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Savannah Music Festival 2019

Martin Longley By

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Savannah Music Festival
Savannah, GA
March 28-April 2, 2019

The opening day of this 30th edition of the Savannah Music Festival featured a pronounced bombardment of diverse artists, tearing apart the motor controls of the driven sonic obsessive. If a pair of ears lends equal attention to Louisiana zydeco, Saharan desert trance and bluegrass acoustic harmonising, then this Thursday evening abundance was gonna cause serious clashing conflicts. Where to be, without missing much of a simultaneous set?

Generally speaking, we knew the basic location to be at, definitely in the balmy historic town centre of Savannah, where verdant squares are mathematically laid out, seemingly on almost every intersection of streets (and that's not too much of an exaggeration). The various venues in use span to the east and west of the old town, with several dotted in-between those furthest points. It's all easily walkable, though, and such strolling is always a joy. Except during the highly unusual pair of dull, chilled and rainy days that arrived at the end of your scribe's six-day sojourn. Even so, the charm remains, even if Savannah is almost as cold as NYC. The first four days, though, were as sunny as expected.

Much of the music found here springs from sweltering climates, funnily enough. Apart from Ireland, the homeland of folk troubadour John Doyle, the literal opening performer, stuck on his own, with zero competition, playing a set at 12.30pm in the festival's most-used venue, the Charles H. Morris Center. This is a fine, medium-sized space, with air conditioning that often errs towards the Arctic.

Nowadays dwelling not so far away in Asheville, North Carolina, Dublin southpaw player Doyle had brought three different acoustic axes, one of which was smaller, with a mandolin-like sound, making deft, silken flurries to match his lightly skipping vocals on the 18th century folk chestnut "Rounding The Horn." Then, he played "The Grand Auld Dame Britannia," followed by a clutch of instrumentals. That mandola was joined by a bouzouki-guitar hybrid, as Doyle combined these minimal means to make varying degrees of dynamic shifting, consistently maintaining the interest via song, tunes and talk.

Back in the same venue, four hours later, a potential dance party began, but perhaps the seats should have been removed, to encourage movement on the floor. In many cities around the globe, there aren't so many opportunities to catch zydeco bands, as it seems that the vogue for this Louisiana style was more in the 1990s, when many of these outfits seemed to be on the road more, particularly touring around European parts.

Formed in 1985, Nathan & The Zydeco Cha Chas have long been amongst the best proponents of this music. The black culture manifestation of Cajun is perhaps the best way to describe this Creole blend of blues and country, powered by the frottoir (metal washboard), and combining fiddles, accordions and electric guitars. Nathan Williams alternated between two accordions, and was joined by guitar, bass, drums and frottoir. We couldn't argue with "Tonight I Got Loaded" as one of the finest numbers, early in his set, and Nathan soon managed to get some peripheral dancing started, fighting hard to engage party mode right at the start of the evening. It's likely that the second show, at 8.30pm, further livened up the proceedings. But by this time, your scribe had sped across town to the North Garden Assembly Room at the Ships Of The Sea Museum. It's not really a room, as such, but a garden space with an all-spanning canopy, leaving its sides open to the elements. This is particularly pleasing, given the warm-breath climate of Savannah.

A double bill of African singers combined the high power projecting skills of Noura Mint Seymali (the Mauritanian Sahara) and Fatoumata Diawara (Ivory Coast via Mali). Seymali is the stepdaughter of Dimi Mint Abba, who did much to introduce the traditional music of Mauritania to Western global music listeners, particularly during the 1990s. Seymali and her band manage to keep intact a hardcore sound that resonates with the roughness of the desert, as well as adopting certain rock music strategies, notably in the blazing, overloaded and highly percussive guitaring of Jeich Ould Chighaly. Its trebly prickle frequently ignited each number into an extreme zone of psychedelic ritual transportation. Seymali's ardine, a small harp played only by females, also possesses a jangling strength, sitting well beside the cyclical guitar rifflets. Her commanding voice was enlarged by a heavy reverb, producing a heady feeling of exultation. Ousmane Touré provided some nimble funk basslines, so deep that they sounded broken up with distortion. Meanwhile, Chighaly hammered on his lower strings, making percussive effects, still needling lightly, and at high speed, on the higher treble strings. Seymali almost appeared modest and retiring, but her voice crackled with an astonishing power, ranging easily up high, and then even higher, perfectly controlled for a cutting escalation of mobile phrasing.

Fatoumata Diawara suffered by comparison, soon afterwards, her songs sounding quite conventional and poppy when set next to Seymali's material. She also doesn't seem to change her repertoire much, down the years, and relies on a more predictable set of entertainment moves when communicating with the audience. Seymali didn't need this, she just existed in an uncut desert rock state, effortlessly striking the crowd without requiring stage moves or banter. After around half of Diawara's set, it was time to catch some of Del McCoury's show at the Lucas Theatre, almost at the other end of the historic quarter. Judging by the sheer excellence of his last half hour of song, your scribe should have left straight after Seymali's performance, to hear more McCoury.

This singer and acoustic guitarist is one of the true bluegrass kings, one of the music's elder greats. He and his four fellows were often gathered around a single microphone, in the time-honoured fashion, their vocal harmonies tightly entwined. Besides their voices, they were also blessed with fiddle, banjo, mandolin and upright bass. McCoury took his voice high on "Hot Wired," with Ronnie and Rob McCoury dealing out short but sharp banjo and mandolin solos, going into "Get Down On Your Knees And Pray," the audience by this time rowdy and shouty, calling out their requests, as the night ran out. At this point, the quintet moved in front of the microphones, going completely acoustic, and projecting harmony sweetness out into the fine acoustic of the Lucas. The evening climaxed with a romping "All Aboard," and the absolute favourite "Don't Stop The Music," highly appropriate under these circumstances.
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