Folk Alliance 2011 Highlights from Hearth Music
It was my first time at the annual Folk Alliance International Conference, and I decided my best option was to wander and explore, getting the feel for the conference and the artists. There were some amazing moments, often tucked away in the wee hours of the morning in stuffy hotel rooms as artists of many talents and traditions gathered to inspire themselves and others. Here are some of the artists and moments that I most enjoyed.
Blind Boy Paxton: Before I saw Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton perform with hardcore traditional fiddler/banjoer/singer Frank Fairfield in Seattle, I had the same assumption that everyone else has before seeing him: “Oh god, not another white blues dude with a fake old-timey name”. Well, the truth about Paxton is ultimately much more interesting than I would have thought and goes way beyond the simple fact that he’s black, of course, and actually visually impaired (he sees, but not well and legitimately uses a cane). Like his friend, Frank Fairfield, he’s the real deal. Not a hipster who recently discovered Dock Boggs and bought a cheap banjo, nor an R&B/pop musician who got tired of the grind and decided to slum with other folk acts, but an honest-to-god, tried-and-true throwback to an earlier era. Blame this on his upbringing perhaps. Though born and raised in South Central LA, Paxton grew up in a pocket of first-generation rural-Southerners from Northern Louisiana, a community so insular that he speaks with a rich Southern accent to this day. Equally adept on the banjo as on the guitar, he has an omnivorous taste for early Americana, with a repertoire that includes pop songs from the 1920s, ancient Celtic ballads, ragtime picking, and deep country blues. It’s the same kind of repertoire most of the early songsters had in the South, a repertoire that was obscured or hidden by white song collectors eager to find the exotic and forbidden sounds of the blues, but uncomfortable with a Black man singing a country song or a white man like Hobart Smith ripping out a killer country blues song. Paxton sings with a softly muted voice that I can only imagine comes from the hundreds of 78s that he’s listened to and collected. I thought that this was a hallmark of a new generation of uber-traditional folkie youth (Paxton, Fairfield, Pokey Lafarge, The Dust Busters are all examples), who have changed their voices to sound like the distorted vocals on 78 records, but hearing veteran folk revivalist Andy Cohen (a good friend of Paxton) sing, I realized that the folk revival was also founded by musicians so passionate about the eerie sounds of vocally distorted recordings, or semi-isolated communities, that they began to mimic, and then develop this sound. We'll definitely be posting more on Blind Boy Paxton in the future (we're hoping he'll put out an album sometime this year or next), but for now you can enjoy this video from our new favorite blog, American Standard Time.
The Honey Dewdrops: This husband-wife duo cut quite the swath through the Folk Alliance Conference. Aside from looking like professional folk music models, they also swept from jam session to jam session, picking out old-timey tunes with other artists and generally charming everyone. I have great respect for musicians who jam. It shows not only that they are technically good enough to be able to improvise or change their style to match another band, but also how much they respect the music. Kagey Parrish and partner Laura Wortman hail from Charlottesville, Virginia and have more than a passing knowledge of Appalachian folk traditions. So they can tear it up in an old-timey jam, but they can also write new songs that sound as if they'd fit in with any mountain music picking party in the backcountry.
