I began my third day at Folk Alliance with a simple question in mind – “What Would John Do?” This panel discussion featuring Bob Carlin, Chris Sharp, Matt Combs, Mike Compton and Rodney Dillard was a frank and insightful view of Hartford as both a man and an artist. There were a lot of funny and personal stories (including one involving a batman cape, which we’ll tell in our FAI wrapup) but there were also many important lessons to take home. Dillard explained how Hartford, in a wholly positive way, “Tried to fit in with the people of the music he was representing.” Very aware of the tensions between “the real deal” (people who had grown up in the culture of the rural poor South) and “the revisionists” (artists who simply borrowed pieces of that culture, often without understanding the context), Hartford made a conscious effort to immerse himself in the music he was playing. In this sense, he struggled with the fact he himself came from a fairly well-to-do, educated background, and one got the sense that his constant striving for authenticity was as personal as it was artistic. A well-considered example for any artist to follow, especially those working in traditional music.
It was also fascinating to hear about Hartford’s artistic process. He worked hard not only to refine his music, but also his image. For example, he would test out jokes on his bandmates, retelling them until the delivery was perfect. The panelists all had stories about the 3″x5″ cards he carried, organized in the many pockets of his vest. These cards containedeverything from contact information to song ideas, and, if he heard a remark he thought was witty or interesting from a bandmate, he would whip out a card and scribble it down with the date and time (and then of course ask, “Are you going to use that?”).
Compton shared a story which I thought was particularly sad. He described one time when he and Hartford walked into an old time jam, and several of the musicians walked out, not wanting to play with Hartford. Crestfallen, Hartford wondered how many of the musicians who rejected him would even be playing old time music if it wasn’t for the work he had done. It spoke to how, as much as many embrace Hartford now, he struggled with being an outsider, a trail blazer ahead of the game. Yet he always maintained that the best way to honor his musical forefathers was to add something original to the conversation. I couldn’t agree more. This was simply a fantastic panel that drove home how perhaps the most important legacy of Hartford’s is that you have to have the courage to be yourself.
Genuineness can be a tricky concept to pin down in words, but it’s something you can just sense when you are watching artists perform. In that spirit, it’s been amazing to see how many genuinely awesome bands we have had up in room 1903. Friday night proved to be no exception. Besides more killer sets from our host bands – Finnders and Youngberg, who played an awesome drinking and murder song called “Connie” that got the room amped up, and Lonesome Traveler, who, fresh off a fabulous official showcase came out swinging strong (and we’ve got two sets of Spring Creek tonight!), I was happy to add three new bands to my must-see list. Namely, The Steel Wheels, The HillBenders, and Two Man Gentlemen Band.
The Steel Wheels kicked off what would prove to be an emotional night in room 1903. They draw from obvious gospel influences, and have the pipes to thoroughly own that transcendent sound, especially in a hair-raisingly great version of “Working on a Building.” But what sets them apart is lead singer and primary songwriter Trent Wagler’s songwriting chops. A song entitled “Hymns for the Unsung” was inspired by his grandfather’s struggle with Alzheimer’s. As he lost the ability to recognize his own grandson, Wagler would still visit him and play him songs (because songs are often some of the only memories people with Alzheimer’s retain). With a chorus cry of, “Don’t take the music from me,” there was not a dry eye in the house (seriously, I’m getting all choked up even writing about it). It spoke to what we leave behind in this world, the art that survives long after we have faded into memory.
HillBenders simply rocked. They have one of the best and most exciting commands of the single mic style I’ve ever seen, and watching them weave in and out of each other, stomping with fury, was bloody thrilling. Guitarist Jim Rea especially was a firebrand, jumping off the ground and thrusting his guitar ceiling-ward while he picked. Unashamed to be children of the ’80s, their cover of The Romantic’s “Talking in Your Sleep” was totally stadium-worthy. Hot damn!
We were lucky to have a second helping of John Hartford Stringband. Before the show started, Bob Carlin busted out a bottle of some mighty fine single malt, which he served up to the audience. We then raised a toast to Hartford before opener “Madison, Tennessee,” jump starting a set that contained both laughter and tears. Sharp’s vocals fit the sighing “Love Grown Cold” to a tee, while Carlin’s segue out of “Bring Your Clothes Back Home” into “Hey Babe, You Wanna Boogie?” inspired an audience sing-along. But the gorgeous “Delta Queen Waltz” which closed out the set, and saw Combs joined by Geoffrey Sykes on fiddle, had everyone biting their lips. Combs went over to twirl with Eileen Schatz while Compton played a shimmering mando solo, a sweet moment as the two obviously shared an unspoken memory of Hartford. We were truly fortunate to have JHSB in our room, celebrating the man who is the inspiration for our work at SPPS.
Ryan Spearman and Kelly Wells treated us to a wonderful set of old time and country, pulling in Aaron Youngberg on steel, Silas Lowe on mando, Dango Rose on bass, and later Bonnie Paine on washboard and Hubby Jenkins on bones, both of whom made for a mean rhythm section. Spearman can play a badass saw as well as banjo, and watching him and Wells perform can’t help but put a huge grin on your face. Picking on some old time (“Walking in My Sleep”) and country classics (Hank William’s “Weary Blues,” which provided a prime chance to show off both Youngberg and Lowe’s skills), this was a joyful set of music.
Our showcases closed down with The Two Man Gentlemen Band. Andy Bean (tenor guitar) and The Councilman (bass and kazoo) play tight and fast, with an offbeat, at times awesomely loopy, sense of humor. After a night of so many moments of beautiful heartache, they were just the medicine we needed at 2:30am. For one thing, it’s so obvious that they are having a blast up there, that you can’t help but catch that buzz. With songs like “Me, I Get High on Reefer,” “Fancy Beer” (which seemed appropriate for our room stocked with Upslope, Avery and Fort Collins Brewing Company), and “Prescription Drugs,” they made me think this is what Ween may have sounded like if they took an old timey approach. They may keep their tongues in cheek, but their stellar musicianship ain’t fooling around. Big cheers!
Besides our showcases, other notable moments included sneaking across the hall to see Atomic Duo, performing a set of covers from various artists that have influenced them, including a buoyant arrangement of a Scott Joplin piece by Lowe, the heartbreaking “Mother’s Not Dead” (written by Lance Spencer, who recently passed away), and Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey On the Moon.” The Bob Wills tune, “Got a Letter From a Kid Today” is sadly still relevant today, as we remain entrenched in two absurd wars. Wills actually recorded it twice (during WWII and Korea), and both times it was banned from radio play. They ended their set on a personal favorite cover, “John Deere Tractor” by the late great (and not as well known as he should be) Don Walser. A wide range of influences, that all add up to timeless.
And finally, I’ve gotta give props to Taylor Sims, Dan Booth and Alex Johnstone of Spring Creek, plus HillBenders banjo player Mark Cassidy, for moving their jam session into the elevator when we were kicked out of the 19th floor at 5am. That’s the kind of elevator music I can get down to.
Well, our last night of showcases are about to kick off, so I should sign off for now dear readers. I’ll have our day four highlights when I’m back in Denver, but until then make sure to tune into our live stream for our last night of music at Folk Alliance 2011!
Big thanks to our FAI 2010 webcast and blog sponsors!