Swans Island Sweet Chariot Festival, 2014
Venue: Swan’s Island, Maine ~ August 5, 6, and 7, 2014 ~
Oct 5, 2014
Bill Burnett, Doug Day, David Dodson, Ritt Henn, Bob Hipkens, Isla: Deborah Packard and Peter Cairney, Richard and Sandy Jenkins, Thomas Judge and Susan Groce, Geoff Kaufman, Eric Kilburn, Bob Lucas, Mostly Brothers, Daisy Nell and Captain Stan, John and Rachel Nicholas, Lisa Redfern, Ginger Smith and Kahlil Sabbagh, Dean Stevens, Teresa Tudury, The Morningsiders, Denny Williams, Suzy Williams (Click on images to see larger versions.)
The Sweet Chariot Festival is one of the best kept musical secrets in Maine. It was conceived twenty-five years ago as the brainchild of Doug Day who lives in both Camden Maine and Swans Island Maine. As many of the participants say, it’s the festival you can’t get tickets for! Swans Island is off the southern coast of Mt. Desert Island, which is also the location of Acadia National Park, in case you’re not familiar with Maine geography.
The whole area was ‘discovered’ by French explorer, Samuel de Champlain in the early 1600s. Today Swans Island remains untouched by the tawdry hand of tourism—they don’t even have a campground. The island is inhabited by mostly working lobstermen and other families who have been there for generations.
The Sweet Chariot Festival was first hosted in Doug Day’s barn. Performers were and still are housed as guests by island residents. The genesis of the festival was to create a kind of sailor’s musical event for the schooners and other sailing vessels moored in Burntcoat Harbor—and of course for the island people too. The festival still has a nifty tradition of singing sea-shanties shipboard in the harbor on the afternoons prior to the concerts. Something as small as a rowboat or a kayak can get you a front row seat.
How We Got There
We took a car ferry from Bass Harbor and booked a room with a kitchenette from Swans Island's solitary motel. Besides a small convenience store and a couple of snack bars, there are no grocery stores or restaurants on the entire island. We brought enough groceries and wine to last for the three days.
Nowadays the event is held in the Oddfellows Hall in the main village, within walking distance of the harbor. Each year an original backdrop with a sailing theme is painted on canvas for the event by artist, Buckley Smith. This year he created a painting of the Bodwell, a ferry boat that served the area in the 1920s and 30s, until it was lost in a fire one fateful night.
It Helps to Have Connections!
My friend Genevieve is close friends with the Jenkins family, so we received the additional blessing of being invited to attend after-parties held in private homes. This was like being flies on the wall of music heaven We got to hear Teresa Tudury’s intimate rendition of “Melancholy Baby,” Suzy Williams’ “Mood Indigo,” and Ginger Smith’s “Aint Nobody’s Business But My Own.” If you can imagine sitting in Frank Sinatra’s living room and hearing Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme sing for intimate company, it was kind of like that.
All three gorgeous August evenings we sat in the second row of the hall. Each evening began with a crowd of performers entering parade-like from the rear, marching up the center aisle. Richard Jenkins led the way with his trumpet.
Geoff Kaufman, from Mystic Seaport, who once worked with Pete Seeger on the sloop, Clearwater, sang out with his bold tenor voice as the rest of us joined in a call and response that literally shivered me timbers. We sang the sea-shanties, “Rosabella” and “Bully in the Alley,” in full voice. The tears streamed down my face as the magical assembly took the stage, waving flags and singing with a vigor I could hardly process. It felt similar to hearing bass drums in a marching band when you watch a parade – the boom-boom-boom makes the heart constrict while the eyes spill over with tears.
There's no explaining it, it just happens. I have to say that I could not take my eyes off Suzy Williams, whose black hair and eyebrows and inimitable facial expressions and body language were riveting! She is the embodiment of enthusiasm, humor and intensity.
Master of Ceremonies, Doug Day
Doug Day of Camden, Maine, (as well as Swans Island,) was the handsome MC, clad in khaki shorts with a striped sash.
He is a singer/songwriter in his own right as well as a great promoter of music and musicians. Doug interspersed his Dick Cavett-ish introductions with sometop-notch performances. For example he played the suggestive “Sing a Dirty Song,” with slightly saucy back up from the formidable Rachel Nicholas, Suzy Williams and Ginger Smith.
Denny Williams performed an upbeat little diddy called “Busy” He appeared throughout the festival, sometimes playing guitar, sometimes drums and singing back up as well. He joked, “What is hell? Sweat! What is hell? Whatever you’ve resisted all your life. Exercise!” He sang a Todd Rundgren-esque song called “You Blew My Mind,” with help from the handsome-voiced and fine guitarist David Dodson, and the superlative team of John and Rachel Nicholas on guitar and vocals.
