“According to the moon and stars, we can do another song,” said Cedric Watson to the audience spread loosely across the Middleton Place lawn, just after the brief but impressive fireworks display concluded behind him over the Ashley River.
Watson wasn’t kidding — with more red-and-yellow blotches headed Charleston’s way on the weather radar, an encore truly was at the grace of the heavens.
Throughout the performance with his band Bijou Creole, Watson maintained a big grin and gracious smile, even when feedback problems plagued his microphone throughout the first several songs. Nobody in the field’s “Dancing Area” seemed to mind (yes, there were signs and lines in the grass designating this), happily spinning their partners through the accordion and fiddle-driven tunes.
Arriving just in time to catch most of Memphis roots singer Valerie June’s set in the beer garden, we were pulled in from far away by her wailing, childlike voice. What June lacks in vocal pitch inflection and guitar and banjo technique she more than makes up for with her delivery. Most people seemed drawn by her funky style, complete with red cowboy boots and Medusa-like dreadlocks, but it was her sense of timing and stage presence that had the Royal Tinfoil’s Mackie Boles plotting his marriage proposal in the front row, just after handing the stage off to June from the Tinfoil’s own opening set.
Earlier in the evening, much of the audience wondered if Cedric Watson would even get to play. Moderate-to-heavy rain set in around 6 o’clock, deterring much of the crowd the finale organizers likely expected. Although it’s difficult to estimate numbers in such a spread-out venue, the crowd appeared to be under or close to 1,000 people — a fraction of the turnout of last year’s finale with the Del McCoury Band.
That was undoubtedly due to the rain (and not helped by the two separate accidents blocking Highway 61 during the storm, both within a mile of the Middleton Place gates). Many people in attendance, however, were also not familiar with Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole before they were booked for Spoleto, unlike McCoury and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the previous two finale headliners, who each draw their own faithful contingent.
Still, Watson may have proved the most appropriate of those three for what’s meant to be a triumphant closing party. It takes only the first beats of a zydeco song to turn a damp, rainy atmosphere into a grooving party, and fortunately, the rain held off for the duration of the evening after 8 p.m. With a sparse band consisting of Watson, drums, saxophone, washboard, and an impeccable yet subtle bass player
filling out the rhythm’s bounce, the Lafayette, Louisiana troupe provided a fitting finale for another stunning two-and-a-half weeks of arts showcased in Charleston.
Spoleto jazz series producer Michael Grofsorean enjoyed the show from the crowd, trading his usual sport coat for a rain-soaked gray T-shirt. I mentioned a couple I met at a Cistern performance who were attending almost 30 different events this year, averaging nearly two every day.
“Think of it like a store that sells tarps and raincoats,” said Grofsorean, pointing out the raincoat that my companion wore while he and I stood there in wet cotton. “You keep it simple and provide a good product at an affordable price, and people will keep coming back.”
Grofsorean admitted that he often attends shows in his home state of Michigan where he’s left aghast at details overlooked by the planners and producers, and he takes those lessons and applies them to his work for Spoleto.
The end result is that even with a soggy day very-nearly washing out the Spoleto finale, the festival (and the finale) can still only be called a resounding success.
“Peace, love and zydeco, y’all!” yelled a beaming Watson from stage as he bid the audience adieu. “We loved this whole experience, and we hope we’ll be back to Spoleto again.”