Last year, Butte hosted the National Folk Festival to the tune of 75,000 attendants, 25 musical acts and an estimated $8 million economic impact. This weekend, they get to try and top it.
The three-day musical extravaganza—considered the oldest multicultural festival in the United States—presents a whole different set of acts this time around, but the vibe's the same. Irish traditionalists follow American Indian drummers, Chinese ensembles perform next to blues musicians, and so on. One look at the schedule shows that nearly every moment will be jam packed, but we highlight five acts that stand out from the rest of the lineup.
Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited
Zimbabwe native Thomas Mapfumo plays a fusion of traditional Shona music and political rock called "chimurenga," which translates to "struggle." This popular combination of rippling melodies and social commentary gained Mapfumo the powerful nickname "The Lion of Zimbabwe" in his home country. But success came at a price. Mapfumo endured political imprisonment for three months, his music was banned from the radio and the government consistently harassed the musician. Now living in the United States in a self-imposed exile, Mapfumo continues to sing about the struggles in his country. In his music, you can hear the influences of jazz, big band rumba and R&B, which he heard on the radio as a kid while living in a poor township of Salisbury. But it's the more controversial Shona aspect to his music that makes Mapfumo's music so powerful.
Mapfumo performs Friday, July 10, at 9:15, and Saturday, July 11, at 3 and 5:30 PM.
Terms like "folk music" often get treated as a genre rather than as an ever-evolving concept. In reality, "folk"—though often referring to acoustic traditional music or indigenous art—more broadly defines the creative culture of common people. With that idea in mind, it's easy to see how a Seattle breakdance group would make its way into this event.
Hip hop has its roots in African American rhythms, and break dance styles can be traced back to late 1960s James Brown. Over the years, breakdance and hip hop styles brought urban life—city folk culture, if you will—to the consciousness of mainstream America. It provoked and entertained. It was both rebelliously edgy and deemed an alternative expression to gang activity.
Massive Monkees formed in 1999 and they've won numerous b-boy—that's "break-boy"—contests with their wild and crazy moves.
Massive Monkeys perform Saturday, July 11, at 3:15, 4:45 and 9:30 PM, and Sunday, July 12, at 3 PM.
Sierra Hull rebelled as a teenager, but not in the way most people expect of a 17-year-old. Instead of crawling into her parents' liquor cabinet or skipping school with a mohawked boyfriend, she's mastered the mandolin. In fact, at her young age—she started playing when she was 8—she's already gained enough notoriety to share the stage with top performers like Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs and Edgar Meyer. The Tennessee-bred bluegrass picker formed her own backup band, Highway 111, who will join her at the folk festival—but she's the star. Her onstage presence is as engaging as it gets, and her blistering solos weave together hillbilly plucking with the kickass confidence of guitar gods Steve Vai or Eddie Van Halen.
Sierra Hill and Highway 111 performing Friday, July 10, at 9:15 PM, Saturday, July 11, at 2 and 4:15 PM, and Sunday, July 12, at 5:15 PM.
Jeff Little Trio
When you think of Appalachian music in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, you don't immediately think of pianos. Flatpicking guitars, fiddles, banjos and the mandolin, maybe. But not pianos. Until you hear Jeff Little. The North Carolina native tickles the ivories with a distinct "two-handed" style that sounds similar to the speedy delivery of a bluegrass ho-down. Since Little was 6, he's sat in with plenty of top-notch musicians, including mentor Doc Watson—an Appalachian rebel himself who's incorporated rockabilly styles and guitar fiddling techniques into traditional songs. Little joins the festival with a band comprising banjo, guitar and bass.
The Jeff Little Trio performs Saturday, July 11, at 1 and 4 PM and Sunday, July 12, at 4:30 PM.
Though Charlie Ryan wrote and recorded "Hot Rod Lincoln" in 1955, it was the 1972 version by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen that made it a big-time rockabilly hit. Guitarist Bill Kirchen (aka "The Titan of the Telecaster") played with Commander Cody, and continues the "Hot Rod Lincoln" legacy with his own solo version.
In the original, the Lincoln passes a Cadillac before getting pulled over by the cops, but Kirchen takes longer to surrender in his extended update to the song. And that's not the only trouble Kirchen seeks. He also calls out other artists—"Johnny Cash, pull over!"—as if he's passing them on the road. He names Duane Eddy, Marty Robinson, Roy Orbison, Howlin' Wolf, the Rolling Stones, the Ventures, Bo Didley, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix and others, like he's checking off a hit list. And each time Kirchen tells someone to pull over, he plays a riff from one of the artist's classic songs. The impersonations are slick, quick and cocky—and enough to fill about four minutes of the seven minute song. It's over-the-top and still completely badass after all these years.
Bill Kirchen performs Saturday, July 11, at 9 PM and Sunday, July 12, at 2 PM and 5 PM.
The National Folk Festival runs Friday, July 10, through Sunday, July 12, in Historic Uptown Butte. Festivities begin at 6 PM Friday and noon on both Saturday and Sunday. Free.