Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Other Views on Falcon Ridge

A first-timer writes up the Saturday and Sunday of the festival in the Berkshire Eagle. His impressions remind me a bit of my friend Allan's from last year.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Falcon Ridge Rundown

My friend Nick, who was with me for all of Falcon Ridge except for the hail storm, has posted a rather extensive write-up on his brand spanking new blog. Now, I've got some issues with Nick's opinions on a few matters, but I'm going to leave that for a separate post. I'm going to run through some day-by-day highlights from the festival, and then throw up some setlists in separate posts, I think. My notes, by the way, are soaked and smeared and mostly illegible. That may help me be brief.


  • Seeing The Horse Flies kick off the festival was terrific. I have been describing this legendary band as "old-time music meets Sonic Youth" as of late because of the way that they combine heavy percussion and electrified instruments with a bouncing old-time string band groove. Richie Stearns rhythmic banjo playing is just a marvel. All of that said, they are a little bit one-note, and the set was just one steady groove as compared to a well-constructed entity with rises and falls and moments of climax and brief lulls.

  • The Jason Spooner Trio brought out Red Molly to sing and play on a cover of Neil Young's "For the Turnstiles." The sound was great, and given that I had slept through most of Red Molly's set, I was pleased to see some more of them on the main stage.

  • Crooked Still's set was superb. So I was maybe a little disappointed in their show at the Bowery Ballroom; well, I thought that they brought the party at Falcon Ridge. Greg Listz's banter, which I found mildly off-putting at the Bowery, struck me (and the rest of the crowd) as pretty damn hilarious at Falcon Ridge: "My motto is that I will mudwrestle every single one of you! Just form a line after the set!" He would come back to the theme several times during the set. The band really hits its stride on "Ain't No Grave," getting into a total groove, and Tristan Clarridge played a pretty serious cello solo on "Come on in My Kitchen." The set wrapped up with "New Railroad," "Oh, Agamemnon" and "Hop High" right in a row, and those three were just bam, bam, bam good. So a mild mea culpa from me for my negativity and some serious props to the band for their performance. I challenge my former self to justify the "niche band" comment -- these guys are worth seeing no matter what.

  • Seeing Randall Williams after hours at the Focus Tarp was quality. He played some of the songs that he would later playing during the Most Wanted Song Swap Main Stage set on Saturday -- "Stronger for Your Flame" and "Ride This One Around" -- and they just grooved that little tarp.

  • Also at the Focus Tarp, we heard Robert Mattson sing "The Swedish Jewish Divide" about cross-cultural marriage. It's pretty great -- full of fun puns (e.g. "There's no Methodist to this madness."). You can listen to it on Robert's MySpace page.


  • I did not think that this year's Emerging Artist Showcase was all that great. It was nice to see Lucy Wainwright-Roche, and her "Saddest Sound" had us all singing. Brad Colerick, who followed Lucy, did a nice song about sweet corn (a la Guy Clark's "Homegrown Tomatoes") and a solid tune about finding Jesus in Juarez. I slept through a good number of the acts here and there, though, so maybe I missed some other treats.

  • The Strangelings rocked out with "Matty Groves," ripped straight from Fairport Convention -- Meredith Thompson swung her hair like she was in a heavy metal band.

  • During the song swap, John Gorka played a terrific new song called "Ignorance ad Privilege" inspired by the late U. Utah Phillips and his worldview. Eliza Gilkyson described how, when she writes a happy song, she gets so excited that she "gets down and does 10 for Jesus" -- this obviously became the catch phrase of the weekend. I was half-asleep when she said it, but during some difficulties with the keyboard on stage, she asked the sound crew to "turn up the low end on this motherf*cker." Vance Gilbert gave us a version of Thelonius Monk's "'Round Midnight."


