Yesterday, the Newport Folk Festival, our perennial favorite event of the summer, announced that Sufjan Stevens will perform at this year’s Festival in late July. Since seeing Stevens perform at The Beacon Theater in Manhattan a couple weeks back, his was one of the three faces that I’ve been hoping would pop up on that lineup the most. I figured this would be something that Newport Producer Jay Sweet would go after, but I wondered if Stevens would jump on board because he’s got such a good thing going on his own.
For me, Steven’s latest release, Carrie & Lowell – a deeply reflective and personal picture of an artist mourning the loss of his mother that left him at a young age – has been the most significant album released this year. It’s not that the album has one or two songs that are my favorites, it’s just that no other album has made me contemplate myself and my relationships quite like this one. The level of vulnerability that Stevens has in this project and his ability to take the listener into his pain, his mourning and even his faith to make sense of it all is pretty hard to match. You can’t read his February interview with Pitchfork or listen to “The Only Thing” and not recognize that his authenticity is strikingly different than the comfortable depth found in loads of albums released each week – the latter being a vibe in line with our non-committal culture.
I don’t mean to glorify Stevens or zing any artists that don’t get as personal as he does, but when a songwriter gets this vulnerable, their shows are all the more memorable. Newport claims to be all about presenting the most authentic acts of our time and it would be hard for me to say they did that this year if Stevens wasn’t on the bill. I’m excited about most of the lineup so far this year and will undoubtedly be running from stage to stage to try to catch them all, but this addition takes the taco in my view and I know a lot of people will disagree with me on that. The truth is that Stevens’ show at the Beacon was like an artful memorial service for his mom and it stuck with me for days. That’s the kind of encounter I crave. I guess I wouldn’t have a bluegrass blog if I was into songs that make you feel great.
All that to say, welcome to the party, Sufjan, and come find us at the Fort if you’ve got a nice tattoo.
A few weeks back, Fish & Bird’s Taylor Ashton posted a series of four gorgeous duets with Della Mae’s Courtney Hartman on YouTube. Recorded by Mason Jar Music’s Jacob Blumberg, the series spans material from each artist in a minimalist guitar and banjo old time folk style.
“Taylor and I have been writing together here and there over the last few months, helping each other sift through songs,” Hartman said in an interview. “He brought ‘Been By Your Side’ to me one day and wanted to get my thoughts on it. We sang it together a few times and something came to life in the song. I told him I thought we should shoot a video of us singing it together and put it out into the world. There is something special about capturing that magical moment of an early collaboration, and that is what we wanted to get a snapshot of.”
Two of the four songs posted were completely unplanned and unrehearsed, adding a layer of spontaneity to the session. “Our original plan was to record ‘Been On Your Side’ and ‘When You See The Morning’, a tune of mine that Taylor helped to finish,” she said. “But once we were all set up with mics and recording equipment we decided to tape a few more and that is where ‘Noah’ and ‘Pretenders’ came from. Taylor had never heard ‘Noah’ before we taped it and I had never heard ‘Pretenders’. Jacob was able to capture the spark that happens early in learning a song and singing it with someone.”
Hartman says that the duo doesn’t have any plans to work together on a formal basis. “We weren’t promoting a show or a project or a website, just sharing a moment. It is so easy to become wrapped up in “content” production, driving up numbers, getting views, and all of the above, that we can sometimes forget why we are putting art and music out there in the first place.”
All four of the duet’s recordings are below. Della May kicks off a tour in support of their forthcoming album with an appearance at Stagecoach and then will continue down the West Coast before heading east. Fish & Bird, which performed in Brooklyn over the weekend, performs at the Kaslo Jazz Festival in July and will tour the UK in the fall.
For better or for worse, indie rock and poppy Americana have each creeped into nearly every folk festival out there. Meanwhile in post-everything Brooklyn, the purist curators of this weekend’s seventh Brooklyn Folk Festival aren’t jumping on that bandwagon.
