Matthew Paris :: Xiccarph :: View topic - Annual Roots Of American Music Festival
Annual Roots Of American Music Festival
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Matthew Paris
 

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:33 pm - Annual Roots Of American Music Festival
On of the pleasures of spending a warm August in New York is the two days of free concerts run by Coleman “Spike” Barkin, a producer of many jazz, folk and pop festivals over the country. It sits in a month of such shows one takes in outdoors on aa balmy night in Damrosch Park hard by the opera houses and august concert halls.
The patrons include Amtrack, Pepsico and Bloomberg. In the end patronage, not commerce, tends to bring us most of our niche excellence in New York today. On August 10th I attended a stellar folk show with such stalwarts as Billy Lee Riley, Larry Johnson, Tom Paxton, Christina Lavin and Judy Collins. Some are names for the aficionado; others have had major careers.
Billy Lee Riley is the warm affable and very amusing relic from the Sun Records heyday in Memphis that had launched the young Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee lewis. Now around 70 his feral wails about puerile hungers amuse him as he wafts lupinely them into the New York night.
The sheer absurdity of wanting one more time in one’s dotage with a village punchboard in the back of a car parked in the shadows somewhere while drinking Doctor Pepper strikes him as hilarious as he runs thorough numbers in the rockabilly style, in the end three chord White blues ornately embellished by the feverish and presumably properly glandularly imbalanced guitarists and pianists just out of the slammer on charges of date rape.
Larry Johnson on the other hand is a thinking man’s blues player out of the Reverend Gary Davis Carolina tradition of elegance rather than the driving Delta style. Everything he does has the makings of that Carolina guitar picking tradition, one we don’t honor as much as we might because it is about craft, maturity, measure and style. His singing has the same masterful detachment.
Folk music is at once the easiest and the hardest genre in the musical world. Either one is great, boringly competent or terrible; since there is no grey area where one can hid in ingenuity, density or harmonic murk one either is wonderful, tolerably tedious or awful in a realm of nakedness and perfect transparency.
One of the hardest thing to do in music is to compose any song at all that sets a mood, develops and resolves the subject in three minutes. To do it with only a few chords and several simple guitar riffs really separates the ones with talent from those sorrily without it. Think of Hank Williams or Jimmy Rogers, and ask oneself how they got so much mileage out of transparent materials; one must feel a certain awe about the sides of music, talent, one doesn't understand at all,
The big show at night began with Tom Paxton, a Chciago boy who now lives not far from New York and was in his day a veteran of Gertie’s Folk City, The Gaslight, those other folk spas of the sainted late 50s and 60s. In this era one not only heard Bob Dylan, Danny Kalb, Stefan Grossman and Dave van Ronk but was enriched by constant visits from the heartland by Mississippi John Hirt, Doc Watson and Skip James along with locals like Jose Feliciano.
It was common for all of these virtuosi to run ad hoc jam sessions with guitarists and singers locally famous as themselves during these loosely organized gigs. Many decades ago, I once saw Jose Folacin and Doc Watson both blind digital magicians and singers, working the very small stage of the Gaslight on Watson’s gig, an evening I wish I had taped. In those days people didn’t have cheap portable recording devices.
Like so many musical experiences these days folk music is something of a museum piece or hovering at the edge of a mausoleum; it’s possible it always was something out of a necropolis though it had pretending to be out of yesterday’s newspapers.
Most of what we think of as traditional political folk songs were written a decade or more after the events had happened, the remedies for old social atrocities such as they were, in place. Yet by its nature political folk music aims to be a singing commentary, an almanac of the present. Nobody does that better than Tom Paxton.
Paxton has a fine tenor is sometimes it wanders out of tune; he plays the guitar excellently though he was accompanied on lead by Mike Christian, a younger, not bad if not notably original lead melodist; the real treasures of his Paxton’s performance are the songs themselves. They have transparent but beautiful architecture melodies, remarkably crisp paradisiacal and pungent lyrics with twits and complexity one wouldn’t think one could fit into a three minute song.
As he points out himself, they have some mysterious traditional sounding quality in them for all their brilliance and density that makes them attractive from Scotland to Latin America; some there think they are local tractional chants. They are often covered by other singers form Doc Watson to Willie Nelson.
Classics of his he did on this night like Bottle Of Wine, possibly the most complex and involute American song ever of any genre with its abrupt veering shifts from wisdom to hopelessness, garrulousness to despair, or the heartbreaking The Last Thing On My Mind, are miniature studies of bumpy intimacy that rivals only his other songs for mixing richness and density into a song while always focused on a situation all humanity has been in with and is familiar with though the details for each of us are a little different.
Paxton has the rare gift of melody; his tunes are original, touch the heart and stick in the mind. He is still turning out such excellent ditties; he also offered several songs along with his masterpieces that were contemporary including a most striking on about the carnage of the World Trade Center disaster.
He has a nice breadth in his craft; one song about the Serbian massacres of late had a Spanish asymmetry and sets of doleful chords along with startling images of babies being abandoned my mothers in a slaughter that were unforgettable. Paxton is giving away some of his inimitable numbers on his web site.
Paxton is very conscious of his personal profile in a form hovering near the public landfill of museum genres; he escapes it very well with his contemporary songs. He makes a point of being married for forty years, perhaps a world’s record for anyone who lived in the worlds he did in the 60s.
