Americana UK 2009 Report of the Folk America Festival
Folk America Festival Review - The Barbican, London - January 21st & 22nd 2009
A very exciting prospect - in conjunction with the BBC4 season of the same name, two back to back concerts featuring some fine exponents of the roots of Americana, in a double sense. The concert on the 21st is sub-titled "Hollerers, Stompers & Old Time Ramblers", and is hosted by Seasick Steve and features The Wiyos, C W Stoneking and Diana Jones amongst others. Young(er) musicians on the whole who relate to the earliest recordings of American music. The second concert on the 22nd is a showcase of Folk Revival performers from the 1960's entitled "Greenwich Village Revisited", with names such as Judy Collins and Roger McGuinn mentioned in publicity material. If this wasn't enough there also a preconcert gig by on the 22nd by The Coal Porters. By anyone's judgement this is a fabulous harvest of Americana.
Review by Jonathan Aird.
Hollerers, Stompers & Old Time Ramblers
Arriving just in time to catch the last tune from The Wiyos free foyer gig - wished I'd got there a bit earlier as it looked to have been a lively performance. Then into the main hall as a sold out Barbican is welcomed to Seasick Steve's hobo shack cluttered with old furniture and a huge old radio set. Most of the set dressing has actually come from Seasick's own home - the exception would be the bottle of Folk Americana whisky sitting next to his chair: no finishing touch has been overlooked here.
Steve in his usual jeans, checked shirt and cap kicks off the proceedings with a couple of country blues knocked out on a battered acoustic guitar - Falling Down Blues and Levy Camp Blues - settling the audience quickly into an early 20th century groove.
The first band on is Allison Williams (banjo/lead vocals) & Chance McCoy (fiddle) with Aimee Curl (upright bass) and Danny Knicely (guitar). They play as a straight ahead Ozark string band - Allison Williams is striking on claw hammer banjo - a force of nature as she rips her way through the tunes. A couple of times Danny Knicely puts down his guitar and drops a board on the floor to perform a lively step dance which is a joy to watch and pushes the audience appreciation up a notch or two at the same time. Their all too brief set - Dance all night with the bottle in your hand, Gimme the roses (a Carter family tune I think), Rocky Road to Dublin and Wild Bill Jones - covers most bases - Gimme the roses a reminder to live life to the full, 'cos flowers on the grave might be pretty but you don't get to see them, and Wild Bill Jones a wild celebration, a living wake for the narrator who has shot down Wild Bill and although this is something to celebrate the retribution will come on the morrow.
Second up is C W Stoneking (vocals, resonator guitar/tenor banjo) and band (Stephen Grant - trumpet, Oliver Browne -drums, Dan Hammerton - trombone, Richard Prite - acoustic bass/sousaphone). Seasick Steve introduces Stoneking as lost "in the 1920's and 30's" and this striking figure dressed all in white with a face shading wide brimmed black hat certainly gives this impression. Now, if Seasick Steve is as well known for his stories as for his blues then C W Stoneking is a raconteur who gives him a run for his money. With American parents, but raised in Australia, he spins a fine tale of shipwrecks and employment with New Orleans Hoodoo doctors which his hard edged and slurred Australian accent challenges you to disbelieve. This is probably single handily responsible for the concert running about an hour late overall - and is worth it. The fullest level of fancy is applied to "Don't go dancin' down the Dark Town Strutters Ball", a tale too long to repeat but which leads into the song with the band resting and Stoneking on tenor banjo. His pick-pinch-strum style of banjo playing produces an eldritch sound, it's maybe music, or maybe a supernatural threat. When the band kick in behind him with their proto-jazz The Barbican is temporarily transported to the seediest bar in New Orleans. Another song, the murder calypso ballad "The Love me or Die" concerns a Hoodoo love potion - you give it to someone you love, they get sick, you nurse them "and somewhere along the line they love you......or die". Not a style you come across every day, and Stoneking has a singular voice which might not appeal to all but this is terrific stuff, which made it all the sadder to find out when I caught him by the bar in the interval that there were no other gigs in the UK on this trip, and in fact nothing overly concrete for the future.
Set List : Dodo Blues, Don't go dancin' down the Darktown Strutters Ball, Jungle Lullaby, The Love me or die.