Kicking off Friday at the gorgeous and historic St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn Heights, the Festival’s biggest venue yet, musician and Down Home Radio Show creator (currently on hiatus) Eli Smith and Jalopy Theater founder Lynette Wiley have meticulously lined up 30+ bands from a salad bar of genres without erring from their authentic throwback rule. Somewhat of an early 1960s Newport Folk Festival in 2015, Smith and Wiley fully embrace a diverse bill of artists without crossing a line. “This year the Brooklyn Folk Festival presents old time string band music, as well as blues, Near-Eastern, West African and Italian traditional music, some soul-gospel music, ragtime and jazz, songwriters, Country music, jug band and a pipe organ recital,” Smith said in an email. “That said, we do make sure the Brooklyn Folk Festival has a heavy bent towards music that is strongly rooted in folk, vernacular and traditional music and we endeavor to present a diverse folk music festival, in contrast to many boring mono-tonal festivals that have only one shallow definition of folk music.”
A rising star from South Central
Headliners this year span soulful Daptone Records crew Naomi Shelton & The Gospel Queens, old time folker Frank Fairfield, folk luminary Michael Hurley and Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton – the twenty-five year old multi-instrumentalist and rising star of New York’s traditional acoustic scene that can literally play thousands of songs by heart. Paxton has performed at the Festival every year since it began, but returns this year with an elevated profile and growing fan base following loads of performances around town, a widely circulated Village Voice feature earlier this year and an appearance at last year’s Newport Folk Festival. He will also soon be featured alongside Elton John, Willie Nelson, Taj Mahal and other legendary artists in American Epic – a mini-series documentary, feature film and album produced by T Bone Burnett, Jack White and Robert Redford looking at the recording process used by 1920s record companies.
Part African American, part Native American, of Cajun descent and a Sephardic Jew, Paxton doesn’t have the background of the standard gifted folker. He’s the only musician among his five brothers, eight sisters and extended family. His family moved from Louisiana to South Central Los Angeles in the 50s. Paxton started playing instruments at the age of twelve, beginning with the fiddle, then moving to guitar and piano and eventually banjo, inspired by O Brother, Where Art Thou? – just like many readers of this blog, though in a setting where most wouldn’t expect a Coen brothers movie to have much influence.
“I was raised up with blues and country music, but the only time I heard it was it at family functions,” Paxton said in an interview. “I didn’t start playing it out until the movie piqued my interest in it. The music was popular with the older people I hung around, but there wasn’t anyone around that couldn’t sing a number of Jimmy Reed tunes or something like that.”
Arriving in New York for college at the age of eighteen, Paxton quickly found a home at the Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn and built a community with fellow Roots & Ruckus! performers at Jalopy and other Queens-based musicians like Jackson Lynch and Hubby Jenkins (also performing at this weekend’s Festival). His performance style and welcoming stage presence quickly won over fans and the music community around him.
“Jerron is the greatest performer I’ve ever seen and I won’t be dissatisfied or surprised if that remains so for the rest of my life,” Nick Panken of Brooklyn’s Spirit Family Reunion said of his friend.
As he returns to the Festival this weekend, Paxton also prepares for the release of his first full-length album. His record – like his performances – will be comprised entirely of solo traditional tunes, but he said “there’s some songs on there that have got more of me on there than anyone else.”
But even as the buzz and the builds, Paxton is just as approachable and humble as he’s always been. “I’m pretty boring. Just another Jew from New York,” he said.
Workshops, square dances and a Lomax tribute
As if the music this weekend wasn’t enough, the Festival will also again include workshops, a square dance and even its famed banjo toss. Most exciting for me: the Festival will also tribute folk field collector god Alan Lomax in honor of his 100th birthday.
