Saturday, July 31, 2010

Scouting the Festival

I rode back from the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with a friend. We both knew before we got there that I would be introducing myself to every artist I heard who impressed me, and requesting albums for this blog. So I would supply the music for our ride home. When we got in the car, my friend pointed out that he needed more than just singers with their guitars for the ride home, to keep him awake. I thought about that. Most of the artists had indeed performed with just their guitars for accompaniment. (There was one with just a banjo, who I’ll be getting to soon.) But I assured my friend that these albums most likely weren’t recorded that way. Indeed, nowadays it is safe to assume that folk artists will have full bands with them in the studio, and full productions. But that meant that I had taken a risk in requesting these albums with no idea what they sounded like. All I knew was the quality of the voices and the songwriting. But, handled the wrong way, those qualities can get buried in a recording studio. So, we began our ride, and my adventure. I have now listened at least casually to the work of each artist whose work I brought home. I got lucky. There have been many surprises along the way, but so far so good. Let me share a few of those surprises with you now. There will be more to follow in future posts.

Amy Speace: Blue Horizon


From the top of a hill, after the official performances were over from the night, Amy Speace sang and played, accompanied by another acoustic guitar. She sang in a warm alto, and her songs beautifully captured emotional moments in time. This seemed to be music that would benefit from quiet arrangements. But, on album, Speace is a rocker. Using the basic band of drums, bass, and electric guitar, Speace adds her acoustic guitar, and off she goes. Often there are unusual extra touches, like the trumpet and trombone heard here. But Speace also shows a gift for arranging the basic elements she has in interesting variations. So this album is a richly varied musical tapestry, and always in service of the song. Speace’s voice proves to be stronger than I thought, and this approach works beautifully for her.

Sid Selvidge: Dimestore Angel


At the festival, I only got to hear Sid Selvidge do only one song, a cover of an old time blues number. So I knew he has a wonderfully soulful voice, and he plays a mean guitar. I knew nothing about him as a writer. On the album, blues is only one element of what Selvidge does. There are tastes of classic country, vintage rock, jazz, and even Tin Pan Alley. Sometimes, these elements combine all in one song. Most of the songs are covers, of artists ranging from Donovan to Duke Ellington. The originals reflect the same sensibilities. Selvidge is supported by a band of mostly acoustic instruments, plus an electric guitar. The whole thing is produced by Don Dixon, and it sounds great. Amy Speace sings on four songs, including the one heard here.

Meg Braun: Live to Play


Meg Braun captures strong emotions in her songs. She can certainly put these across with just her voice and guitar, but the arrangements on the album enhance the effect. Braun sings in a clear soprano, and the quality of her voice reminds me of the best Irish singers. Her acoustic guitar is featured in the arrangements on the album, but she is joined by rock drums and bass, and often electric guitar. On most songs, there are additional instruments in the mix; on Live to Play, it’s a cello, acting as another member of the rhythm section. There is some fine talent helping on this album, including the members of Red Molly.

Karyn Oliver: Candy Dish


The first thing that struck me about Karyn Oliver was her voice. This is as perfect a bluesy country voice as you will ever hear. Then she played Candy Dish, and I realized what a great writer she is. This is a beautiful ballad, and the emotions are expressed with a delicacy that makes the song that much more effective. On the album, the ballads alternate with uptempo numbers, and the arrangements lean towards the country side of things. But the production is never overdone, and there are beautiful touches especially from the piano player. These arrangements are exactly right for Oliver’s voice and material, and she shines, especially on the ballads.

(I had to go with Candy Dish for this artist, but, unfortunately, there is a tracking problem on the album, so you will hear the beginning of the next song on the end of the track. My apologies.)

Update: I alerted Karyn Oliver to the tracking problem, and she was kind enough to send me a version that tracks properly, so that is now the versionin this post. Oliver assures me that the problem will be corrected in the next pressing of the album. Thank you, Karyn.

