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ON THE BEAT

September 11, 2005

Glory, Glory: Pete, Little Toby and more at Tribes Hill


    The Tribes Hill collective of singer-songwriters with a folky bent has been putting on seasonal concerts since its inception in the late 1990s, and to say that these musical gatherings are some of the most engaging and delightful events on the cultural calendar would be an understatement.
    And yet Tribes Hill remains one of the best kept secrets in the county. Theyve received scant attention from the media other than a few articles here and there, which, when you consider the situation, is understandable. While music may be the passion of its membership, the sort of hard-nosed business dealings and public relations efforts that often spell success in the biz are rather avoided, usually for reasons of temperament, karma or too much attention being paid instead to families and day-jobs. The collectives founder, Rick Rock, one of the unheralded heroes of live music in the county, is not exactly the kind of gent to suck up to corporate philanthropists or swill chardonnay at chi-chi fund-raisers either: hes too involved in making sure talented songwriters on the East Coast find a forum for their art somewhere while welcoming them into his network of tuneful fellow travelers. Who can fault him for having his heart is in the right place?
    This Saturday Rock, along with over two dozen musicians, will be on hand to host another Tribes Hill show at the Hammond House in Valhalla, and, to put it simply enough, the impressive lineup and modest admission price should get you packing up the family and loved ones for some down-to-earth musical entertainment, back porch style.
    After growing interest in the Tribes Hill phenomenon, the bravest and most loved folksinger in the world, Pete Seeger, has consented to roll down from his home in Beacon for a rousing set at about 3 p.m. with some of his friends. Experiencing Seegers performances in person always gives me goosebumps, perhaps because his impassioned scope continues to provide the link to those two great voices of the 20th century, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, while joyfully celebrating our humanity and shared purpose in this world. Now 86, Seeger has cut back on his concert schedule markedly, and getting him down to Valhalla not only says something about the vibe at Tribes Hill, it also offers everyone a rare chance to see and hear a Real American Legend.
    The proceedings start at about 1 p.m. with an open mic, which characteristically features some of the top area singer-songwriters who just happen not to be on the bill this time around. Attendees will probably get to hear the likes of Kathleen Pemble, Montgomery Delaney, Susan Kane, Jeffry Braun, Iris Cohen, Matt Turk and Lisa Jane Lipkin. At 4 p.m. a trio of Tribes Hill stalwarts, including Fred Gillen Jr. and Todd Giudice, set up a song circle, and then an hour later theyll be followed by some New York City-based talents ready to do the same. Red Molly, a trio of women who mine the rich Appalachia style of country-folk much in the manner of Gillian Welch, take the stage at 6 p.m., and judging by the groups recent crowd-pleasing shows they are evolving into one of those acts on the circuit destined for wider recognition.
    One of my favorite albums from last year was Rebecca Martins People Behave Like Ballads, a luminous collection of 16 original compositions that prove the Maine native to be a songsmith of the highest order. Her voice has this sparkling, unaffected charmits borne from her heart yet rings with enough intelligence and wise wonderment to belie an artful determination. Lets hope she has some of her regular backing band, including tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, in tow when she performs at 7 p.m.
    Little Toby Walker closes out the show, and in the arena of acoustic blues hes one of the countrys leading practitioners. Based in East Northport, out on Long Island, he came to fore in 2002 after winning the Memphis International Blues Challenge Award, and since then his remarkable fingerpicking and storytelling skills have shaped him into a virtual blast from the pasta performer whose work harkens back to the days when musicians rode the rails from town to town, plying their trade for a decent meal and some drinks.
    I met Little Toby, whose not really that short, last year when John Platt, the host of the popular radio show City Folk Sunday Breakfast on WFUV-FM helped inaugurate a series of showcase concerts for local artists at the Inter-Media Art Center in Huntington. Needless to say, Platt was quick to invite Walker to be one of the three acts to lead off the series, having heard the guitarist and singer mesmerize the often unruly crowd at the Brokerage, a comedy club in Bellmore, several months prior to IMAC show.  
    While I was out on Long Island to cover the IMAC show Walker and I had an opportunity to talk some, and he handed me a copy of his CD, Live at the Bottleneck, which was recorded in February 2004 at blues club in Rochester, Kent, England. Its a bravura performance, full of deep blues and roiling guitar filigrees (hes a dangerous slide player as well), with strangled and quivering and frighteningly shouted vocals that will make your heart stop. Soon after hearing the album I called Walker to find out more about who was producing this weighty guano.
    A Long Island boy through-and-through, he was raised in Brentwood and first got interested in music when he was 9 after hearing the early Elvis Presley hits with Scotty Moore on guitar.
    Then I found a guy down the block where I lived who had a bunch of Chicago blues records, and, man, that was it for me, Walker, now 48, remarked. Muddy Waters, a lot of Buddy Guy, Magic Sam...By the time I was in high school I was playing guitar and trying to sound like Clapton, just like everyone else.
    He was serious enough about the blues to make numerous forays to the south in order to learn the music from the likes of R. L. Burnside, Sam Carr, Eugene Powell and others. But he was never really happy playing in bars, he said, and so he left the music biz at 30 and got a job as a mailman with the U. S. Postal Service. On the side he taught guitar, which he still does today, maintaining a large coterie of devoted students.
    More and more blues fans out on the island began to beg him to return to live music, and so he did, only to retire once again in 1997. When he decided to give the blues another shot three years later, booking agents and music critics were waiting for him. Last October he was finally able to say goodbye to his letter route, but hes not without his trepidation.
    A lot of venues, even some of the better known ones, dont really pay you that much to play, and its really the musicians fault, he said. There are too many talented people who play music as a hobby and will take anything club owners want to give them. Also, a lot of club owners could care less about what kind of stuff youre playing, as long as people are coming in and buying drinks.
    If people come to hear me, thats great. Ill give them everything Ive got. Otherwise, I rather be bowling with my friends.
    One of Walkers originals on Live at the Bottleneck is called Devil Beatin on His Wife Tonight, which is a phrase folks in Louisiana use to describe horrible storms that roll in from the Gulf.
    The Tribes Hill Music Festival takes place on Saturday, September 10 at the
Hammond House, 111 Grasslands Road, Valhalla, NY. Tickets are $10. The music begins at 1 p.m. Food and refreshments available. Call (914) 347-8209 or visit online www.tribeshill.com for more info.

by Thomas Staudter

updated: 6 years ago