Folk-music society Calliope revamps outdoor festival | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Folk-music society Calliope revamps outdoor festival

On Steve Forbert's latest album, last year's Strange Names & New Sensations, the raspy Mississippi-born songwriter reflects on how far he's come -- most obviously by concluding with a reworked version of "Romeo's Tune," off his second album, Jackrabbit Slim, which established Forbert's career when it broke the Billboard Top 10 in 1980. Other central songs on the album take maturity as their subject, such as "Thirty More Years" and "Middle Age," where he sings over the swelling horns, "Middle age is central, now you tend to know / not just where it's been -- you've been there -- but where you'll likely go."

It's a sentiment that seems appropriate from one of the headliners of this Saturday's day-long Rootz music festival, hosted by local folk-music society Calliope -- the free festival itself being revamped for a new chapter in Pittsburgh's musical history.

Back in 1977, Calliope hosted the first of 23 annual outdoor concerts dubbed The Smoky City Folk Festival. Now, as yet another example of the let's-rebrand-everything impulse that seems to accompany "Pittsburgh 250," it's back with a new moniker and an environmentally conscious angle. Emphasizing green initiatives, the festival -- which takes place in Point Breeze's Mellon Park and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts' new pavilion -- has partnered with such organizations as Bike Pittsburgh, Venture Outdoors and Slow Foods, as well as renewable energy company Capital Technologies International.

But for all the changes, folk music emphasizes tradition, and much about the festival remains "rooted" in Calliope's long history of folk concerts and workshops. Having some things stay the same is a good thing.

Calliope's founder, George Balderose, still lives and works in the historic Calliope House, on the North Side, where the music society initially held house concerts; he now runs a music-publishing and booking agency and the Balmoral School of Highland Bagpiping. The bagpiping school, which celebrated its 30th-year anniversary last fall with the Balmoral Classic (a gala concert and international piping competition), has been instrumental in fostering this traditional music form, both in the Pittsburgh region and nationally. Balderose, an accomplished piper and Calliope music instructor, kicks off the Rootz festival at noon with a performance from Road to the Isles, an ensemble featuring bagpipes, fiddle, flute, guitar and dancers.

In addition to Forbert, the festival headliners include Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem, who gleefully recontextualize a wide range of roots styles with their vocal harmonies, fiddle, guitar, bass and "100 percent recycled drum set," and accomplished acoustic blues and ragtime guitarist -- and Pittsburgh native -- Ernie Hawkins.

The main stage also features the old-timey Lackawanna Longnecks, Irish folk from Hooley, and bluegrass from the Mon River Ramblers, as well as Artistic Youth Ambassadors of Pittsburgh and Lohio. The Pittsburgh Songwriters Project, lead by instructors Tom Breiding and Rick Malis, will premiere a series of songs written to celebrate Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary.

The second, PCA Pavilion stage will feature primarily singer-songwriters -- Mark Weakland, Peter King & Mark Reisman, George Kantor and Jack Erdie -- as well as bluegrass from John & Wendy Mackin, genre-bending Devilish Merry, Janet & Mike Reing, Steve Pellegrino, and The Rolling Scones. The festival will also include a children's tent, featuring musical performances and silk-screening activities, supervised by Amy Garbark.

As part of its year-round programming, Calliope has also recently announced its 2007-08 Acoustic Masters Concert Series, which runs October through April at Oakland's Carnegie Lecture Hall. Featured performers will include legendary vocalist Mavis Staples (Nov. 22) and acoustic-guitar virtuoso Leo Kottke (Jan. 17).


Rootz: The Green City Music Festival. Noon-10 p.m. Sat., July 12. Mellon Park, Fifth and Shady avenues, Point Breeze. Free. All ages. 412-361-1915 or

click to enlarge Rootz featured performers Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem
Rootz featured performers Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem

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