Dean Stevens, affectionately nicknamed ‘the gentle giant,’ sang a tune called “Rain Night.” He is a real folkie and nature crusader, with a fine tenor voice and graceful hands on the guitar. His chord phrasing was particularly excellent. His song “Salmon River” made me cry.
Ritt Henn bounded out, tall and mobile-faced, carrying his standup bass—looking kind of like a cross between Jeff Goldblum, Jerry Lewis and Fred Gwynn. His deep voice, good heart and jaunty spirit came through with the songs, “I’m Going Back to be Kid Again,” and “Chicks Dig Me ‘Cause I Bowl.” Bob Lucas on banjo and the amazing drummer, David Su from the Morningsiders, provided support. Ritt’s heart is so full of good will it is a delight to be in his presence.
Mostly Brothers is a young band from Camden, Maine, comprised of Sean and Jamie Oshima and Alex Wilder. Doug Day heard about them through the local school system and invited them. They were kind of like the early Beatles—adorable young men who sang and played their hearts out, mostly original tunes, except for a drop-dead gorgeous cover of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s
“Helplessly Hoping.” There weren’t enough young girls in the audience to scream and faint adequately, but us older folks applauded madly for them in the way we might have during Beatlemania.
Thomas Judge and Susan Groce
Thomas Judge and Susan Groce brought an element of dignity and heart with their incredible Celtic reels and jigs on fiddle. They spoke about the fact that Partridge Island, which is Canada’s Ellis Island, has many cemeteries because of the extreme influx of immigraton, starvation and epidemics during the turn of the previous century. One ode they played was particularly heartbreaking, a theme written to honor the death of a young boy.
John and Rachel Nicholas
John and Rachel Nicholas have been together for over thirty years and you can feel the love between them. Rachel has a dancer’s presence and pipes like Aretha, and John’s hair probably makes bald men lie awake at night thrashing with envy. He is also a great guitarist and songwriter. Besides being a supportive presence for other performers, they did some of their own tunes. “My Evolution” expresses gratitude about life, the planet and love in sweet harmonies.
Bob Lucas took the stage with his banjo and played “See That Crow in the Sky,” and “Castle of Mine.” His understated sense of humor was illumined by the title of his latest CD, “Banjo For Lovers.” Bob grew up in a musical family of boys and has a career that goes back to the late 70s and 80s when he released the eclectic album “Dancer Within.” You can find clips of those gigs on YouTube when Bob was a young buck with long blond hair!
His musical essence uncoiled before us like a mystical being—at first he seemed like a nice, unassuming older man, proficient on the banjo, guitar and vocals. Gradually as he played with the other musicians his vast ability emerged, especially during a finale when he howled and growled and shouted with astonishing vocal gymnastics.
The Morningsiders, featuring Reid Jenkins, the talented son of festival mainstays Richard and Sandy Jenkins, are clearly the torchbearers of Sweet Charity’s next generation. The Jenkins kids grew up on the stage as part of the Jenkins family band. Reid and fellow band members, Magnus Ferguson and David Su, carried us away with original music and harmonies as well as Reid’s exceeding mastery on fiddle. They remind me of Fleet Foxes—someone else said Mumford and Sons. Oprah and Starbucks are using one of The Morningsiders tunes in a commercial. We want to know, when you’re really rich and famous will you take our calls, and will you still come to Swans Island?
Deborah Packard and Peter Cairney
Deborah Packard and Peter Cairney, otherwise known as Isla, kept things in balance. Oh my, they are my musical weak spot, I was enthralled by them. She has one of those Hazel Dickens-from-heaven voices, long silver hair and a lovely shining face. Peter’s deepset eyes and lines around his mouth as he plays guitar makes you want to travel into his interior music-making place. They played “The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Raise Corn.” Deborah explained about the tradition of broken token songs, and they sang “John Riley.” I could have listened to them all night.
Kahlil Sabbagh and Ginger Smith
Kahlil Sabbagh seems able to play just about any instrument that you could place in his hands, and Ginger Smith, for her tiny stature, belts out songs with the best of them. She has a firey presence, and the two of them make you believe in the power of love. Ginger sang backup throughout the event, as did Kahlil who also played piano, vibes, drums and guitar. He’s tall, dark and handsome, and she is petite and lovely, the archetypal god and goddess of beauty and music. When in Los Angeles they frequently play with the Backboners.
Suzy Williams and Bill Burnett
Suzy Williams and Bill Burnett, who are musical miracles as well, make up the Backboners with Kahlil and Ginger. The Backboners did a song called “The Little Boy Who Cried Love,” with energy and harmony evoking Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks.
