American roots music as we know it would be much poorer without the lifelong efforts of ethnomusicologist-producer Chris Strachwitz, whose Arhoolie Records has introduced several generations to the joys of blues, old-time, Cajun, zydeco, gospel, jazz, and other styles of authentic American music. In order to celebrate the landmark 40th anniversary of Strachwitz’ label, Arhoolie Records, he turned to another venerable roots music organization, Berkeley, California’s Freight and Salvage, to mount a giant three day party featuring a vast roster of artists who were either recorded by Strachwitz or are strong supporters of his efforts.
I was lucky enough to attend all three days of the celebration, but those who missed the event can experience the sights and sounds of this remarkable event through a beautiful new package containing over five hours of recordings representing most of the music played during the three evening concerts, supplemented by a hard cover book containing text by Strachwitz and the musicians along with 200 gorgeous color photos by Mike Melnyk taken during the weekend.
The roster of musicians included some high profile names like Ry Cooder , Taj Mahal, and Country Joe McDonald,but the majority of the players were almost equally split between New Orleans musicians and venerable east bay roots artists, many of whom had not played together for years. Musical director for the shows was singer-songwriter-fiddler-bandleader Laurie Lewis, who pops up in a supporting role for numerous musicians as well as playing a set with her current band the Right Hands.
Cooder, backed by bassist Robert Francis and son Quaquim on drums, is represented here by a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man” and a rousing version of “Wooly Bully.” Taj’s longish solo set from Sunday included a soulful reading of “Blues With a Feeling on piano and a banjo rendition of “Roscoe’s Mule down in Roscoe’s Barn.” Country Joe’s set included the inevitable “Fixing to Die Rag,” royalties from which were instrumental in allowing Arhoolie to thrive during the seventies.
The Doucet and Savoy families were much in evidence. The first disc includes a spellbinding solo guitar performance by Beausoleil guitarist David Doucet. The second and third discs include most of the set from the Savoy-Doucet Cajun band, featuring fiddler Michael Doucet accordion player Marc Savoy, and guitarist Ann Savoy. The last disc includes a set from the Savoy Family Band, which also included Marvc and Ann’s and sons Wilson and Joel. One of the run’s liveliest sets was by New Orleans’ Treme Brass Band, who led a second line parade through the streets of Berkeley before settling in for their set.
Some of the weekend’s most moving sets were reunions, including a regrouping of Berkeley’s Any Old Time String Band, a brief performance by one time Joy of Cooking co-leaders Terry Garthwaite and Toni Brown, and a hilarious performance by septuagenarian folk trio Goodtime Washboard Three, whose heyday was at the leading edge of the folk scare in the early 1960s. Other bay area luminaries represented were Peter Rowan (joined by Laurie Lewis and accordion master Santiago Jiminez Jr., who played his own stellar set Friday night), versatile acoustic musicians Eric and Suzie Thompson, El Cerrito Mexican culture collective Los Cenzontles, and veteran jazz singer Barbara Dane, who fronted Bob Mielke’s all star big band for her rousing Saturday night set.
Between the lavishly illustrated book and the four discs worth of performances, this set does a good job of conveying the great party that Strachwitz and the Arhoolie staff held to celebrate the label’s 50th. Equally important are the testaments by most of the musicians on what a significant role Strachwitz and his label played in their own careers, and in evangelizing for the purest American roots music for the previous half-century.