Friday, May 11, 2012 ... 5:32 PM
What Is It About Frank Fairfield?
There are so many great old-time players out there, so what is it about Frank Fairfield?
There's a particular intensity about him, not only in his clearly obsessive studiousness, but in his apparent whole-cloth guilelessness. About the great old-time players you see at fiddle conventions and such events, there's often this aura of sheepishness or apology or a sly avuncular acknowledgement of the hokiness or corniness of the songs. And in the hipster old-time bands of, oh, say, Portland, there's a contrarian, almost confrontational feeling to their embrace and presentation of the music; they seem not to love old-time music so much as what their playing old-time music says about them. Frank, though, seems unaware of anything but the greatness of the music, and what it requires of him. He has the disarmingly intense demeanor of a hero in some inadvertent-time-traveler movie. There's no awareness of obsolescence or irony in his stage presence -- even when he wears a pair of big hipster mustachios, you get the feeling he really just thinks it's handsome grooming -- but neither does there seem to be much pleasure in his performance. In fact there's a strain in his playing, a sense that these songs are taking some toll on him. Often sung seemingly out of his natural register, the songs in these arrangements seemed to have picked him, seem to be using him, and not always kindly. You hear the same thing in Roscoe Holcomb, or Son House.
And there's a necessariness in all these performances, a sense that the music is trying to communicate through the player, and there's an undercurrent of danger, as well. These songs came from hunger, and the way Frank plays them, they still sound hungry.
Friday, July 30, 2010 ... 8:10 AM
Chicago Brand Banjo
This blog still get many hits every month from people searching for information on the Chicago Brand Banjo. I own one, bought for me about 6 years ago by my girlfriend at the time from a pawn shop on Central Ave in Charlotte. It cost about $75 and was in terrific condition. I swapped out the sort of lousy, worn out bridge -- which for all I know was the original -- for a lower-profile, wider bridge made of maple and ebony, and I've changed the strings a few times, and I've worn the varnish off the fretboard in many spots, learning how to play clawhammer-style -- "The Coo Coo" and "Little Sadie" and "Shady Grove" in the sawmill tuning, "I'll Fly Away" and "Going Down the Road Feelin Bad" in open G. "Little Birdie" in double C.
I've promised a few times over the years to do some research and write a nice long entry here about the Chicago brand, and maybe I still will some day. Who knows. But I just happened to stumble over a video this morning by a guy who tells us as much about this little Bakelite frying pan as I've ever heard, and then frails out a beautiful rendition of the haunting tune "Kitchen Girl." Ah, it just smells like apples and hay, doesn't it? Says the suburban boy sitting in his cubicle.
Friday, February 26, 2010 ... 1:45 PM
On the Trail of the Dave Rawlings Machine, part 2
Earlier this month, my friends Carolyn Fryberger and Ginger Kowal spent a few days following the The Dave Rawlings Machine along the end of their tour in the great Northwest. Carolyn and Ginger are the founders of the Dave Rawlings Machine Fan Club -- and, I think I can say, friends of Dave and Gil as well. I asked them to write about their trek for the Tent Revue, and they both sent me wonderful pieces -- not only descriptive but thoughtful and interesting as well. I think you'll enjoy them. I posted Ginger's piece yesterday. Here is what Carolyn wrote for us.
(Thanks to Lindsey Best for letting me use her photographs of the Dave Rawlings Machine in these entries.)
The first show I saw of this tour was in Asheville, North Carolina in November, the second night of the first leg. I saw my eighth and final show (really I should just say the most recent; summer dates have already been announced!) in Olympia, Washington in February, the last show of second leg. In Asheville Gillian joked that they didn’t really know what the Machine did yet, but that they were sure it wore denim.
The tour began with long and frequent tuning breaks, and constant departure from the set list. More often than not Dave led off a song met with confused looks from Gil and the rest of the band and the grabbing of capos. By Olympia, the show was flowing from one song to the next with only the nod of Dave’s head, all met with delight by a group of fans that has swelled and amplified since the release of this first album. They had become – dare I say it? – a well-oiled Machine.
Now I haven’t followed any other act around as much as I have Dave and Gil, but my feeling is that their willingness to perform in this way – to put it all out there and to float from one song to the next as it feels right, to allow an audience to be witness to their transformation – is very rare. You get to watch them responding to each other, to the crowd, to their instruments and to the songs themselves. To see Dave and Gil perform is to watch them actively weaving together all the separate elements of the stage into an expression of a pure and distilled emotion. By the end of a show it feels as though you’ve had an intimate conversation with them, in which they revealed truths at once personal and universal.
