Two major bits of news have developed lately in the ever-evaporating world of music, and, surprisingly enough, they both come under the heading of “good news”, though either one could eventually cost you money. I think you should go to Memphis next February, is my first idea; my back-up idea for when you fail to do that is, you should at least buy the debut cd of an amazing young singer-songwriter named Abigail Washburn. It’s called “Song of the Travelling Daughter” (on the Nettwork label, easily available at abigailwashburn.com.) (Perhaps you won’t be too much further annoyed -I don’t know, you just looked a little, uh, disgruntled or something -if I observe that ordering Cds from the artist’s websites are generally the best way to make sure they get a good cut, other than buying it from them at a show.)
Abigail plays banjo, mostly things with Appalachian acoustic roots, frequently accompanied by a cellist, singing sometimes in Chinese, and her album is called “Song of the Travelling Daughter.”
Sounds just awful, doesn’t it?
C’mon, let’s go to Memphis next year! It’ll be fun!
Let me explain:
OK, so I’m sitting on the plane with this kid, who looks like he’s maybe 16 or something, seems like a nice guy, quiet, reading “Tuesdays With Morrie” it looked like (I’m blind as a bat without my specs, and could be way off on this, but his book sort of scared me), so I’d been cordial, but cautious; and then somehow it comes out he’s a musician, playing cello with a woman who plays banjo and sings in mandarin chinese, and for some reason that did sound really interesting at the time, and you know what? They were absolutely breathtaking and thrilling and one of the best things I’ve seen in years! And I saw them in a hotel room! The guy, whose name was Ben Sollee, was an excellent, elegant cellist!
We were all attending the 18th Annual Folk Alliance Conference in Austin, Texas. I had been to one of these a couple of years ago, and totally loved it, mostly because of their tradition of tolerating guerilla showcases, which are sanctioned on two or three floors of the hotel that hosts the convention. Guerilla showcases are just shows people play in their hotel rooms, which is most appealing to me not only for the obvious intimacy, but for the fact that it allows singers to perform without microphones or p.a.systems (most of the music here is acoustic and unampilfied), and I’m telling you, hearing good singers right next to you with no mikes is a great thing! I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
So what happens is, you’re just drifting through this hotel corridor, sticking your head in from time to time when you hear something interesting (and, I do mean, testing the water and proceeding with caution -there’s definitely some rooms here you won’t want to go too far in by mistake. Watch out -there’s some bad, embarassing music here; really not that much, but that is why you don’t go all the way in right away.
But, damn, the informality of it is really quite charming, and you run into amazing new talents with astonishing regularity -and sometimes they do, too, because there’s a good amount of oddball spontaneous jamming involved, which can sometimes, again, be seen as a liability -but why would you want to? It’s sloppy, of course, but glorious, really. And such a constant delight to feel so in on the action -at least to hear what a great singer actually sounds like.
I used to have a hard time with opera singers, because I didn’t like the general idea that there should be one perfect idea of how the human voice should sound and it’s Caruso or Pavarotti or Mario Lanza or whoever, it sounded in my ignorance like they were all trying to sound the same, and I grew up on guys like Dylan and Jagger and guys who made a point of sounding different and peculiar, so I had a hard time with opera, until I heard a stage-hand who turned out to be a moonlighting opera singer sort of warming up standing right next to me, at which point it suddenly became evident that it was gorgeous. I still don’t buy opera Cds, but every genre, no matter how lame, has its magicians.
And that’s what I saw, frequently -magicians. I saw a band called Houston Jones -who I would’ve avoided like the plague on the basis of their name alone, but again, that’s why this works: I was in the hall! They sounded great, so I went in! A six-piece band from the Bay Area, complete with drums, no p.a., and you can hear every note and every word just fine, and they’re ridiculously talented and polished and when they lay down a country groove, it stays laid down.
And this is the other thing: I don’t even like country music! But when I’m at these things, suddenly I do -it’s weird! We also saw a great Slavic group -whose name I didn’t get unfortunately- with mandolin, accordion, and clarinet, playing all these wild time signatures with real bite and precision and passion; great Austin players Frank Meyer and Karen Mal (he of low voice, wry observation, and leisurely tempo, sometimes with Ms. Mal in tow, an exceptional singer, mandolinist, and occasional prompter (I’d met them both on my earlier foray into Folkdom, and been thoroughly knocked out.) Not to mention locals Greg Greenway and Zoe Lewis, among others.
I even got to hear my old friend Jonathan Edwards, who still puts out energy like he couldn’t run out if he tried- he just sounded great, like he always did. For this, I had to sneak into one of the Folk Alliance showcases, but at this point, I was a seasoned guerilla, and folk bouncers don’t strike fear in the hearts of anyone.
But still! A big bunch of mostly country/folk rootsy stuff -I’m sure it sounds terrifying on paper, but you have to go! I mean, I hate all that stuff! Especially banjo! Especially Apalachian folk music! So what about this Abigail Washburn person? I mean, did I just lose it at this thing or what?
Of course not! I’m out of time, but don’t wait until next month for me to explain why I love Abigail Washburn so much, just buy the damn thing -take my word for once! It’s either that or Memphis, which is where they’ll be holding the Folk Alliance next year, again in the middle of February. You can register for the convention itself, which is a good place to learn about the music business (gag) or try to make contacts (urgh) and well worth it just for the great entertainment they showcase themselves in larger halls with p.a. Systems and lights and everything.
Or you can just get the room and be a guerilla, wandering the halls until dawn, in search of nice, fresh, un-adulterated, un-ampilified (and sometimes even unplanned) music meat.
Expect a satisfying feast, folks…