John Reischman is one of the premier mandolinists of his generation. He’s a master instrumentalist capable of swinging between re-inventions of traditional old-time tunes, deconstructions from the bluegrass repertoire, and compelling original tunes. He’s also a powerful bandleader, touring his band the Jaybirds all over Canada and the United States. But most of all, he’s an understated visionary, the kind of master craftsman whose music is virtuosic without ever being flashy and who is renowned for his impeccable taste and tone as an artist. John Reischman embodies the true spirit of bluegrass in the 21st century.
Walk Along John is John Reischman’s first solo instrumental album in thirteen years, and it’s a triumphant return to form. It’s also a celebration of his seminal influence in the world of bluegrass and “new acoustic music,” a movement he contributed to with Tony Rice in the 1980s. A new generation of musicians has now grown up playing his tunes at jams and obsessing over his recordings. Chris Thile of The Punch Brothers joins John on the opening tune “Itzbin Reel,” an early composition of John’s that Chris has been playing since the age of 8. Eli West, from Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, listened endlessly to John’s recordings while studying in college and guests on the album as well. Other next gen star players on the album include Sam Grisman and Mike Barnett from the young grasscore band The Deadly Gentlemen, and Canadian clawhammer banjo king Chris Coole. Old friends return as well, from renowned old-time fiddler Bruce Molsky to innovative banjo genius Tony Trischka and star bluegrass guitarist Kenny Smith, not to mention members of John’s band The Jaybirds. But the real focus of the album is John’s musicianship, both as an artist and as a composer. His compositions, many of which have become jamming standards, run the gamut from the old-timey “Little Pine Siskin” to the bluesy (in the Dock Boggs sense) “Gold Mountain Blues,” the eerily modal “Ice on the Dogwater,” the blazing Bill Monroe tribute tune “Joe Ahr’s Dream,” and the softly gentle waltzes “Anisa’s Lullaby” and “A Prairie Jewel.” John’s compositions shine here because he has the subtle ability to draw out the true heart of the melody. He does this through his lifelong obsession with obtaining the purest tones from his mandolin playing. It’s the same quest that drove Monroe to the roots of the music looking for “ancient tones,” and it’s a quest shared by other great mandolinists. Coupled with his renowned sense of musical taste, John Reischman is able to redefine the sound of bluegrass mandolin without ever veering away from the traditions at its core.
Walk Along John plumbs the deepest level of John Reischman’s talent. His years of touring, guesting, and inspiring have given his music a weight that few other artists have attained. After 35 years of playing at the forefront of the American bluegrass tradition, it should come as no surprise that he still has a lot to say.
John Reischman w/Chris Thile - Itzbin Reel
John Reischman w/Bruce Molsky - Walk Along John to Kansas
04/04/2013 | comments (0)
I met Anna Tivel at the same fateful Triple Door show that brought me Inside the Songs features for Jeffrey Martin and Nathaniel Talbot, and the three are all friends and colleagues. Together they're building quite a creative songwriting community! On her new album, Brimstone Lullaby, Anna Tivel (recording with her band as Anna and the Underbelly) brings a raft of beautiful songs with brine-soaked images of Pacific Northwest tidepools, oceans, and the birds that wheel above them in the gray skies. Her gentle, fragile voice sounds a bit like Laura Veirs, and brings to mind the same effortless folk phrasing and soft inflections of Veirs' best work. We loved the songs on her new album and wanted to catch up with her to find out more.
Inside the Songs with Portland songwriter Anna Tivel
Rosy-colored Skulls is a song about watching the world go by from a treehouse. I used to live in the top story of a house in north Portland, and spent a lot of time sitting at the tiny kitchen table playing guitar and writing and looking out the window. The cutest firecracker of a seven year old girl lived next door, and I wrote that song watching her play with her friend down by the woodpile. They made up this game with lava and monsters and a wooden city and about nine thousand different rules. It made me think about what it is to be young and see so much magic everywhere, even in the places where the rest of the world can find very little, like dirt fields, and woodpiles, and concrete steps. It's about feeling hopeful and innocent and free, and about falling asleep and waking up trusting that there's good to be seen and done and had.
Reservation Road was a poem I wrote about this eerie stretch of road in my little hometown in Northern Washington. It's the first song I ever wrote from a poem, which is probably why it only has lots of words and next to none chords. Driving there late at night always gave me this feeling that time had slowed down to a crawl and everyone was hanging suspended in it, just waiting and watching for something. Maybe waiting to leave town, or for things to get better, or for someone to come home. It's the kind of quiet road where you can hear a dog barking somewhere far away, or a coyote, and the few houses through the trees are dark except for the blue flicker of a TV, or the glow of someone's cigarette on the porch, even at 3 or 4 in the morning.