  • The Rolling in the Aisles workshop first thing in the morning was excellent. Anthony Da Costa busted out "Poor Pluto" first thing. Jack Hardy sang the awesome "Dick Cheney's Daughter Cannot Get Married." And then David Massengill hit us with "The Ballad of the Pissed-Off Eunuch." He introduced the song by saying, "Some closed-minded parents have a problem with this one. The kids always seem to like it though." The song was just one innuendous term for coitus after another. It was brilliant. It was hilarious. It is why David Massengill will not be back at Falcon Ridge for five or six years probably. (This is known as the Dan Bern Phenomenon -- after he played "Missing Link" on Main Stage on a Sunday afternoon.) Anthony Da Costa played a Dan Bern song about who might have been the fifth Beatle, giving a nod to Jack Hardy -- "Shut up and sing the song!" Joe Crookston sang a song that he collected in the Finger Lakes called "Red Rooster on the Mash Pile" about a drunken rooster -- everyone joined in on that one, and Anthony Da Costa leaned up against Jack Hardy during his guitar solo.

  • During the Most Wanted Song Swap, Randall Williams did a terrific song called "I Will Come for You" about a U.S. soldier who fathers a child in wartime France and then only finds out that he has a daughter years and years and years later. It was a terrific song.

  • The Most Wanted Song Swap concluded with Anthony Da Costa leading the group in John Elliott's "Feet to the Fire." As I described in a previous post, this song is absolutely killer -- I, in fact, asked John Elliott for the chords just so that I could learn it to play after hours at Falcon Ridge -- and it rocked the house on Saturday afternoon.

  • Vance Gilbert's introduction of Nerissa and Katryna Nields during the Change is Gonna Come workshop: "Now, the moment that they have been waiting for."

  • I missed it -- because I was driving to and from the train station at the time, not because I was sleeping -- but I am told that The Nields' evening set rocked. I, in fact, was told this repeatedly upon my return. I was down on the Nields recently, and it sounds like I should issue another mea culpa because all of the reviews of this set were thumbs up. Nick has a good description of it in his post. I wish that I too could express the excitement.

  • Martin Sexton's closing set was rock solid. He is a great performer -- lots of vocalise and lots of building and releasing momentum over the course of the set. He sang both "Glory Bound" and "Black Sheep," which makes me worry that he has to do these at every single concert that he does. But if that's the case, he did not let on at all that it was a bother.


  • As was described in the last post, Sunday ended a bit early because of the arrival of the end of the world (or something approximating it). But the Gospel Wake Up Call was as solid as ever with Eddie from Ohio, Nerissa and Katryna Nields, The Strangelings and Vance Gilbert all contributing and joining in on each other's songs and just having a solid time. "Operator" by Eddie from Ohio is always by personal favorite, and I thank them for doing it time and time again. Vance Gilbert hilariously yelled at a member of the stage crew who was trying to help him adjust his microphone: "I was born Episcopalian! Get off my stage!" I don't even know what that means, but it was great.

Falcon Ridge Preview Post

Got back from the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival on Sunday night -- I have a ton of things to talk about, but I'll need to find some time first.

For a brief preview, here is how the festival ended on Sunday:

I am fond of referring to the hail as "ice-cube-sized"; my comrade Ken Dixon has opted for the more elegant "wine-cork-sized." See Ken's description of the storm on Steve Ide's blog.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Three Young Bluegrass Bands Shred Some Strings in New York

On Wednesday night, three of the hottest young bluegrass bands on the scene showed up in New York for the final night of a whirlwind three-day tour: Chatham County Line, the Infamous Stringdusters and Crooked Still. (On Monday night, the line-up had played at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, and then on Tuesday night at World Cafe in Philadelphia.) Allan, Sarah and I were there, as were my friends Peter, Sharon and Hannah from the Desperation String Band. We had some good space right down front.

Chatham County Line opened up the show. I had seen these guys at the Bowery before with Allan, opening up for Tift Merritt, and also at the Rodeo Bar. And the day after Jimmy Martin had died, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Dave Wilson had spontaneously shown up at WKCR to chat with me on the air about the band. ("Hey, Matt, it's Dave Wilson from Chatham County Line. I'm outside the door here," said the voice on the phone.)