Last up before the interval was Cedric Watson (fiddle) and the fine cajun band - Bijoux Creole (Christopher Stafford - guitar, Blake Miller - bass, Jermaine Prejean - drums, Joseph M Chaisson - washboard). Perhaps the most familiar style of music to most of the audience - Louisianan Creole music, sung in French with Watson's fiddle cutting high across the primal swamp of the band and Chaisson enlivening the event with a run through the audience, bashing out wild percussive sounds the whole while. And, again a band planning to go straight home again after the gig.
Set List - Tu seras avec moi, ,La vielle chanson du Mardi Gras, Cedric's Zydeco, Boozoo Medley.
After a slightly curtailed interval the event got back on track with the country singing of Diana Jones (guitar, vocals) accompanied by Beau Stapleton on fiddle and Barry Wickens on mandolin. Yet another striking performer - her voice is both clear and hard and she effortlessly delivers bleak lines like "if I had a gun - you'd be dead - one to the heart - one to the head". Hers is a dark world of cruelty and disaster, where men write love letters as the air runs out in a collapsed mine, or native American children are kidnapped and given to white families to improve their prospects in life. A great performance by an artist I'd only known from reviews but that I'd like to hear more from - and against the tide of probability she is touring the UK in the spring !
Set List - If I had a gun, Henry Russell's last words, Pony, Bye Bye Blackbird
The last band of the evening were The Wiyos (Michael Farkas - vocals and percussion, Joe DeJarnette - upright bass, Teddy Weber - pedal steel, Parrish Ellis - guitar), deeply infused with vaudevillian jazzy proto-blues of the 1920's, they appear to be a group of workmen unfortunately between jobs and trying to make their way by hustling some change on the streets. Tonight they've also rounded up Chance McCoy and Danny Knicely to join them onstage. Theirs is a lively and knowingly humorous music - this is a band that is not afraid to use a few horns and kazoos in order to further enliven a washboard solo. Jokey interchanges between and during songs further build on their tough Brooklyn persona - this is the epitome of good time music, although they handle the Blind Willie McTell blue's number in their set with some panache as well.
Set List - Some of these days, Dying Crapshooter's Blues, All Aboard, Frankie & Johnny
To wind off the evening Seasick Steve is joined by his drummer Dan Magnusson, for a pair of fine renditions of Prospect Lane and Chiggers. And I have to admit the last album, "Started out with nothing..." is really beginning to grow on me, although I still prefer Dog House Music. "Prospect lane" gives you all the tips you need to jump a train and "Chiggers" all the advice you need on how to deal with an insect infestation. Steve's playing is as primal as it has ever been, and Magnusson's drumming is like a series of violent explosions. Great basic blues, not pretty but damn effective. The grand finale is everyone back on stage, playing everything they can lay their hands on - Allison Williams for example finds an unfeasibly large jug to blow on, Dan Magnusson is bashing away on some kind of cooking pan - for "Down the old plank road" and "Bring it on down to my house" that gets a huge ovation, and even a few people up on their feet dancing in a corner.
As the audience spilled out many of the band members could be seen wandering in the Foyer, manning the CD stall, chatting with strangers who had enjoyed their music. It had been a night of discoveries - with CW Stoneking and Diana Jones being for me the highlights - but they were diamonds in a field of gemstones.
Interlude - The Coal Porters
The Long Ryders were a rebirth of bands akin to The Byrds and also spawned a new underground direction for country/folk/psychedelic rock. The Coal Porters are of course a different kettle of fish - an outstanding London based Bluegrass band, or as they style themselves alt-bluegrass. They're a bluegrass band which also plays Dylan covers. It's that wonderful blending and reinventing of the music that Americans can be so very good at - a Bluegrass Band that plays Dylan - how new! Yet Dylan and The Byrds both recorded with Earl Scruggs in the late 1960's, so - a Bluegrass Band that plays Dylan - how traditional! It is only by subsuming the new into the traditional that "folk" can remain current and vital and move forward, it's only by acknowledging what's been done that the new movement can be fully validated within the tradition. We're not so good at this in the UK.
But back to The Barbican - where the first song is a spirited driving down to see my gal' tune - Fair Play Virginia. Naturally you'd expect to hear some praise for Sid Griffin on lead vocals and mandolin, but this is a band with a banjo, a banjo which is being played with some skill and panache so my attention did waver a little I confess. Drawing a growing crowd as their set continues They touch a number of bases, as well as original material there is I'm pretty sure a Carter family song, something from The Stanley Brothers, a Long Ryders song, a moving song for Obama - "No more chains" The highlights for me were a new song -"Permanent twilight" which was having an early outing and their covers of Mannasses' "Fallen Eagle" and that old traditional Irish folk song "Teenage Kicks". Aw shucks, it's superb, and encourages me to not approach Sid Griffin with money 'cos he ain't got any CDs to sell, as he reminds us several times during the set.