I wrote Brimstone Lullaby in that same north Portland house. It had the best windows overlooking a park:) I guess sometimes I spend more time looking out windows or into windows than actually existing in the places where I am. Anyway, that little neighborhood park had so many different kinds of people and so much life going on. Daytime and nighttime were vastly different in their colors and sounds. There were gospel concerts in the summer, kids trying to chase each other and make out with each other, people lurking and dealing on the corners, people walking around and around yelling and talking to themselves, babies screaming and parents screaming and dogs barking and always the sound of sirens and ice cream trucks and basketballs thumping and bass lines thumping in the cars going by. I've never lived somewhere so alive, where people do everything as loud as they can, where they rejoice, and play, and fight, and sob with everything they have. The song is sort of about how people live and believe in things with their whole hearts in order to survive. And when something difficult and terrible comes and shoots it out of the sky, they find a way to keep trudging along and something else to believe in and hold on to just to get by.
04/03/2013 | comments (0)
There’s a rambler at the heart of Woody Pines, a rounder nestled into the heart of his music. It’s the kind of rambler that motored Robert Johnson’s car, the vagabond spirit that pushed Kerouac on frenetic road trips across the US, the aimless soul that rode trains with Woody Guthrie. This trickster character is the very core of American roots music, and Woody Pines knows it well. His songs are filled with these characters: wandering broken hearts, swaggering pimps, crusty hobos, but he himself has lived these stories. Woody’s journey has taken him from street corners and smoky bars to folk festivals and the Grand Ole Opry, but he started with Bob Dylan. As a child, unable to read music, he made up new tunes for the Bob Dylan songbooks around his house. Later, he hitchhiked with a friend to visit his heroes such as Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Utah Philips. By the age of nineteen, he’d already played in forty-nine states. Since then he’s lived as a street performer in New Orleans, wandered the West Coast leading the legendary underground jugband The Kitchen Syncopators, set up home in a trailer in Asheville and now Nashville, and cut four solo albums full of his wickedly inventive musings on American roots music. His last album, You Gotta Roll, was lauded by No Depression as “old-time feel-good music done by a young master who clearly understands that this kind of music was always about having a great time,” and PopMatters, who declared it “a delightful vintage Americana romp.”
With his brand-new, full-length album, Rabbits Motel, Woody Pines returns to the roads that have long inspired him, packing along his many inspirations, from Bill Haley to Leadbelly, Chuck Berry to Hank Williams, and Sam Cook to Doc Watson. True to form, most of the songs on the album are original, though we challenge you to tell us which ones just from listening. This is juke joint music, the kind of roadhouse songs that are made to get people up and dancing. With Rabbits Motel, Woody took the time to really use the studio to his advantage, bringing a much harder edge to his music. Still thoroughly grounded in the blues and rags of before, this album has a strong independent streak. The song “Hobo & His Bride” starts from a folk song foundation but winds up a kind of epic tale about young lovers. “Railroad Vine” speaks of long train travels while channeling a dusty Southwest vibe. The infectious opening song “Like I Do” bumps along like a pickup on an old dirt road, singing about shattered relationships. Woody Pines’ new full studio sound leaves the street corner behind, but opens up rich new possibilities.
On his new album, Rabbits Motel, Woody Pines plays with the American traditions he fell in love with years ago as a teenager. He subverts these traditions, pressing them into new shapes, forcing them through new genres, and building a new sound out of the junkyard scraps from over a century of recorded music. But his album should come with a “Don’t try this at home” warning! Unless you’ve actually traveled the backroads of America like Woody, or unless you’ve spent countless hours poring over old 78s learning mostly forgotten old songs, don’t try what he’s attempting here! The reason Woody can push the envelope the way he does is because he lives his songs and sings his life.
Woody Pines: "Hobo & His Bride":
Woody Pines: "Like I Do":
03/27/2013 | comments (0)
Our pile of awesome new albums of Southern old-time music is growing by the day and this makes us happy! There's nothing we like more than lots of albums of barn-burning fiddle and banjo duets, or eerie old mountain ballads. Here's our latest finds and delights, check 'em out and enjoy!
Bruce Molsky. If It Ain't Here When I Get Back.