Joe Iadanza: For Those Who Wait


Perhaps the biggest surprise was Joe Iadanza’s album. In person, of course Iadanza performed with just his voice and guitar. His singing has a warmth that reminds me af Harry Chapin, and his guitar playing is not flashy, but perfectly serves the song. As for his writing, Iadanza is a wonderfully poignant storyteller. On the album, there is stand-up bass, fiddle, accordion, and backing vocals, but all done in a very subtle way. Typically, Iadanza starts each song by himself, and the other instruments enter very softly, and fairly far into the song. By the end of the song, you notice the full ensemble, but you’re not quite sure how they got there. So, Iadanza has to be able to stand on his own on album, which is harder than doing so live. He’s more than up to the task, and the album works beautifully.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Spuyten Duyvil - In Spite of the Devil


I’m breaking my own rule here, and reviewing an album from last year. That’s because I only just discovered Spuyten Duyvil this past weekend at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. In the last year, there have been some changes in the band too. They have added a drummer and a harmonica player, and replaced their bass player. Nevertheless, In Spite of the Devil offers a fair survey of what makes this band so good.

First of all, there are the lead vocals, credited here to Beth Kaufman. Since this album came out, she married songwriter Mark Steven Miller, and she now goes by Beth Kaufman-Miller. This makes perfect sense, because her voice is an ideal vessel for Miller’s words. Kaufman-Miller isn’t going to coo or whisper. She has a strong voice, and expresses emotions naturally. But Kaufman-Miller is powerful, yes, but in control. She can modulate her tone to convey different kinds of emotions. Her voice has both a bluesy and a country quality to it, and she knows how to make it work on a variety of material.

The band here includes Mark Steven Miller on bouzouki and tenor guitar, Tom Socol on guitar and dobro, and bass and fiddle complete the band. Sarah Banks gets a beautiful clean tone on the fiddle, and can add wonderful countermelodies or extra rhythmic punch to the songs. Guest musicians add drums, keyboards, mandolin, and cello. So this is the sound of a large mostly acoustic ensemble, and the band is tight. Some songs have hints of old-time jazz, while the traditional song Rain and Snow has a Middle Eastern flavor to it, but mostly, I would call this music folk.

There are seven songs in all, and six are originals. But the song Spuyten Duyvil sounds like a traditional song, perhaps from Ireland. I’d love to know if this one is based on a historical event, because it tells the story of how the town of Spuyten Duyvil got its name. Let the Rain Come Down is the repentant blues of a sinner, and here Mark Steven Miller takes his only turn on lead vocals, singing in a Tom Waits-like growl. It suits the song well, but his wife is the better singer. I Know You’ll Leave Me is a country tinged song about the expectation of heartbreak. Miller does not limit himself to any single genre, but he knows well the ones he works with, and yet he also avoids clichés in his writing. And the album works very well as a whole.

So Spuyten Duyvil is a band that can perform songs in a variety of styles without sounding like just a visitor to any of them. They have a writer who can deliver those songs, and a lead singer who can put them across beautifully. The current lineup is at least as good as the one heard here, and I can’t wait to hear what they do next.

Spuyten Duyvil: Rain and Snow

Spuyten Duyvil: Spuyten Duyvil

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Back From Falcon Ridge

I know that I said I would start this week with a For a Song post, but my post festival high said otherwise. I had a great time at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, and I will be doing a series of posts on the wonderful music I found there, including this week’s review. For now, I am presenting a summary of some highlights of my Falcon Ridge experience.

Old Crow Medicine Show: Wagon Wheel


Old Crow Medicine Show was not at Falcon Ridge, but Wagon Wheel certainly was, and this is the closest recorded version to what I heard. One thing I have heard about at folk festivals, but never had the chance to enjoy, was the after parties, where musicians gather at a campsite after the scheduled events and play more music. At Falcon Ridge, some of these after parties were organized events that were not on the official schedule, but which offered music that was just as good. The intimate setting of these events made it easy to meet the musicians, including several who I had reviewed but never met before. The first night of the festival, I met Pesky J Nixon at one of these events. The second night, I met Pesky J Nixon again, among others. Can you guess who I saw on the last night? The amazing thing about this was that it happened at three different locations. The last two times I saw them, they closed their set with Wagon Wheel. I hope that they record it some day.

Tracy Grammer: Mother, I Climbed


It was a pleasure to see Tracy Grammer again. I had only met her once before, at a festival in Philadelphia, back when Dave Carter was still alive. At that time, they were playing a song that was so new that they hadn’t given it a name yet. I spoke to Grammer then, and suggested Open Up Your Gate, but they eventually went with Mother, I Climbed. At Falcon Ridge, I reminded Grammer of this long-ago conversation, and she remembered me.

