Thursday, April 21, 2011

Overtones of Appalachia in Champaign: The Honey Dewdrops at the Champaign Public Library

Watching Laura Wortman and Kagey Parrish step up to the single microphone in the Champaign Public Library's Robeson Pavilion Room, I was prepared to hear some old-time-style tunes; what I wasn't prepared for was the amazing warmth and depth of the sound. I mean, this was just two voices and two guitars, right? But that magical microphone in between them captured all of that sound and made the spacious room shrink down a little smaller; I think that it even struck up the fire in the (non-existent) fireplace. Being so used to full-on, full-sounding bands, I was really pleased that my ears could perk up this way to a duo.

Throughout their set, The Honey Dewdrops sounded close and rich. Laura's singing features that lovely Virginia slur, where the notes blend together, forcing you to follow the song along. Kagey adds in the right harmonies throughout. And the mixing of their stringed instruments below supports the mixing of their vocal instruments above.

"Nobody in This World" is a perfect example of what this band is. It was an original tune that could as easily have been a Carter Family standard. Kagey played mandolin, and we might as well have been on their back porch in Charlottesville.

They mostly played originals over the course of a one-hour set. My favorite was "Amaranth," the lead track on their most recent disc, These Old Roots. Inspired by a Love Lies Bleeding Amaranth in their garden, they wrote the song from the plant's point of view -- a non-fading flower left for a love that has never come.

They also showed their love of the tradition, stringing together a banjo and guitar version of "Going Across the Sea," a take on "Angeline the Baker" that featured just the right amount of rollick in the banjo, and then an a capella version of "Bright Morning Star." Their version of a contemporary song was a mandolin-and-guitar version of The Beatles' "Across the Universe."

And then they did end the set with a song by that Virginian First Family of Country Music, the Carter Family, "Sow 'Em on the Mountain."

They took no encore -- and more power to them for that -- and were a pleasure to chat with after the show.

I'm really glad that I got a chance to see these guys, and I hope that they'll hit your town soon, too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Robert Browning's Retirement from the World Music Institute

Catching up on some reading, I've just discovered that Robert Browning is retiring as the head of New York's World Music Institute.

The WMI-sponsored concerts that I attended over the years actually tended to feature artists from the United States -- I remember a great old-time stringband show with the Whitetop Mountain Band and a show with Cajun supergroup Beausoleil -- but I nonetheless always appreciated the diverse series that WMI sponsored.

I also was interested to learn about Browning's role in founding the Alternative Museum:
[Browning] came to New York in 1974, and the next year helped found the Alternative Center for International Arts (later the Alternative Museum), where he began putting on concerts by artists from far-flung places. The World Music Institute — which Mr. Browning operates with his wife, Helene, the organization’s indomitable publicist — has presented more than 1,500 concerts on stages throughout the city and has been behind landmark events like the first American tour by the Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Chris Smither and Patty Larkin @ The Latchis Theater, Brattleboro, VT, April 9th, 2011

Last night, after a long day that included an early morning run, a hike up and down a mountain, and an hour’s worth of walking around Brattleboro, I planted my butt in one of the old, battered seats of the Latchis Theater to listen to Chris Smither and Patty Larkin play their guitars and sing. This was my first time in the Latchis, and it’s a beautiful place. The d├ęcor is faux-classical, with columns and murals depicting scenes from antiquity. Sitting in the third row of the theater, front and center, I spent at least a minute simply staring up at the ceiling, which is deep blue with mythical beasts outlined in white.

I saw Chris and Patty play together this past December at the Half the Sky benefit concert in Arlington and, while I’m always happy to see Chris, I was particularly eager to see Patty this time around. Her agile, intricate guitar playing and deep, surprising melodies were a treasure of the Arlington show, and I wanted to see if there was more to it than a single concert. I wasn’t disappointed, although when Chris opened the show, I stopped thinking about her. He was in unusually strong form. From the opening moment, as the foot-tapping and guitar lick announced “Don’t Call Me Stranger” to open the show, he proceeded to own the stage. Song after song bit and held, just like they always do, and his singing was passionate and nuanced. Songs from his latest album preceded “Love You Like a Man,” which I haven’t heard him play in a while now, and “No Love Today,” for which he invited Patty to come onstage and sing harmonies. By that time, I was yearning for a full Chris Smither set.

After Chris left the stage, leaving Patty to a play set of half a dozen songs. She began with “Tango,” which she played at the Arlington show. It’s full of beautiful, intricate picking and strumming and banging, and there wasn’t a dull moment in the song. “The Cranes” was less impressive, but the rest of her set was gold, from “The Book I’m Not Reading” to “Pablo Neruda” to “Dear Heart.” That last one featured the electric guitar and the violin bow and, just as it did the last time I heard her do it, it moved me. It’s a great one. At some point soon, I need to sit down with a CD of hers and give it a good listen, because I’m starting to think I’ve been missing out.

Patty’s set preceded a 20 minute intermission, after which the two musicians returned to the stage to play a set together. Patty, I was pleased to hear, stood toe-to-toe with Chris (figuratively, I mean). Not that it was a competition, but I’m a big Chris Smither fan, and it’s asking a bit much to expect a stagemate of his to play songs the equal of “Can’t Shake These Blues” or “Train Home,” both of which he wowed me with Saturday night. I didn’t know the songs Patty played in her second set, but her guitar playing and singing were enticing and I certainly didn’t tune out.

Their banter during the duo set was cute. “Play me something,” Chris invited Patty, after he finished his first song. A couple of songs later, Patty broke a string and left the stage to take care of her instrument. Chris told her not to worry. “I’ll play a long one,” he assured her, which wound up being “Drive You Home Again,” one of his greatest. “Now I have a crush on you,” he said later on, after Patty played a particularly tender love song. He responded with “Father’s Day.” “And now I have a crush on you,” she said after it was over. There was some talk about their roots. Knowing he was from New Orleans, she asked him when he moved to Cambridge. When the answer came—1966—it elicited a collective murmur from the audience. He talked about how writing songs was something he forced himself to do after he realized that, as a musician, it was the way to make money. He shrugged. “I was going to be an anthropologist.” “Makes sense,” she replied. “How’d you get out of Wisconsin?” he asked her a bit later. “On a bus,” was the answer. Throughout the set, each would occasionally play a little guitar to accompany each other. She contributed some electric guitar to the finale, “Statesboro Blues,” which features some particularly raucous singing. When they came back out for the encore, Patty had a mandolin with her, and her strumming and harmony singing enriched “Leave the Light On,” which Patty said ought to be in everyone’s songbook. And who could disagree?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Scenes from the Songwriters Exchange at Jack Hardy's Apartment

Here is some footage from a documentary about Suzanne Vega that involves her going to Jack Hardy's apartment for a meeting of the Songwriters Exchange. Jack gives a critique; Suzanne has some trouble opening a Bud Ice -- very cool.

(HT: Steve Winters.)