Every year Artistic Director James Keelaghan writes a series of 12 articles for the Owen Sound Sun Times previewing the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival
By James Keelaghan
One of the advantages of being the Artistic Director of Summerfolk and a touring musician is that I get to see music on the road that I might never see otherwise.
I’m with Quincy Jones—I like all kinds of music, except bad music. I’ll listen to anything and it doesn’t matter to me if it’s jazz, blues or country. All that matters is that it’s good. I have to admit though, if it’s quirky, it goes to the head of the line.
Last year, I was playing the Chester Folk Festival in the UK. On the Sunday night, there was a band on immediately before us in the Marquee tent with the enigmatic name, The Hut People. The festival program was devoid of photographs and, in my mind, I imagined a band of twenty-somethings in 1970s retro gear.
While wondering when they were going to appear, I was backstage with Hugh McMillan and two guys roughly my age. One of them was laying out a low table full of all kinds of, “I didn’t know what”. The other guy had a piano accordion. That’s how I met Sam Pirt and Gary Hammond, The Hut People.
A table full of “stuff” and a piano accordion are pretty good indications that the quirk factor is going to be high. The table belonged to Gary and the “stuff” turned out to be percussion instruments: a bell tree, bottle caps, kudus, ghatams, all manner of cymbals and found instruments. I couldn’t name half the things on that table, but they sounded great.
Sam plays the accordion in a number of different styles from traditional English to Finnish folk as well as step dancing and Quebec-style foot percussion.
Watching them set up I had to wonder, what the heck is this going to be about? After the first tune, I was hooked. I have never heard or seen anything like them. They are unique.
Sam and Gary had been on the scene in England for a long time. They travelled in the same circles but didn’t come together as The Hut People until three years ago.
At first blush, accordion and percussion seem an odd combination to hang a set of music on, but every single tune was fascinating. Musically, they wandered the world—folk tunes from Quebec and Spain, from Scandinavia to Sussex. It would be a mistake to think they are a novelty act. Master musicians both, and though the music may be light-hearted, it’s played with skill. I bought a CD and offered them a gig at Summerfolk as soon as they came off stage.
A duo is one of the most challenging ways to present music relying almost exclusively on chemistry. Unless there is a spark, it’s just two people on stage. Sam and Gary know each other’s moves, laugh a lot on and off stage and they clearly enjoy each other’s company.
Mama’s Broke may not be as light-hearted as The Hut People, but they do have the duo thing going on. Amy Lou and Lisa Marie, like Sam and Gary, came together a little over three years ago. Since then, the road has been their home.
It’s rare for a young band to have a wide touring range in the early years, but Amy and Lisa have managed to tour Ireland, Continental Europe, Canada, the USA, Indonesia and Australia in that time. The venues have been as varied as their repertoire: from circus shows in New Orleans to pirate ships in Amsterdam, to concert halls in Ireland, to theatres in Brooklyn. They say they are based everywhere and nowhere and the tour history bears that out.
They are folk hunter-gatherers. Every trip taken is an opportunity to learn a new song and delve into a new tradition. Off-road months are spent weaving those influences into new songs and then they set off on the next expedition. Drawing from old-time, Quebecois, blues, punk, Celtic, Balkan and doom metal, they create a soundscape that is both familiar and new.
It’s cliche to say that a group pushes the boundaries, but with regard to Mama’s Broke, it’s actually an understatement. What they play sounds traditional, but there are surprising twists and turns—harmonies that wander into Eastern Europe while the instruments stay in Appalachia. Their commitment is to challenge borders between people, places and traditions while encouraging freedom of expression and community through music.
While a lot of the material is original, they play it old school—no DI boxes—just two musicians, two microphones, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar and two perfectly blended voices.
Mama’s Broke and The Hut People are two of the finest duos you are ever going to see. They have workshops and concerts throughout the weekend and we’re happy to welcome them to their first Summerfolk.