Category: Brooks Williams

A Change Is Gonna Come

November 4th, 2008 — 11:47 pm

Thanks, America. I really needed some hope, and I know I wasn’t alone. Some relevant reposts:

  • Ben Sollee: A Change is Gonna Come (orig. Sam Cooke)
    (web release via multiple blogs, 2008; more Ben here)

  • James Taylor: A Change Is Gonna Come (ibid.)
    (performed on The West Wing, 2004; subsequent web release; more JT here)
  • Eva Cassidy: People Get Ready (live) (orig. Curtis Mayfield)
  • Eva Cassidy: People Get Ready (ibid.)
    (live in Annapolis, 1994 / from Songbird)

  • Jim Henry and Brooks Williams: I Think It’s Going To Work Out Fine (via Ry Cooder)
    (from Ring Some Changes)

Stay tuned for a status update later this week, folks. And thanks, immeasurably, for those who have already pitched in. The solution to our problems is within reach. Together, we really can make a difference.

966 comments » | Ben Sollee, Brooks Williams, James Taylor, Jim Henry

Covered In Folk: Classical Music (Bela Fleck, Chris Thile, David Wilcox, Brooks Williams, etc.)

March 26th, 2008 — 02:05 am

Most people think of modern folk music as inherently coupled with the singer-songwriter movement. And it is true that, once upon a time, those who would grow up to become the folk troubadors of their own tomorrows learned their songs the traditional way, at the knees of their elders, that they, too, might pass old songs on to a new generation, and tell their own stories in familiar forms.

But the primary instruments of folk music turn out to be more versatile than the folk tradition would suggest. And though many modern musicians surely came to folk the old-fashioned way, through listening and picking, plenty others have grown up in modern home environments and schools where formal lessons are a norm. Today’s radio dial speaks in a variety of tongues and timbres. And a parent’s treasured record collection allows for a broad base of source material far richer than that which can be learned from the old folkie or bluesman next door.

The result has been a world in which the potential for early imitation can come from almost anywhere, and does. And as the ways we listen, store, pass along and learn our music change, so does the method by which musicians gain their craft, and stretch it out. It is a world of crossover, in which classical cellist Yo Yo Ma sits in with James Taylor in concert, The Kronos Quartet plays the hell out of Robert Johnson’s Crossroads, and bluegrass musicians like Bela Fleck cut entire albums of classical music. And, since all these remain the music of the folk, for the folk, and by the folk, when the sound comes together just right, it’s still folk music if we want it to be.

On one level, then, like indiefolk, folk rock, and Celtic Punk, the inclusion of classical music in the folk musician’s repertoire is just another example of the hyphenate hybridization of genre which is so common in the world of modern music. But on another level, I think there is reason to celebrate this phenomenon as something very special.

For one thing, the ability to interpret classical themes and motifs effectively is not something that all kinds of folk musicians are even capable of. Doing so calls upon a kind of technical adeptness that is anathema to the strum patterns so prevalent in folk musicians who have learned their trade from blues or rock.

On an even grander scale, making classical music “come out” as folk collapses an exceptional historical dichotomy which presents classical music as the exact opposite of folk music. To take a form which its composers and its audiences have long maintained is so complex, so rarified, that it can only be fully appreciated after years of careful listening and quiet appreciation, and put it in the hands of musicians and instruments which are, by definition, “jus’ folk”, is a revolutionary act on a scale far beyond that of any other folk hybrid form.

In other words: it takes both skill and guts to do this. And perhaps this is why, though the passage of melody and theme from the commonfolk to the highbrow has been a common theme in classical music for over a century, from Bartok to Copeland, it remains rare to hear serious application of classical music to the instrumentation of folk, at least in the hands of musicians who themselves identify as coming from the folk tradition.

