Tag Archives: Bloomington

My Lotus Festival

Picture of tent venue at the Lotus Festival

Lotus Tent (exterior view)

I love Bloomington’s annual Lotus World Music & Arts Festival. More than just a music festival, it’s a celebration of the common ground to which music can bring us – across languages, cultures, all manner of divides both geographical and sociological. One of the things I love most about it is that you can have pretty much whatever sort of musical experience you want to have. If you feel like dancing your butt off in a tightly packed crowd (or to stand in back where there’s plenty of elbow room and enjoy watching said tightly packed crowd), you can usually find that in one of the outdoor tents. If you feel like sitting quietly and contemplating something softly acoustic, head for one of the churches. If you want a formal stage and a comfortable seat, go to the Buskirk-Chumley. If you’re in one venue and you find it’s not entirely your cup of tea, or if you’re enjoying it just fine but there’s also another performer you were curious about, it’s perfectly OK to duck out between songs and move from venue to venue. And on Saturday afternoon, you can spread out your blanket in the park and enjoy several different performers along with families, kids, dogs, picnics, and tents housing all kinds of fun crafts activities for the families and kids (not so much for the dogs).

So I don’t think it’s possible to “review the Lotus Festival” – everyone who attends has a slightly different experience with this kaleidoscope of music and culture. This year was apparently my year to enjoy the crowded tents and the loudly rocking music, as all of my highlights fall into that category. Here’s a bit about the performers I especially enjoyed – and I know I missed some other great ones (Fishtank Ensemble, Movits!, Fatoumata Diawara, and Vida are all performers I wanted to see but didn’t get to).

Taj Weekes & Adowa – Hailing from St. Lucia, Weekes brought the sound of the islands to a Lotus tent as Friday evening began. I sometimes forget how much I enjoy reggae, and really enjoyed the band’s mellow groove.

Hanggai performing at the Lotus Festival


Hanggai – I saw these guys the last time they played Lotus and enjoyed them, so made a point of catching their set on Friday night. This Beijing-based group combines Western rock instruments (guitar, bass, drums) and energy with traditional Mongolian instruments and throat-singing, sometimes using Mongolian folk songs. The lead singer definitely has a rock-singer attitude, and although I don’t understand a word of Mongolian, I can understand Hanggai’s music just fine. The music is multi-textured, with drums and electric guitars creating a base for the traditional Mongolian stringed instruments, and the use of throat-singing (you know, that guttural drone you associate with monks or something) adds a really cool dimension. The set picked up intensity as it went on, and when a storm started to roll in and lightning began to flash through the translucent roof panels of the tent, it was pretty much the most heavy-metal moment I’ve experienced at a show in recent years. Utterly exhilarating.

MC Rai – A native of Tunisia, this San Francisco resident blends Algerian Rai music with a Western hip-hop groove to create a blend that is upbeat, socially conscious, and very, very danceable. The foundation of his band rests on a drummer and bass player who both look like refugees from a Led Zeppelin tribute band but played with funk and verve, the bass player bouncing and pogoing with joyful abandon much of the time. MC Rai himself is a superb frontman, reaching out and making a strong connection with the audience. I saw everyone from teenage kids to middle-aged Hoosiers dancing, rocking out, and having a great time. I caught this charismatic performer when he was last at Lotus in 2007 and bought his CD “Raivolution” at that time – it’s pretty great.

Delhi 2 Dublin – This was a wild-card choice for me. I kind of wanted to see Movits!, but I saw them last year and while I knew they were a lot of fun, I was curious about the Indian-Irish mashup of this Vancouver-based band. Plus, they were performing in the tent nearest the parking garage where I’d left the car, and I was feeling a little tired and thought I might leave early and would appreciate the proximity. Well, no, I did not leave early, not at all. Delhi 2 Dublin knocked my socks off! Trust me, you haven’t lived until you’ve been rocked by a fiery duel between a kilt-wearing Korean dude playing the electric sitar and a phenomenally energetic blonde Irishwoman playing the fiddle, supported by Bhangra percussion and a dynamic lead vocalist named Sanjay. The Celtic-Indian mashup sounds like it would be awkward, but trust me, it’s fantastic – and just goes to show you that music really is a common language, wherever it originates. Plus, I’m partial to musicians who look like they’re having a great time, and these guys were absolutely radiant as they performed, like they almost couldn’t stand how much fun they were having. Maybe they were having as much fun as the audience was – I know we were having a blast and dancing our butts off! This band was definitely my “Lotus discovery” this year and I hope I get another chance to hear them sometime. Their performance was transcendent and honestly, there is no reason why they couldn’t make it as big as, say, Arcade Fire (whose energy they reminded me of, for no reason I can put my finger on) – their music and performance has a wide appeal and I can’t imagine going to one of their shows and not falling in love with them.

