Newport Folk Festival Preview

After 55 years, the Newport Folk Festival is still relevant. Not only is it relevant, it is still bringing together disparate influences and challenging the notions of “folk” music in the same way that Bob Dylan did back in 1965 (though now the public expects it). Case in point, Son House admirer, producer, blues, folk writer, Jack White is one of the headline performers this year. Jack White’s history proves that he certainly won’t stay put in any one genre. Jack White has dabbled in old-time (“Wayfaring Stranger” from Cold Mountain), folk (“We Are Going to be Friends”) and the usual blues-rock. But wait, maybe those are all different views of the same thing. I’m not sure, but I’m excited to see Jack and his band.

Another genre bender has certainly been Ryan Adams. He’s single-handedly responsible for opening me and my wife up to country music. Ryan started that way with his seminal alt-country band Whiskeytown. Then he spun through a dizzying array of genres: singer/songwriter, rock & roll, punk, lo-fi, jam band, and country to name a few. While some may criticize his prolificacy and his derivativeness, those are the very things that make him so likable. In fact, those things are what drew me to his foray in straight ahead rock “Gold” and opened my eyes to the other genres that Ryan spun through, particularly country iterations. He even dabbled his toes in bluegrass in “Pearls on a String.” This certainly makes Ryan Adams a performer who has gone through many different iterations and can be unpredictable. That’s certainly part of his appeal.

Another band, seemingly the most traditional in the list, has managed to come back together after seven years off, better than ever. Nickel Creek, while generally keeping to their genre amalgamation (bluegrass, folk, country mixture), have released an absolutely classically crafted set of tunes. They’ve always bent the rules a bit by playing bluegrass-y stuff without a banjo, without the traditional tunes, but with all of the immaculate chops and often more of the beautiful compositions. They’ve attracted the attention not just from the folk music crowd, but managed to appeal to the young indie rockers. They have opened up bluegrass/acoustic country to a whole new generation and they bring their rock roots back to that group. They’re the hardest rocking bluegrass band I’ve ever heard. Oh and the new record has some serious bluegrass harmony.

That’s just the beginning; Mavis Staples, Jeff Tweedy, and Robert Hunter round out the legends.  Dawes, Lake Street Dive, the Milk Carton Kids, and Shovels & Rope are bands that I keep hearing about but haven’t had the chance to see yet. Which brings me to one of my personal favorites: Sun Kil Moon. I’ve been a fan of Mark Kozelek since he was in Red House Painters. He’s an atmospheric master whose lyrics are profoundly affecting. Red House Painters tune “Have You Forgotten How to Love Yourself” roped me in a decade ago.


The Newport Folk Festival is not only relevant these days, but for an alt-country kid like myself, it’s the most exciting summer concert festival. It’s a bit of a coming out party for Americana music. Can’t wait!

 

The Stray Birds – Pass Me the Guitar  

I’ll be darned if you can get any closer to the band as you feel at a Stray Birds show. And I wish you would pass the guitar right over to the Stray Birds. That intimacy certainly has been something that is cultivated with the band members and discussed in our conversation. Suzanne, twangville’s photographer, and I were lucky enough to pick their brains about their amazing presence on stage.IMG_9711 The band has been getting lots of press lately. From NPR to WAMU’s bluegrass country, they are not a secret anymore. As the band pulls together tracks for a new record, my wife(trusty twangville photographer Suzanne McMahon) and I got a chance to sit down with the band a while back and in a similar way to their intimate shows. The band waxed philosophical about the importance of connections with the audience, which is certainly palpable.  Singer/fiddler/guitar/banjo player Maya DeVitry explained it very well.

“There’s this Irish fiddle player who came and did this workshop when I was there [at Berkeley College of Music), Martin Hayes, and he talked about inhabiting the melody of these ancient tunes. He would play, not like he was acting, but he was literally inhabiting the melody. I feel like that’s what we do with these songs and these arrangements. We inhabit the song. We try to get inside ’25 to life’ or ‘Birds of the Borderland’ for those 3 minutes. And we also use a lot of eye contact and that’s really intense for people,” said Maya. “I look at people more during a show than I ever do.”

When you attend a Stray Birds show, you can’t help but feel connected to the band. As they come in close for the harmonies and look out over the audience, it’s as though you’re all there together in a trusted community. There’s something built in the shared experience of coming together and “inhabiting” a song. It seems like something that Maya and the band actually invites the audience to do at their shows and be in the song together. Then everyone has that joyful catharsis together. Singer/fiddler/guitar player Oliver Craven also put the personal connections of his life into perspective.