Dave and Gil are phenomenal musicians of course, but I have seen phenomenal musicians that did not inspire me to seek them out in any corner of the country they may be playing. It is this intimacy that has kept me going to shows, far and near, for three years. I love to watch that interaction, to be part of it, and to watch it evolve from show to show. I love the intoxication of just feeling those emotions they conjure, to feel as though I am played by their melodies and exist for a moment in the space created by their harmonies.
Then after the show comes their only experiences of me as a fan, which are the brief conversations during which I am too excited, smiling too much, too eager, tripping over words and making stupid jokes. It’s a funny relationship to have with another person, so one-sided – I mean, they don’t want me to sign anything for them. Sometimes I think, “That’s it, from now on I will go to shows, but I won’t talk to them.” But that’s part of it, that rush of waiting to talk to someone who has become larger than life, and then the sweetness of finding that they are still just a real person, someone you could imagine yourself being friends with.
Thanks again to Carolyn and Ginger both for contributing to the Tent Revue.
Thursday, February 25, 2010 ... 1:40 PM
On the Trail of the Dave Rawlings Machine, part 1
Earlier this month, my friends Ginger Kowal and Carolyn Fryberger spent a few days following the The Dave Rawlings Machine along the end of their tour in the great Northwest. Ginger and Carolyn are the founders of the Dave Rawlings Machine Fan Club -- and, I think I can say, friends of Dave and Gil as well. I asked them to write about their trek for the Tent Revue, and they both sent me wonderful pieces -- not only descriptive but thoughtful and interesting as well. I think you'll enjoy them. I'm going to draw this out a little, and post Carolyn's writing tomorrow. Here is what Ginger wrote for us.
(Thanks to Lindsey Best for letting me use her photographs of the Dave Rawlings Machine in these entries!)
I think you could say that David Rawlings had something to let out of his system. All of those years of standing quietly beside Gillian Welch, melding his small voice delicately and perfectly with hers, interjecting little brilliant scales on his guitar carefully between the verses of her meticulously arranged songs, smiling shyly to the cheering crowd with a small nod after each solo, he must have built up some steam. I don’t think that Dave was having a bad time as the second hand in the two-man Gillian Welch band, but when you give this man a banjo and a small group of slightly rambunctious young men to play onstage with, something kind of wild emerges.
I remember when Carolyn and I first started following the Machine around the Southeast back in December of 2006, when it was still a one-off sort of experiment executed in small dingy venues at midnight, after the regularly scheduled show. Dave used to tip up onto his toes during his guitar breaks, like he was trying to reach something with his solo that was just slightly beyond him. While he was singing he would reach up for notes that both he and the audience knew he had small chance of hitting. During the shows these days he will sometimes ramp the band up to a tempo that they can just barely keep up with. Sometimes he will flail at his poor little guitar like he wants to beat something monstrous out of it. It’s not that Dave is limited. (Ha!) It’s just that he seems to want to play always harder, faster, higher, louder, more, more, more. No wonder he sometimes almost collapses backwards from the microphone after a solo. It must be exhausting to be straining towards something incredible all the time. (It is intoxicating to watch.)
If Gillian once called her approach “selective deconstructionism,” then I think the Dave Rawlings Machine is guided by a general explosiveness. Gillian said that she plays rock music, pared down to its most bare and raw elements. Dave seems to be able to take music from nearly any source or style and ramp it up to something spectacular. Witness “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”; “Monkey and the Engineer”; “Stop Dragging My Heart Around”; they are performing “Hot Corn Cold Corn” at their shows! All turn into alternately foot-stomping or heart-stopping masterpieces onstage. Having a full band up there, Ketch on fiddle, Morgan on bass, Willie on guitar and harmony vocals, expands Dave’s already formidable energy and intensity into a thundering old-time locomotive. Dave still plays like a one-man band, using his little Epiphone to fill in all possible harmonies and textures, seemingly attempting to strike as many strings as possible and create as much sound from that little guitar as possible, but having the boys around him just makes it all bigger.