The Storycrafters: Beeping Slooty

[purchase Classics With a Twist and others here]

I also got to see The Storycrafters again. I had met them at the Clearwater Festival when my daughter was younger. This time, I was by myself, and some might say that I had no business being in the family music tent. But I love storytelling, and The Storycrafters do it very well indeed. They introduced Beeping Slooty with an apology to the sign-language interpreter for what they were about to make her do, and then thanked her profusely at the end for what she had done. They took Beeping Slooty at a faster pace than on this recording, and this was easily the funniest moment of Falcon Ridge for me.

John Gorka: I‘m From New Jersey


I was a volunteer at Falcon Ridge, and my crew had a mandatory shift on the last day that was supposed to last until 5PM. That meant that I was not going to be able to see John Gorka’s set from the main stage. However, the mandatory shift was for takedown and cleanup, and everyone performed heroically. We finished almost two hours early, and I was able to see Gorka’s set after all, and later meet him. I spent his set in the company of Susan from Star Maker Machine. There were four Star Makers at the festival, including myself, FiL, Boyhowdy, and of course Susan. It was the first time we had all met each other, and it was everything I hoped it would be. Gorka opened his set with I’m From New Jersey. I am from New Jersey, so this song is a particular favorite of mine.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Ladies Sing the Blues: Billie Holiday covers


Darius is enjoying the weekend at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, and he kindly invited me to fill in for him this weekend. He said it was the first time he's had a guest blogger here; well, it's my first fill-in guest blog as well, so it's a match made in heaven. We're co-bloggers at Star Maker Machine, and I came up with this week's topic after posting there a couple of weeks ago (about New York—Harlem in particular—where Billie Holiday found fame). Another inspiration was Darius's recent post, Men sing jazz too. I thought it must be woman's turn again.

Paula Cole

Chris Botti/Paula Cole: God Bless the Child


"Mama may have, Papa may have, but God bless the child that got his own…" Billie wrote the lyrics and Arthur Herzog Jr. the music to this ode to the wisdom of looking out for #1. Since its release in 1941, it's been covered by some terrific vocalists, such as Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, and…the Simpsons?! This version features Chris Botti on trumpet and Paula Cole on vocals, and is from the soundtrack to the 2007 film, August Rush.

Cat Power Jukebox

Cat Power: Don't Explain


Hush now, don't explain, You're my love and pain, My life's yours, love, Don't explain. Another tune written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr., this one purportedly about her no-good, cheating first husband (not her no-good, cheating second husband). The minor key adds extra gloominess to her sad resignation. From her autobiography and newspaper records, we can see that Billie's life contained enough grief and heartache to fill countless blues songs like this one.

Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) spent a good part of her early career walking Billie's path – drinking and drugs and a broken heart left her a mess until the last few years. By 2008, she'd gathered herself together and released an album of cover songs, including this gorgeous piano-backed version.

Eva Cassidy live at blues alley

Eva Cassidy: Fine and Mellow


My man he don't love me, he treats me oh so mean; He's the lowest man that I've ever seen. Yanno, Billie makes her man sound like Mel Gibson. But Billie's gonna have the last laugh, it seems: Love is like a faucet, It turns off and on. Sometimes when you think it's on, baby, It has turned off and gone. In other words: buh-bye, sucker!

This cover is by the brilliant vocalist Eva Cassidy, a Washington-based songstress who died way too early. In her short career, though, she impressed her peers with the clarity and sensitivity of her jazz, pop, folk, and blues songs. Even here, in a live recording of a fairly simple song, the audience is nearly silent, mesmerized by her voice.

Etta James

Etta James: You've Changed


You're not the angel I once knew, No need to tell me that we're through, It's all over now, You've changed. This song wasn't written by Billie; she covered it in 1958. In this go-round, the jerk who's done our unfortunate singer wrong is of undetermined sex, so it's an all-purpose lament. Kind of like those generic canned foods that filled store aisles with their black-and-white packaging back in the 70's. Suitable for your everyday blues.

Etta James has been singing the blues for decades. She started with Chess Records in 1954, putting out hits over the years that varied among R&B, rock and roll, jazz, and blues. Like Billie, Etta struggled with heroin addiction for many years but unlike Billie, she managed to continue her career despite several setbacks. In 1994, she released an entire album of Billie Holiday covers, called Mystery Lady, which includes this song.