Suzy Williams was born for the stage—her movements, body language and voice fall somewhere between Shirley Bassey, Mae West and Billie Holiday—sultry and strutting, lots of heart and soul, and wearing wigs of many colors and hairstyles to enhance the performance. Suzy said, “My attitude is gratitude.” Bill has a huge resume working with Hanna/Barbera cartoons, and writing music for such erudite productions as “Cow and Chicken.” Bill really did not get enough stage time, that guy is deep! One of his compositions was from the point of view of an iceberg – it was creative and chilling. His songs range from hilarious to heartwrenching.
Lisa Redfern, blond and big hearted with a show tune voice, performed her song, “Mudita” which is the sanskrit word meaning to find joy in the joy of others. Kahlil and Ginger, Rachel and mandolin wiz, Eric Kilburn, accompanied her. Lisa is another one that didn’t get enough time. She performed some standards while wearing a polka dot dress, with backup from Ritt Henn and Richard Jenkins. Her warmth was memorable. After that Doug Day announced the arrival of a special person.
Teresa Tudury is long, lean and curly-haired, with a sense of humor to rival Bette Midler or Carol Burnett, and a trained voice that could fill a hall. She’s got warm wise eyes to go with her quick ascerbic wit and extreme rhyming agility. Droll and deadpan, she confided “They called me two days ago to see if I could come. I packed in a hurry— I brought a blender, a beekeeper’s helmet and a tutu.” In the midst of getting ready to sing she handed her guitar to Bob Lucas to tune and said “I can’t tune my guitar, I’m harmonal.” I knew she was going to be amazing and she was was.
It’s hard to explain the emotional affect of Teresa’s song “River of Life,” but it has the epic expansiveness of “The Circle of Life” from the Lion King. Bob Hipkens was sitting behind Genevieve and I and we heard him singing “The river. The river. The river.” in this deep voice, sort of like street doo-wop. Meanwhile the whole place sang in what seemed like million part harmony “And all I know is the River of Life, the River of Life.” It was like the climax of a Broadway show. Looking around, I saw tears flowing and felt the love. Doug Day said of Teresa Tudury that “Once she looked at us and said, I found my people, none of you have made it either!” She said during her set “The dawning of the Age of Aquarius is going to begin around the time we’re checking out. This is for the young people.” She sang “Let’s Go For a Ride” about Twinkle the cat, and also the hilarious tune “Chinese Underwear.”
Daisy Nell and Captain Stan
Daisy Nell and Captain Stan are sailors as well as singers. They belted out “Farewell Nova Scotia.” He looks a bit like Wilfred Brimley and she is a trim, page-boy blond.
They have 60s era folk music voices, are good guitarists, and are pretty funny. They have nautical personaes and have written some children's books.
David Dodson played a rockabilly song called “Slug it Out.” He is an expressive guitar player and singer who was present playing backup during many performances both on stage and at the after parties.
Richard Jenkins played piano, backing up many of the performers, as well as doing some songs with his wife, Sandy, and son, Reid. He is a highclass pianist in NY, one of those guys who can play anything and play with anyone. I had the pleasure of meeting Richard and Sandy during the event and they were two of the most considerate and kind people I've ever met.
Denny Williams reappeared going rockabilly with “Mercy I like the way you rock n roll.”
Bill Burnett and Suzy Williams went kind of Grand Ol' Oprey with the costume song “King and Queen of Mean.” At the after party Bill Burnett sang one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard called “Songs are Twice Prayer.”
Bob Hipkens was another treasure. He was backed up by Reid, Bob Lucas, Ritt, Richard Jenkins and Eric Kilburn. His set with was somewhere between Stefan Grapelli and Bob Wills. He has a really beautiful baritone voice, and just killed the dobro. Heaven. He played cowboy swing songs complete with yodeling, covering Jimmie Rogers and Spade Cooley.
Eric Kilburn is an accomplished mandolin player and singer. He played a number of songs, one about the proverbial midlife crisis as a parent that even contained a line about the book, Goodnight Moon. He led the way on some Django type gypsy jazz, in fact, he did a composition called “Django’s Convertible” that was so good, so good so good. I tell ya, if you want to find men with big hearts, come hear this man and his friends.
The last half of the last night was a tribute to Pete Seeger who died this year. We sang along with the company “Down by the Riverside,” “Lonesome Valley,” and “Turn Turn Turn.” Daisy Nell led us with “Early Morning” and Bob Lucas “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” The whole Oddfellows Hall swelled to the rafters as all 250 of us or so sang “If I Had a Hammer” at the top of our lungs.
“Parting is such a sweet sorrow that we'll say goodnight til it be morrow.” At least it felt like we wanted to.
Photos by Genevieve Lessard
Kimmy Sophia Brown has loved humor and music and freedom for as long as she can remember.She is especially passionate about the environment and caring for animals.
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