These guys are out of North Carolina, and they play pretty straight ahead bluegrass -- almost all original songs written by Dave Wilson. They play as a pretty tight unit around a single microphone with some nice choreography and some solid harmonies. They did fall out of the pocket here and there, and mandolinist/fiddler John Teer stands maybe an instrumental inch or two taller than the other members of the band. (Although Dave Wilson gave him a big yawn during one solo -- it's not clear if this was a stage yawn or true tiredness.) Bassist Greg Readling also pounds out some powerful slaps on the bass -- I kept thinking that a guitar string had popped!

The set was good -- a solid opener to the night -- and the band was very energetic. But they saved the real magic for the end of the set. They walked off the stage and out into the middle of the crowd -- right in front of us -- and formed a circle for two songs: the first was a shouter with a chorus and then the second was an absolutely brilliant rendition of The Travelling Wilburys' "Handle with Care." It was a beautiful gesture with which to close and left a powerfully positive patina over the whole set.

The Infamous Stringdusters took the stage next. As opposed to Chatham County Line's single microphone set-up, the Stringdusters were spread across the stage in a line, although they would often turn toward each other in groups of twos and threes while playing. Each musician in that line is a virtuosic player, but better than that, they also come together as a band and lay down a good groove. Their first CD, Fork in the Road, did not impress me that much. It was good but didn't stick with me. I've only listened to their new eponymous CD once, and my impression is somewhat similar: there are good songs and good playing on it, but it's not still with me a few hours later. Live, however, these guys can make a mark.

The two clear stand-out players for me were Andy Falco on guitar and Jesse Cobb on mandolin. Andy Falco is from Long Island and has played in the New York area for a number of years, and I've heard a lot of good things about him. He is a beautifully smooth player, able both to pick a lot of notes and provide interesting rhythmic accents in that playing. (The latter is the thing that a lot of hot picking guitarists lack.) The crowd responded with true appreciation. Jesse Cobb's playing was hot on the solos, but his rhythmic mandolin chops during songs were also a work of art, as he clucked out various syncopated patterns to add a truly interesting but unintrusive accompaniment.

Chris Pandolfi's banjo was too quiet the whole night, and he also lays back a little too much. He's a good player and should both step up to the microphone with a little more aggressiveness in his posture and tell the soundman to turn up that infernal twanger of his. His solos did not leave the same mark as those from the other band members.

Two highlights were a Jesse Cobb instrumental that I never caught the name of, which bumped around between different rhythms and had more than a touch of Sam Bush in it, and then a blistering version of "Leather Britches." For an encore, they hit the stage and played some straight ahead bluegrass: Jimmy Martin's "Sunny Side of the Mountain." A perfect closer. (And a bit like Punch Brothers playing "Molly and Tenbrooks" as an encore.)

Chris Pandolfi described playing at the Bowery Ballroom as the New York equivalent of playing on the Grand Ole Opry. I'm not quite sure about that, but I'm glad that they were having a good time because we certainly all were.

The last act of the night was Crooked Still, featuring their new line-up with Tristan Clarridge on cello and Brittany Haas on fiddle. (I saw Tristan Clarridge playing with New Old Stock back in May, and I have been a very, very big fan of Brittany Haas's self-titled solo CD and her playing with the mighty old-time master Bruce Molsky.) They are touring on a new CD, Still Crooked, which features the two new members of the band.

First off, these guys should have played first or second. Sorry. The Stringdusters should have closed -- they have a fuller sound, more energy and are less of a niche band. (Yes, bands reinterpreting old-time songs to be played on a grooving cello are indeed a niche band.) So it was tough to feel the same spirit during Crooked Still's set as had prevailed during The Infamous Stringdusters' set.