Nina Simone: Strange Fruit


Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

We now come to one of the most powerful songs ever written or recorded. Where Billie's other songs dealt with the personal – extolling the virtues or (most commonly) bemoaning the failings of her man – this song describes in chilling and vivid detail the dark legacy of lynching of black men in the South. It began as a poem published in 1936 by the Jewish schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol (who used the pen name Lewis Allen), who later set it to music. Billie began performing the song live in 1939, but her label, Columbia Records, refused to allow her to record it under their imprint, although they allowed her a one-song release to record it elsewhere. It remains one of her defining songs. Time Magazine called it the song of the century.

Nina Simone, singer, pianist, civil-rights activist, and legend, seems a fitting woman to carry the weight of this song. Her version was recorded in 1965, a pivotal year for the civil rights movement in America and a year after her own politically-charged song, Mississippi Goddam.

guest post by Geoviki

Thursday, July 22, 2010

For a Song: Family Groove

The Neville Brothers: Family Groove


Today was a very good day. I leave tomorrow for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, where I will be meeting two of my fellow Star Makers for the first time. So I’m excited. Also, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary today. 19 years, how did that happen, and when? We went to see Inception, a major mind-twister of a movie, and very well done. Then, for dinner, we went to our local Hibachi grill. We traditionally celebrate by doing things we can’t do with the kids along, and this was a fine example. So I feel like partying. The best music of the Neville Brothers is always a party, and Family Groove is no exception. Here, Cyril Neville pays tribute to the tradition of music making in his family. What could be more appropriate?


Blog business: I am leaving tomorrow for the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, and I will be gone until Sunday late. In my absence, my friend and fellow Star Maker Geoviki will be handling the weekend post here. It’s my first guest post, and I previewed it, and it’s good one. I still welcome your comments, but I won’t be back to moderate them until Monday, so be patient. And please do leave comments for Geoviki, to let her know what you thought of her post. Also, I will not be able to work on next week’s album review over the weekend. So next week will start with a For a Song post, and the review will appear at midweek.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Pesky J Nixon - Monkey Business & Mislaid Hopes


Why does this album exist? Two years ago, Pesky J Nixon released their debut, Good Grief. Now here is the follow-up, sort of. Monkey Business & Mislaid Hopes has a running time of about 39 minutes, for nine songs. The last two songs are radio edits of songs included in full-length versions earlier in the album. If you have a copy of Good Grief, you will find some of the song titles here familiar. In fact, there is only one new song here. So what gives, and why am I recommending this? Because, despite what I have said so far, this is a new album, and a fine one.

Two years ago, on Good Grief, Pesky J Nixon was a four piece band. Now, bassist Zack Root has left. Where before the band recorded as a quartet, playing and singing all of the instruments themselves, now they are a trio, and they bring in a raft of players to help realize their sound. So Good Grief was a good album too, but where the songs sometimes sounded like demos there, here they are fully realized. The basic trio of guitars, keyboards, and percussion is augmented with bass, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin in places. The keyboards include piano and accordion, as well as harmonica, and the percussion includes a variety of hand drums and shakers. There also finely layered background vocals. So the arrangements here are richly textured, but always in service of the song.

And what songs! Pesky J Nixon boasts two fine songwriters, Ethan Scott Baird and Jacob Bush. It’s surprising enough to find two strong songwriters in the same group, but here their styles are so compatible that the album has a unified narrative voice. These are songs of partings, taken with the best possible grace. Who Will Love You opens the album, and starts out sounding like it’s going to be a jealous plea for a lover to return. But, it turns out that the narrator recognizes that he has hurt her, and she isn’t coming back, and he simply hopes that someone will take as good care of her as he wanted to. Breathe in Autumn equates the cooling of a relationship with the cooling of the weather, and the metaphor really works. Atlanta starts with two friends who haven’t seen much of each other in the last few years; as time continues to move, the one friend manages to show up only when he is needed most. This song has the quality of a classic, and deserves to find the widest possible audience. Fade has another great metaphor, equating the state of a relationship with the reception of a distant radio station. And the rest of the songs are just as good, although these moved me personally the most.

So next time I hope to hear a collection of newly written songs from these guys, and I hope there is more music. But, for now, I am very happy to have this document of the state of the band. My only question is, how do they perform these songs live? I am hoping to find out next week at the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival.

Pesky J Nixon: Breathe in Autumn

Pesky J Nixon: Atlanta

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bird Songs

The image above is by Rowena Dugdale. To see more samples or commission her work, go here.