Today’s coversongs involve neither songwriting nor singing, for the most part. Instead, here’s a surprisingly diverse set of genuine classical music played on acoustic guitars, banjos, mandolins, fiddles, and other rude country noisemakers by a set of musicians from many folk traditions: contradance, “true” folk, flamenco, Klezmer, the bluegrass and appalachian camps. One hand, this is nothing more than another example of the same phenomenon that makes electronic folk a legitimate (albeit still very fuzzy) term in the hands of promoters and artists. On another level, this is more folk than anything else, a set of adept artists bravely trading on their popular cache to bring cake to the breadline. Relax, and enjoy.

As always here on Cover Lay Down, all song and artist links above go direct to label and artist websites, where you can and should purchase these and other incredible soundscapes. Because while buying your music instead of downloading it might be a classical model, supporting artists without the middlemen is most definitely folk.

210 comments » | Bela Fleck, Brooks Williams, Carlo Aonzo, Chris Thile, Classical, David Wilcox, Flamenco, Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, Romero, Shawn Colvin, Shirim

(Re)Covered III: More Coverfolk From…Moxy Fruvous, Billy Bragg, Brooks Williams, Zydeco

January 9th, 2008 — 03:01 am

Songsources are ever pouring forth new and unearthed sounds: the forgotten track, the new release, your own wonderful recommendations via email or post comments. Sometimes the perfect folksong pops onto the radar (or hits the blogosphere) and demands to be shared, no matter how after-the-fact.

Today, our third installment of (Re)Covered, a regular feature in which we recover a few songs that dropped through the cracks just a little too late to make it into the posts where they belonged. Better late than never, I say. Thanks to all who share music, that we might revisit, and rejoice.

Ever wake up in the middle of the night feeling like you missed something? These Moxy Fruvous kidsongs truly belonged at the core of last month’s post on silly songs and dancearounds for cool moms and dads. Canadian eco-political folk rockers Moxy Fruvous used to rock the house at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival each year, but they could also play a college student center lounge like nobody’s business; their take on the Talking Heads isn’t technically kids music, but it seemed right for the occasion. Their “cover” of seminal kidlit text Green Eggs and Ham is not just hilarious, it’s quite possibly the best folk rap song you’ll ever hear.

Researching those kidfolk posts has brought me new appreciation for the kids CD rack at our local library; here’s a fun little Marley cover I found on Putumayo’s Carribean Playground that would have been perfect for our Subgenre Coverfolk feature on Zydeco music. The first few bars suffer from some cheesy electronic keyboards, but they get swallowed by the great Zydeco sound quick enough. Also included: Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys with a houserockin’ version of traditional proto-Cajun tune La Danse De Mardi Gras. Coming eventually: a full post on folk covers of Bob Marley songs.

A few bonus Brooks Williams coversongs got stuck in my head after our feature on this incredible singer-songwriting guitar wizard. You probably know Angie as a Simon and Garfunkel tune off Sounds of Silence, though folk-rocker Davey Graham gave it first voice; Brooks Williams and Jim Henry’s deceptively simple instrumental version is crisp and reinvigorating. Their gleeful cover of Stefane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt string-jazz tune Minor Swing was too tempting to leave out.

  • Brooks Williams + Jim Henry, Angie (orig. Davey Graham)
  • Brooks Williams + Jim Henry, Minor Swing (orig. Grappelli/Reinhardt)

Finally, I’m still kicking myself for not including kidsong I Was Born in last week’s post on Billy Bragg, cover artist. Like his other work with Wilco and Natalie Merchant, the song is a half-cover — lyrics by Guthrie, music by Bragg — but it captures the Guthrie sensibility so well, you’d think they were channeling the old folkie. His Dylan and Tim Hardin covers are similarly authentic; you probably know the latter as a Rod Stewart piece, but this is a thousand times more real.

Don’t forget to come back on Friday, when I’ll be doing double duty: a few choice folk covers of songs by 80s alternative rock band The Smiths here at Cover Lay Down, and a guest post on the Pop Punk movement over at Fong Songs.

710 comments » | (Re)Covered, Billy Bragg, Brooks Williams, Moxy Fruvous, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Zydeco

Brooks Williams Covers: Toots and the Maytals, Pat Metheny, Jorma Kaukonen, more!