Second off, Dr. Greg Liszt -- who has a Ph.D. from MIT and tours with Bruce Springsteen -- was out of his gourd. From his opening monologue, in which he invited us to all "pass along a big F-bomb to the president," to his commentary on bandmate Brittany Haas's hemline, he appears to have taken over Rushad Eggleston's role in the band for questionable and unnecessary commentary. His banjo playing was not affected, but it was really striking -- Allan and I just kept looking at each other and saying, "I thought that guy was out of the band!"

Third, regarding that guy who is no longer in the band, Tristan Clarridge's cello is not Rushad Eggleston's cello. Tristan is, in my opinion, a better melodic player -- he played beautifully. However, he did not lay down that heavy groove into which Rushad used to launch. And that made it feel like there was a little something missing. The grooving cello is the signature sonic quality of this band, and it was not as out front last night as it used to be.

Finally, some members of the Desperation String Band were a little eager to adjust the sound and yelled out "Less bass!" repeatedly. Corey DiMario took this a little personally and asked for security to remove them. Luckily, he was joking.

The set featured a number of excellent songs. "Pharaoh" is a wonderful Sydney Carter song -- he is the English poet who in 1963 set his poem "Lord of the Dance," inspired both by Jesus and Shiva to the tune "Simple Gifts" -- it's a song that gets sung every year in the Dutch Barn at the Old Songs Festival. They offered solid versions of Ola Belle Reed's "Undone in Sorrow" and Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl." Uncle Dave Macon's "Tell Her to Come Back Home," as learned from Dirk Powell, showed up toward the end of the set with some harmony vocals from Ruth Ungar Merenda from The Mammals. "Come On In My Kitchen" and a singalong version of "Shady Grove" wrapped up Crooked Still's set.

And then -- as you might have hoped -- it happened. All three bands came out on stage for an encore. And Dave Wilson and Aoife O'Donovan led the way through Neil Young's "Helpless," an excellent choice for a closer and a great cap to a solid night of music.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Music Video by Matt

Not me. Some other Matt.

Where the Hell is Matt? (2008) from Matthew Harding on Vimeo.

Thanks to Chris Blattman for the link on his blog.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

What the Economists are Listening To

Harvard macroeconomist Greg Mankiw has given his endorsement to Vampire Weekend, a band comprised of recent Columbia graduates, including drummer Chris Tomson, who was WKCR Jazz Director for a while. On the Columbia years, see this Columbia College Today article.

Christian Lander, the author of Stuff White People Like, recently described them as the whitest band around: "They're pushing it to levels unseen," he said.

Monday, July 7, 2008

More Photos from the 10th Anniversary Celebration

I was, um, well, uh, Googling my own name, and I found Ken Ficara's collection of amazing photographs from my 10th Anniversary Celebration down at Banjo Jim's. Some great shots in there.

Old School: The Nields in Westport, Connecticut

When Ellen and I were in high school, I used to chase The Nields around the Northeast. From the Globe Theatre in Norwalk, Connecticut, to the Roaring Brook Nature Center to the Iron Horse in Northampton, Massachusetts, to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival to the Beardsley Park Zoo in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and so on and so forth, we would see these guys everywhere, piling the boys into my father's 1987 Mazda 323 and leaving skid marks heading into park entrances. (Ellen was sometimes there, too, but I don't really recall her making the trip out to the scuzzy El'n'Gee Club in New London, Connecticut, for instance.) And over the years, I've seen The Nields about 100 times -- I stopped counting after 75. (This number, by the way, is nothing compared to those that can be claimed by legendary Nields' groupies Bruce Palmatier and Conehead -- they have each been to several hundred shows.)

There I was sitting in Manchester, England, last week, five hours ahead of East Coast time, and a Nields update pinged into my inbox. And lo and behold, they would be playing in Westport, Connecticut, at the Levitt Pavilion, a place where I had seen them in high school and in college and had seen a number of other shows over the years as well. In addition, it was going to be a full band show -- for about five years now, the majority of shows have featured only the two sisters rather than the rocking five-piece unit of my youth. I e-mailed Sandro immediately to see if he wanted to relive those days of yesteryear, and he was up for it. So after landing at John F. Kennedy Airport shortly after noon and unpacking a bit in Morningside Heights, I was on the train to Connecticut.