“So far we have decided to screen “Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass” – an amazing film that Lomax shot in his apartment on MacDougal Street in 1961, featuring footage of Roscoe Holcomb, Ramblin ‘Jack Elliott, Willie Dixon and Memphis Slim, the New Lost City Ramblers and others,” Smith says. “We will also be screening “Oss Oss Wee Oss,” shot by Lomax in 1951 at the Padstow May Day in Cornwall, England, and a 10 minute reel of incredible stuff from Haiti.”
Tickets for the weekend are still available, but all previous years have sold out…so get on it. I’ve attended this festival most of the last seven years and have always felt these guys have done an incredible job of transcending time, bringing me tastes of music I’ve never encountered and throwing a party that doesn’t give a rats ass about being too cool for school. Here’s a taste of what you’ll see.
With just one, intimidating stage, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival – one of the three big summer events that influence this blog more than any other – is not known to introduce the wealth of new faces each year that you’ll discover at a place like Newport or MerleFest. Keeping a lineup of perennial well-established bluegrass gods, the little guys in the mix are sometimes overshadowed by the usual suspects.
This year, Denver-based Trout Steak Revival will return to that little mountain town following a win at last year’s Telluride Band Contest. With their quick-picking Colorado bluegrass style, it’s no surprise the band was popular at Telluride and I felt this one early on. Last week, the five-member crew released Brighter Every Day (iTunes, Amazon & Spotify), their third album, which was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign last year and produced by Chris Pandolfi, the Denver-based banjoist in The Infamous Stringdusters and banjo instructor for Trout Steak’s Travis McNamara.
“I first met Chris as an instructor at the Rockygrass Academy,” McNamara said of the album in an interview. “Chris moved to Denver a couple years later, and I kept taking banjo lessons from him, and eventually I asked him if he would be interested in producing the record. He was an obvious choice for us, because we love the Stringdusters’ songs, arrangements, playing, taste – so many things.”
Brighter Every Day maintains a pace that Colorado bluegrass fans love – one spans poppy bluegrass group like Trampled by Turtles and even jam band, mind-blowing solo delivering acts like Yonder Mountain String Band (both bands also on the bill at Telluride this year), yet a spirit of promise that you can find in traditional bluegrass. “It is a collection of hopeful, positive songs,” McNamara said. “We’ve found through a lot of road-testing that those songs feel good to sing, and they make our audiences feel good, and then they give that positivity back to us at our live shows.”
That’s a theme that tends to resonate with the Telluride festivarians that helped the band build their following. “The people who supported us in the Band Competition were our friends that we made over the years camping and picking at the Town Park campground in Telluride and in towns we played all over the state, and they all came out to help us.”
Songs like “Wind On The Mountain,” my favorite off the new LP, give the album a bit of balance. The song is set on a hiking trip that took a dangerous turn – something I’d guess a lot of Telluride fans can appreciate. While not as shaking as a coal miner’s tale of survival that you’d find in an old bluegrass song, it’s a mountain tale with a modern context, yet similarly confronting the listener with their own mortality.
McNamara: “Just before I moved to Colorado, I hiked with two of my buddies for 75 miles on the Colorado Trail, from Evergreen to Breckenridge. We were hiking really early in the season, so there was still a lot of snow on some sections. Our highest pass that we were going over was Georgia Pass at just over 11,500ft, and we were walking up the valley and there was just this huge storm brewing up on top of it. We had to get over it, though, because we only had so much food. So we walked into this cloud and what turned into a pretty powerful snowstorm and got stranded on the top of the pass, because the snowline had covered up the blazes on the trees marking the trail. I wondered if we were going to die. Seemed like a good thing for a song.”
Last month, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, the Canadian husband-wife duo of singer-songwriters performing under the banner of Whitehorse, released Leave No Bridge Unburned (iTunes, Amazon & Spotify), a follow up to their romantic 2012 album The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss. The pair’s latest collection continues the theme of adventurous songwriting that won them attention from the beginning, but its amplified this go round. And the album layers in percussion and guitar riffs to create a sense of seduction and mystery – like something you’d typically find at the opening of a Bond movie. This is especially true in the album’s first single, “Sweet Disaster,” which tells the tale of one rich man’s quest to send a couple to Mars. I recently caught up with Melissa and asked all about that.