Dave’s voice still expands unconsciously into Gillian’s when she joins him in harmony. Perhaps he is still just a little uncomfortable with his voice out there all by itself. Besides, imagine! if you sounded so completely perfect singing with someone else, wouldn’t you feel more comfortable singing together than on your own? The rapport with Gillian is still there, a solid base to this wild new band, a strong and beautiful joining of voices and talents that seems to keep Dave grounded. To hear them sing “Throw Me A Rope” together at the very center of the show, a deep well of darkness and nearly unspeakable beauty in the heart of that display of energy and excitement coming from an unstoppable Machine... well. It’s unspeakably beautiful. It always has been. I’m glad it’s still there.
Some artists have a style or a sound to sell, and that’s what they give you at their shows. You get to see a product, a finished thing. At Dave’s shows you witness the creation of the product. He’s selling tickets to watch the product taking form. It’s different every night; I guess this is one reason you can go to several shows one after the other and be completely entertained every time. He doesn’t ever seem to be content with playing anything the same way he has before. Each time around a song will have a different arrangement, a different sequence, a different resting spot here, a different crescendo and climax there. He’s able to bring the band along with him in his improvisation – you can see him direct them with a nod or a shout to start something new on the spot. They seem to enjoy it. There is an air of spontaneity and surprise, and yet security that I suppose only comes along with the trust of having played a nearly complete tour together.
...The effect on the audience? In Portland the band was called onstage for four lengthy encores. The people just wouldn’t stop cheering. As for my more personal perspective, I can tell you that Dave Rawlings Machine kind of makes me feel like dropping out of school and dedicating myself to following the Machine full-time. If anyone out there has some good ideas about why a graduate degree is more important than the joy of watching Dave Rawlings perform onstage night after night, I would love to hear them. Get them to me quick before I become a professional Machinehead.
Monday, February 15, 2010 ... 3:51 PM
Wanting to hear something new, sometime around Thanksgiving last year, for a few weeks I awakened my old sleeping eMusic membership, and clicking though recommendations and member lists and free-associatin' links, I ran across this recent EP, Why You Runnin', by this singer called Lissie. I listened to a couple of samples. It was the Hank Williams cover that hooked me. And once I had listened to the rest of these tunes, I was good and caught.
She is Lissie Maurus, from Rock Island, Illinois, based now in Los Angeles. I'd guess she's around twenty-three years old, but that is just a guess. Her Facebook fan page has 2,263 fans, which, while not Lady Gaga, makes her a sight more fanned than plenty of better-established artists I've added on the FB. She's a go-getter, you can just tell. There's a palpable fire in her singing and in her stage presence. She is earnest -- emphatically, sometimes painfully. You get the feeling that she could get hurt, way out there like that. You watch her because you like her voice, and because she's ridiculously photogenic, but also because you sort of worry for her. It wouldn't be hard, you think, for someone to lead her down the wrong path -- and not necessarily with bad intentions -- and with all that momentum, all that propulsion that's just built into her personality, she could find herself, in a hurry, way down at the end of a road she didn't ever mean to be on. You sort of want to pray for her safe arrival as a mature artist. Or maybe that's just me.
I don't always like the raspy voiced singers. I don't like Concrete Blonde. Something about Lissie's rasp though really snags me. It feels like how Bob Dylan described Roscoe Holcomb -- an untamed sense of control. There's an exactness to her rasp, but as well as she seems to know her voice, as carefully phrased as her readings are, sometimes she does lose her grip on the reins, and that voice runs away with her. Listen here, to her tune "Everywhere I Go," on this Daytrotter session. All goes as rehearsed until the bridge at about 2:20, when she reaches for an improvised falsetto, trips and tumbles. She doesn't seem to know that she's lost control. She leans into the fall, she puts all her weight behind this misstep, she owns it -- and her broken melody achieves an effect of emotional bareness that PJ Harvey and Portishead have spent their careers practicing for. This is what I mean about Lissie's painful earnestness. About how you could worry for her. Even though she doesn't really sing about anything yet, her voice is enough for now, her medium message enough until she does find something to write about. You don't just listen to her, you listen for her. You are impressed, but you flinch. Does she know how naked she sounds up there? Did she mean to fall down like that? Was that real? Is she OK?
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 ... 11:51 AM
Singer-songwriter Birdie Busch has a new blog that I've been following. She writes little essays about her Bohemian life in Philadelphia. I like the way she looks at the world, sunny and uncynical but too sly to seem naive, and with a poet's affection for the derelict and the small. I like her limpid, bemused prose. You get the sense of someone lifting something fragile from a pile of rubble, and carrying it home, daydreaming.