When I put up my last For a Song feature, I wasn’t planning to make it bird week on Oliver di Place. But birds are nature’s musicians, so it only makes sense that they would be an inspiration to songwriters. And some wonderful (human) music has come from this. So, for this, you won’t even need binoculars. Let’s have a look.

Gordon Bok: The Maiden in Bird‘s Plumage


Birds turn up in traditional song all the time. Some are omens, others, sacred messengers, and still others are lovers. The Maiden in Bird’s Plumage is a Danish folk song, but it shares many features with Celtic myth and legend. The story begins with a man hunting a white hind. In Celtic lore, this is a marker, warning the listener that this will be a tale of magic, and so it is here. Soon enough, the hind transforms into a falcon. Then the hero meets the son of the forest lord, who tells him that this is an enchanted maiden, and he explains how to break the spell. Celtic lore has many tales like this, and many of them were probably sung by the bards in olden days, but this is the first time I have heard a tale like this set to music. It works beautifully.

Emmylou Harris: Little Bird


Little Bird is performed by Emmylou Harris, but it may sound like someone else to you, That’s because the song is a cowrite between Harris and Kate and Anna McGarrigle. The sisters also contribute background vocals, and Kate plays accordion. Still the song suits Harris well. The bird is a messenger, to let a man know of her love, and Harris makes this one tender and completely convincing.

Dolly Parton: Raven Dove


Raven Dove is a prayer. Dolly Parton believes in a Heavenly savior, and here the bird becomes a messenger from God, delivering a promise of peace. This one has just enough gospel trimmings, but with a wonderful mostly acoustic arrangement, featuring mandolin and dobro.

Joni Mitchell: Black Crow


Of course, Black Crow was going to be in this set. If you know the song, don’t listen to it just yet. First imagine in your head the drum part. Got it? Good, now listen. Maybe you noticed, there is no drum part. But the drive of Joni Mitchell’s rhythm guitar part certainly makes it feel like there is. In arranging this, I’m sure Mitchell knew that a drum part would anchor the song and hold it in place. But Mitchell’s narrator sees a black crow in flight, and notices that it is far from it’s nest, perhaps even lost. It reminds the narrator of her own feelings of being adrift. So there are no drums, and the bass part catches the air currents, and does not anchor the song either.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Kara Suzanne: Madeliene


Kara Suzanne sings in an alto voice with a bit of a sob in it. This serves her bluesier material well. The arrangements on Parlor Walls range almost from folk to rock in its various guises. Suzanne can modulate her voice to suit each song, so she is free to write in a variety of styles, with even a hint of country here and there. She shows herself to be a wonderful writer, skilled at capturing character and mood without resorting to cliché. All of this is on display in Madeliene, which also features the most subtle use of horns I have ever heard.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Jesca Hoop - Hunting My Dress


Ever since I started working on this review, I have been having weird dreams. This makes a lot of sense. On Hunting My Dress, Jesca Hoop presents a set of songs that sound like the state between dreaming and waking. There is tumult, as you try to sort dream from reality. There is the desire to hang on to and understand the dream, conflicting with the need to gather your thoughts and exist in the waking world. Hoop matches words and music perfectly to capture this state. It doesn’t always make sense completely, and nor should it. But it has a great power, and it is a rare artist who can capture this state at all.

Let’s start with the voice. Jesca Hoop is blessed with a great range. She can intone lyrics in a low alto, or whisper them in a high soprano. Sometimes, as in the album opener Whispering Light, she does both in the same song. And she makes it work. Hoop is not just showing off; she uses that great voice to serve the song. The band behind her is spare, with drums, bass, electric and/or acoustic guitar, and subtle synthesizer parts. The playing is not flashy, but this is a band that uses dynamic shifts for great dramatic effect, going from soft to loud and back on a dime. The arrangements also swell and subside, like the lapping of water with sudden higher waves. This music is also rhythmically tight. The band sets up a particularly strong groove on Four Dreams, drops it suddenly, and then rebuilds it.

