Van Folk Fest stages filled with everything from big bands to solo virtuosos

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Big bands are back, or at least they were on folk-fest stages, with Seun Kuti’s Egypt 80, Portland, Oregon’s Typhoon, and Toronto’s Lemon Bucket Orchestra all vying for audience attention.

Nonetheless, two of the festival’s most musically satisfying sets were delivered by solo acts, both at the intimate Stage 1.

On July 19, Italian flatpicker Beppe Gambetta spanned everything from Appalachian bluegrass to Sicilian tarantellas in a textbook demonstration of guitar wizardry, but even better were his between-song anecdotes. Gambetta might be the only Italian ever to seek refuge from the Mafia by moving to New Jersey. He was certainly the only Italian to attend bluegrass legend Doc Watson’s funeral in flaming scarlet shoes. Claiming that he was a papal envoy didn’t win him any fans with the Watson clan, but playing a mournful Sardinian lament did, and Gambetta repeated that tune to gorgeous effect here.

Casey Driessen’s July 20 set was no less captivating, although it might have puzzled those who know the North Carolina fiddler only as a member of Abigail Washburn and Béla Fleck’s Sparrow Quartet. Performing as the Casey Driessen Singularity, and clad in a Col. Sanders suit of dazzling white, he used a mission-control pedalboard to loop and morph his lone fiddle into a full band, slapping it for a bass-drum sound, plucking it for bass and rhythm-guitar parts, and singing into it for eerie harmony vocals.

Driessen’s own compositions tend toward the technical, but several funked-up covers, including Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Tom Waits’s “Murder in the Red Barn”, provided easy entry into his virtuosity and perversely curious mind.

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