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Richard Thompson in Bloomington

photo of Richard Thompson

photo by Paul Sandy, from Richard Thompson – RT (Facebook)

Bloomington, Indiana isn’t a big city. It isn’t Chicago, or New York, or even St. Louis. So often, when a major musical act announces tourdates, I look at them and sigh because there isn’t even one within 200 miles of me. But … we do get some great stuff nonetheless. And in some ways, we’re even luckier than those big-city folks. Because we don’t have the huge variety to choose from, those of us who have broad taste in music often find ourselves going to concerts by people we might have passed up if we’d had other choices or if we’d been jaded about how many shows were available to us – and those shows are often phenomenally good. (I’m thinking of performers like Janelle Monae, whose show I bought a ticket for in an “aw what the heck why not” moment and who blew my socks off.) And there’s something – there’s a whole lot of something – to be said for seeing a world-class artist in a relatively intimate venue with great sound, with free parking within two blocks of the venue, and a ten-minute drive (if all the stoplights are red and you have to pull over for an ambulance along the way) from home. And that was the kind of show I had tonight.

Richard Thompson has performed in Bloomington many times, going back some thirty years when he played at Second Story (a great, though hardly luxurious, live music venue & bar so named because it was on the second floor of the old Moose Lodge; the first floor was taken up by Bullwinkle’s, a gay bar whose disco music would come thumping through the floor during set breaks and sometimes during quiet songs) very early in his first American tour. I didn’t go to that now-legendary show – in fact I don’t think I was twenty-one yet, so I wouldn’t have been able to get in (you will say that shouldn’t have stopped me, and I will point out that I have always been perhaps too much of a law-abiding citizen for my own good)  – and for whatever reason, though I’ve long been aware of Richard Thompson as one of the great guitarists & songwriters of our time, I’ve just never made it to any of his Bloomington shows.

One thing about having incredibly broad taste in music is that there are a lot – a LOT – of artists I’m somewhat familiar with, and appreciate, but have never taken the time to dive in and become a serious fan of. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that there is so freaking much great music out there that it is just impossible to listen to it all. (Well, not and keep my day job.) Sometimes I get the opportunity to catch one of these folks when they come through town, and I actually kind of enjoy being the casual (but appreciative!) fan in the midst of the serious followers, especially since I know what it’s like to be one of the serious followers. I had that experience at a John Prine show a couple of years ago – I had a really good seat and think most of the people around me had travelled to see the show – and that was the case again tonight when I saw Richard Thompson at the Buskirk-Chumley Theatre in Bloomington.

I know a few of Thompson’s songs, and I knew to expect some crazy amazing guitar virtuosity. It was billed as a solo acoustic show, which indeed it was – in fact, he didn’t even swap out guitars, just tuned and retuned the same one for every song. (He did have a few effects boxes though he didn’t seem to fiddle with them much.) One guy and one guitar, creating a wall of sound to rival most bands.

Guitar virtuosity, oh yeah, the guy has got it. But for the most part he doesn’t play just to show off. Like all the greatest musicians (and Jimi Hendrix comes to mind here, since we’re talking guitarists), he gives each song what it needs, whether that means laying back and allowing silence to surround each note, or just playing simple chords while letting the lyrics do the heavy lifting, or playing something so complex, so blindingly fast, and so utterly clean that I can’t quite figure out what hit me.

He’s also funny (early in the show he said something like “This song is from my next album, and so were the first two that I played. The rest of the album is crap.”) and did I mention the brilliant songwriting? What struck me, even though I’m a word person (and his lyrics are great), was the musical brilliance – really cool chords and complex musical structures that went to unexpected places, didn’t always resolve in predictable ways, but were so evocative and fresh. (I have friends – hi, Dave – that are musically far geekier than I and could explain what that’s all about in very technical terms. But this is my review, so you’re stuck with things like “cool chords.” Deal with it.)