I'd already heard plenty about this duo before Folk Alliance, as their album was at the top of the Folk-DJ charts for a few months, but they totally blew me away on stage. Pitch-perfect glorious harmonies, rock-solid runs on guitar/mandolin, affable stage charisma; they were quite the package. But I fell in love with their songs, which have a timeless quality to them, a quality that I feel makes folk music so compelling. The songs are stripped of artifice and built of honest feelings and pure love. Consummate performers, The Honey Dewdrops held me spellbound throughout their set and easily transcended the homey folksinger cliche that was otherwise prevalent
The Honey Dewdrops -- Nobody In This World
Rhiannon Giddens & Sonic New York: The prize for bravest band at Folk Alliance has to go to the new band from Rhiannon Giddens (of the Carolina Chocolate Drops). Sonic New York was formerly the side project of international circus composer Sxip Shirey, guitarist for the Luminescent Orchestrii (with whom CCD just recorded a well-received EP). Sxip, beatboxer Adam Matta (now an official member ofCCD's new lineup) and a bassist (not sure who!) made up the band with Rhiannon Giddens at Folk Alliance. The band doesn't have a website yet, and just released a demo CD that Tim Duffy of Music Maker was handing out for free. But damn if they didn't have some of the craziest sounds and ideas of any band there! The core of the group, Rhiannon and Sxip, clearly have wildly eclectic tastes in music, ranging from Gaelic lilting traditions to far-out avant-folk guitar compositions. The band was borderline schizophrenic, with Adam Matta's precision beatboxing rampaging along with Rhiannon's Celtic mouth music (her husband's fro m Limerick, Ireland, so she's been learning Gaelic, or Irish), and Rhiannon holding forth with a contra dance fiddle tune and hip-hop beats. I was able to pin down the more obscure folk music references, including a bold cover of Irish band Kila's infamously complex songs from the pen of Ronan O Snodaigh, but missed the pop culture references. I think there was a funk song thrown in, some definitely saucy blues numbers. Dang, this band is the absolute definition of "mash-up". I'm not sure everything meshed perfectly on stage (this was their first live performance), but the band was taking so many leaps of faith, that you had to give them credit for their bravery. And they've clearly got the musical knowledge and ability to pull this off, where many lesser bands would fail. Rhiannon Giddens & Sonic New York is a band to watch, and they proved this in Memphis.
Rhiannon Giddens & Sonic New York: Hen in the Fox House
Valerie June: My good friend, Erin Dochartaigh, recommended Valerie June to me, and I'm glad she did! Valerie June has a totally unique take on American roots music, and a perspective so refreshingly different that it's no wonder she gets a bit tired of all the genre classifications that folkies keep foisting on her. During her set at Folk Alliance, she confessed "I'm not a blues musician. I'm not a folk musician and I'm not a country musician. I just play what I feel."But she is a blues musician, she is a folk musician, and she is a country musician. Valerie June clearly loves American folk music, and if we could open our minds a bit more and accept that music was meant to inspire rather than define, then she'd fit in fine with all these genres. It's not that she's copying or even drawing inspiration from these traditions, but rather that she's tapping into the rough simplicity of the music. Lyrics that say what they mean. Guitar chords that clatter across the floor. A cracked, fragile voice that speaks to a softer side of the blues. There's no mojo working here, this is the front porch picking of Mississipi John Hurt, music that drew people in, wrapped them in love and carried them home, rather than shoving them all over a sweaty dance floor.
But whatever the case, I find her music completely intriguing and don't pretend to really understand what she's doing. I just love her beautiful voice, her weird restructuring of folk music tropes, and her sweet Southern drawl.
Valerie June: Raindance
Jubal's Kin: These young siblings from Florida tap into similar sounds as Sarah Jarosz, another old-timey wunderkind. They take inspiration from Southern old-time music, covering chestnuts like "Train on the Island", or "Raleigh & Spencer", but approach the music with an unhurried pace and a reverence for the silent core of the songs. They slow down traditional barn-burning songs so that the wonderful voices of brother/sister Roger and Gailanne Amundsen can shine through. Roger's voice has a bit of an edge, while Gailanne's voice is soothing. Both singers have just enough cracks in the vocals to be as intimate as any indie-folk band, and some of the song choices reflect their tastes outside of old-time music. They do a wonderful cover of The Decemberists' "Eli, The Barrow Boy", and their cover of Patty Griffin's "The Rowing Song" was mesmerizing during their live show.
This is a band to watch closely, as their refreshingly honest and innovative recuts of classic old-time/urban folk songs and excellent musical talents will take them far. Now you can say you knew them when...
Jubal's Kin -- Train on the Island/Hunting the Buffalo
David Myles: I have a rocky relationship with singer-songwriters. It's easy for artists who write their own songs to fall into a self-referential void, either by allowing either their ego or their righteousness over a particular issue to overcome their music. This leads to a disconnect between the artist and the audience, and this disconnect leads to annoyance. It's not the earnestness of a typical singer-songwriter that wears an audience down, it's the lack of connection. So I sometimes forget how powerful a singer-songwriter can be if they have as much talent as a performer as they do as a songwriter. New Brunswick singer-songwriter David Myles proved this to me.
