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Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


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   at Winter Hoot, 2024
Saturday, February 3 2024
Back in 2013, Gretchen and I had gone to a new small-scale folk music festival at the Ashokan Center called the Summer Hoot. It hadn't been all that fun, but sometimes you have to humor your significant other, who might (for example) be more into folk music than you are. Or she might have a more robust social network and feel the need to attend events as part of actively maintaining it. For whatever reason, we'd never gone to a subsequent Summer Hoot, though today Gretchen wanted to go to the Winter Hoot, which was happening this weekend. As with the Summer Hoot, it was taking place at the Ashokan Center, though all the performances would be indoors. Gretchen wanted to get to the Hoot at 3:00pm so we'd be there in time to catch a performance by Storey Littleton, a young musician she knows who came up through the Woodstock Rock Academy. But we took a wrong turn and headed south down Ashokan Road for a couple miles before Gretchen realized her error. It was beautiful countryside to drive through, and I'd been through there in the past. But it was all unfamiliar, particularly some places where the road passed along sheer dropoffs (41.90587N, 74.15103W). After figuring out the error and turning around, at some point I caught a glimpse through the trees of one of the most beautiful landscapes I've ever seen: a cone-shaped Catskill peak crusted with snow and lit from the southwest by low-angle February sunlight.
At the Ashokan Center, there were a fair number of cars in the parking lot, indicating people weren't as hunkered-down as I expected for this time of year. As days in early February go, it was gorgeous one, with a brilliant sun shining through nearly cloudless skies, no winds, and temperatures in the low 40s. Unfortunately, we'd just missed Storey Littleton, who'd just concluded her two song set (it takes awhile to develop a repertoire!).
We wandered over to the main building, the place with the big sound stage, the food concessions, and the staffers who gave people wrist bands to the people who had paid (though there didn't seem to be any enforcement against people not wearing them). The Evening Bells were on stage performing some sleepy music that Gretchen thought sounded too much like a parody of folk music. (Think Lea Delaria mockingly singing, "Chernobyl, Chernobyl, Why? Why Why?")
Now that I could see more of the people who had come for the Winter Hoot, I should say something about the demographics. Not surprisingly for a rural folk festival, nearly everyone what white, though I did see three or four African Americans. I don't think I saw a single Asian. The average person there was younger than us, in their 30s or 40s, though there were also a good many people older than us. A lot of people had brought their children, and I would say from the looks of things, this was a liberal crowd. There were probably a good many vegetarians, though I would later see a lot of people walking around with meat on their paper plates. It's likely many of children weren't vaccinated, simply because avoiding vaccinations used to be a hallmark of the kooky left.
So we went on a stroll through the grounds, hiking down a trail into the Esopus gorge containing a riparian forest of mostly sycamores. We crossed a covered bridge that had been made in the 1800s from rough-sawn wood and been put together entirely with wooden pegs. We then turned around and tried to make sense of a low dam and some ruined stoned structures on the Esopus just below the main buildings of the Ashokan Center, and we soon learned that there had once been a grist mill on this site, powered by the flow of the water. The water was flowing particularly strongly today, flooding some of the forest along the creekbanks, suggesting authorities at the Ashokan Reservoir (a mile upstream) were making room in the reservoir for spring floods. We then hiked down to another low terrace near the creek where summer camp events are held, and we crossed a simple plank bridge held up by a shallow parabola of very tight cable strung underneath (it wobbled aggressively with every step, to the delight of children and horror of their helicoptering parents). A little further up the flooding creek someone had built a traditional wigwam using poles and what looked like tuliptree bark. Despite its muddy floor, it was surprisingly cozy inside. Someone had left a red whistle outside it, and I asked Gretchen if she thought it might be a "rape whistle."