I think “Valerie” was the first song that made me feel like I might get blisters on my fingers just from watching him play. “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” was also a real showcase for him and perhaps the biggest crowd-pleaser. “Wall of Death” might have been my favorite; I’ve always loved that song and recall hearing Shawn Colvin do a very good cover of it way back when. But in some ways the emotional heart of the show rested in a lovely and loving rendition of the Fairport Convention classic (named by the BBC as the best folk song ever) “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” It’s one of those songs that, after so many years, has gathered layers of memory and meaning around it – and yet it still sounds fresh. Really a beautiful moment in the concert. And it reminded me that, like Springsteen, Thompson is one of those rare artists who can put together a setlist drawn from three or four decades of music – all of it very much alive and relevant, including the very old and the very new.

Thompson took two encores, buoyed by a very enthusiastic audience (Bloomington has a lot of RT fans!) – and closed the show by playing “The Weight” as a celebratory singalong, dedicating it afterwards to Levon. I was reminded that about a year ago, in the same theater, I heard Mavis Staples and her band performing the heck out of that same song – an equally great, though very different, performance. I walked out of the theater feeling lucky, lucky, lucky to live in a town where we get enough great musical performances to keep us happy, but not so many that we forget to appreciate the magic when it happens.

And now I clearly have got to listen to some more Richard Thompson. So I will happily accept album recommendations in the comments – his catalog is a little overwhelming, to say the least!


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4th St Festival – Spoken Word Stage CANCELLED

Due to the anticipated tropical deluge-formerly-known-as-Isaac, the Spoken Word Stage at this year’s 4th St. Festival has been CANCELLED.
The festival is still planning to go on, just not the spoken word stage (and perhaps not the music/performance stage either; they haven’t decided yet). It’s a bummer, but totally understandable.

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Upcoming: 4th St. Festival

4th St Festival logoThanks to the organizing efforts of Tony Brewer and the Bloomington Writers’ Guild, last year saw the inauguration of a cool new event here in south-central Indiana – the Spoken Word Stage at the annual 4th Street Festival of Arts & Crafts (Saturday and Sunday of Labor Day Weekend).

I say “cool” event, but last year, it was about 102 degrees and the “stage” consisted of a microphone in the middle of the street with some chairs in front of it for the hypothetical audience – all in full sun. Needless to say, it was not the largest audience I have ever read in front of. In fact, it was probably about the closest I’ve ever come to actually passing out while reading. It was a great idea, though, and I’m pleased to have been asked to read again this year. We’ll have a canopy over us this time, as well as some shade for the audience, so we shouldn’t see a repeat of last year’s heat-stroke special. (Although Tropical Storm Isaac may deliver us some rain right about then, which – while desperately needed; we are still officially in an “exceptional drought” condition – would be kind of a bummer. But hey, canopy!)

So if you are in or near Bloomington, Indiana – stop by! The 4th Street Festival (located, oddly enough, on 4th St. between Indiana and Lincoln) is one of my favorite events every year anyway; it features arts and crafts from Indiana and around the country, much of it really nice, as well as music and dance performances in addition to the Spoken Word Stage. There are a bunch of great folks slated to perform – here’s the schedule:

SATURDAY, Sept. 1, 10am – 6p
11:00 Jenny Kander & Friends (poetry)
11:30 B-ton Storytellers Guild (storytelling)
12:00 Cardinal Stage Company (theatre)
12:30 Ross Gay (poetry)
1:00 Shana Ritter (poetry)
1:30 Reservoir Dogwoods (poetry)
2:00 5 Women Poets (poetry)
2:30 Anne Haines (poetry)
3:00 4th Wall Ensemble (hybrid)
3:30 Tony Brewer (poetry)
4:00 Matthew Jackson (poetry)
4:30 Fig Tree Fellowship Radio Players (audio theatre)
5:00 Women Writing for (a) Change (Beth Lodge-Rigal) (poetry)

SUNDAY, Sept. 2, 10a – 5p
11:00 Eric Rensberger (poetry)
11:30 Joseph Kerschbaum (poetry)
12:00 Cardinal Stage Company (theatre)
12:30 Elsa Marston (children’s fiction)
1:00 Antonia Matthew & Friends (poetry)
1:30 Joy Shane Laughter (fiction)
2:00 Michael Mlekoday (poetry)
2:30 B-ton Storytellers Guild (storytelling)
3:00 Arbutus Cunningham (storytelling)
3:30 Free Range Poets (poetry)
4:00 Erin Livingston (poetry)
4:30 Patsy Rahn (poetry)

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