It’s not often that in one evening you can hear six artists who capture the flow and evolution of folk music, from the turn of one century to the turn of another, from pure to punk. (And yes, punk music is folk music, in case you never got that memo.) The return of Music City Roots for the summer season was a choice collection, a dipper in the stream that kept coming up clear and delicious.
I could write at length, and hope to one day, about Frank Fairfield. I’d never heard of him, but that’s the fun of Roots. (Who’s that? WOW!) Research told me he was one of the new crop of early music aficionados, a collector of old 78s and wax cylinders, a recording artist on the highly selective and backward looking Tompkins Square label. And there are other folks who play “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy When I’m Gone,” but I have never seen a sub 40-year-old (maybe sub 30?) who could inhabit the song like Fairfield. He started on old-time fiddle, held against his chest not his chin, in the archaic manner. He moved to amazingly fast and deft clawhammer banjo, on to a lovely slackish, woody guitar-based blues and back to the fiddle for a rousing “Rye Whiskey” that uplifted the crowd. All the while, he proved a master of phrasing and energy modulation – a kind of subtlety one usually only sees in very old musicians. He’s humble almost to a fault, but very interesting to talk to. And he’s been out on the road with some pretty big acts, so we’ll be hearing more from him.
The bewitching Tristen may have been the most modern musician of the night, and she came next in the Vietti slot. She’s preparing her first full-length project now, and I’d line up to get it. The one-named one has a crystalline voice and a way with a soaring melody. She brought a tiny orchestra with her and the two violins and one cello, not to mention her guitars’ ethereal, reverby sounds, lent a grand symphonic quality to the set. (And thanks to the guitarist by the way for observing that it was Woody Guthrie’s birthday.) Her song “Eager For Your Love” is my new head-haunting favorite thing.
The scruffy and loveable Futurebirds came up from Athens GA to bathe us in a birdbath of Wilco-esque, steel-drenched alt-country. They can lay back or pound it hard, and the big spread-out harmonies of the song “Johnny Utah” were a real pleasure. And speaking of Jonnys, Jonny Fritz took us deep into country territory, albeit with his unique and wry view of the world. He’s dropped his adopted Corndawg name in favor of the real thing since last we had him on the show. He says it came out of a trademark dispute (somebody was already called Jonny Corndawg?!?!) but that he’s happy to have moved on.
The home stretch of the show featured the serene and dreamy folk pop of Sarah Siskind, an artist so far better recognized by other major league talents (Alison Krauss, Bon Iver, Paul Brady) than the public at large. But the momentum is moving in her direction. She offered up “Falling Stars” with its simple yet outrageously absorbing melody and “Say It Louder,” the title track from her current (brilliant) CD, all set against a magic soundscape made by guitarists Joe MacMahan and Lex Price, plus the vocals of Julie Lee and Elizabeth Foster. And that set up the stage for the Dexateens who upped the ante on energy and volume with a fun, blasting set of primal country punk. And finally, the Loveless Jam, a joyous chorus version of the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” was maybe the most fun and cathartic Loveless Jam ever.
But then I’m prone to hyperbole.
It was the very best show in the history of music and will never be topped.
Until next week.