Out & About: Ossipee Valley, PORTopera and Slaid Cleaves

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For the past decade and a half, two stellar events happen in late July. First up is the annual Ossipee Valley Music Festival, which runs through Sunday on the banks of the Ossipee River in South Hiram. Hosts Raetha Stoddard and Bill Johnson invite several dozen traditional artists to perform alfresco at a fairground, and a thousand or so aficionados gather.

PORTopera’s annual mainstage production has been a fixture of July’s final full week since 1995. Maine’s only fully professional resident company, PORTopera will give two performances of Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel,” July 29 and 31. Artistic director Dona D. Vaughn promises a very different, very relevant take.

Slaid Cleaves is a singer-songwriter of unusual ability. He grew up in Berwick and played professionally in the Portland area before pulling up stakes for the Austin, Texas music scene. He returns every summer to play for friends and fans. His main Portland appearance is this Saturday at One Longfellow Square.

Ossipee Valley Music Festival

One of my personal favorite events for the past decade-plus has been the Ossipee Valley Music Festival, an annual alfresco celebration of traditional music held on a fairground in sylvan South Hiram, nearly an hour west of Portland.

I’ve spend many hours there, relaxing in a folding chair and listening to a wide variety of old-fashioned music.

The producers, Raetha Stoddard and Bill Johnson, started the event as a straight-ahead bluegrass festival with a few additional twists that appeal to fans of traditional, old-fashioned country music and music from other countries. This year’s edition drops the word “bluegrass” from the title, but Stoddard and Johnson pledge to continue to present lots of that very traditional American genre.

The festival has also expanded to two performing areas – Maine Stage and Stage Too! – which run simultaneously from noon until evening on Friday, late morning to evening on Saturday and morning to afternoon on Sunday. There’s also a limited schedule on Thursday evening.

Nationally known acts dominate the evening schedules. Headliners for 2010 include Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, Steep Canyon Rangers, Gibson Brothers, Claire Lynch Band, Bluegrass Gospel Project and Belleville Outfit. Local bands from Maine and New England – Bits and Pieces, Mousam River Ramblers, Muddy Marsh Ramblers and Bag Boys – are prominently featured.

Three parallel events also run. The New England Flatpicking (guitar) Championship, New England Banjo Championship and a songwriting contest. Several workshops feature prominent performers. The one that intrigues me most is “Rockabilly versus Bluegrassabilly,” with southern Maine’s Sean Mencher plus the Gibson Brothers, from New York. A fiddling workshop is hosted by Darol Anger, of the Republic of Strings. After Saturday’s final performance on the Maine Stage, Creole Stomp hosts a barn dance.

Stoddard and Johnson have lots of kids, and they run a strictly G-rated festival. Several events focus specially on kids. The Good Lovelies host a children’s workshop, and Children of 317 (a Yarmouth community music center) get time on stage. There’s also the “Roots and Sprouts Music Academy,” and Della Mae hosts a children’s dance party. Plus there’s a popular swimming hole in the Ossipee River, a few dozen yards beyond the Maine Stage.

Other details worth noting: Camping in the rough is included with the multi-day ticket. There’s plenty of food, ranging from fried dough to a traditional roast chicken supper hosted by a local church. Friendly River Music will have a sales booth, a popular gathering place for local musicians.

Bring folding low-back lawn chairs, bug dope and sunscreen. There’s a tent for inclement weather, but a sweater for chilly Maine nights is always a wise precaution. For complete details, visit the festival’s website, ossipeevalley.com.

‘Hansel and Gretel’

I’ve been following PORTopera since its 1995 inception, and the company’s 2010 offering is among the most unusual and intriguing. “Hansel and Gretel,” based on the familiar Grimm Brothers fairy tale, is Engelbert Humperdinck’s best-known opera.

Despite the 19th-century opera’s fairy-tale origin, PORTopera Artistic Director Dona D. Vaughn plans a production that emphasizes two very serious and very real themes: hunger and abandonment.

Why are the two young children out in the woods where they meet the dreadful witch? Because there’s no food in the house and their mother sends them into the forest to cope for themselves.

In keeping with this serious central concept, PORTopera has enlisted a multi-national children’s chorus; an unstated parallel theme mirrors the fact that many of these youngsters arrived on America’s shore as refugees from impoverished, war-ravaged countries.

Fourteen kids from Portland Ballet will also be featured. These young dancers will appear as angels when Hansel and Gretel are lost in the woods.

Most of PORTopera’s lead singers have international experience, from New York to Europe. Israel Gursky returns to conduct a professional orchestra.

Two performances are planned for Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: 7:30 p.m. July 29 and 2 p.m. July 31. The Saturday matinee (no Saturday evening performance) is intended to allow as many children as possible to see “Hansel and Gretel.” Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Slaid Cleaves

When I moved to Portland nearly 20 years ago, one of the first local musicians to catch my attention was Slaid Cleaves, a roots-rockabilly singer-songwriter who fronted the Moxie Men.

They were very active on the local music scene and they were very good. Cleaves’ writing focuses on everyday people, their trials and tribulations and occasional joys. Cleaves also loves to highlight the ironic humor that arises from many sticky situations.

I was soon disappointed to learn that Cleaves was leaving Maine and the Moxie Men for the artistically greener pastures of Austin, Texas, the burgeoning epicenter of America’s roots-rockabilly music scene.

But Cleaves hasn’t forgotten his friends, and they haven’t forgotten him. Each summer he returns to southern Maine and plays a few gigs. Among the most prominent will be Saturday’s concert at One Longfellow Square in Portland.

His newest CD, released last year, is bears a grim title: “Everything You Love Will Be Taken Away.” In his review, Texas Music editor Richard Skanse commented: “Everything you love about the man’s singular voice and music is still very much present. There’s been some notable changes made, all in the name of artistic growth, but rest assured: all that living, writing songs, making records and traveling around has … made Slaid Cleaves even better.”

Catch Maine-born troubadour Slaid Cleaves at 8 p.m. July 24 at One Longfellow Square, corner of State and Congress in Portland’s arts district. Call 761-1757.

Sidebar Elements

Claire Lynch will be a headline act Saturday night at the Ossipee Valley Music Festival, which runs through Sunday in South Hiram.