The songs seem to be about love and darkness. The title track expresses love in terms of predator and prey. The consummation of that love is described this way: “And I will give my flesh, And my blood and my marrow, And you will wear my bones and my skin.” Indeed, Hoop often reminds us here that the root word of consummation is consume. Tulip starts out as an impossible task song, like Scarborough Fair, but turns into a murder ballad. This takes place against the backdrop of the Dutch Tulip craze, a time when tulip bulbs were valued like internet stocks or subprime mortgage securities. This really did happen, and the values that tulip bulbs had at that time are not out of line with what is expressed in the song. The songs I have chosen to post grabbed me first for their sound. It just happens that each seems to be an account of a dream. In The Kingdom, the narrator is visited by ghost, who takes her to a battlefield to collect the spirits of the slain, and help them to the Afterlife. I just talked about this in my last post, on I Go Like the Raven, and I should probably be a little concerned that this idea is following me around. Four Dreams has the feel of an actual dream, more so than anything else on the album. Actually, it’s like a rush of dreams that sometimes happens when you are trying to wake up. The meaning is confused, there is a sense of being in a rush, and images just tumble out. The pace of the song accentuates this feeling.

Overall, Hunting My Dress is a passionate album, and one whose emotional impact I will probably still be sorting out for a while. The music sounds simple in places, but this is certainly an album that rewards repeated listening. It comes out on July 27. My advice is to get a copy, but you might only want to play it in the middle of the day. Or you might want to play it just before bedtime, and have some unusual dreams of your own.

Jesca Hoop: The Kingdom

Jesca Hoop: Four Dreams

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

For a Song: I Go Like the Raven

Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer: I Go Like the Raven


Once again, I am switching things up, and running the For a Song feature first this week. Next week…., well next week is another story that I will tell everyone about soon. Meanwhile…

My wife and I are always sprinkling song references into our conversations. We have done this every since we first got together. As my daughter gets older, she becomes more and more amazed by this. So we have a saying in the house: everything is a musical reference. I have a good friend on line who is just discovering this about me. I was kind enough to drop two song references on her that I knew she would recognize. One of them was to this song.

Some birds are just birds, but the raven has accumulated a body of lore over the years. Back in the days when warfare meant hand-to-hand combat, ravens would appear on fields where a battle had just ended. People believed that they were there to collect the spirits of fallen warriors, and take them to the afterlife. For this reason, raven goddesses were death goddesses, sacred to warriors. Over time, belief systems changed. But the raven continued to be regarded as a bad omen. This dark mood is very much present in I Go Like the Raven. There are a variety of supernatural creatures in the lyrics, and the song’s protagonist soars not above but among them.

I just realized that I posted this song as part of a theme post back in November. However, it is worthy of a few more words than I gave it that time. And, (thank you), I have many people visiting now who weren’t then. So, if you heard this when I posted it last, I hope you liked the write-up this time. And if this is new to you, I hope you enjoyed it, and will be coming back.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Spotlight on Folk Groups

There is a period that some refer to as “The Great Folk Scare”. It began in the 1950s, and it was the time when the pop folk sound emerged. Like most such things, it began innocently enough. The Weavers scored a big hit with Kisses Sweeter Than Wine. No one questioned the legitimacy of the Weavers as folk music. But there followed a rush by the record companies to sign “folk” groups, and many of these watered down traditional songs to appeal to the widest possible audience. These groups also contributed original songs that included insipid love songs and cutesy humorous pieces. Some of these bands and some of their songs were quite good, but the overall effect was to give folk in general and folk groups in particular a bad name. I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be that way.

Folk music has always been about sharing, and the musicians take every opportunity to play and sing together. So the bad rep never discouraged musicians from forming groups, and nowadays, some great music is being made as a result. Let’s have a look, shall we?

The Beth Coleman Band: I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)


The most basic music for folk groups is bluegrass. The music is native to the American South, and it gave birth to country music. Beth Coleman and her band come from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, so they did not hear this music all around them growing up, but their love of bluegrass is obvious in their playing and singing. I Am Weary (Let Me Rest) is a fine ballad in the bluegrass tradition. It is a profession of faith in the face of death, and a poor performance would make the song sound trite. Beth Coleman and Co deliver a strong performance, and the song sounds like a classic.

The Michele Fay Band: These Working Hands


You could easily mistake the music of the Michele Fay Band for bluegrass. But a closer listen reveals that this music is something else again. It has a smoothness not found in bluegrass. And These Working Hands has a subject matter seldom found in bluegrass. The song concerns the plight of a Mexican migrant worker in the United States, and Michele Fay, like Woody Guthrie before her, reminds us that these are real people. This one has an unusual arrangement, with the accordion being a particular surprise. Michele Fay is from Vermont, and the music is bluegrass’ northern cousin. As with Beth Coleman, the quality of the performance puts it over.

