Folk America: Greenwich Village Revisited

I’ve just returned from the second Barbican concert night of Folk America, the BBC folk series. Last night was the stompin’ kind of folk, played by the new generation. Tonight was called Greenwich Village Revisited, and featured some of the original members of the ’60s New York folk scene. It was a quieter, more thoughtful, more moving night.

On arriving I just caught the end of the Coal Porters playing in the lobby. A bluegrass version of “Teenage Kicks”? Suits me.

Tonight’s emcee was Billy Bragg. He’s always been a socially aware performer but has attained special folk status with his Mermaid Avenue projects. Billy played Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” to start the night off. The stage was made to resemble a New York coffee house. Unlike Seasick Steve the night before, Bragg didn’t hang out on stage the whole evening.

First up was Byrds frontman Roger McGuinn. He’s a class act with his jauntily-perched fedora and trimmed goatee. Age has weakened his high, ethereal voice just a touch but it’s still full of both honest heartbreak and bounce-back optimism. He played solo and covered Dylan’s “My Back Pages”, a song Odetta performed at Martin Luther King’s 1963 DC march, a Clancy Brothers tune, Joan Baez’s “Silver Dagger”, and Pete Seeger’s “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)”. I also never wholly realised how complex the guitar parts to “Eight Miles High” are before I saw McGuinn play it tonight.

Next was Texan Carolyn Hester. Her voice was surprisingly sweet and as strong as I recall it being years ago. She sang songs of love and peace and was so down-to-earth that you had to believe her. Her version of “House of the Rising Sun” made you want to weep. When she did Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”, which she performed years ago with Nanci Griffith at Bob’s 30th anniversary concert, I quite honestly did well up.

After the break Bragg played a couple more tunes, then handed the stage toEric Anderson. Anderson was the artist I knew least about going into the evening. From what I heard he’s a great lyricist, but as a live performer he is – now, at least – breathy and lacking in dynamics. The fact that his songs are long make it worse. Things improved when Roger McGuinn joined him for “Thirsty Boots”. Anderson’s a great songwriter, no doubt. And I won’t write off anyone who tells stories about when Clapton and Hendrix and McGuinn all came ’round his place to jam. But it didn’t deliver the impact of the other performers.

Last was songstress Judy Collins. And I’ll be damned if her soprano voice wasn’t as clear and stratospheric as it’s always been. She started with “Both Sides Now”, the Joni Mitchell song she popularised. She continued – on guitar and piano, which I didn’t know she played so well – with songs that showcased her tender, soaring vocals. She was full of stories too, like meeting Leonard Cohen and listening to Dylan writing “Mr. Tambourine Man”.  She was classy, upbeat, and sounded great.

Judy Collins

All five performers came out to encore with an extended version of the best hymn ever, “Amazing Grace”. We sang along, because we felt it.

As last night, this show was recorded, and is planned to be shown on BBC4 on 13-Feb-09.

Folk America: Hollerers, Stompers & Old Time Ramblers

There was a time in 1920s and 1930s America when, having cross-fertilised and gestated sufficiently, folk, blues, jazz, gospel and country music saw the light of a bigger day than they had before. Radio and records meant that music started spreading faster and wider than it had previously. But in the early stages there was great overlap between what was blues, what was country, and what was folk (and what was gospel, and what was jazz…).

Last night at the Barbican was the first of two nights that are part of a BBC series called Folk America. The fact that they chose a famous image of folk-blues legend Dock Boggs for their logo was a good sign, I thought.

Last evening’s show was titled Hollerers, Stompers & Old Time Ramblers. It showcased young American artists who still perform and record in old folk styles, with special attention on the ramblin’, rowdy side of the music. The whole event was emceed by slide-blues late-in-life success story Seasick Steve (who I saw a couple of years back).

Seasick Steve

Steve had half the stage set up with stuff from his house, making the seated crowd feel like we were set on his back porch. He started the night with a couple of his own songs, then proceeded to say a few words to introduce each new act.

Allison Williams and Chance McCoy are an Appalachian banjo player and fiddler who teamed up with a couple of other friends for a nice set of string band songs (with a little step dance solo that got the crowd cheering). Fun.

Next was CW Stoneking. Okay, this guy is from another time. Steve was right when he said that Stoneking is lost in the ’20s, despite only being 34 years old, the son of American parents, and raised in Australia. He walked out in a pure white suit, with black cowboy hat and bowtie, and some brass players. Speaking, his thick-tongued voice is unmissably Australian, but as soon as he picks up a dobro and starts singing he sounds like he’s in 1920s Louisiana. He played songs about being shipwrecked off the coast of Africa (“Jungle Lullaby”), working in a “hoodoo doctor’s office” (“The Love Me Or Die”) and a failed attempt to get a friend to go through with a wedding (“Darktown Strutters Blues”). Eerily phenomenal. Like stumbling across a New Orleans funeral band being led by a ghost.

Next was Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole. They did some upbeat Cajun/Creole that went down well but was perhaps a bit wasted on a staid, seated British audience. This is country dance music and the best venue for it would be a party, not the Barbican.

After the break came Diana Jones, who sang and played guitar with just a bit of accompaniment. These were slower, more soulful songs. She’s an excellent songwriter with touching stories to tell, but her throaty twang was a bit too much for me at times.

Then were the Wiyos. Why have I not heard of these guys? They’re great: fast, polished ragtime with lots of vaudeville flair. “Dying Crapshooters Blues” was great, and they did easily the best washboard solo I’ve ever seen.

Seasick Steve came back on to play a couple more songs and the stomping and hollering began in earnest. He finished with an epic version of “Chiggers”. You know that half of Steve’s down-home act is put on, but so what: the other half is real, I bet, and all the best bluesmen told tall tales about themselves.

They encored with everyone coming onstage for a couple of Uncle Dave Macon jams, including “Won’t Get Drunk No More”. Cue more hollering and step-dancing.

Roots music may not be selling millions, but it’s alive and well, folks. The songs played last night weren’t homages. They were genuine folk music songs, rough and rowdy ones, but coming from modern perspectives and played by (mostly) young people.

Tonight I’m back at the Barbican for part two, Greenwich Village Revisited.

If you get BBC4, they’re showing the concert on TV at 10pm UK time on Friday 23-Jan-09, with some Seasick Steve performances before it.

EDIT: I was also shockingly remiss in neglecting to mention that I met up with Lea and Dave from UnchainedGuide during the intermission and for a quick drink after.