2013. Tree Frog Music.
Bruce Molsky is one of the premiere old-time fiddlers in the world, despite the fact that he hails originally from the Bronx and didn't get his start in the music until he was in his 40s. But he's sure made up for lost time and geographical differences! If It Ain't Here When I Get Back is his first solo album in six years, though he's been touring and performing with various other groups and ensembles. He's been busy for sure, but it's nice that he's circled back to his original inspirations. Like previous Molsky albums, this really is a solo affair. It's just him on fiddle, banjo, guitar, and his brittle-glass vocals (plus he produced it). And it's lovely, of course. He draws the songs and tunes from his prime inspirations, which means this is more eclectic than you might think. "Bimini Gal" is a fun and rhythmic guitar number inspired by the great Bahamanian guitarist Joseph Spence, and he includes tunes from other inspirations like Metis and Irish fiddlers. But the emphasis on this album is more on old-time than his previous albums. There's much here for true-blue old-time music heads, like the shifty fiddling on "Rattle Down the Acorns" from lesser-known fiddler Delbert Hughes, Molsky's softly sublime clawhammer banjo playing on classic tune "Johnny Booger", and a sweet version of the chestnut "Bonaparte's Retreat" from the fiddler in John Dilleshaw's wonderfully named band "Seven Foot Dilly and his Dill Pickles". I'm going to go out on a limb here and say something that might be a bit controversial: the best part of any Bruce Molsky album is not his fiddling, but his singing. On each album he includes a tour-de-force song of absolute beauty, not just in his singing but in his quietly assured phrasing that manages to let the words float first into our minds. On his last album he cut a version of "The Brave Cowboy" that was utterly heart-rending (I was so happy to see my friends Cahalen Morrison & Eli West cover this version on their new album). Here that song is "Piney Mountains" from old-time songwriter Craig Johnson. I hadn't really heard of Johnson before this but I immediately went out and bought his album to hear his version of this song. Johnson passed away not too long ago, but he was renowned as an old-time singer and songwriter, and his ice-fragile vocals and cracked mountain accent are a wonder to hear. "Piney Mountains" is a song about rough living in the mountains ("Lost my fingers in the Galax mill"... "I started out logging when I was in my prime/Woman don't you weep for me"). It's one of the best examples I've ever heard of true mountain blues. Kudos to Molsky not only for finding this amazing gem, but also for pulling out the heart of it for us to see.
Of course this as an album from an absolute master. Of course the music here is just fabulous. Of course you'll find new tunes or new players by buying and listening to this album. Of course you won't regret your purchase. So pick up your copy already!
Bruce Molsky: Rattle Down the Acorns
Bruce Molsky: Piney Mountains (C. Johnson)
If you'd like to find out more about Craig Johnson, check out his only solo album here:
Craig Johnson - Away Down the Road
Tom Paley's Old-Time Moonshine Revue. Roll On, Roll On.
2012. Hornbeam Recordings.
Old-time singer and multi-instrumentalist Tom Paley has been around the block... to say the least. Cutting his first album for Elektra in 1953, he became a lynchpin of the folk revival through his early work in the seminal stringband The New Lost City Ramblers. Along with Mike Seeger and John Cohen, Paley influenced a generation of roots musicians, not least Bob Dylan, who was a huge fan of the Ramblers. Paley's got the kind of autobiography where he can casually drop that he taught Ry Cooder his open guitar tunings. And booked (and played!) gigs with Woody Guthrie. Not many can claim that anymore. But unlike Seeger or Cohen, Paley left the US and left the scene in the early 1960s, moving to England. He was replaced by Tracy Schwarz in the Ramblers, and spent the rest of his years until now living in the UK and playing regionally. With his new album, Roll On, Roll On, here's hoping that his name will move back to the top of old-time and American roots music elders.
Roll On, Roll On is a homey affair, just Paley and some UK friends, plus his son Ben, playing through some classic tunes from the old-time repertoire like "Little Birdie", "Whiskey Seller", "Devilish Mary" and others. But there's such a lovely weight to his voice... the weight of years and years spent at the forefront of a cultural movement. Perhaps most importantly, he's clearly still having fun with the traditions. "Beelzebubbles" is a charmingly funny song about the daughter of the devil that Paley wrote and set to the tune of an old Charlie Poole song. The ballad "The Morning of 1845" has some lovely notes from Paley that show his sense of the fun behind the music: "We usually think of ballads as being about weighty matters, like war, murder, death and disasters, but this one, though a ballad in the sense of a story-telling song, just deals with getting drunk and going off to a dance."
He may move a bit slower now than in the rambling rough-and-tumble days of the New Lost City Ramblers, but Paley's just as nimble as ever with this old music and his love through the years for the music shines through clearly.
Tom Paley's Old Time Moonshine Revue: Whiskey Seller
Erynn Marshall & Friends. Tune Tramp.
2012. Hickoryjack Music.
Erynn chose the name Tune Tramp for herself as a way to convey the wide-ranging promiscuity of old-time music jammers. Some of these jammers travel all over the US, Canada, even the world looking for the great jams and reveling in the fun of picking and playing with friends. I call them "jam hounds", and could probably be considered one myself. I've jammed with Erynn a few times, in fact, and she's a wonderful jamming partner. Open to any tune, considerate about not bringing out super-hard or super-obscure tunes if the players aren't up for it, and genuinely happy to be playing with people no matter their level as musicians. It's a breath of fresh air in a world where star players can sequester themselves in back rooms hiding from the legions of lower-level players who want to jam with them. Jamming isn't always the most egalitarian activity (though it should be) and Erynn is a strong force towards changing that. She's also a strong force for the preservation and continuation of Appalachian old-time music and fiddling. Though she was originally from Canada, she lives now in Galax, VA, leading the Blue Ridge Music Center at the heart of Appalachian old-time's motherland. It's the perfect place for such an outgoing advocate for the music and she's been doing great work there.