Tripping Lily: Little Black Dress


The sound of Tripping Lily is modern, and they possess a subtlety which makes their music better with each listen. Bluegrass is an obvious influence, but there are also little touches of jazz and pop music. The bass player usually plucks his instrument, but sometimes he plays it with a bow. The other three members of the band each play two instruments and sing, so the band can vary their sound quite a bit from song to song. Little Black Dress presents the story of a fourteen year old girl in a tight spot, and the performance nails the emotion perfectly.

Girlyman: Easy Bake Ovens


Thanks to my fellow Star Maker FiL, I got to see Girlyman just a little while ago. They opened the show with this song, Easy Bake Ovens. I marveled at the way the lead and harmony vocals are passed around amongst the three singers in the group. The song has one narrator, and that came across in the performance, because these singers have an amazing rapport. The music could be considered acoustic rock, but other songs of theirs bring the folk influences to the fore. Their live show is a lot of fun, so go see them if you get the chance.

The Buskers: Shady Grove/ Tommy‘s Tarboukas


Many folk groups nowadays are remaining traditional songs. Shady Grove, in the hands of The Buskers, is a fine example. They give the song an almost jazzy feel, although the instrumental part at the end especially suggests an Eastern European folk influence as well. Either way, you’ve never heard Shady Grove like this, but it really works.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Red Horse - self titled


I have a confession to make. I have always enjoyed everything I have ever heard from John Gorka, Lucy Kaplansky, and Eliza Gilkyson, but I don’t have any of their albums. Those aren’t just random names; rather, they are the members of the “folk super group” Red Horse. On their self titled debut as a group, they revisit many of their older songs, but I am hearing them for the first time. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. I cannot comment on how they have reworked the songs for this project, but I can tell you what it is like to hear these songs with fresh ears. It is a treat.

The format here is a sort of songwriters’ round robin. Each of the artists contributes four songs; one of their own, one by each of their fellow group members, and one cover. For their four songs, each artist recorded a basic track with their own chosen backing musicians, and then sent it to the other two to add background vocals. This could have easily sounded like three EPs, but the sound is remarkably consistent throughout.

The cover songs tell you something about each artist. Lucy Kaplansky leads the group through Wayfaring Stranger, a song that has been following me around lately. It’s a folk standard, and if you’re going to do it, you had better inhabit the song, and make its emotions run true. Red Horse does that. Eliza Gilkyson leads on a song Neil Young wrote for Buffalo Springfield, I Am a Child. This version asks the question, “What if Neil Young had instead written the song for CSNY?” The answer presented here is, it would have worked beautifully. John Gorka knows that this album will be heard by many people in the folk world, so his cover is a beautiful song that he believes deserves a wider audience. Coshieville was originally by a group called Men of Worth, and it is a very moving ballad of lost love. Gorka and Co make it sound like a folk standard, and make the case that it should be one.

There is only one new song on the album. John Gorka wrote If These Walls Could Talk for this project, and he also performs it here. It is a fine example of his artistry. The other originals are songs that Kaplansky and Gilkyson had previously recorded on their own albums. But the real fun of a project like this is hearing the artists perform each other’s songs. The highlight here for me is Lucy Kaplansky’s performance of Gilkyson’s song Sanctuary. The song is a hymn, and it starts out sounding like a statement of religious faith, but it turns into a statement of love. Maybe it’s both. Kaplansky performs it with only a piano for accompaniment, and the background vocals add a gospel flavor that suits the song perfectly. This one is a show stopper.
The rest of the songs are all very fine, and I suspect that they will grow on me. Certainly, this is a collaboration that never disappoints. But I will say this. I know of two other groups like this, Red Bird and Cry Cry Cry. Each one delivered a fine album, and then never was heard from again as a group. For Red Horse, that would be a shame. They are currently touring together, and I would love to have them come off the road and go into the studio together and record an album live with no overdubs. I know that there is enough talent here to make a great album that way, and, if it happens, I will be happy to report back. If it doesn’t, I hope to do a better job of keeping track of their solo work. This album certainly gives me plenty of reasons to want to do so.

Red Horse: Sanctuary

Red Horse: Coshieville

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

For a Song: Distant Water

David Wilcox: Distant Water


Due to the holiday weekend, I did not get the time I needed to prepare for this week’s album review. So I’m switching it with the For a Song feature, and the review will appear later this week.

