Photos By Mandy Pichler
Our first full day (22 and a half hours) at Folk Alliance demonstrated the breadth of the folk music, at least as defined by Folk Alliance International. From the country-pop exuberance of Jadea Kelly to the Delta blues of Mitch Grainger, and from the over-the top excitement of Chris Bathgate’s percussive attack to the near-symphonic experience the Sultans of Swing produce with two fiddles, we’re reminded that “folk” means “people,” and people of all stripes create this music.
Take Mitch Grainger, for example: Australian by birth, currently Los Angelino by choice, white in race and young in years, Grainger plays pure acoustic blues with the heart and soul of Robert Johnson. His light-fingered guitar and mournful harp perfectly play up Grainger’s modern lyrics and traditional-sounding melodies; close your eyes, and you can feel the heat and smell the dust of Mississippi. Jadea Kelly, on the other hand, backed by electric guitars, bass, keyboard and a full drum kit, wowed a packed crowd with a country/pop set and a stylish mini-dress.
In another, even more packed ballroom, Darlingside showed off the talents that brought them the Artist of the Year award. With pitch-perfect four part harmonies delivered into a single mic, these four multi-instrumentalists literally hit all the right notes: powerful vocals reminiscent of CSNY at their zenith, the infectious energy of Mumford & Sons and the songwriting chops of Simon & Garfunkel (or at least Simon). At least three out of the four can—and do—take lead vocals, and apparently if it has strings, someone in the band plays it. Darlingside’s intricate harmonies kept me looking for a chorus hidden somewhere, because the group creates a vocal wall of sound similar to the effect Phil Spector achieved with instrumentation. Lyrically, their songs are clearly personal, but, like the best lyrics, they speak to a universal experience. The driving rhythm and powerful vocals on “Blow the House Down,” for example, blew the house away. Witty, self-deprecating patter belies the enormous work that this Cambridge, MA quartet puts into their music. Sorry, guys, you’re not fooling anybody.
Chris Bathgate’s dynamic performance came about not only because of his intellectual lyrics and interesting melodies, but the band backing him. Known sans Bathgate as the Go Rounds, the group is rhythm-heavy, with a full drum kit and two floor toms, each flanking Bathgate, an electric bass and two electric guitars. The drums roll like thunder on fast-forward and the music is irresistible.
People were talking about Hot Buttered Rum, and for good reason. The mix-and-match group consisted of traditional fiddle and banjo, but added drums and an electric standup bass with five strings, two of which are adjustable, stretching the range from low C to high C. From a similar “doing more with less” school, the dynamic world music magicians called Sultans of String make one guitar and one violin sound like a symphony. We’d have stayed longer, but the room overflowed into the hall.
Songwriter David Olney’s songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, among others, and Olney himself highlighted some of his classic songs for us, including “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” a story straight out of medieval cycle plays, one in which a scam preacher teams up with Jesus, hoping to learn a trick or two.
Danny Schmidt, bluesy and folksy at the same time, lulls us into a sense of security with gentle melodies, wit and soothing vocals, while, if you pay attention, delivering lyrics that cut right down to the truth with laser-like precision. On the other side of the spectrum, we heard the Soorleys, an Australian outfit which might be called a family band since it’s three sisters and assorted husbands. With only two guitars, the group’s four-part harmony and loose sound produce a welcome old-time feel, like a group of friends getting together for a singalong… and not making any mistakes.
We revisited a favorite from last year, Pushing Chain, and confirmed our opinion. With one guitar and one fiddle, the duo generates marvelous close harmony while unafraid to stray into dissonance. The duo’s vibe is infectious enough to be investigated by the CDC; anyone who doesn’t grin during the set must be immune to pleasure. The well-crafted original songs stay with you long after the music’s over. Who could resist lyrics like “I’m just a cowboy riding the range/I see stars up above, spelling out your sweet name”? More important, who would want to?
Last, but hardly least, we share folk anti-hero (or anti-folk hero) Lee Harvey Osmond (Tom Wilson in real life), playing and harmonizing with his grown son, Thompson. A rough-and-tumble songwriter with rock-and-roll moves and a wardrobe halfway between Dutch the Biker and Joe the Hobo, Osmond was a founder of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and helped invent acid-folk, a genre that should have been bigger. Osmond the younger has a terrific voice perfectly suited to high harmony, with tender yodels and cries that perfectly balance the music, like honey on a grapefruit. This night, Dad obviously was teaching the next generation in a hands-on class before our eyes and ears. As Thompson (hands planted firmly in his jacket pockets unless he was wielding a metal shaker) warbled particularly intricately, Lee said, “I want to hear more of that.” Osmond’s songs are something else. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ song “Beautiful Scars” has been covered by Vince Gill, among others. The two performed the sexy “Blue Moon Drive,” normally a rocker, but this time acoustic, just with Lee’s one guitar, shaker and foot tambourine, and it sure got my motor running. He ended the show with his usual closer, “Oh the Gods,” but father and son took it to the next level, and the entire room felt it, ending breathless.
“Now, that’s making music!” someone said. Yes, making music is what Folk Alliance does.
– Suzanne Cadgène