With Tune Tramp, Erynn documents some of her travels across the US and Canada, each track a kind of field recording of her playing with friends. And what friends! The guest list reads like a who's-who of old-time music: Skip Gorman, Kirk Sutphin, Rafe & Clelia Stefanini, Pharis & Jason Romero, Chris Coole, Foghorn Stringband, The Canote Brothers, Paul Brown, Bruce Greene, Eddie Bond, John Harrod, even young Cajun all-stars Joel Savoy and Kelli Jones-Savoy. Some of this is called keepin-it-in-the-family: Erynn's engaged to ace old-time mandolinist and songwriter Carl Jones, who's Kelli's father, so there's that. And Erynn and The Romeros had an amazing old-time band together for a few years called The Haints. But the rest of the folks here are all traveling friends. As with any kind of far-reaching album like this, there are real gems here. "Trouble on the Mind" from beloved Kentucky fiddler John Salyer is played here with such thoughtful expression that Erynn's really able to bring out the beautiful melody. "Tune Tramp," a song written by Carl Jones based on the album's title is a lovely ode to the long travels that traditional musicians undergo to learn and spread tunes. "Rambler's Blues," an old Stanley Brothers cut, sounds amazing with Caleb Klauder and Sammy Lind from Foghorn Stringband trading vocals, and Joel & Kelli Savoy turn a great Cajun version of the song "Poor Hobo." Billy McCumbers is a great find here; he's the son of aged West Virginia fiddler Lester McCumbers and a powerful Appalachian singer in his own right on "Silver Bridge." This album is a joy throughout and a great look at old-time music as it's passed between generations.
Adam Hurt & Beth Williams Hartness. Fine Times At Our House.
Young clawhammer banjo player Adam Hurt is widely considered to be an intense virtuoso on his instrument, and his new album with guitarist and singer Beth Williams Hartness is pretty much another case of proof-positive. His playing is effortlessly melodic, no small feat for an instrument (the clawhammer banjo) whose playing is designed for rhythm first and melody second (or third). The particular playing style of clawhammer banjo, in which pickers have to keep returning to the high-pitched fifth string at rapid intervals has always hampered players looking to bring out full and complete melodies. Of course this "limitation" has also given the banjo its characteristic rhythmic punch, and in the hands of a great player like Hurt, you get an instrument that can punch through a melody like machine gun fire. Don't think for a second that Hurt is bound by the old Ken Perlman melodic clawhammer banjo school that, though beautiful, frequently overclutters the playing with complex machinations designed to play every note of a fiddle tune. Rather, Hurt floats between this school and the dazzling power of the old guard of Appalachian clawhammer banjo players, able to bring out the essence of every tune without sacrificing a second of rhythmic intensity. It's a tour-de-force.
On Fine Times at Our House, Hurt fiddles along wonderfully as well. Is there anything he can't do in old-time music? The tunes are chosen with care, and though mostly well known, each tune sounds as fresh and new as the day it was written. Special love should be given to Hurt's cover of the sublime newly composed tune "Obama's March to the White House" from Seattle's Greg Canote. This and Red Prairie Dawn from Garry Harrison are two of the best new tunes these days and deserve to be played by all and sundry. Fine Times at Our House is an easy romp from one of the best clawhammer banjo players around, and it's an all-around great joy to listen to.
Adam Hurt: Richmond
Metis Fiddler Quartet. North West Voyage Nord Ouest.
I'm not sure Métis fiddling really qualifies as old-time music (though it's certainly old-timey), but heck, if it's good enough for Bruce Molsky, then it's good enough for me! Métis fiddling comes from the mixed populations living in Canada's Alberta and Saskatchewan provinces–and down into North Dakota and Montana in the States. The Métis people come from the intermarriage and genetic mixing of Native American and French-Canadians, historically based around the fur trade. There's a long and intense history here and much for the Métis to be proud of today; after all, they shaped the character and content of Western Canada and roamed the plains for a couple centuries as avowed badasses.
In the world of traditional North American fiddling, the Métis borrowed a lot from their French-Canadian roots, but the music was refracted through their Native American heritage. Tunes that might be recognizable in French-Canadian quarters were fractured and rebuilt, reflecting new rhythms and ideas that bend the tunes to a whole new cultural world. It's quite a wondrous thing, and great Métis fiddlers like John Arcand or Teddy Boy Houle never cease to amaze and inspire me. For the young members of Metis Fiddler Quartet, these inspirations have directly guided them and their debut album pays clear homage to the elders. Both Houle and Arcand taught the kids directly, or had a hand in the tunes they've chosen for the album. The tunes are arranged somewhat, since the instruments for this quartet are twin fiddles, guitar, and cello. The arrangements help bring new character to the tunes though, and the tunes are played with a remarkable dexterity in players so young. This album is clearly the start of a bright career as these young kids bring Métis fiddling to a new generation, and kudos to them for having such a clear respect for the traditions. This album is a pleasure to enjoy and I hope these kids go very far!
03/24/2013 | comments (0)
Just in time for St. Patrick's Day, that venerated holiday of green beer, ugly shamrocks, and watered-down Irish culture, trad supergroup Dervish is back with one of their hottest albums yet. While their past albums have lightly been pushing on the walls of the Irish tradition bit by bit, the new album, The Thrush in the Storm, is a solid return to their roots in the Irish session culture of County Sligo. The tunes fly fast and furious here, and Dervish again earn their title as one of the most technically dazzling bands in Irish traditional music today. I heard (but can't confirm) that this album was made in 5 days, and only Dervish could pull off something like that. I'm sure just hanging around and jamming they sound about this great.
The Thrush in the Storm is an even split between sets of instrumental dance tunes and songs. In the songs, of course, singer Cathy Jordan is a revelation as always. Her voice sparkles like a clear mountain stream, as she flows effortlessly through beautiful and rare songs in English and Irish Gaelic. "Baba Chonraoi" is a standout here, the story of a young girl mistreated by her (forcibly) adopted family who deserts to run away with the English army. Though you may not understand the Gaelic vocals, the song is remarkably touching nonetheless. "Handsome Polly-O" is a great example of Jordan's trademark ability to sing the more rhythmic and sprightly songs of the Irish tradition. Her voice is remarkably nimble here, and she navigates the twists and turns of the song with effortless ease. "The Lover's Token" is a beautiful and seemingly old ballad that tells of a love returning from war to test the faith of his beloved. It's a stunning showcase for Jordan's arresting vocals and a great song to boot.
Instrumentally Dervish are at the top of their game. They can blaze through a set of reels better than pretty much anyone else out there. But there are some nice slower moments here as well, perhaps more than on other Dervish albums. "The Harp and the Shamrock" is a lovely set of of hornpipes, I believe, that Dervish plows through ever so softly and carefully. It's a nice moment of restraint for a band perhaps better known for their show-stopping instrumentals. It's also nice to hear "The Rolling Wave", a set of beautiful jigs that ends with the ubiquitous tune, "The Rolling Wave". Dervish have nothing left to prove, having already cut albums full of rare and obscure tunes, so it's nice for them to have a victory lap around this old chestnut.
If you've never heard Dervish before, this album shows them at their best. If you have heard the before, then this album is a return to their most traditional roots and a great showcase for a band totally at ease with the music. Either way, this is about the best you can find today or any day in the world of Irish traditional music!
Dervish: Baba Chonrai
03/15/2013 | comments (1)
The Folk Alliance International Conference was held this year in Toronto, and what a rush it was! It was my second year attending as a publicist for HearthPR, and also as a freelance roots music writer. This year I was able to put together a showcase room which was an incredible experience. In conjunction with 12X12 Management (Pokey Lafarge, Betse Ellis) and Quicksilver Productions (booking for Frank Solivan, New Country Rehab, Caleb Klauder), we rocked it from 10:30pm to 2:30 am three nights of Folk Alliance. Plus we had free beer! Having all my favorite artists playing a few feet from my face in a cramped motel room was an intense and wonderful thing for me and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to connect to more cool folks at these conferences.
Some of my highlights from our showcase room: Cape Breton Scottish music masters Mary Jane Lamond & Wendy MacIsaac breaking into a Gaelic version of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" mid-set, being hypnotized by Charlie Parr's country blues, Laura Cortese & Mariel Vandersteel's explosive fiddle duet on "Greasy Coat", The Revelers packing the room with a sweaty Cajun dance, Québécois trad band De Temps Antan in close quarters was very intense and wonderful, Chris Coole & Ivan Rosenberg sang such beautiful, heart-breaking songs about the life of traveling musicians, Betse Ellis' jumping around and fiddling and singing "John Henry" and jamming like a madwoman with New Country Rehab, Joe Crookston is still one of my favorite story-songwriters, Tony Furtado's dazzling musicianship, and much much more!
This year I happened on some great finds and some wonderful new music that I would have likely missed without Folk Alliance. You can't help but find something inspiring at Folk Alliance, and I recommend the conference to anyone with even a passing interest in American roots music.
Hearth Music Finds from the 2013 Folk Alliance International Conference in Toronto
Lee was, for me and many others, one of the truly surprising standout acts of Folk Alliance. In a fair world, his new album would get as much attention here as it did in the UK, where he's from (Ground of Its Own was nominated for a Mercury Prize this year). But this isn't a fair world, and I wager few people in the States have heard of him. Well, hopefully you can help me change this.
Sam Lee's formula seems simple at first. In a gently reverberating voice, he sings songs he learned from British travellers, the nomadic folk of the British Isles also known as tinkers that Brad Pitt so famously emulated in Guy Ritchie's film, Snatch. Lee learned this music first as an apprentice to the legendary Scottish traveller Stanley Robertson (nephew of legendary singer Jeannie Robertson) and later to Irish travellers who he found and befriended. There's a lovely article in the Economist about Robertson's upbringing, his stories and songs, and his life's work in a fish factory. He sounds like a truly remarkable person. And the way Lee talks of him is enchanting. Interviewed in fRoots, Lee talks about Robertson's influence with a deep reverence. Not just a mentor, Lee was chosen by Robertson to receive as many of his thousands of songs as possible before Robertson's passing in 2009. And thought that must have been intense, Lee speaks too of Robertson's spiritual influence, how Robertson traveled astral planes and could see into Lee's future with an uncanny accuracy. Perhaps there's a hint of romanticism here for the nomadic lifestyle of travellers, but Lee's done the fieldwork, spending hours and days making lifelong friends among traveller communities, and drawing out some of the songs that have been part of a rich oral history for many generations. And here's the thing: He's an utterly transfixing interpret of these songs. On stage he sways and dances like a man lost in trance. Though his band is made up of Anglo artists playing on a huge variety of "world" instruments, nothing sounds fake or derivative. It's because Lee's actively disassembling and rebuilding the music in new ways. His quote from his fRoots interview is indicative of his take on folk music for a new generation: "Martin Carthy came out with this famous statement that the worst thing you can do with a folk song is not sing it. That was great at the time but I think now the worst thing you can do to a folk song is not change or challenge it." At Folk Alliance, Lee stole the show, emanating a kind of animal charisma that had me calling him the "Father John Misty of British folk music."
His debut album, Ground of Its Own, is the kind of album that sneaks up on you. There's immense power here, the kind of electricity in the old songs that powered a village, that fueled a people. You'll be listening with half an ear, perhaps reading a book or a magazine article, when a single line of an old ballad will knife into you, as Lee's voice effortlessly parts the skin. Tears will come to your eyes and you won't be sure why. It's because there's something in each of us, something born of the late night campfire, that wants to touch the windswept unconscious where the heart of these songs is buried. Lee approaches his music from an almost spiritual level, and after listening you start to think about whether there's some swiftly flowing, nearly uncontrolled river in these songs that we've bricked over. We've built our pop music palaces on paved streets over this river, and have forgotten it was there. Until Lee breaks through the pavement and we suddenly don't understand our own music anymore.
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer:
Old ballads were clearly a big hit at Folk Alliance this year. Along with British wunderkind Sam Lee, Americans Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer were another revelation. Anais Mitchell is a well-known songwriter on the American roots music circuit, with a number of well-loved and beautiful albums under her belt. Jefferson Hamer is a wildly inventive acoustic roots multi-instrumentalist living in Brooklyn. In 2012, Hamer released a fascinating duo album, The Murphy Beds, with Dublin folk musician Eamon O'Leary. That album seems a precursor to his work with Anais Mitchell, and it was clear he was using that album to pull apart the insides of the old traditional ballads looking for their heart. Collaborating with Anais Mitchell (he was lead guitarist in her band) for the utterly spellbinding 2013 album, Child Ballads (released in the US March 19), Mitchell and Hamer enchanted the audiences at Folk Alliance. We'd all heard these songs many times, but Mitchell and Hamer brought something new, a level of complexity and simple beauty that somehow broadened the songs. Their voices interlocked like wood parquet floors, and Hamer's guitar lines were often whole instrumental tunes in themselves. And yet through the complex arrangements, they never lost sight of the story. That's the real key with singing ballads. That's what the great old ballad singers understood. If you lose the story when you're listening, you lose the point of the performance. Instead, Mtichell and Hamer's renditions of classic Child Ballads like "Geordie", "Willie of Winsbury", and "Tam Lin" are utterly riveting. Performing in a packed, sweaty showcase hall at Folk Alliance, they sucked the air out of the room with their music, and the crowd was held in rapt attention. It's no wonder--their voices on these Child Ballads are impossible fragile, like holding an ice crystal. This is the kind of music you'll want to savor, to turn over and over, admiring for its beauty.
Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line:
I came to Folk Alliance looking forward to catching Nora Jane Struthers (just "Jane" to her friends) live. As the former lead singer of Bearfoot and an avowed roots music social networking maven, I was figuring she'd deliver on her promise of long-form story songs, twanged-out acoustic music, and honey-dipped vocals. And I wasn't wrong! She's a killer performer, decked out in vintage dresses from her extensive and famed collection, and belting out ceiling high vocals at the drop of hat. Definitely the kind of music perfect for long road-trips on hot summer days with the windows rolled down. Or a cramped hotel room at midnight. Her new album, Carnival, drops April 16 and it's a collection of road-worn Americana folk anthems, tied together with a red-hot backing band.