“Sweet Disaster” and a few other tracks on the new album feel like they could soundtrack a Bond movie. Is that a vibe that you were going for?
I think the Bond vibe has always been present in our music – mostly because of Luke’s approach on his Gretch White Falcon, and maybe because of the keys and tempos of our songs. We worked with producers for the first time on this record (Gus Van Go & Werner F) and they wanted to extract more of this sound from our music by adding big, epic drums, certain reverbs and allowing for a ton of space in the production.
The original demo is more of a lilting country song and [Gus] injected some Zombies in there, as well as the Bond spy vibe. He really took it to a whole new place, but ultimately made it sound more like Whitehorse than the original demo.
A rich man’s quest to send a couple to Mars? Where’d that idea come from?
I unintentionally scrambled two news stories together. One is a nonprofit in the Netherlands looking for two astronauts to launch into space on a one way journey to Mars where they will live out the rest of their days. The other is the hunt for an average couple who will be hurled into space with the intention of returning (hopefully!). I loved the idea of this ‘all or nothing’ journey to unchartered territories. I like to think of this as some kind of epic metaphor for the way Luke and I live our lives. It’s ultimately a love song & an ode to our journey, as we navigate our way through an uncertain universe.
I love the video, which only continues the Bond vibe.
We filmed the video eight weeks after we had a baby. I was in a state of extreme and constant hormonal fluctuation and my entire paradigm had shifted. This was the first time Luke and I had done anything ‘Whitehorse’ in months – and here we were suddenly singing this love song to each other. Our baby was 10 feet away from us watching us perform and I couldn’t seem to get through a verse without becoming a mess of tears. Unfortunately it wasn’t a Sinead O’Conner crying performance and it didn’t make it into the final cut.
Whitehorse tours the Southeast this week, with a show at The Basement in Nashville on Thursday, another in Memphis on Friday and hits Birmingham on Saturday before heading to Texas for SXSW.
Q&A: Jerry Douglas on Flatt and Scruggs, Poppy Bluegrass & The Earls of Leicester’s NYC Show Tonight at BB King Blues
Tonight, The Earls of Leicester, the bluegrass supergroup assembled, organized and produced by veteran Dobro master Jerry Douglas, will perform at BB Kings in Manhattan. Coming off of their Grammy win for the Best Bluegrass Album, the band will perform songs off of their self-title debut (iTunes, Amazon, Spotify) comprising of 14 tunes lifted from the sacred Flatt and Scruggs songbook.
While the core Earls – Shawn Camp on lead vocals and guitar, renowned Nashville banjoist Charlie Cushman on banjo and guitars, fiddler Johnny Warren, the son Fiddlin’ Paul Warren of Flat and Scruggs, and Barry Bales, Douglas’ longtime bandmate in Alison Krauss and Union Station, on vocals and bass – are playing songs that pop up at all kinds of bluegrass gatherings, Douglas says that he’s wanted to organize a project with this material his whole life.
He witnessed the awe of Flatt and Scruggs, in concert for the first time at the age of seven. Fifty years later – with 14 Grammys to his name and a reputation of the most in-demand Dobroist in the world – Douglas says that vivid memory is still with him and he wants the younger generation of bluegrass fans – those fans that were converted by the skilled yet progressive acts like Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss and Old Crow Medicine Show or even poppy bands lacking instrumental greatness – to experience this music first hand.
I caught up with Jerry this week and asked him about that.
You’ve said that you’ve wanted to pursue a project like this for a long time. Did you always have these guys in mind? How did you go about assembling this all-star crew?
I didn’t have this particular crew in mind when I began assembling the idea for such a band as the “Earls”. This all happened over a matter of years. Every time I played with either Johnny Warren or Charlie Cushman though, the idea would float back to the top though. Those instruments are, I believe, the core of this group.
