distinct perspective of a modern woman.
Take opener The New SF Bay Blues, off 2014's critically acclaimed Small Town Heroes, which is an update on Jesse Fuller's classic San Francisco Bay Blues. Or The Body Electric, her feminist take on the traditional murder ballad. "Tell me what man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that's so sick and sad?" she asked defiantly over a lush, goosebump-inducing soundscape crafted by her band. As it is on the record, it was a jewel in a set that also included Ode to John and Yoko and I Know It's Wrong (But That's Alright).
At press time, the band was performing the high-lonesome Crash on the Highway. Swedish alt-Americana act Baskery -- composed of sisters Greta, Stella and Sunniva Bondesson -- were scheduled to close Friday night's mainstage with its incendiary brand of banjo-punk.
Earlier in the evening, South Carolina folk-rock duo Shovels & Rope -- husband-and-wife Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst -- rocked out an urgent, energetic set that will no doubt send people flocking to the Folk Fest music tent. Both are agile multi-instruments who seamlessly trade off on guitar, drums and keyboard duties, creating densely textured soundscapes that belie their minimalist setup. That said, the music Shovels & Rope makes isn't what you'd call fussy. It's a rough 'n' tumble amalgam of country, blues and punk, with driving guitars and lyrics about drinkin' whiskey.
Before Shovels & Rope took the stage, Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans turned up the twang. The Juno-winning country-rockers, led by Lund in his trademark white cowboy hat, delivered a lighthearted, toe-tapping set that was filled with plenty of humour. Take Bible on the Dash, for instance, a wry tune co-written with Texas singer/songwriter Hayes Carll. (Apparently, keeping the good book in view gets you out of trouble with the law.) Or the fresh-from-the-farm Cows Around -- "everything is better with some cows around," also from 2012's Cabin Fever. Lund knows how to show an audience a good time, to be sure --but this hunky cowboy also knows how to tug at the heartstrings. This Is My Prairie was beautiful, especially in the bucolic context of Birds Hill.
Living legend Buffy Sainte-Marie -- who I'm going to go ahead and crown the best-dressed of the festival, resplendent in feathers and fringe -- kicked off the mainstage with a tour-de-force opener that set the tone for the night ahead. At 73, Sainte-Marie has the energy of someone half her age; the rowdy Cho Cho Fire and the environmental call to arms No No Keshagesh were positively punk-rock, the fringes of leather jacket blowing in the wind.
You were acutely aware you were in the presence of an icon -- especially during an affecting performance of her '60s protest song, Universal Soldier. The raw power of her voice was enough to raise the hair on your arm. Up Where We Belong, the Oscar-winning song from 1982's An Officer and a Gentleman she co-wrote with Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings, was also an early-set gem.
She's one hell of a talent, but she's also a pleasure to watch as a performer. No one is ever having more fun than Buffy, except her killer all-Manitoban, all-First Nations backup band: bassist Leroy Constant, guitarist Jesse Green and drummer Mike Bruyere.
The daytime stages also hosted some memorable performances. Hiss Golden Messenger -- a.k.a. North Carolina singer-songwriter M.C. Taylor -- treated an early-afternoon crowd to his emotive, bare-bones indie folk at the sun-dappled Little Stage in the Forest. Taylor's an incredibly revealing songwriter; his ruminations on religion (Jesus Shot Me in the Head), in particular, expose a man conflicted. It was an intimate little treasure of a concert.
Over at Big Bluestem, Oliver Swain's Big Machine, Baskery and Hurray for the Riff Raff joined their strong forces for a high-energy workshop. The sisters Bondesson gave a little taste of what awaited festival-goers on the mainstage. "It's not too early for disco, is it?" Sunniva asked before launching into the kinetic Out of Towner. Tweak its presentation, and the song -- with its single refrain "I don't want to go to bed with a man from town" -- could easily be a club jam.
Ruth Moody, Little Miss Higgins, the Martha Redbone Roots Project, Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar and the legendary Calypso Rose teamed up for an all-women workshop called A Room Of Her Own, a play, of course, on the Virginia Woolf essay. The 74-year-old Rose stole the show. With over 800 songs in her catalogue, the Tobago native and peerless calypso queen is a force. Her 1966 hit Fire In Me Wire -- which, as she pointed out, has been translated into six languages -- went over big, as did Green Green Grass (and she wasn't talking about no prairie).
The festival rolls on with a ton of must-see shows at Saturday's daytime stages. Be sure to get to the Snowberry stage early for Reason to Believe, a stellar 12:30 p.m. workshop featuring Shakey Graves, Sharon Van Etten, Hiss Golden Messenger, Daniel Bachman, Shinyribs and Reuben and the Dark. Mainstage programming kicks off at 6 p.m. with Calypso Rose and wraps up with Aimee Mann and Ted Leo's project the Both. Koo Kanga Roo, Palenke Soultribe and Mexican of Sound Institute will have people shaking it over at Big Blue @ Night, which gets going at 8 p.m.