Check her out: http://birdiebusch.blogspot.com/
Also check out her recent album, Pattern of Saturn, or any of her albums, really. They are all full of catchy, tiny, twangy pop tunes about how sad we all are, and how happy we could probably be -- unwinding here and there with a big crashing rock number that Birdie rides out like a happy gull in a hurricane. At first she comes across a little sweeter, and a lot cuter, than I normally like my singer-songwriters, but her voice is so weird and disarming, so homespun, with its breaking wobbly phrasing, she manages to cut the sweetness in a way that, say, Iris Dement just isn't able to do ... without alienating all but the most adventurous listeners, as the Freak Folk folks often seem to want to do.
Friday, January 29, 2010 ... 11:03 AM
What the detractors don't get is that it's not Holden's privileged adolescent complaining, not his lousy spoiled attitude, that makes him such an indelible, lasting, loved character -- although, frankly, his bitching and moaning is the most hilarious and heartfelt in literature. But what really sticks, what changed me, personally, the reason I go back to Catcher again and again, is the way he loves the world around him, without quite understanding that he does, but showing his love through his description of it -- his "DIGRESSION!" In phrases he coins like "rollerskate skinny"; the way Allie's hair was so red Holden sensed that if he turned around, Allie would be standing behind him; the feel of a skate key in his hands; a jazz record called "Little Shirley Beans"; the way the kettle drum player at Radio City was so attentive even though he only got to hit his drum once; the way Jay Gatsby was always calling people "old sport"; Jane Gallagher's kings in the back row, which despite what high school teachers insist is not so much an algebraic symbol for Jane's self-defense as just a sweet, cute thing that she did that made Holden happy when he thought about it; the way girls, "every time they do something pretty, even if they're not much to look at, or even if they're sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never know where the hell you are." It's a way of relating to the world, of experiencing and loving the world, that is distinctly literary -- and encompasses, contains, all of his disgust and his crushing melancholy. It is poetry. He felt the tiniest things so fully, and he didn't know how to handle it, because he was just a kid.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009 ... 4:04 PM
There's a new album out this week.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008 ... 8:09 AM
Early christmas present
From Anti- Records, a behind-the-scenes-of-Middle-Cyclone video.
Friday, December 05, 2008 ... 10:42 AM
I'm thinking about baking up a new banner image, but I probably won't get around to it. I'd love to Photoshop this blog's long, majestic/goofy name onto some kind of a wood- or linocut print of something spooky and musical and Americana. I'd take up relief printmaking myself, but let's be honest. I never even finished my 2005 top ten. (While we're dreaming, though, I've long considered, and am now again, making this an MP3 blog or podcast or something. So we can listen to songs and then talk about them. But besides being lazy, I have ethical issues with file sharing. Though I'll admit those scruples are mysteriously dissipating at about the same rate as my discretionary income.)
Anyway. Did I mention that I saw Eilen Jewell & her band in October? Well, I did. It was the first full set I've caught from Eilen, and it was excellent. Her rapport with the audience is so calm and easy, I'd guess a skill picked up from her busking days. Songs the band has played probably a couple hundred nights in the last year still feel fresh and energetic. They played a couple of new tunes, including a terrific garage-rocky number called "Sea of Tears."
If you haven't caught the Eilen Jewell Band yet, here's just what you've been missing:
That's a full 1.5 hour set for your streaming pleasure. You can't download it without forking over $60 for membership, but the stream sounds good and is safe for the cube or the littluns. Eilen's voice takes a couple of songs to warm up, so stick with it at least until the giddy Jerry Miller guitar break at about 10 minutes, and then see if you're not wholly on board. Oh yeah and listen for the aforementioned garage-rock tune at about 1:10:00, and the complementing 60's pop cover at about 1:19:00 -- both of which suggest, I think, an artist really growing into her own voice and a comfortable ensemble itching to explore their varied interests. I'm guessing, pretty presumptiously, that you won't be seeing the names Gillian or Lucinda in any but the laziest reviews of Eilen's next record, which she says we'll see in the spring.
Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas
(Novello Festival Press, April 2008)
includes my essay, "Link Wray"
Flop Eared Mule
The Celestial Monochord
Dig and Be Dug in Return
Modern Acoustic Magazine / Blog
The Old, Weird America
Honey, Where You Been So Long?
The Greensboro Review
Fried Chicken and Coffee
Mungo (This was the blog of my friend, the late Cami Park. Miss you, Cami.)
Cat and Girl
Film Freak Central