December 12th, 2007 — 03:07 am

I listen to Brooks Williams as if he were two accomplished artists: the instrumentalist and the more traditional singer-songwriter. This makes me an unusual listener –- because while his instrumental wizardry is rightly celebrated, for a surprisingly significant portion of his career, Williams has been hailed by most as a folk guitarist who happens to sing once in a while. Even his own website reinforces this perception of Williams as a guitarist first, defining him as a singer-songwriter but front-loading his bio with quotes about his virtuosity as a guitarist, mentions of awards for the same, and a description of the origins of his playing style.

And that’s a shame. Williams has always been both an incredible guitarist and a sweet, tuneful singer-songwriter who tends to alternate pure instrumentals with sweet-voiced tunes in recording and performance alike. It just took a change-up to prove it.

To be fair, for most of his career, it was hard to blame those who would dismiss or forget his vocal skills and lyric-craft. His awards and recognition have been almost entirely for his slide blues, and his flat- and finger-picking style. Until the release of 2003 folkpop album Nectar, New England transplant, festival fave and “acoustic guitar god” Williams brought his voice out as just one more instrument – and if it came across as a slightly lesser one, it was only because so little could compete with his fretwork.

Nectar represented a significant shift for Williams. Unlike previous albums, which — with the exception of Little Lion, his surprisingly diverse instrumental release of 2000 –- tended to contain an even mix of instrumentals and more typical folkfare, Nectar contains no instrumentals at all. Instead, it comes across as a sweet, enjoyable listen grounded in the voice-forward production values of the urban folk and — dare I say it — Adult Alternative models.

Nectar brought about a strong reaction from Brooks Williams’ fan base, much of it negative. But none of William’s work is easy to dismiss. There’s never been anything urban or even easy about his fingerpicking, even as it moves from the foreground to become one component of many in the more fleshed out songs of his produced work. His hands remain light on the strings, bright and loose, regardless of whether he’s going for a more traditional strum pattern or a wizardry that rivals true folk instrumentalist Leo Kottke.

Among his other talents, Williams has a collector’s ear for covers, and he finds them all over the musical map, from the deep roots of reggae and jazz to the most sensitive of some pretty obscure blues and folk artists. In every genre, he’s rediscovered great but buried songs you haven’t heard in years, if you’ve heard them at all, and made them his own.

His instrumental versions are playful and rarely deep; his vocal work always sounds, to me, like he’s grinning as he sings. This brings a consistent approach to his songs, but because the source material is so diverse, his covers never sound the same — even before the relatively wide set of production modes of Nectar brought us a fulfilled potential for a greater diversity of song and performance.

Today, some covers from Brooks Williams before-and-after. First, some lovely instrumental work on familiar covers of Toots and the Maytals, popjazzman Pat Metheny, ex-Hot Tuna bluesman Jorma Kaukonen, and a crisp and playful Beethoven classic, along with an older, lighthearted something from Sam Phillips/T-Bone Burnett in which you can hear the guitarplay overwhelm the vocal stylings and lyrics. Then, for comparison, a gorgeously atmospheric Dougie MacLean cover, and a pair of lush, melodic folkpop takes on John Martyn and Memphis Slim songs from Nectar. Plus a holiday bonus song that needs no introduction.

Brooks Williams, the solo acoustic guitar virtuoso:

Brooks Williams, the singer-songwriter:

Brooks Williams’ newest CD is slated to be released just after the new year. No matter what it sounds like, it will surely be another daring, crisp set of songs both familiar and innovative, full of his standard string-subtleties, worth listening to a dozen times or more. Get Nectar and Little Lion while you wait for its release, and start a love affair with a maestro as undersung and overlooked as the artists he covers here.

Today’s bonus Holiday coversong:

Looking for more acoustic coversongs? Head over to Covering the Mouse, where later today I’ll be guestposting a sweet scatsong bossa nova version of Cinderella classic Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.

And don’t forget to come back Friday, when we’ll be featuring folkcovers of popular Christmas songs written by Jews.

842 comments » | Brooks Williams, Classical, Holiday Coverfolk, Jorma Kaukonen, Sam Phillips, Toots and the Maytals