This is my first post in more than a month. I took a break mostly because I had to – the day job has been a days, nights and weekends job lately.
But while I didn’t get to write and haven’t seen much live music, I’ve still been listening a lot. And in my busy work and city life, I’ve really taken to a few folk albums to simmer down the last few weeks. If you can’t escape, you can listen to songs that feel like you have for a few moments of balance.
With the Newport Folk Festival just a little more than a month away, I’ve been zeroing in on the more somber acts on this year’s lineup. Among my most played are Luluc, the Aussie folk duo named after a café in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, and indie folk god Iron & Wine. Luluc’s critically acclaimed 2014 debut, Passerby, and Iron & Wine’s latest return-to-lo-fi-release, Archive Series Vol 1, are each stripped down musically and have the kind of lyrics that are hard to shake off in the best possible way. While there are a number of my favorite Americana acts on the Festival bill this year, these are the acts I’m craving the most these days.
And then there are two albums that take you on a journey regardless of where you are. “Asheville Skies,” the gorgeous opening song off of Monterey, the latest release from polished folk duo The Milk Carton Kids, leads a run of songs that easily make one of the most gorgeous albums of the year so far. Initially recorded on the band’s laptop while touring and then again at church in Nashville, it’s one that I’ve been playing over and over again and only like more each time I listen.
Similarly road-trip-worthy, The Mike + Ruthy Band’s new album, Bright As You Can, is one that I’ve been waiting on for more than a year now. During a Catskills escape last summer, I stopped for lunch with Mike & Ruthy at their house near the Ashokan Reservoir. They had just finished recording the album, which was released earlier this month to gushing reviews from critics. After lunch, they let me to hear a few of the tracks in their studio next to the house (pictured above). While I’ve long been a fan of this duo for their music and their raw authenticity (I once saw Ruthy perform onstage with her daughter, Opal, strapped onto her back who she later breastfed while greeting fans at the merch table), I could quickly tell that this was going to be their best release yet. Featuring a solid backing band, the album mixes upbeat tunes like the album’s title track with perfectly simple numbers like “Freckled Ocean” and “Simple & Sober” – beautifully written and beaming with Ruthy’s unmatched flawless folk voice.
I’ve also been listening to 3, the creatively named third album from LA’s HoneyHoney. A softer and more polished collection of songs than the band’s 2011 release, Billy Jack, you can feel this album move through the many genres of new and old Nashville where the band wrote and recorded the album on a multi-year stint (before moving back out). For reasons aforementioned above, I’m especially liking “Whatchya Gonna Do Now” and the stripped down version of “Father’s Daughter” below.
These are my folk songs of summer. You can see Luluc and Iron & Wine at Newport next month. Catch The Milk Carton Kids at Town Hall in September and The Mike and Ruthy Band at an anti-fracking show at Brooklyn Bowl on Tuesday. If you missed HoneyHoney in New York this week, you can catch them at the World Cafe in Philly on Tuesday.
Late last week, Baltimore-based folk duo The Honey Dewdrops released their fourth album, Tangled Country (Amazon). The pair of native-Virginians, Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish, was also my favorite discovery at MerleFest a couple weeks back. I caught their morning set, which was wasn’t super early, but it was raining. Even still, the crowd was packed and easily won over the festival’s traditional-friendly crowd with their set of tunes from the new album.
Tangled Country, like the band’s earlier work, features Parrish’s Rawlings-esque flatpicking and the duo’s gorgeously blended vocals. I’ve also been struck by the band’s writing. Their songs are authentic and sad, but hold a glimmer of hope, just like most of the songs I like.
Of note is “Hold Love,” my favorite track off the album, which Parrish says is about being in love, yet being alone.
“There’s something about the way we’re made that makes us essentially alone,” he said in an email. “Most of our thoughts play out in our own heads and go uncommunicated and it’s like we’re unknowable to others in any concrete way. But that’s what makes us want love. We don’t want to feel alone. When we’re in love we begin to get know another person and as time goes on that knowing deepens. Eventually, the process of knowing begins to point out that the person we’re in love with is basically unknowable. “Hold Love” is about getting in touch with that unknowability and thinks about the mysterious movements and dimensions of love.”
The Honey Dewdrops perform up in Yonkers this Saturday at Urban H20.
A couple weeks back, my friends in the Carolina string band Mipso invited me down to their home state to experience MerleFest for the first time. Like me, Mipso made their official debut at the festival this year. They performed three different times throughout the weekend, mostly playing songs off their last album, Dark Holler Pop, and keeping us waiting for their new material. However, last month Mipso released Faces – a great two track single including “Down In The Water,” the band’s first recording of a song by fiddler Libby Rodenbough, as well as “Love Again,” a song co-written by mandolinist Jacob Sharp and guitarist Joseph Terrell. The cover art for the single was penned by our very own grass clippings designer Vi Luong. Both songs have me pretty excited for this next album. Check them out below.
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.”