These were the very first paragraphs I read on the very first day of this year. I suspect I may not read anything more beautiful or near-perfect for the rest of 2015.
“There is a coarse grain in the air of the American Experience, and know it or not it has marked all of us, the way coal dust etches fixed black lines upon the lungs of miners who feel the tug with every laugh and sigh.
It is a weather system all its own, our humid cultural atmosphere: sweet as magnolia, as oily and foreboding as gunmetal upon the tongue. From the auction block to the Harlem Renaissance and on to Selma; from the Appalachian Trail to Attica; from Lewis and Clark to Harpo, Chico, Sacco, and Vanzetti; Lincoln and Douglas through to Washington’s current rancorous desperations — our national narrative, historically, has been a moveable feast, both beautiful and brutal, and it’s never been more authenticall articulated than in the language of folk songs, for they stand outside of time and speak freely, with loyalty to nothing but the truth.
Understand that when I speak of folk, it is not as a genre distinction beholden to any particular tone or instrumentation, but rather is specific to songs — ones that grow out of a regional landscape, and speak to and of those who have done the same; thus the great long table has chairs not only for Doc Boggs and the Carter Family, but Little Richard as well. Sister Rosetta sitteth at the right hand of Louis Armstrong, the father almighty, but also across from Link Wray and Nina Simone; Leadbelly and Lee Dorsey; Charles Mingus, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Geechie Wiley, and Duke Ellington; Bessie Smith, and Hank Williams; all of them giving voice to the country’s collective ragged and weary soul, its ferocious and troubled heart.
Songs tell our story most authentically because, like us, they are constantly evolving within their framework, forever being reimagined and reanimated. Every time they are taken up and sung out they are newly ratified, as all truths demand to be. Facts are cast in bronze — throw shadows and collect dust, I mean to say, but Truth is a river; and it’s sliding moan is our familial song upon it. Songs deconstruct our singular experiences and reassemble them as useful mythologies, to be parsed and shared in both sharp unison and blurred harmony. “Spike Driver’s Blues” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” underscore our distinct human condition, our cultural character, more authentically and viscerally than does, say, the Constitution. They represent only two, but are true living documents that stride and wail, invite themselves onto our tongues and then into the air like sparks from a stirred fire; are rooted in suffering and borne aloft by the deep desire not to be.
Songs are our signifiers, lifting our spirits and bubbling beneath us like subtitles, explaining us to ourselves.“
Opening paragraphs of the articleGo Tell It On The Mountain: Greg Leisz And The Architecture Of Song by Joe Henry
Well, I’ve obviously done a spectacularly poor job of blogging in 2014. No doubt my two or three readers must assume I have given it up completely. Surprise! I am back to briefly mention a few highlights of 2014 which, had I been writing regularly, would have undeniably been among the topics herein.
For our first show of the year, Suzy and I saw Justin Townes Earle at City Winery back in mid-March. As seems to be the case with JTE, it was an extremely relaxed and informal affair. He wasn’t in particularly good voice for the first couple songs, but then he found his footing and it turned out to be an excellent show. JTE may never hit the level of near-genius that marked father Steve’s best work, but in my estimation, at just the moment when Papa Steve’s output has become progressively uninspired and lackluster, Justin keeps getting better and better with each successive record. I’m all in.
One Saturday in July, I headed to Oak Hill, NY with my buddy Jim to check out the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. Always mentioned along with Merlefest, Gettysburg, Telluride, and a few others as a top-tier fest, it’s one I’ve heard and read about for most of my life. As a veteran of more Merlefests than I can count, I was excited to see how Grey Fox compared. It did not disappoint. In fact I give it points over Merlefest for manageability. Merlefest is outstanding for what it is, and truly offers something for everyone all day, every day. But it is simply HUGE. Overwhelmingly so. Grey Fox is big enough to satisfy, but small enough to get around to everything you want to see.
As long as I’m on the subject of bluegrass, I’ll quickly mention another great City Winery show from just a couple months ago: the return of the legendary Hot Rize. Back after a 20+ year absence, with a new album and a corresponding tour, it’s as if they’ve never missed a beat. With the stellar guitarist Bryan Sutton filling the role of the late Charles Sawtelle, and Tim O’Brien’s vocal work standing front and center as always, there is simply no match for this band. This is as good as it gets, folks.