The day was damp, and the crowd at Levitt Pavilion was a bit sparse. And it was quite grey, too, suggesting a crowd that just came to see whatever was happening at Levitt Pavilion, rather than the mass of devoted young Nields fans who used to attend such shows. In fact, where were the screaming teenage girls? There were hardly any to be found.

There were some young children running around. Half of those are Nields' progeny. Young William Chalfant was on stage for most of the show, playing tambourine and banging on his guitar-playing father's leg. And Nerissa was on stage fully pregnant with another one on the way. Perhaps this should have been a sign that the show was not going to be a rocker.

I also should have just used my memory to figure that out. I last saw The Nields at the Living Room here in New York, where they played an all right set of tame songs before finally kicking into some serious classic Nields rock for the encore. And that encore had been amazing but had highlighted how much the current sound was not the sound that used to tear up the Trinity College campus in Hartford, Connecticut, back in the day.

Now, I don't want to knock what the Nields sisters are doing. They're making some good music -- it's just oriented toward a demographic a little younger than me -- make that a lot younger than me. Over the course of the set, I think that we all warmed up to them, but even when they pulled out a few classics, they didn't have the same oomph that they would have had back in the day. (And this was despite the fact that Dave Chalfant and Dave Hower from that classic Nields line-up were both playing with the band.)

The set looked like this:

  • A song for the kids that I didn't really make a note of, since I hadn't decided to keep a setlist yet
  • "This Train"
  • "This Town is Wrong" -- completely missing the sound of screaming girls at the lyric, 'I sold my computer / For a used acoustic guitar'; Sandro and I could only do a pale imitation
  • "Eloise" -- a relatively new song (from the most recent CD, Sister Holler) that I rather like
  • "Give Me a Clean Heart"
  • "Who Will Shoe My Pretty Foot?"
  • "Love and China" -- a little lacking in edge
  • "The Right Road"
  • "Superhero Soup" -- originally on the first ever Nields' album, 66 Hoxsey Street, apparently a new recording will be on the forthcoming two-CD set Rock All Day Rock All Night -- the latter rocking in which refers to rocking babies to sleep, just for the record; David Chalfant took a page from David Nields' guitar playbook here, using the riff from "Smoke on the Water" as his solo; the band did not, however, shift into "Tequila"!
  • "Who Are You Not to Shine" (?)
  • "Night Rider's Lament" -- such a great song
  • "Easy People" -- also such a great song
  • "Ain't That Good News" into something that I cannot read on my setlist because I was becoming delirious from jet lag at this point
  • ENCORE: a song from the forthcoming CD

It was nice to be back at Levitt Pavilion, and it was nice to be seeing the Nields. Who knows? Maybe I'm a bit tamer, too, these days. But, man, I remember when Dave Hower used to bang out those drums on "Blind" and when "Gotta Get Over Greta" would send the kids to dancing.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Music Fans Unite at the Turf

A week ago I went to St. Paul's favorite alt-country hipster hangout the Turf Club with the intention of seeing indie/roots duo The Pines and acoustic quartet Spaghetti Western String Co.. Even though I had it on good authority that Spaghetti Western would take the stage at 9:30 and The Pines at 10:30, I was once again duped into getting there early to see a band I had no interest in. But since I had gone to great effort to get my self there that night (when I had really wanted to just crack open some beers and watch Law & Order reruns), I thought I'd settle in at the bar, get myself a Maker's Mark and see how long I'd last.

Shortly after the first band took the stage, I ran into David Huckfelt (one half of The Pines), who said that they were the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank, a band who I had not heard despite the fact that we share many Minnesota MySpace friends in common. Although many of their songs weren't memorable, I enjoyed their up-tempo roots/Americana sound. The Hobo Newphews consisted of 2 guitar-playing singers (sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric) and a pretty rockin' drummer, who in my opinion, was the best thing about the band. The standout songs they did seemed to be from their album Sing!--a nice trucker ballad (one of the only slower songs they did) and the anthemic "Go On Back Home," which got their fans and a good number of drunks singing.