Back in among the buildings of the the Ashokan Center, we briefly ducked into a place where black smithing was being taught between lessons and then returned to the main building. It was about 5:00pm at this point and now alcoholic beverages were being served, so we stood in a very slow line until we got to the front. Gretchen got herself a cup of hard cider and I got a plastic glass of red wine. Then we went to see Mikaela Davis, one of the Hoot's headlining acts. She's a harpist surrounded by a fairly conventional rock band featuring a guitar, bass, drums, and a guy who mostly played pedal steel through a lot of guitar effects. They all looked like they'd just stumbled out of a time machine sent from the late 1970s, and their music sounded a lot like the Grateful Dead, although fronted with a angel-voiced woman instead of sweaty male drug addicts. Mikaela's harp often also sounded angelic, though when she muted it with her fingers, she could make it sound exactly like a piano.
When that set ended, we made a bee line for the food concessions. We'd decided our best options were at a concession run by the folks from a vegetaran restaurant somewhere along Route 28 along the north side of the Ashokan Reservoir (I forget the name of the place, but Grechen has gotten things from there on several occasions). We both decided to get the cashew cheese burrito, and while I was at a table waiting for Gretchen to get that, our friend Fern came over and sat with me. Gretchen had told her to meet us here, since one of her many interests if folk fiddle. While we were talking about the wacky music of Mikaela Davis, some overly friendly guy with no friends, a bit of a personality disorder, and a huge plate of brisket & greens that looked like explosive diarrhea, sat across from us and chimed into our conversation. When Gretchen finally arrived with the burritos, she said no way could she sit across from someone eating what that guy was, so we wandered off and found a nearly-empty room full of tables for us to dine in. The burrito was excellent, I thought, because it was a little sour. In our peer group (especially with people like Ray) it's common to randomly take some adjective someone has said and repeat it with "like your ass!" stuck on the end. So of course Gretchen said, "Sour like your ass!" and I replied, "Only you would know that." Fern is about as earthy and profane as they come, but she winced noticeably when I said that.
The next act was a woman named Lau Noah, and it turns out Jamie from last night (A's new boyfriend) is friends with her. Gretchen had told A and Jamie about the Hoot, and when Jamie had looked at the lineup, he was excited to see Lau Noah. So while Gretchen and I were eating out burritos, A and Jamie arrived and randomly sat in seats exactly in front of the seats Gretchen had reserved for me, her, and Fern. It was good to be with those folks again and introduce them to Fern, one of the more interesting people we know.
Lau Noah is an interesting person too. She's from Catalonia (in northeast Spain) and originally arrived in the United States ten years ago at the age of 19 to be a nanny for $2/hour for some wealthy parents in Westchester County. As for her music, it ranged from a Joni Mitchell cover to a more conventional folk to what to my ear sounded like Spanish folk music, often sung over frantic finger-picked guitar that suggested virtuosic skills.
After Lau Noah's set, the five of us were in crowd outside the performance stage chatting about whatever when some random person appeared and asked A if she was, well, her name. This is what happens when you hang out in public with famous people. Gretchen turned to Jamie and asked if this was a common thing and he said yes, and that it had happened last night at La Florentina too! Anyway, A was happy to talk to the stranger, who wanted to know specifically about a film A had been that had been a complete flop.
A and Jamie didn't stay around for the Mammals, though Fern and I did. The Mammals are almost to the Hoot what the Hoot is to the mid Hudson Valley folk music scene, that is, a keystone. Ruth and Mikey, the married couple at the heart of the Mammals, are the ones who did all the work to start the Hoot, saving the Ashokan Center from financial ruin in the process. Everyone loves Ruth and Mikey, especially Gretchen. It's all a little too wholesome for me, like popstar Taylor Swift's relationship with football hero Travis Kelce would be were it not driving the fascist right in this country to even deeper levels of insanity. I forget that they really are a great band, and hearing their songs tonight often forced tears to run down my cheeks. The songs are powerful and poignant. Perhaps I was feeling the pathos of the passage of time and how it does more damage to some than to others while periodically snuffing out ancient threads to make room for new untested one. (I was nothing that Ruth is looking much older now than her husband, and I was astounded to hear that the baby I'd seen her with the last time I'd seen her at all was now old enough to have a learners' permit.)
On the drive back home, we made a wrong turn and ended up on Route 28A pretty far to the west instead of Spillway (which is straighter and the better way to go east and west south of the reservoir). But eventually we made it home, where the dogs were sleeping slowly that Charlotte didn't immediately meet us at the door.

Gretchen inside the wigwam at the Ashokan Center today. Click to enlarge.

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