As I write this, we here in New Jersey have just endured one of the hottest days I have ever experienced. The temperature reached 106; it has literally been years since we last had a day over 100. Readers in Phoenix and places like that may be wondering what the big deal is, but here these temperatures come with high humidity. I posted Long Tall Cool One two weeks ago, and I thought it was hot then. Little did I know. To make matters worse, it has not rained in almost a month. There is (usually) a little stream near my house, but today I noticed that the bed is getting dry, and the fish are scrambling for places to swim. So I am expecting an official drought call any day now. Hence, Distant Water.

David Wilcox is talking about an emotional drought, but his metaphor is very real to me right now. Wilcox is a fine writer, and his description of watery mirages reminds me of the days we have had recently where it really looked like it would rain, but it never did. The emotion of this song resonates all the more with me now because of our weather.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Men Sing Jazz Too

When I presented my Spotlight on Jazz Singers, I remarked that I was sure there are many fine male jazz singers out there, but I wasn’t posting their music because I hadn’t heard from any of them. That is still the case. I have even looked, but so far, I have had no luck. Part of the problem seems to be that men have the option of being crooners in the model of the brat pack singers. This has served singers such as Harry Connick Jr and Michael Buble well, so many more are doing it too. This does not seem to be a viable model for women, so their jazz singing is more diverse.

But the history of jazz, and of jazz singing in particular, shows that male jazz singers have many more choices than this, and can make exciting music of their own. I can prove it, which is the point of this post. This by no means a complete survey. I had to leave out many important artists, who have greatly contributed to the richness of jazz history. Still, it’s a start.

Louis Armstrong: Jeepers Creepers


In my mind, any survey of male jazz singers must begin with Louis Armstrong. He was not the first, but he was one of the best. Armstrong brought a warmth and even a sense of humor to his vocal performances that few have ever matched.

Eddie Jefferson: Freedom Jazz Dance


Eddie Jefferson was a pioneer of a jazz vocal style called vocalese. He would take a particular recording of a jazz instrumental, and create lyrics for the entire song, including the solos. This could have been nothing more than a gimmick, but Jefferson’s performances involved not only technical prowess, but also passionate emotional expression. So vocalese caught on, and Jefferson’s disciples have included Lambert Hendricks and Ross and The Manhattan Transfer.

Jimmy Rushing with the Dave Brubeck Quartet: Blues in the Dark


Jimmy Rushing is often thought of as more of a blues singer than a jazz guy. And yes, he always performed blues songs. But Rushing got his start with the big bands, notably with Count Basie. When the big band era ended, Rushing carried on, singing with smaller groups, and adapting to the new musical styles in jazz. Here, we hear Rushing with the Dave Brubeck quartet, and Rushing more than holds his own.

Al Jarreau: The Nearness of You


Finally, we have Al Jarreau. That Al Jarreau? Yes, the only one I know. Al Jarreau was a successful hit maker as an R & B singer. He’s best known for the song We’re in This Love Together, and that is certainly not jazz. But Jarreau had established himself first as a jazz singer. And when his pop ship had sailed, and the hits stopped coming, Jarreau returned to singing jazz once more. The Nearness of You is a jazz standard, and Jarreau does it justice.

Spotlight Song of the Week:

Laurie Antonioli: Just a Dream


I continue to receive albums of fine jazz singing, and the artists continue to be female. The latest example to come my way is Laurie Antonioli. The album is American Dreams, and the songs are mostly originals. Antonioli writes the words, and uses a number of cowriters for the music, most notably Fritz Pauer. Antonioli and her collaborators create songs that sound like standards. There is a lush romanticism in the words and melodies that belongs to a different, more innocent time. And Antonioli’s performances make it work. These songs wind up sounding classic, not dated. Antonioli shows impressive technical ability, but more than that, she believes in those songs, and the honest emotion comes through on each song. Just A Dream is a fine example, just one of many found here.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

For a Song: Half Acre

Hem: Half Acre


There is a term I see every now and again in articles about music: chamber pop. I grew up in a household where my parents had friends over every Saturday evening to play classical chamber music, so I relate the term to that. Chamber pop, to me, involves small ensembles that include instruments associated with classical music, such as violin, clarinet, and cello. My introduction to chamber pop was the music of Hem, and this song was the first thing I ever heard by them. Half Acre certainly isn’t a classical work, but it does take me back, in some ways, to those lullabies of my childhood. In the lyric, the narrator works her way through mixed feelings over the concept of “home”, and that also seems appropriate to me.