I did get to catch up with Spaghetti Western's banjo player Mike Rosetto and catch a few tunes before I took off. As always, their signature blend of progressive bluegrass, classical and soundtrack music was haunting and beautiful.

As I was taking a few notes about the music that night, the couple sitting next to me at the bar struck up a conversation with me, and we discovered that in addition to them being KFAI listeners and Red House fans, they also were at the same concerts I was the week previous--the Walker Art Center's Rock the Garden concert and the outdoor show by gypsy-punk band Gogol Bordello. It also turns out that another young guy at the bar (wearing a GB shirt) was as well. We all agreed on how great the Gogol Bordello show was, although we seemed to have mixed reactions to the Rock the Garden show, which I thought was disorganized and too focused on pretty indie rock. After some nice conversation with them, I decided to call it a night. On the way out I said hi to Benson Ramsey (the other half of The Pines) and headed out to my car, thinking what a great night it was. I may not have seen the band I came to see, but I heard some great music, reconnected with old friends and met new ones.

So glad I didn't stay home to watch Law & Order...

Roses Revisited

For those of you haven't read Jess' April posting about Rose Cousins or for those of you who have failed to heed her advice and check out this Canadian's heartbreakingly beautiful songs, I must insist that you take notice.

Although I had met Rose Cousins and heard her play some great showcases at the 2007 and 2008 Folk Alliance Conferences, I had not had the privilege of hearing her do a full concert until a couple weeks ago, when she played a house concert with her friend Rose Polenzani. They played at Little Apple House Concerts, a great little series that has sprung up in North Minneapolis, hosted by the wonderfully capable and sweet Gillian. After a short set by one of my favorite Twin Cities musicians (and coincidentally Gillian's housemate) Brianna Lane, both Roses took over the front of the living room with some of the nicest singing I had heard in quite some time. They did the whole show together, swapping songs and singing on each other's songs with truly unearthly harmonies. The voices blended better than I ever could have imagined, making this a truly a standout show. Their humor and ease with each other and the audience showed, and everyone felt at home at this house concert. Highlights included Rose C's "Pale Love" and her tribute to Elvis "Heart in the Game." Rose P's "Lucy" and "You Were Drunk" and their cover of Magnetic Fields' "The Book of Love."

Although Rose Cousins' songs were the ones that most spoke to me, I was really impressed by Rose Polenzani's new material. It had been years since I had heard her, and I guess she's really been busy during that time, writing some of her best songs to date. Check out her new CD she did with Session's really stunning stuff. I think you can only pick it up at live shows so I guess you'll have to see her live to get it. Not a bad idea, as she is slated to play with some pretty great folks this summer, including the Indigo Girls.

Playing the Pubs of Manchester

I am fresh back in New York after three weeks in Manchester, England, where I was participating in a Workshop on International Development organized by Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz.

The final lecture of the workshop was given by Aidan Foster-Carter, a Korea scholar whose academic writings I have long admired. Well, it turns out that he is something of a folksinger as well, specializing in adapting various songs into political commentaries about international financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. So after his lecture and a buffet dinner, we all traveled to the Ducie Arms Pub for a performance.

Here is Prof. Stiglitz looking on while Aidan sings about IMF structural adjustment loans to the tune of Elvis's "Return to Sender":

Since it was the Fourth of July, he also led us in an American patriotic song, Phil Ochs' "Power and Glory." And we also slogged through Tim Buckley's "Goodbye and Hello" in an attempt to capture the spirit of university campuses in 1968.

Aidan was kind enough to let others share the stage, too. I'm playing "Wild Horses" in this photo:

And when I came around to "Rocking in the Free World," mixmaster Stephen Kaplan of Yale University let me don his cap: