Since about a hundred years ago, with the formation of the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony and the offshoot Maverick Art Colony’s performance festivals, the eastern Catskills have been resounding with art and music. In the 1960s, the folk and rock scene gathered for Sound-Outs, concerts presented on a farmer’s land situated between Saugerties and Woodstock, in rural Ulster County. This musical staging style built to a crescendo in 1969 when the Woodstock Festival’s organizers decided to put together a blowout musical happening that echoed throughout the land. It still does, decades later. But it never happened in Woodstock. What did happen, though, was that it drew musicians to this place, to share and play in a nurturing environment, surrounded by sensuous natural beauty. Many of those early musicians stayed and made their homes in the Catskills. The history of this place is rich in the arts, as rich as in its soil, water resources and contoured mountains.
Currently, there is a decadelong tradition of some of these young upstart musicians, now gray of beard, getting together annually to jam and entertain themselves and the crowd, for the purpose of coaxing or welcoming the sun at the winter solstice. If I were the sun, I would be readily recalled by these true artists-in-residence. The quantity of talent that gathers on the stage each year is a bit of a crowd, and you can’t help but wonder how they will avoid stomping on each other’s musical toes. Happy Traum & Friends: Happy, once part of a folk duo with his brother Artie, is the dynamo who puts this event together; John Sebastian, of the Lovin’ Spoonful – who performed at the 1969 concert and is as fresh today; Larry Campbell, a musical machine (just hand him any instrument and watch him make it sing) with a track record that reads like a Who’s Who of rock, country and pop music; Amy Helm, daughter of Woodstock’s own Levon, but a musician in her own right as co-founder of Ollabelle; Teresa Williams, a powerful country singer; and guests Paul Rishell & Annie Raines – two musical blues magicians, he on guitar, she on harmonica.
The performers are so comfortable in the venue and in their abilities that there is a special casual give and take that occurs, and we the audience are privy to it. There is no fourth wall here. Just some neighbors, gathered together to be amazed and amused. The sounds are beautiful. The musicians are pros, but there are no airs, no pretense of them being there as paid pipers playing. Their faces tell us that they are enjoying this annual event as much as we are, and relishing the interaction with each other. It is a thing to behold. And the music, always at a high level, can overwhelm you with its emotional content and real feeling, like shockwaves bouncing through the auditorium. You are completely in the moment and the music fills you as you disappear into the sound. Arslocii.
The night and the performances are intertwined, just as are the multitude of guitars and voices. These musicians breathe music, it exudes from their pores. There is nothing contrived, no trickery. Just music, flowing in through your ears, hovering like a puffy cloud around your brain, teasing and fleeing, diving down into your toes, then soaring back up into your lungs and filling them to the point of gasping, and settling around your heart – the place where the sound will reside forever … or at least until the next year’s concert. This special musical event is the return of the light just at the darkest moment, when you need it the most. It is the alchemy of turning sound into light.