I had no idea who he was when I stumbled in to his set in the East Coast (of Canada) Music Association room (actually, all the artists they booked turned out to be amazing). He dressed to the nines in a suit and tie (he joked that he had convinced his dad to let him become a musician over a lawyer by promising to dress for success every day), was skinny as a rail, and completely charming. He told stories, cracked jokes, smiled up a storm and made us all feel like performing was his favorite thing in the whole world. It was the kind of performance that gives you the kind of goofy smile that you
feel slightly embarassed about, but are totally unable to wipe off your face.
He was kind enough to pass along some CDs to me, and listening after the show, I was impressed that the same performance intensity that so wowed me at his concert was also present on the album. He's an earnest singer-songwriter in the absolute best sense of the word: he earnestly wants to share his music with you, and after listening or catching him live, you'll be grateful that he did.
David Myles: When It Comes My Turn
PS: I should say that a major key to David Myles's performance was his crazy awesome guitarist, Alan Jeffries.
Bua: Now, it's widely known that Celtic music and Americana can never mix. But I'm going out on a limb here to add the Irish trad band Bua to my list of highlights for No Depression. You can't understand what Americana means if you don't understand how Irish music influenced America, and nowhere was this influence more powerful than in Chicago. The key character at the center of this influence was Chief Francis O'Neill, Chicago's chief of police at the turn of the century. A former sailor and world traveler, O'Neill kept his ties to Ireland strong by recruiting his police officers from the ranks of unemployed Irish immigrant musicians. Word was that you if you wanted a job on the force, you had to go into O'Neill's office to play some tunes with him before you were considered for the job. O'Neill was also a tireless collector and transcribor of traditional Irish music, pulling from his sources on the force to track down and write up new tunes. He published a number of seminal tune books that continue to influence musicians both in American and back in Ireland (and now across the world). And outside of his work with Irish musicians, he also cleaned up Chicago's rampant corruption and graft and became quite the folk hero.
Bua draw from the rough-and-tumble world of American Irish music. Tunes played in smoky dancehalls rather than fancy concert halls, tunes taken from dusty books rather than YouTube videos, a world largely forgotten in today's overly polished Irish music world where the high-gloss of mega-tours like Celtic Women have largely blinded the public to the power of Irish trad. Lead singer Brian Hart has a soft, beautiful voice with a slight American accent that grounds the music on our continent. He's studied the old style of singing in Ireland's remote Connemara region, and sings in Irish Gaelic as well as English. He also brings Irish sean-nos dance to the band. Sean-nos dancing is a rare tradition that's quite removed from the prancy-prancing Irish stepdancing most people recognize in Riverdance. It's closer to the floor and closely matches the rhythms of the tunes. Along with fiddle, flute and guitar, Bua have enough twang to represent the Celtic side of Americana, but keep their ties to the Old World strong.
Bua: An Spealadoír
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen: I know Frank Solivan's music well, since Hearth Music worked a publicity campaign for his new album. His beautifully polished bluegrass music is played with technical precision and virtuosity. His music is quite stunning and I was looking forward to seeing him play in person. But his performance with Dirty Kitchen took me completely by surprise with its raw energy. He played like a man possessed, shredding his mandolin runs and blazing through red-hot fiddle solos. I tweeted at the time that Frank and Dirty Kitchen should be giving a workshops on performing as a band. They were impossibly tight together, and could turn on a dime. They matched Frank's lead perfectly and played just as hard as he did. It was a remarkable acoustic performance, made all the more intimate by the small hotel room that was Trade Root Music's private showcase space. There's a red-hot core of barely tamed wildness in the heart of bluegrass music, something we tend to forget in this day-and-age of overly sanitized and "safe" bluegrass bands.
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen helped me remember why I love bluegrass: the pure adrenaline of lightning-fast picking and wickedly complex arrangements. Alan Lomax famously called bluegrass "folk music on overdrive" and after Frank Solivan's performance, I'd have to whole-heartedly agree.
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen: Tarred & Feathered