Folk Alliance: Day Two 02.17.11


Bob Carlin, John Hartford Stringband by Bergendorff

Remembering John Hartford is a central theme at this year’s conference. The second day of Folk Alliance for me began with a Hartford Symposium, and ended with a welcome cry to end marijuana prohibition courtesy of The Atomic Duo (a sentiment Hartford would probably not disagree with). Innovator, iconoclast, and a man whose loss still hangs heavy for those that knew him and played with him, Hartford and his legacy trickled down to at least a few of the acts I saw. Any artist who heeds Hartford’s lessons is more than welcome in my eyes.

John Hartford Stringband by Bergendorff
John Hartford Stringband by Bergendorff

The Symposium focused on the recording of Aereo-plain, and featured panelists Bob Carlin, Garry West, David Bromberg, George Gruhn and Alison Brown. The discussion contained some fun and fascinating nuggets of information, such as Carlin sharing that Hartford used to keep a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his instrument case during jam sessions so he could keep going, and Gruhn reflecting on how Hartford was once offered a role in a TV series as a detective (no fooling). Bromberg fondly recalled how, “We would smoke a lot of dope and play for hours,” which evoked some chuckles in the crowd, but when the conversation turned to missing Hartford and Vassar Clements, Bromberg got a bit choked up.

Roots and bluegrass are still a bit underrepresented at the conference, although it’s obvious that there is a desire there by the organizers to branch out more. That being said, pretty much all of my highlights from day two came from our own SPPS showcases. I have to say, it was one of the more happening rooms on the crowded, and at times rowdy, 19th floor, despite the A/C problems. Before I get into those, it’s worth mentioning the official showcase I caught by The Watchman. Hailing from the Netherlands, this duo had a truly haunting sound, both lovely and full of darkness, but what set them apart was singer and guitarist Ad van Meurs. His gruff voice projected a genuine sensibility of having not just lived, but also survived. One had a sense that if you pulled up a bar stool next to van Meurs, he’d have some stories to tell.

Red Molly by Bergendorff

The quiet of the downstairs conference room where I saw The Watchman was only an elevator ride away from the top floor of the hotel, but the atmosphere could not have been more different. Every room on the 19th floor was holding guerrilla showcases, the hallways packed with eager attendees and musicians shuttling cases and equipment back and forth. In addition to our host bands Finnders & Youngberg, Spring Creek and Lonesome Traveler – who all carried the proud, joyful Colorado bluegrass torch in their sets – we attracted quite the crowd for Red Molly, a Jersey City-based trio who packed some strong three party harmonies, as well as slinky dobro work courtesy of Abbie Gardner. For Abigail Washburn‘s set, the room was packed out well into the hall, where folks were craning heads to see Washburn and her lastest group, City of Refuge, the drawn curtains revealing the lights of Memphis twinkling below, as Washburn led her band through some compelling material.

The 23 String Band by Bergendorff

But my three favorite sets of the night were by John Hartford Stringband, The 23 String Band and The Atomic Duo. JHSB is doing Hartford’s memory proud, and their Grammy-nominated album Memories of John is proof positive of that. They braved the sweaty air to play some Hartford classics, such as the graceful “Delta Queen Waltz,” where fiddle player Matt Combs positively shined, and “Miss Ferris,” Hartford’s joyous tribute to the teacher who inspired his love of steamboats, where Bob Carlin led the audience in some call-and-response lyrics. At the risk of sounding hippie dippy, this set was infused with real love, and that couldn’t help but spread to the audience. When Combs broke a string on his fiddle, a friend in the front row to give him his fiddle to play. It was truly an honor to have them at our showcase.

The 23 String Band were new to me going into Folk Alliance, but I was thoroughly won over by the end of their firey set. Opening with a damning song about pollution in eastern Kentucky waterways marked them as a band with a conscious bent to their songwriting, although they can groove with a grin on a lighter number like the swing-inspired “Bees Knees.” I could see them as brothers-in-arms with groups like The Hackensaw Boys. Showing off an impressive range and a charging, commanding presence,  I think I will definitely be checking out more of The 23 String Band.

The Atomic Duo

Closing down our showcase for the evening was Austin, Texas’ The Atomic Duo. Racing to the mic as Washburn and her band broke down (since their set ran over and they took their time clearing out), Mark Rubin and Silas Lowe played a furious set that definitively proved they are playing music for the people.  A lot of what passes under the banner of folk these days is nothing more than singer/songwriters who travel in self-congratulatory circles. It’s no doubt a comfortable place to be, but the question of intention always bothers me when I encounter artists like this. What makes Atomic Duo a flat-out great band – besides their sharp wit, whip-smart, ballsy songwriting and an unapologetically aggressive playing style (you’ve got to love that LOUD National guitar and mandolin)  -  is that they ultimately aren’t interested in a self-serving mission. They are interested in speaking truth to power, and, in a time when anyone even vaguely left-of-center is being shouted down by the right wing media machine that serves money as it’s master first and foremost, I’ll be damned if that’s not some necessary oxygen. As I watched this set, which featured  condemnations of Reaganomics (Lowe’s “Trickle Down”), first-person narratives on foreclosures (Rubin’s “Talking Key Chain Blues”) and ended with “Prohibition is a Failure” about our reprehensible drug policies, I couldn’t help but think, if The Atomic Duo aren’t careful, they might just make folk music relevant again.

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February 18th, 2011