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Down by the Depot

Local talent and low budget seem to work for Hobofest

September 2, 2010
By PETER CROWLEY, Enterprise Managing Editor

SARANAC LAKE - Most music festivals take a top-down approach: Organizers hire musicians from outside the concert location, invest in what the gig will need - stage, sound gear, etc. - and hope the bands draw enough paying customers that they at least make back that overhead cost.

Like all trickle-down processes, it's a gamble: If you build it, you hope they will come.

Hobofest, on the other hand, is consciously taking things from the bottom up. Like at last year's debut, organizers Peter Seward of Lake Placid and Todd Smith of Saranac Lake are presenting mostly local talent. Only three of the 15 acts on the bill are visitors, and two of those have ties to the area: Frankenpine has two former Saranac Lakers in its ranks, and Mother Banjo (a woman, not a band) has family living around these parts.

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Of the full-on local acts, some play out regularly, like Big Slyde, Steve Langdon, Roy Hurd and Jamie Savage. Others are veterans of the area's burgeoning jam and open-mic scene. One band, Cracking Foxy, has been rehearsing diligently for this, its first gig. They and the Roulette Sisters will introduce a jazzier flavor - of the vaudeville variety - to a mix of acoustic music that roots the festival: bluegrass, blues, singer-songwriter-type stuff and various offshoots.

The theme, in Seward's words, is "railroad culture, the hobo spirit and songs that were born out of the Great Depression - as we're having our own challenge with that. ... Those themes ... are inherent in bluegrass and blues, and a lot of the local performers use that in their music, too."

But in the future, Seward added, "I'd love to attract more national acts as we try to find out a way to pull off a free festival."

Fact Box


(rain or shine)


11:45 a.m. - First train welcomed with hobo fanfare led by percussionist Kyle Murray (Rainbow Lake)

Noon - Steve Langdon (Saranac Lake), Delta blues

12:40 p.m. - Pete Seward and Shamim Allen (Lake Placid, Saranac Lake)

1:00 - Keith Gorgas (Goldsmith), mossy country-folk

1:20 - Theresa Hartford (Saranac Lake), gritty singer-guitarist

1:40 - Jamie Savage (Piercefield), Adirondack folk

2:00 - The Pine Ridge Rounders (Bloomingdale, Saranac Lake), straight-ahead bluegrass

2:50 - The Barn Cats (Rainbow Lake, Bloomingdale, Saranac Lake, Montreal), scruffy local stringband

3:45 - Shamim Allen (Saranac Lake), formerly of the Dust Bunnies

4:10 - Roy Hurd (Saranac Lake), ex-Nashville songwriter, Adirondack folk star

4:40 - Mother Banjo (Minneapolis), stark singer-picker

5:15 - Cracking Foxy (Saranac Lake), swinging vaudeville jazz

6:10 - Last train of the day send-off, led by Steve Langdon

6:30 - The Roulette Sisters (New York City), antique, sly jazz and blues

7:45 - Frankenpine (New York City), new vibes from piney old bluegrass

9:00 - Big Slyde (Lake Placid), spiderweb stringband

Yes, Hobofest is free. There are no gates around the lawn at the end of Depot Street, next to the Union Depot train station. So the only revenue comes from selling T-shirts, and this year some hats and buttons that Seward and Smith print themselves. How can they afford to do it? Because almost all of their costs are donated. Everyone involved has some skin in the game.

Big Slyde is loaning its sound system. Lake Placid carpenter Dusty Grant is assembling the stage. CED Electric is donating the stage lights. Friends are hosting the visiting musicians. And all the musicians are volunteering - well, kind of.

If the organizers make money on merchandise sales, they have told the performers they will distribute profits evenly, the same amount to each act. In other words, the performers get paid only if people like the show enough to wear it on their chests.

Last year's T-shirts sold out, barely covering Seward and Smith's costs. This year they've printed twice as many and have done more promotion, including a 300-mile round-trip to poster up towns all over the Adirondacks.

It's still somewhat of a gamble: Smith and Seward spent money to print shirts, and concession vendor Andrew Chase -yes, food will be sold at this year's Hobofest - is buying farm-fresh ingredients like a heritage pig for pulled-pork sandwiches. Chase, by the way, is also involved in Friday's Farm 2 Fork local cuisine festival in the village.

Still, no one is going too far out on a limb. Plus, the organizers got some encouragement at Saturday's farmers market in Saranac Lake, where they had a booth and sold plenty of shirts to tourists who wouldn't even be coming to the show. They just liked the design and the idea and said they wished they could make it, Smith said.

If people eat it up this year, Hobofest could expand in future years, perhaps adding an extra stage, according to Smith. But they're not making plans yet; they'll rely on feedback from this year's festival to chart next year's direction.

"I think we've communicated the concept ... that this festival is for the people," Smith said.

They got some positive input after last year's, including from headliner John Cohen, an eminent American folk photographer, field recorder and musician with the New Lost City Ramblers. That's remarkable considering that Seward and Smith were not at all used to doing this kind of thing.

"We didn't go into it planning this," Smith said. "We thought, 'Hey's let's have some music.'"


The Roulette Sisters roll into Hobofest


SARANAC LAKE - The Roulette Sisters are the closest thing to a headliner at the relatively egalitarian Hobofest, according to co-organizer Peter Seward.

They are also the only act on the bill without direct local ties, but they feel a local connection anyway because they felt so warmly welcomed when they played at BluSeed Studios three years ago - Labor Day weekend 2007.

"It was a really good vibe," said Roulette Sister Mamie Minch, who plays resonator guitar and, in her solo work, favors pre-war blues in the vein of Memphis Minnie and Rosetta Tharpe.

The Roulettes are young, but the styles in which they play are antique: some polished oak or brass, some dusty barnboard. It all echoes from the first half of the 20th century: country blues, Boswell Sisters-style swing and popular songs of the time - but not too popular. All four Sisters sing, often in harmony, and blend in two guitars (by Minch and French jazz specialist Meg Reichardt), Karen Waltuch's viola and Megan Burleyson's washboard.

They do some of their own songs, but Waltuch said 80 percent of them are "songs that you probably haven't heard before from the American songbook." They tend to choose them for what's in their lyrics: poetry, surprising twists and fun colloquialisms, especially ones with double entendres.

Add some summer dresses and sly winks, and you're rolling with the Roulettes.

-Peter Crowley


Contact Peter Crowley at 518-891-2600 ext. 22 or



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