“I think the more I experience difficult things in my personal life, like circumstantial hardships, it puts things in perspective. When I see people in my life having trouble, it reminds me that what we’re doing isn’t the most important thing in the world. As important as it is to us and the people with us in that moment in the show, it’s ultimately not do or die. I think that makes me really relaxed on stage,” said Oliver Craven.

The sense of the relaxation translates into the joy of the audience in that shared experience. That seems to really allow the band and audience to get in closer to inhabit the song. It’s the escape that is just a passing breath of fresh air. And the show back in April at Club Passim in Cambridge demonstrated all of those qualities. The band had a true ability to invite the audience in to “I Wish It Would Rain” and bring those emotions out. Perhaps the same emotions that others may not have been able to express are now on the table. The shared experience in meeting the song and audience is something that the band has truly brought to their shows in a very intimate way.IMG_9609 “Those songs from echo sessions. I think of them like if I’m at a party and people are passing the guitar around, I don’t want to sing one of my own songs. I can hardly ever remember the words to songs other than the ones that we’re performing every night. I have probably five other songs that I remember the words to. ‘Wish it Would Rain’ has been my go to song for years,” said Maya DeVitry. “Echo Sessions is about remembering how fun it is to sing something that you didn’t write. You meet the song. It’s a totally different joy.”

I also asked the band members about their top five records. I got artists, lists of records, and even longer lists.

Top 5ish Artists/Records:

Maya DeVitry

Bob Dylan – Blood on the Tracks

Tom Waits – Mule Variations

Bonnie Raitt – Taking My Time

Nina Simone – (a live one)

Levon Helm – Dirt Farmer

 

Oliver Craven

David Bowie – Hunky Dory

Beatles – Abbey Road

The Traveling Willburys – Volume 1

Tim O’Brien & Darryl Scott – Real Time

Tedeschi Trucks – Revelator

Bob Dylan – Highway 61

Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

 

Charlie Muench

Old & In the Way

Norman Blake

Wood Brothers

Lake Street Dive

Jonathan Byrd

John Fulbright

 

Photos by Suzanne McMahon

Chatham County Line – North of the Mason Dixon

It’s not often that you get dyed in the wool bluegrass way up in Boston, let alone at the intimate Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. Some people may call that into question, but to me the sonic text of banjo, mandolin/fiddle, upright bass, and guitar is the unmistakable trademark. And of course, three finger picking of banjo provides the backbone. I’ve seen this at a big theater, but at the Lizard Lounge, the dynamic changes are physically palpable.IMG_7262

The band’s lead singer, Dave Wilson may be short in stature, but he’s tall in delivering vocals. He writes beautiful songs that could have been played in a rock band. His voice has shades of Jackson Browne.

Wilson joked that he loved to go to Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift concerts. When he did, he talked about how the crowd would immediately go crazy with the first few notes of their hit songs. And then Wilson mentioned that he wished his hit song was like that. Then the crowd began to cheer and he said, “No wait . . . you have to hear the first few notes.” Then he and the band tore through an intimate version of “Crop Comes In.”IMG_7264

The show featured stellar performances of several other songs from the band’s 2010 release Wildwood. The title track is catchy and merges the best elements of bluegrass and indie songwriting. Other tracks “Ghost of Woody Guthrie” and “Out of the Running” fit neatly in a bluegrass festival and a singer/songwriter coffeehouse. It’s a nice combo.

While bluegrass may be cohesive in pieces (banjo, mandolin, fiddle, bass guitar), it’s also able to take in the best elements of other American music genres. Just like Andrew Zimmern says on deadliest catch, “always have a second bite.” If you happened to catch this as your first experience with bluegrass, you may only need one to be hooked.

The show was highlighted by intimacy and top notch chops. The title track to the band’s album “Wildwood” was a standout as well as “Tightrope of Love” from the band’s latest release “Tightrope.”

Photos by Jeff McMahon

Nickel Creek – New Day in Boston

Although my recent interest in bluegrass has certainly been controlling lots of airtime on my  stereo, Nickel Creek bridge the gap of old and new. Somehow, they managed to sneak into the Americana/Indie Rock section of the record store in my college days and I’ve been a fan for the near decade of their existence. When I heard about their most recent record, I was weary of a “reunion” record. But this is one example of an album where a hiatus actually did the band a boatload of good.