He sang an excellent ballad about prisons by Phil Ochs, whose current absence on Earth he regrets; he mentions in passing with great emotion the late Dave van Rock as his pal in his 50s youth. I think he did Ochs’ song about who is in and out of the slammer better than Ochs did. Given our current Rockefeller laws the powerful Ochs’ ballad is all the more poignant to us now.
Between the masterful Paxton and the poignant and inimitable Judy Collins I heard to my severe displeasure one folk singer utterly without talent, anything to say and a nudging manic labial quality babbling about her terminally uninteresting life lie one sitting next to one on a bus to Pisgah chattering empty and merrily about infinite banalities into a hapless cell phone. She was unbearable.
For the first time in my life I walked out of concert for a while though the price had been right. She sang about three songs in the half hour I endured her because otherwise she was just rambling on like a hebephrenic about nothing. One has to have a gift for charming blather to being other than intolerably boring at this mindless level. Arlo Guthrie can do it; she can’t.
Again I learnt that one never fathoms what is the bottom much less the middle or top in anything. I had thought I knew until I heard this terminally talentless singer who couldn’t even play the guitar tolerably tell the audience at great length her guitar teacher was the late Dave van Ronk.
This was after she showed us all that shoe could only play in one key and needed the capo to play simple chords in A and G. Van Ronk couldn’t protest of course. Let me say: Dave van Ronk was an interesting hoarse singer who could play in all keys without a capo and put across a song with drive and effectiveness.
One has to ask when one sees such a performance even for nothing how the singer has managed to have any sort of career with an utter lack of any musical virtue of talent for fashioning lyrics. It’s fodder for conspiracy freaks.
When I came back from Ollie’s with some hot and sour soup for myself and my mate, avoiding the rest of this horrendous set with some relief, I took in Judy Collins’ gig with fine and rich delight. She was accompanied by Russell Walden, a find digitalist in the old time Professor Longhair and Doctor John tradition. She played the guitar for awhile, them moved to piano and synthesizer afterwards.
She is in her 60s now; her performance like Tony Bennett’s uses her long mortality as a strength. There is a tradition for this sort of voice of experience going back before Ma Rainey and Sophie Tucker through the master of this I have been around the block a few time and more stance: Frank Sinatra.
Though Judy Collins still has a beautiful singing voice, all around musicianship on any keyboard and guitar and writes her own songs, she has honed her act to reflect her autumnal ripeness. She doesn’t look back on a static frieze of adolescence and youth like Billy Lee Riley; she rethinks all other material and adds new September songs to mirror her age. As one might expect from somebody who has lived a long time much of her subjects, though like Tom Paxton she offered one almanac song about the World Trade Center bombing, were interred in the past.
She talked about her early days at Gertie’s and the rest of those MacDougal Street spas. She did a Leonard Cohen number because at one time decades ago he was introduced to her as somebody whom she might be able to help. She seems very generous about the value of other performers; she certainly spent a long time praising Leonard Cohen.
Since she is somebody who hit it big in the 70s, not the 60s, and as a pop singer, not a folk singer, she had a bit of time to wait to reach her apogee. Beyond the 70s she has had a quiet career without any sensational changes or big hits. She has a gorgeously rich voice that is both instantly recognizable yet is always the same no matter what the song from note to note.
She doesn't put across a song the way Ella Fitzgerald does, getting maximum mileage from total focus on the lyrics and arrangement; she gives it, whatever it is, the characteristic Judy Collins sound.
It made her session at once very musically satisfying as one simultaneously thinks marginally that one wishes she gave more breadth to her great talents. Of course there are singers like that before her like Joan Baez and Barbara Streisand who live in that narrow cranny. Some singers find a niche and stay there whether they are singing Melancholy Baby or the National Anthem; others like Jerri Southern or Lee Wiley look to let the song itself dictate how they are going to do it. Yet what sort of career did Jerri Southern or Lee Wiley have?
Probably they are all told by their producers a product whether themselves or a can of stringbeans should be immediately recognizable and this instantly saleable. Judy Collins has got more range in her act in another way; because it is now about being an old lady. It’s a badge of waking up in the morning over decades something that has been in her profile for a while; she never made a secret of her alcoholism and AA cure nor the tragedy of the death of her son.
Though once she was much more business-like in person; now she is a warm and cozy singer who aims to have the audience like her personally. She wants the crowd to resonate with her thoughts about, not her hopes but her own mortality. She looks very good in hard-edged blonde hair and a golden gown. She flirts sexually with the staff that sets up her instruments, but makes a joke about the work it take now to look as she does, complaining mostly about the treadmill.
She talks of her blind father she had adored and worked with on his Seattle radio program. She thinks of her ethnic origins, saying jokingly that Irish Alzheimer’s is “forgetting everything but the grudges”. She sings the whole of Danny Boy a capella along with others such melancholy Keltic ditties.
Collins, a large but motile talent like Sinatra and Bennett, only now takes the song testifying to ripeness as at the end of Der Rosenkavelier to a sargasso sea of episodically erotic late middle age. Perhaps as our population ages to the point where even being a nonagenarian is ordinary if expensive we will have a new style of folk and pop singing for a new class of banal crones that were never before a viable market for musical commerce because they didn’t exist.
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