Any magic you can share about the production of this album? How’d you walk the line to maintain that classic feel while adding a bit of freshness?
We tried to use a combination of recording techniques for this project. For instance, a microphone setup known as the Decca Tree was used. Three microphones in a triangle, one in the front, and two in the rear create an audio image with depth that was a common to the era when Flatt and Scruggs made their landmark recordings. All these microphones were of a matched type. In this case, Neumann M50’s, a very rare microphone, were used along with several other old RCA 77 Ribbon mics. This type of recording requires the player or singer to walk into an area instead of staying next to one microphone to capture their performance. You can literally hear/see the choreography of the band this way.
A good portion of younger bluegrass fans today were drawn into the genre by more progressive bluegrass acts – even some that you’ve been a part of – and don’t know these legendary songs. What’s it been like for you to put a throwback album out in an environment like this?
That is exactly the reason I wanted to put this group together and record it. Part of the mission of this group is to re-establish the impact The Foggy Mountain Boys had on this genre. Their songs are played often, but not with the spirit of their original form, and so often I hear them performed with their corners worn off. Lester Flatt was a singer in the league of the big band singers of the 40’s and 50’s who sang the entire melody, not leaving out important nuances that were important to the song. I believe Shawn Camp is also in this league and can rehabilitate some of the habits that have been taken up by young singers. So often we have phenomenal young instrumentalists, but less time put into singing, which is so important in furthering the music we all love.
Do you worry about the future of bluegrass or get frustrated when you see poppy bluegrass and less skilled instrumentalists winning a lot of attention? Do you think it’s a fad or has it always been this way?
I have no problem with anyone getting attention with an individual prowess on instruments, or adopting influences from other genres. That is an important way for any music to grow. There is room for everyone and they will find out what works for them or not. It’s very flattering to hear someone use my techniques, especially when I see promise in the journey of a young player. What I want is for them to use whatever they need to find their own voice.
Bluegrass was happened upon after a long list of trials and errors. Some probably were hoping we were a fad too.
What can we expect to see tonight at BB King’s in Manhattan? Will you perform the album straight up or will you mix in other songs? Who is performing for the show? While Tim O’Brien joined the band for the album, I know he’s had some conflicts with tour dates.
When the Earls of Leicester plays BB’s in Manhattan we will attack the songs on the record like the first time we played them, and we will add many songs that are not on the record. We are all having a blast reconnecting with these songs and presenting a musical and entertaining show. Frank Solivan, who has a huge buzz going with his band Dirty Kitchen, from the DC area, is singing tenor and playing the mandolin with us on this leg of the tour.
Tim opening that slot with the Earls has given us an added bonus of bringing in some ringers like Frank, Shawn Lane from Blue Highway, and Jeff White, who has been playing with the Chieftains, Alison Krauss’ early Union Station, and singing tenor vocals with Vince Gill for years. We have enjoyed working with each of them and showing our audiences different views of these guys. The connecting thread with all of them is the love of being raised listening to the same music each of us was brought up with and exploring it all over again.
Earlier this week, Andrew Combs released All These Dreams (iTunes, Amazon & Spotify), his new album that includes backing from lead guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal steel guitarist Spencer Cullum Jr. of the fantastic Bond-like Nashville instrumental duo Steelism. While Combs worked with Fetzer and Cullum on previous projects, this latest album easily represents his best work yet.
A departure from some of the Jennings-like classic country throwbacks that we’ve seen come out of Nashville as of late, the album features songs like “Nothing to Lose” that tip the hat to more of an Orbison style. While other tracks maintain an old school vibe, they venture into pop and classic rock tunes. The album is brilliantly produced by Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson, and mixes Combs’ authentic songwriting with stellar solos by his backing band. Check out a few of my favorite tracks off the album below. Hopefully we’ll see Combs popup on the Newport lineup in the next few weeks.