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I’ve seen shows at the House of Blues in Boston and it’s large open size makes it far less intimate than my preferred venues. But somehow, Chris Thile, Sarah and Sean Watkins managed to make the crowd feel like they were at a small bluegrass venue. Thile regaled the crowd with storytelling and Sarah Watkins’ angelic voice filled the cavernous arena.

But the highlight of the night was the truly varied set of songs. The fourth album has given the band a catalog that can easily fill a long setlist (20 songs) with both consistent songcraft and musicianship. From the recent “A Dotted Line,” Sean Watkins’ “21st of May” was an immediate standout. His tale of the billboards announcing the impending rapture on that fateful date inspired the song kept the crowd engaged between songs. The performance was tight and the beautiful performances by Thile and Sarah Watkins to accentuate the dynamics of the song.

Old favorites “This Side,” “Somebody More Like You” and “The Lighthouse’s Tale” highlighted the emotional songwriting of the band. The songs were both engaging, tightly arranged, and showed varied songwriting growth. The instrumentals serve as the musical foil to these tunes. In fact, Thile talked about all the the different instrumental tracks and gave them thumbs up, okay, or thumbs down based on the titles that the band wrote (amusing the crowd with ease). He mentioned these as an intro to “Elephant in the Corn” (which is definitely a thumbs up for me). The tune, along with “Scotch & Chocolate” and “Smoothie Song” established that the band is not afraid to push their shows more to the technical bluegrass side.

Old favorites like “The Fox,” “When in Rome,” and “Doubting Thomas” take on new life next to new compositions like “Destination” and “You Don’t Know What’s Going On.” In fact, the former set were not my favorites, but I certainly appreciated them more as I heard them performed by the newly mature Nickel Creek.

The band has managed to bring itself back to life. They can play with the best bluegrassers, write indie rock tunes, and rock the house of blues. As disappointed as I was when they went on hiatus, I am equally excited to see how they’ve grown and rekindled an even more magical synergy. Don’t miss them.

Chatham County Line – Tightrope

With blurred lines connecting all different subgenres of country music, it’s often hard to know where to start. But fans of americana/roots rock/singer-songwriter genres have an entry point for bluegrass with Chatham County Line. The band’s lead singer Dave Wilson has put together another stellar set of songs that include, but are not limited to, traditional bluegrass instruments (banjo, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and bass). The band is not afraid to show off its instrumental chops too. They have the sound of one microphone. Where instruments and voices fade in and out of the spotlight as needed. They blend together and stand apart when necessary.

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Many bluegrass bands focus deeply technique but CCL is a bit different. Oh sure, they certainly have the chops, but they are focused on the songs. Dave Wilson said of the new album, “you want to write songs that have a reason for existing. For Tightrope, there was a lot of scrutinizing. We wanted every song to make the future Greatest Hits.” Take the leadoff track “Traveler.” The lead-in is straight acoustic guitar strumming. But when Chandler Hold’s banjo appears, you know it’s true bluegrass. Another singer-songwriter/americana sounding lead-in comes starts “Girl She Used to Be.” The verses feature Dave Wilson and his acoustic guitar with standup bass, and only in the choruses do we get the sonic texture of banjo and John Teer’s mandolin. Wilson’s acoustic guitar playing sounds more like rock licks in spots than bluegrass runs.

Back to uptempo bluegrass, “Tightrope of Love” has a much more driven rhythmical bluegrass sound. The band’s tight vocal and instrumental harmonies are certainly on display here, particularly Hold’s up the neck banjo playing. While the instrumental passages, hallmarks of bluegrass, are certainly present, they never get in the way of the song.

Another beautiful composition, “Hawk,” showcases Dave Wilson’s songcraft. The tune builds into the same driving bluegrass sound in the chorus. And wait, there’s that pedal steel in the background. It doesn’t dominate the song so much as accentuate the emotional moments and heighten them.

Dave Wilson used to be in a rock band in Raleigh (Stillhouse) and he clearly brings much of that experience to the genre of bluegrass. The band has managed to bring tight songcraft, harmonies, and musicianship together in one package. And that unmistakable joy is present particularly on “Will You Still Love Me.” It’s a song I could listen to over and over.

Once you listen to this album and get a hankering, I wouldn’t waste any time and get a few more CCL records. You won’t be disappointed.