Sunday, January 23, 2011

Two Old-Time Trios and a Whole Lot of Instrument Swapping

When is a folk festival not a folk festival? When it's also a concert series! And we denizens of Champaign-Urbana are quite lucky that the fine folks who bring us the CU Folk and Roots Festival are also spreading the joy over the course of the entire year with a series of concerts.

Tonight at Urbana's Independent Media Center, it was a Midwestern collision of bicoastal old-time trios. From the West Coast, it was the Foghorn Trio, the current incarnation of Portland's Foghorn Stringband. From the East Coast -- from that northern homeland of the Appalachian diaspora and the diaspora of the ancient race of insane record collectors: Brooklyn -- it was the Dust Busters. These two bands switched instruments around among themselves and then came all together for a barn-burnin' triple fiddle conclusion to the evening's entertainment.

The Foghorn Trio opened up. Caleb Klauder was sporting a mandolin; Stephen 'Sammy' Lind was on fiddle, and Nadine Landry was on guitar. They ripped through a fiddle tune and then into "Greenback Dollar," inviting us to sing-a-long. And then the first instrument shift happened, as Caleb put down the mandolin and picked up the fiddle, so that we could get the real Cajun style going on "Le Sud de la Louisiane." Caleb sang the vocals and played the fiddle on "Liza Jane" (learned from Kyle Creed's recording), while Sammy switched to banjo. For the gospel tune "Little Black Train," Sammy stayed on banjo, while Caleb went back to banjo. Finally, Nadine got into the act, putting down the guitar to play bass on a terrific version of Bill Monroe's "Evening Prayer Blues," which Sammy played guitar on. (You got it? Or no?) Caleb's playing on "Evening Prayer Blues" really was superb -- he had this great little mandolin bounce that seemed just right for the tune.

The band actually stayed the same for a moment -- mandolin, guitar and bass -- in order to play another bluegrass number, "I Want to Be Loved (But Only By You)." And then Caleb switched to a second guitar for the Carter Family's "Hello Central." In order to play a Cajun tune from the Red Stick Ramblers, Sammy needed to get back on the fiddle, and that's where he stayed to play a Missouri fiddle tune from the repertoire of Lonnie Robertson. The Carter Family songbook came back into play with "Let's Be Lovers Again," and then Sammy played a solo "Yew Piney Mountain" that then turned into a rip-roaring "Reuben's Train."

We called the Foghorn Trio back for an encore with no questions asked (and no refusals allowed), and what did they do? They busted out a new instrument! Sammy picked up the accordion with Caleb on fiddle and Nadine on guitar for another Cajun tune.

After a short break, the Dust Busters came out to clean up. New York old-time impresario Eli Smith -- he hosts the Down Home Radio Show, runs the Brooklyn Folk Festival and teaches banjo to aspiring old-time enthusiasts -- was armed with a banjo-mandolin (watch out!); Craig Judelman was sporting a fiddle; and Walker Shepherd had on a guitar. They launched into the tune "Catlettsburg," which Craig punctuated with plenty of "Indian War Whoop"-style hoots and hollers. Eli went from the banjo-mandolin to the sturdy old five-string for the Georgia Yellow Hammers' tune "Kiss Me Quick and Go." But then he switched to harmonica for "Prohibition is a Failure," the Lowe Stokes song and the title track from the Dust Busters most recent disc. "Rich Man, Poor Man" featured the same line-up, but then Eli was on guitar and Walker on banjo-mandolin for "The Ploughboy Hop."

They played a "Meet Me by the Moonlight" variant known as "The Bootlegger's Story" and then switched to twin fiddles for one called "The Old Folks Better Go to Bed." Eli played the Jew's harp and sang a couple of verses of "Turkey in the Straw" without the other two-thirds of the band before Walker sang the lead on George Landers' great, great song "Rolling Mills Are Burning Down." (Walker was playing banjo; Craig fiddle and Eli guitar for that one.) "Stockade Blues" and "Give the Fiddler a Dram" closed up their solo portion of the set.

And then we got the full treat: both bands together: two fiddles, a banjo, a banjo-mandolin, guitar and bass for one tune; then triple fiddles for a no-doubt-firey "Fire on the Mountain."

We demanded more. They had to think about it, but then they complied, giving us a twin fiddle version plus mandolin, banjo and bass version of "John Henry."

A very fine night of old-time music from two young trios.

Could it have been better? Well, the previous night, Bruce Molsky had also joined them on stage, so I venture to say that it could possibly have gotten even better. But I certainly had no complaints as I headed out the door.

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