Greenwich Village Revisited
The main event of the evening takes place on a stage decked out as a basement coffee house somewhere in Greenwich Village. A few tables and chairs are scattered at the back and the bare brick walls have posters proclaiming the headliners listed in descending order as - Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn, Eric Andersen, Carolyn Hester and, the newbie at the bottom, Billy Bragg.
Let's just get this out the way - Time Out listed John Sebastian as taking part in this concert. Well, he didn't, and the hour I'd spent listening to old Lovin' Spoonful tracks had therefore been more than wasted - I'd had my fingers crossed for hours hoping for "You didn't have to be so nice" or "Darling be home soon", and it was all for naught ! The Barbican's own publicity had stated the above listed four plus others - well, accompanying musicians apart there were no others. This isn't a criticism, it's an unfortunate truth that there just aren't that many others that could have been expected - one might think of the non-live playing Joni Mitchell, Arlo Guthrie (in the UK early February), Tom Paxton (in the UK mid-February), and perhaps least likely of all Bob Dylan (who none the less casts a particularly long shadow over this evening). That even this four could be gathered together in one place is in itself something quite unlikely. Many could only be there in spirit - Tommy Makem, Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Dave Van Ronk.
Billy Bragg - a latter-day Woody Guthrie - opened the proceedings with "I ain't got no home in this world any more", noting that it was Woody Guthrie's comment on the credit crunch. This would be a recurring theme - fifty years on from the American Folk revival and many of the songs still ring true - in this case the rich survive, the poor go under. Billy is a more natural compare than Seasick Steve had been the night before, happy to fill in time during equipment changeovers, with the odd joke or anecdote. The first person on, initially a bit surprisingly, but it made sense later, was Roger McGuinn, in a smart suit and his trademark black hat mostly obscuring his face. His first song, being played on electric guitar as he walked on stage was Dylan's "My back pages", a song he'd recorded with The Byrds. McGuinn is in good voice, and it's riveting to hear live that song and that voice together. Switching to acoustic guitar leads onto a tribute to Odetta, who of course has only recently passed away. This is another recurring theme of the evening - memories of the songwriters and performers that have gone. "Oh Freedom" is introduced as a song the Roger heard on the civil rights march on Washington, when he was just 16. The jaunty tale of drunken Irish that is "Finnegan's Wake" is sobered with the recollection that Roger learnt it from Tommy Makem who also died recently. A gorgeous "Silver Dagger" - a lost love and murder ballad is followed by a "traditional song about a journey to London" - it's Eight Miles High, and it is truly brilliantly played - strange discordant noises emanating from Roger's acoustic guitar as he summons up the weird experience of being The Byrds in rainy London for the first time on the tour where they had been hyped as the answer to The Beatles in a way which ensured them sullen hostility wherever they went. A final song - "Turn, Turn, Turn" on jangly electric guitar is a reminder of the pure joy that became possible when clear, simple "folk" lyrics met an electric band ready to make a new kind of music. This was not a night for spontaneous encores - but this deserved one, and one couldn't help but wonder who was going to have to follow that.
The petite Carolyn Hester, that's who. Very earnest. An interpreter of songs, some traditional, some the creations of her contempories, she kicks off with one of the latter "Boots of Spanish Leather", which she'd also sung at Dylan's 30 years in the music business concert. This is followed up with "House of the Rising Sun", voiced as it should be from a female perspective. Her third song is the first to elicit anything in the way of a folk club sing along - Tom Paxton's "Last thing on my mind". Her short set closes out with "Last night I had the strangest dream" a typically hopeful anti-war song from the '60s protest movement to a tune shared with "Joe Hill" and Dylan's "St. Augustine".
And it's a tune revisited again after the interval by Billy Bragg in his "I dreamed I saw Phil Ochs last night", which he sings after Buffey St Marie's "Universal Soldier" (popularised in the UK by Donovan) before he introduces Eric Andersen. Playing acoustic guitar and singing in so low a growl that he makes Tom Waits sound like a warbling tenor, he starts with "Violets of Dawn", a song you can imagine a young Dylan listening to and deciding that intricate word play and obliqueness were the ways to go. There's a nod to Fred Neil with "The other side of this life" suggesting that it's not all a joy being an itinerant folk singer. "For what was gained" is another song of the Vietnam era which ties the country's gains - if any - to the personnel loss to individual families. And inevitably garners the comment of being still relevant today - as so many of the 1960 protest songs. Andersen closes out with Rain falls down in Amsterdam", with a half encore with "Thirsty Boots" on which he is joined by Roger McGuinn. Eric had been the opening act for a late 60's Byrds, and as Roger explained he finally realised that Eric with just a guitar was making more money than Roger with a full band, roadies, and trucks of equipment. It's a pity that there's not more duetting - or at least additional accompaniments - throughout the concert, bit of a missed opportunity, as of course Roger also appeared on some early Judy Collins recordings. The overlap and "community" of the Greenwich Village folk scene would have been nice to emphasise.
Last up was Judy Collins - in a glittering sequined top - and still striking looking as she totes her 12 string guitar. Her voice is still in fine condition as she proves on Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now". This sadly suffered a false start due to a microphone fault leading to a resinging of the first verse which is not quite as good as the first go, but nonetheless this is a gorgeous rendition. Looking up at the backdrop picture of a young girl sitting smoking she wistfully opines "that was the first vice I gave up". It's just as well she did, voice wise, but we're left with no illusion that she doesn't miss it. She follows up with "Someday Soon" a song which she originally recorded in a sorrowful country style, but has chosen to deliver tonight as a bouncy jaunty song on this night. I'm totally unable to reconcile the new arrangement with the old and so don't enjoy this too much. It's back on track though with "Anathea", a song which surely inspired Dylan's "Seven curses" - telling as it does a tale of a cruel judge who falsely promises a young woman that he'll pardon her brother's death sentence in exchange for her favours. This has a piercing mournful wail as a chorus which really is a spine tingler. Through her set Judy recalls people and events and accompanies these with snatches of songs. When talking about those who encouraged her to sing her own songs she digresses into a recollection of a Canadian who visited her wanting to know if his poems were songs "I said yes Leonard these are songs and I'm recording them tomorrow". There's a snatch of "Suzanne", but it's her own haunting "Since you've asked" that she renders at the piano. Staying there she sings her Colarado song - "the Blizzard", a long narrative about gaining the strength to survive a breakup from strangers met in a snowstorm. It's long and dramatic and intricate and closely observed and proves she was right to start writing her own songs.
The encore - with everyone back on stage - is, for me at least, rather unfortunate. It's Judy's choice, an acappella rendition of a song she first sang whilst in rehab. It was a celebrity rehab - Stacey Keach was there amongst others - there was a falling out and the councillor asked her to sing this song to calm everyone down. It's "Amazing Grace" - Eric Andersen looks nervous and underwhelmed as he clutches his sheet of notes and fidgets, Billy Bragg also looks somewhat uncomfortable. Judy kicks things off, then everyone gets their own verse, Roger McGuinn stays within his register but Carolyn Hester seems happy to harmonise. It goes on forever. I suppose it is one of Judy Collins' signature songs, but I'd have been happier with, oh, "Mr Tambourine Man". A fly in the ointment - it's just more noticeable coming right at the end.
On this night, although there is a CD stall, no-one from the stage is out and about out front. Understandably, they have their careers well in place now, but it's quite a noticeable difference from the previous evening's audience and musicians interactions.
There is an exquisite arc running through all this music, the "Hollerers, Stompers & Old Time Ramblers" are a modern revival of early 20th century American music, a blending of European folk with the Blues and Appalachian string bands and fiddle music. Greenwich Village Revisited gave a glimpse of the 1960's folk revival at it's high water mark with Judy Collins the early queen of the scene, and Roger McGuinn poised to take the revival a step further by going electric with The Byrds. And then The Coal Porters are another modern revival of the earlier music, but also linked through Sid Griffin's legendary Long Ryders, the 1980's heirs to The Byrds, and thus back to the Greenwich Village artists. It is no longer a musical circle that is unbroken, but a weirdly twisting mobius strip, that allows a continual reigniting of the musical source and a perpetual reblending into a modern and very valid form.
The Barbican and the BBC have, together, provided by the 3rd week of January what are good contenders for gigs of the year, for what it's worth the first night probably pipped the second - although as a big Byrds fan any sighting of Roger McGuinn is something to relish.