Aaron Jonah Lewis:
And that band brings me to a major discovery: young old-time players Aaron Jonah Lewis (fiddle) and clawhammer banjo berserker Joe Overton. Both are key players in Nora Jane Struther's band, where they're great, but I was treated to some intense late night duo jams from these guys that blew my mind. I've heard quite a lot of old-time fiddle and banjo playing, trust me, but I've never heard it like this. They both played at break-neck speeds, Aaron's fiddle whipping around tight corners like a high-end sports car, and Joe's clawhammer banjo was wickedly complex. He improvised wildly across the fingerboard, playing on a fretless banjo to boot, and came up with the most interesting counterpoint. It was like watching Bach hopped up on speed, composing kickass barn dance tunes in Appalachia. Kind of. Both these players are people you need to watch. Aaron's just dropped a new album (he releases a lot of helter-skelter old-time albums and videos with various picking friends) via one of his bands, The Square Peg Rounders, called Galax, NYC, an ode to the urban Appalachian movement that's lighting up the old-time scene. Galax NYC is a fun set of old-time tunes played with a lot of joy. It's just the thing to perk up a rainy Spring day, as I've found from personal experience!
Note: I tried and tried to convince Aaron and Joe to cut a duo old-time album together. Hopefully they're thinking about it! In the meantime, grab a copy of Galax, NYC for Aaron's fine fine fiddling and a copy of Nora Jane's new album Carnival for Joe's beautiful banjo playing.
Fish & Bird's Cassette Tape:
Canadian acoustic folk-rockers Fish & Bird always do well at Folk Alliance (and we've written about them before), but they outdid themselves this year. And in the most clever way. They wandered all over handing out custom made cassette tapes of their music titled 10 Golden Hits. A fun ploy, but I just loved how they actually made the cassette tapes out to look like those old nerdy folk music tapes I have piling up in my closet, most of them from obscure Canadian record labels. They got the fonts right, the whole look of it right, and jamming their tape into my dusty old boom box, I got a shiver from the old analog feel and sound of the play lever on my boom box. I was flooded with memories of my many roots music cassettes and the hours I spent with my original yellow walkmen. So much of roots and folk music is about memory and these guys nailed it with their retro packaging. And the music's great too! Just as the title says, these are 10 Golden Hits from their back catalogue (and I think one new song), including their 2011 album Every Whisper is a Shout Across the Void, which we reviewed HERE, and their 2009 album, Left Brain Blues, which we reviewed HERE.
I asked guitarist Ryan Boeur where the cassette tape idea came from. I love his response: "We know a lot of people with old trucks that only have cassette players!" Talk about a slice of rural Canadiana.
If you've never heard Fish & Bird before, the cassette tape is a perfect way to get into their music. If you have heard them before, like me, the mix of songs is a great way to rediscover their music. So buy it would ya?
BUY THE ALBUM ON BANDCAMP
A.J. Roach & Nuala Kennedy:
Roach was a totally new discovery for me. He participated in a great songwriters-in-the-round session at Brad Yoder's room (shout-out to Brad Yoder for sharing his room with so many great songwriters and inspiring everyone) and the word is that he and Irish flute/singer Nuala Kennedy will be releasing an album together soon (they're an item). I'm VERY much looking forward to that album. Together, Roach and Kennedy made a great team, her beautifully rich vocals complimenting his own tremulous (in a good way) vocals, and her fluid and rich flute playing bringing a new sound to his songs. I got ahold of Roach's last album, Pleistocene, which was produced by Kentucky-born indie roots banjo king Matt Bauer, and it's a fascinating bit of quaver-folk (new term I coined!). In the showcase, Roach was dressed as a dapper Southern gentleman, and had a deep Southern accent. On the album he brings that kind of gentlemanly flare to a healthy batch of songs. His songwriting is subtle, gentle, intricate, but still hummable, still singable. It's a fine line between obscure songwriting and memorable lyrics and Roach treads it expertly.
BUY PLEISTOCENE FROM ROACH'S WEBSITE
This trio of amazing vocalists (Abbie Gardner, Molly Venter, Laurie MacAllister) wasn't really a new find, since they've been building huge buzz in the folk music world for years, but this was the first time I'd seen them live... And WOW! Even missing one of their three singers (Abbie Gardner was trying to save her voice for their later official showcase), they still belted out hair-raisingly beautiful harmonies at a level of professionalism that was stunning. I sat through the whole performance (which is usually difficult with my ADD musical personality) entranced by their music and singing. Great songs, both original and some traditional (their cover of "Come On In My Kitchen" from their last album is just glorious), and great playing as well. The most powerful moment for me from their performance was their show-stopping cover of the old Doc Watson song "Long Journey Home." Behind them, the hotel room window looked out on the bleak gray cityscape of Toronto as bitter snow flurries whirled past. It's one of those moments that remind you just how powerful this music can be. Pick up their latest album, Light in the Sky! It's a blend of folk, twang, and country, mixed just right.