Another blast from the past came in December, when our old college friend Chuck came up from NC to go with us to see Richard Barone, Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, and Marti Jones do a song circle in Woodbridge, NJ. We haven’t see Dixon & Jones since sometime in the ’90s, and they are every bit as entertaining now as they always were. And obviously, Crenshaw and Barone are nothing to sneeze at, either.
Speaking of friends, over Easter weekend I had the chance to reconnect with Ken and Virginia Miller. Sometime in January I noticed that during the winter months my efforts to manage the humidity for my Miller guitar had fallen short, and there was a noticeable separation right along the center seam in the top. It was purely cosmetic, but I contacted Ken to discuss it. Eventually I decided to use it as an excuse to go down and see his new shop. When he built the guitar, he and Virginia were in Tallahassee, but they had since moved to (my home state of) North Carolina. When the weather warmed up a bit –and, as luck would have it, the seam in the top pretty much closed itself back up– I took a little extra time off at Easter and drove myself and my guitar down to NC. That Saturday, my Mom and I enjoyed a scenic ride to the Millers’ beautiful new home, which has amazing views across the mountains and fields. The workshop is bright and spacious, and Ken soon set about re-glueing the (mostly gone) seam separation, and then tweaked the setup on the guitar. After that, we visited all afternoon, picking a few tunes on some of their new instruments — Mom playing the Acousteel, Ken’s take on the dobro/weissenborn slide guitar. And that’s without doubt the main attraction at Ken & Virginia’s home: Ken & Virginia themselves, and their warm, inviting hospitality. You simply couldn’t find two finer people to spend the afternoon with. Plus, you know, they have a lot of guitars
Of course the big item on our yearly musical agenda over the last few years has been the Newport Folk Festival, and this year was no exception. Highlights for us this year included Willie Watson, Valerie June, Milk Carton Kids, Ryan Adams, and Tweedy. As always, the festival was smoothly run, easy to manage, and it still offers one of the most beautiful settings you could imagine.
Another main item on our Newport agenda is our annual check-in on the progress of the restoration of The Coronet, which I’ve written about before. For us, no trip to Newport would feel complete without it.
We’ve made a lot of friends at the festival over the years, repeat customers like ourselves, many of whom also often stay at our usual B&B, and half the fun is always catching up with each other every year. This year we spent most of our time with out friends Katherine and Jeremy, from Ottawa, and their new son Finlay, and we were also particularly happy to reconnect with the first couple we ever met at Newport, our old friends Fred and Susie. We met at Newport’s 50th Anniversary Folk Festival, which was the first year Suzy and I attended, and sat together in the same spot again the following year. Since then, Fred and Susie had missed the fest for various reasons. It was fantastic to see them again.
While there, Fred and I talked about the fact that Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell were set to do a free show in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center a few weeks after Newport. Following a little discussion and several emails, Fred decided to come up and meet me for the show. It was extremely crowded, and initially it seemed that we may not make it in. Just as we were about to resign ourselves to listening from the sidewalk, they started letting more people in, and before we knew it we had scored some seats! Perfect weather, beautiful evening, great music, and free.
Finally, I’ll say that our most exciting find of 2014 was Lake Street Dive. Early in the year we watched the Showtime production of “Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis,” a concert film made in Town Hall in NYC. It features any number of our favorite artists, including Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, Willie Watson, Milk Carton Kids, Patti Smith, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Joan Baez, etc. Somewhere deep in the film, suddenly there appears this band we’ve never seen or heard of, and they absolutely blew us away. As soon as the film was over, I ordered every CD they had available on Amazon.
Our first taste of seeing them live was at Newport, where they were the number one item on our to-do list. They were everything we’d hoped; tight arrangements and harmonies, polished without being slick. An infectious blend of jazz, soul, blues, and pop. Easily one of the top highlights of the festival for us this year, made even more special by the guest appearance of Mavis Staples, helping out on the song “Bad Self-Portraits.”
Four months later, in early November, we saw them again when they headlined two consecutive sold out nights at Terminal 5. As we hoped, the full concert experience was just as energized as the festival set, sustained over 90+ minutes. We LOVE this band. More please….