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Butte braces for final run of National Folk Festival

Good things come in threes. At least that's true for Butte, America, which hosts the National Folk Festival this week for the third and final time. The festival's local organizing group, Mainstreet Uptown Butte, Inc., expects close to 200,000 attendees (not including pets, which are not allowed this year), up from the 120,000 people who showed up last year. And though this is goodbye for the National Folk Festival—now in its 72nd year and considered the oldest multicultural festival in the United States—Mainstreet's director, George Everett, says any donations will go toward the local organization's next endeavor: the Montana Folk Festival, which will include a similar structure and national acts.

"It would be a shame to fold up the tents and let it all go away," Everett says. "We don't want the music to stop."

This year, for its finale, the free, three-day fete takes over downtown Butte with 20 musical acts on six stages, plus special demonstrations like a mining competition and a Tibetan ceremony. It's hard to pick must-see acts, but we've identified our top five.

click to enlarge The 72nd National Folk Festival in Butte includes, clockwise from top left, La Excelencia, The Legendary Singing Stars, Héctor Del Curto, Benedicte Maurseth and James “Super Chikan” Johnson.
  • The 72nd National Folk Festival in Butte includes, clockwise from top left, La Excelencia, The Legendary Singing Stars, Héctor Del Curto, Benedicte Maurseth and James “Super Chikan” Johnson.

La Excelencia

Over the years, salsa has gotten a little watered down. People know of the music today largely through dance classes or as a vague part of nightclub culture in larger cities. That's fine, but the origins are far more rugged. The combination of Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican rhythms and big band jazz originally sprang from Spanish speaking barrios of New York City circa 1960, and politics drove the music's fiery lyrics. In that tradition, New York group La Excelencia bring hardcore back to the genre (aka "salsa dura"), with updated socially conscious lyrics coupled with bright horns and spicy percussion. And because it's a 12-piece band, the sound is bound to be overwhelmingly contagious.

La Excelencia plays Friday, July 9, at 9:30 PM, and Saturday, July 10, at 4:30 and 9:45 PM with salsa lessons offered a half hour before each show.

The Legendary Singing Stars

What do gospel music and college football have in common? Da'Quan Bowers, that's who. In 2008, Bowers enrolled at Clemson University in South Carolina as the top-ranked prospect in the nation according to ESPN.com. But the current defensive end for the Clemson Tigers isn't just a star athlete, he's also got soul. As the lead guitarist and back up singer for the gospel group The Legendary Singing Stars, Bowers shares the stage with his father, lead vocalist Dennis Bowers, and seven other musicians, including Billy Hardy, who's been with the group since its inception 50 years ago. The combo of R&B plus gospel gives them team spirit in spades.

The Legendary Singing Stars plays Saturday, July 10, at 7:45 PM and Sunday, July 11, at 12:45 and 5:15 PM.

Benedicte Maurseth

Hardangfele may sound like what you say when someone sneezes, but it's actually a ghostly sounding fiddle spawned in the mountains of Norway. At the festival you can check out master player Benedicte Maurseth, 27, who was born in the Hardanger region where the instrument originated. The weird thing about the hardangfele is that there are four "sympathetic" strings strung below the main four strings, which makes it sound like there is an invisible second fiddler playing along. Spooky. How spooky? The hardangfele was called "the devil's instrument" and was often destroyed and/or banned from churches far into the 20th century.

Benedicte Maurseth plays Saturday, July 10, at 3 PM, and Sunday, July 11, at noon.

Héctor Del Curto's Eternal Tango Quartet

Salsa may have been inspired by politics, but the equally sensual tango erupted from more libertine roots. Before the tango was accepted by Europe's upper class and became the national music of Argentina, it was part of Buenos Aires' late 19th century lowly brothel and bar scene. Folk festival attendees get a taste of the hedonistic-yet-classy style from bandoneónist Héctor Del Curto and his ensemble, which includes dancers. For Del Curto, it's not just a national tradition, it's a family tradition: He learned the bandonéon—a German accordion—from his grandfather, who learned it from his great grandfather.

Héctor Del Curto plays Saturday, July 10, at 9:45 PM, and Sunday, July 11, at 2:45 and 5 PM.

James Johnson & the Fighting Cocks

A couple of things you need to know about James Johnson: His nickname is "Super Chikan" and he's the personal favorite of actor Morgan Freeman, whose Mississippi-based blues club, Ground Zero, hosts the musician on a regular basis. The funky delta blues artist writes songs that include lines like, "Don't tell it! So much evil you can almost smell it. Don't tell the truth y'all, no, on a guilty man. He might try to kill you with his own bare hands." And just to seal the deal on why you should check the musician out: He plays several different guitars—dubbed "chikantars"—which he makes himself out of things like gas cans, ceiling fans and broomsticks.

James "Super Chikan" Johnson & the Fighting Cocks play Friday, July 9, at 8:30 PM, Saturday, July 10, at 5 and 8 PM, and Sunday, July 11, at 5:15 PM.

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