Tag Archives: Folk

Playing anthems…to 20 people

The Low Anthem, Mississippi Studios, July 2018

The Low Anthem, Mississippi Studios, July 2018

Some bands can’t catch a break.

Last week I saw The Low Anthem at Mississippi Studios in Portland, a small (smaller than intimate, in truth) venue. Just as well, as there were about 20 people in the room.

How could this be? Surely some mistake with the booking or the promotion? Were The Decemberists are playing an impromptu set in the bar next door?

Nope. Just the vagaries of popularity and music and trends and time. The one unimpeachable thing was the night’s music: a full rendition of the band’s latest release (a concept album about a salt doll immersing herself in the sea), followed by some older songs. It was a sublime, if unnecessarily low-lit (see above), evening.

Leaving the venue I cast my mind back a decade or so, to a time when The Low Anthem were being heralded as the new Fleet Foxes of sorts, and tickets to their Dublin shows were hard to get.

Somewhere along the way something changed – not least the band itself, whose members turned away from the ‘new folk’ (or whatever) label to indulge their own, more niche, interests (including building their own studio in a restored vaudeville-era theater).

Nonetheless, one assumes that when artists reach a certain plateau – of recognition at least, if not success – they remain there, maybe not ascending to the next level but, at the very least, not slipping down the hill.

Why care about this? Because The Low Anthem makes music that deserves to be heard, that may at times require immersion and focus but may also – when it comes to beautiful song like “Gondwanaland” – be the most sublime thing you’ll hear today.

 

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Listening to Dave Van Ronk

DaveVanRonkFolksinger (1)Sometimes a prophet doesn’t cry out in a wilderness,
He works in a great city, battling to be heard.

Sometimes he sits in a small studio and sings –
About old wagons, booze, work, justice and its absence,
Pain and fear and retribution,
And joy too.

About the real stuff that keeps us awake in the night.

Dave Van Ronk brought the message.
Others took it but he carried it out before them – a small, constant light.
He held it in basements, coffeehouses, on Village streets, and he passed it to others.

Such small things – one man’s life, one man’s talent – rarely register.
The song ends. The world moves on.

But those who knew, knew. Some then and some now.
Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. Cocaine Blues. You Been A Good Old Wagon.

He Was A Friend Of Mine.
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50 years on, bidding farewell to The Dead

The Grateful Dead, 1970.

The Grateful Dead, 1970.

What a long, sometimes strange, trip it was.

This weekend, after 50 years of music and two decades on from the death of Jerry Garcia, the original members of the Grateful Dead will take to the stage for the last time.

Fans at Chicago’s Soldier Field – some of whom paid $11,000 for their general admission ticket – can expect a blueprint Dead performance: four hours of music, built around the jazz-inflected solos and space rock jams that the band’s become renowned for over the past half century.

For some it’s the end of an era, one rooted in a 1960s San Francisco that seems impossibly distant from 2015. For others it’s ‘did they not wrap up years ago’?

For those of us in between, it’s a case of mild nostalgia leading to a dig through the archives.

Or, as WH Auden wrote on the death of earlier cultural giant: “A few thousand will think of this day
as one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual”.

Grateful_Dead_-_Workingman's_DeadMy own interaction with the Dead’s music is, by a fan’s standards at least, lamentably limited. In fact it’s mainly based around two albums, a pair of stripped-down acoustic recordings released within five months of each other in 1970 – Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

Both were recorded at a time when the band was under financial and other pressures – Phil Lesh later recounted how Robert Hunter’s lyrics to Box Of Rain were inspired by the terminal illness of Lesh’s father.

The albums are peopled with characters from the first half of the American 20th century – some real (Casey Jones, Mississippi John Hurt) some an amalgam of the nameless thousands (the cut-adrift singer of Brokedown Palace, the drifter happy to meet a Friend Of The Devil).

One song in particular has stood out in the 20 years or so since I first heard it.

Ripple is the axis on which American Beauty turns, an existentialist lyric in an easy turn of phrase, on top of a gentle melody.

Owing more Thoreau than Timothy Leary the recording stands, 45 years later, as a call to self-reliance:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night,
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone.

To those who listened, the Dead brought us this far – now we’re on our own.

 

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Baby Let Me Follow You Down…to a basement in Boston

UNLIKE most of Ireland I have no connection to Boston.

I never had a plumber uncle in Dorchester, cousins in the Boston Police Department or an older brother working as a barman and sometime GAA player.

I didn’t spend summers moving furniture and dossing with a dozen others in a sublet in Quincy, painting mansions on the North Shore or drinking in Southie’s Irish bars.

Growing up if you’d asked me about the place I might have mentioned a tea party, or how I never really watched Cheers, or why I really wanted to visit New York and how far was it to Massachusetts?

Club Passim, October 2003.

At Club Passim, October 2003.

That was until Boston – or rather Cambridge – gave me one of the best nights of my life.

It occurred in the salad days of my time as a (very) occasional singer and guitar player.

I pursued this vice sporadically and anonymously for a period in my 20s, playing in a garage band with friends in Dublin and in open mics wherever.

All of which brought me, one Autumn evening in October 2003, to Boston.

I could have come to the area for the history, the seafood, the city.

But instead my buddy S and I hauled ourselves and our guitar cases out of the Back Bay and to a small basement club, on a tiled alley called Palmer Street, close to Harvard Square in Cambridge.

This was (and is) the site of Club Passim, formerly Club 47, the hub of all things folk in the area since the 1960s.

A local student called Joan Baez got her start there, singing about silver daggers and homicide.

A tyro Bob Dylan played for free just to get onto the stage. Bruce Springsteen didn’t even make it that far – his plea for a spot was turned down.

It was that kind of place and just about everyone who was in anyone in my record collection had stepped up for a set there.

At first glance I wasn’t going to get within 900 Miles of the stage.

But once a month, in the finest folk tradition, the club ran an open mic, showcasing original songwriting. A couple of dollars membership, patience and luck might get you a five minute slot.

On stage at Club Passim, Cambridge, October 2003.

On stage at Club Passim, Cambridge, October 2003.

We paid up and took our places that night amidst the coffee-sipping, hummus-nibbling regulars.

Local after local got up and did their stuff. I was sure neither S nor myself, blowin’ in on spec, would get a look in.

But then one after another, and just before they shut down, we got the call. We took the stage together, with a plan to accompany one another on each other’s song (in the end I think we just played solo).

I could try to explain the head-shattering combo of joy, terror and release that I felt facing the room. Alas I was focusing so hard all I can truly recall is the spotlight and the microphone.

And the round of applause the good folkies of Boston gave me. It’s ringing in my ears to this day.

I’ve never been back to Club Passim. It’s still on Palmer Street and it’s flying the flag this week for music, free expression and all that true stuff.

It’s small story, but I’m grateful for what Cambridge laid on for us that night – a welcome, a leap of faith and a brief moment in the folk spotlight.

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