Red Molly: Come On In My Kitchen
I'm a huge sucker for old-timey jugband hokum music, and Sheesham & Lotus sure delivered. Crowded around a bizarre lead pipe contraption designed to filter two voices into "glorious MONO", this trio of roots musicians from Ontario belted out crazy vintage songs and harmonica dance tunes with the kind of glee that you would have found at an old medicine show in the South. Consummate showmen, they danced around so much and sang and shouted with such abandon that all my crappy iPhone pictures came out completely blurred. They had everyone in the room shouting along and clapping, and their music was just about impossible to sit down for. They covered songs of their latest album, 1929, and mixed it up between old fiddle tunes and back-alley hokum songs like the absolutely excellent song "1929". Do NOT miss these guys live if at all possible, and check out their last album for a huge helping of happy hokum goodness!
Sheesham & Lotus: 1929
Melody Walker & Jacob Groopman:
Melody Walker is a well know roots musician and songwriter based out of the Bay Area. Her side project band Front Country recently won Rockygrass (and got to go on the Mountain Song at Sea cruise which sounded fabulous) and her latest album, Gold Rush Goddess, has been doing well. I liked that album a lot for its interesting mix of twangy folk, acoustic rock, and ethnomusicology. That last element was a bit of a surprise, but the Afro-Cuban elements in the title song make a surprisingly great combination with the kick-ass feminine storyline. Melody's partner Jacob Groopman played a big role in the Gold Rush Goddess album, and brought some of his experience playing Afro-Beat bands in the Bay Area as well. I liked the album a lot, but was even more surprised at how great Melody and Jacob sounded just as an acoustic duo, which is how they played our showcase room. Melody's got a shout-to-the-back-of-the-hall voice, that puts out a surprising amount of power with a surprising amount of control. Jacob's lovely harmonies were more than a match for her voice, and the two seemed to spin each other up to even better heights musically. Also, and this is very important for Folk Alliance, they just really get folk music. They weren't afraid to cover Paul Simon's Graceland, a daunting feat, and they played it straight (no crazy re-envisioning). We were all singing along and clapping along and it felt so great for that moment to be really participating in actual folk music. Which is the point of Folk Alliance. Melody and Jacob are going into the studio soon for a duet album and I for one can't wait to hear what this will sound like. Here's a sample of the two together from a previous EP:
Canadian indie folk singer Jenny Ritter was one of my favorite discoveries of 2012, and we profiled her via a No Depression Inside the Songs feature which I just love: CHECK IT OUT. It was great to see her at Folk Alliance in Toronto and I heard some great buzz about her over there, but I was equally happy to meet Elise Boeur, the fiddler from her band. Elise has been in a number of interconnected Canadian roots music bands, including O'Mally, but recently she's been deeply entrenched in Scandinavia learning tunes. Now she's back and has a trio with Jenny Ritter on guitar and Adam Hill on bass. Simply lovely Scandinavian fiddle music with an indie vibe. Love love love. Get a full album out soon Elise!!
I'd heard about Connor before from his beautiful videos filmed live at Empty Sea Studios in Seattle. Then I met him by chance in the halls of Folk Alliance hanging out with my songwriting hero and idol Joe Crookston. He was leaning in to learn a song from Joe when I drunkenly interrupted. I felt a bit bad about this, but I asked for his album anyways. Now I've been in love with the song "Pencil Frames" all this week. Connor's a remarkably gentle songwriter, capable of swift turns-of-phrase that deepen the song in the most beautiful ways.
Connor Garvey: Pencil Frame
This song of Connor's always breaks my heart:
I met Jeremy late night outside our showcase room. We got to talking and I was floored to find out not only that he'd lived in Seattle for years, but that he'd been a hardcore busker at Pike Place and we had some friends in common. We especially had Jim Hinde in common. Jim was a giant of a man, a real force in the Seattle busking community. Indeed he was about the only one who could corral all the different buskers with their wildly diverse personalities into a festival (the Pike Place Busker Festival). He was a good man and I loved working with him at Northwest Folklife. He was also a great songwriter. Jeremy sent me his last album, Mint Juleps, and I've been enjoying some of the songs on it quite a bit. He's a folk songwriter of the very best kind: the kind of folk songwriter whose songs can be enjoyed on the streets or in a coffeeshop, the kind of folk singer that writes about people because he truly cares.
Jeremy Fisher: Spin, Spin
WHEW! That's it for now! We'll be back next year for sure and we hope to see you there!
The 2014 Folk Alliance International Conference will be held in Kansas City, MO from February 19-23. Registration beings July 1, 2013. Get crackin'!