Archive for May 2011

Memorial Day Coverfolk, Redux:
More songs for soldiers past and present

May 29th, 2011 — 12:08 pm

As in previous years, we’re off today, cleaning house and burning the social calendar at both ends for the long weekend. So here’s our traditional Memorial Day post, plus a growing set of bonus tracks for our regular readers.

For most of my life, the military has been an abstraction. Though war itself lives everpresent in our newsdriven culture, and memorial statues and parades a recurring part of community, my concept of life in the armed forces, and the risks and stresses thereof, is based on popculture parables, mostly: fictionalized movie and television portrayals fleshed out by fleeting glimpses of men and women in uniform in airports, reporting to places I cannot imagine, to carry out tasks I could not describe.

My connection with family members who have served has been long after the fact. My father spent some portion of the sixties as a clerk typist in the Coast Guard reserves, but other than a truly dorky picture which he kept in his bedside drawer, and a few well-worn tales of short-haired inspection wigs and furloughs which I have evoked over the years, I could not identify those parts of him, if any, which were forged in service to his country.

Similarly, though my grandfather’s work developing radar in the Army is an important part of the family mythos, it was long over by the time I came to consciousness. Though I carry his dog tag in my wallet, the man I knew as Grandpa was a quiet shirtsleeved man, his service so much a part of who he had become that I never really considered how his military past had made him until it was too late to ask.

Surely, both of these men, and the usual assortment of greatuncles, met men along the way who never came back. But their stories are not mine. Their losses, if any, are their own. And so, for most of my life, Memorial Day has been a secular holiday, atheistic, with no trace of sentiment.

But teaching in a school with an ROTC program means living with a daily reminder of the armed forces as peopled by real, three-dimensional human beings. Students show up in class crisp and confident in uniform; I pass them in the hallways lined up for inspection, or pacing out their cadences.

Jerome and Lori Anna, my two 2009 graduating ROTC seniors, were still just kids, off to Prom on Thursday, on the cusp of graduation. This year, Pam fills the same shoes, wearing her dress uniform under her graduation gown at class day last Friday. Their lives are ahead of them, but their choices were limited. For them, service is a way out of the inner city, perhaps the only one available to them. It will pay for college, and help them focus their abilities. It will give them a future.

And so they choose to lend their bodies and hearts to the protection of our shores and skies. And their very real and present future — fighting wars, combatting terrorism — lends new credence to the need for memory.

May they serve proud, like our fathers before us, and our grandfathers before them. May their service be swift, and their burden light. Rest assured; we will remember them.

Repost Bonus Tracks, Memorial Day 2010:

Repost Bonus Tracks, Memorial Day 2011:

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets twice weekly.

103 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Theme Posts

After The Rapture: Songs of Ascendance
(Covers of Dylan, John Prine, John Gorka & more!)

May 22nd, 2011 — 11:30 am

Dylan’s 70th birthday is nigh upon us, and as he seems to still be walking the earth after the predicted Rapture has come and gone, we can only assume that either he wasn’t any worthier than we, or – once again – the extremists have proved themselves no more able to predict God’s timing than the rest of us.

Me, I’m quite proud of myself for not giving in to the temptation to release a mess of helium-filled blow-up dolls to the heavens down on main street. Instead, I spent a long evening with friends around the campfire, making music and reveling in the earthly delights of drink and debauchery until the wee hours. And the news of the rapture lent a tone of gratefulness to the whole proceedings, making it feel better than usual to be here – giving us something to thank Rev. Camping and his evangelical followers for, after all.

Heaven is a rich minefield for folk artists, of course, calling back to the age-old spiritual/secular split in musical history which symptomized the larger turn towards the secular as western society emerged from the dark ages. In the abstract, the term is everpresent, both as a literal call to the Christian concepts which frame so much of our society, and, used metaphorically, to represent a kind of nirvana state, an ideal to which the community and culture aspires.

But the idea of ascendance is both more specific and more problematic. In these visions, Heaven is not just a spiritual center, a place to which we rise, it is a destination made concrete, one that chooses us as much as we choose it. And whether oblique or direct, the songs which address the Rapture and its accompanying apocalypse ring of hope and doomsday, their twinned tension encapsulating the universal, everpresent question of worth with which we all struggle in our darkest moments.

Today, then, as a companion to Rapture-themed sets from Cover Freak, Town Full of Losers, and fellow Star Maker Machine collaborator Any Major Dude With Half A Heart, we present a set of coverfolk lighthearted in its thematic relevance yet heavy on the gospels of grace and ascendance, beginning with a trifecta of tracks originally written by that born-again earth-bound savior, Bob Dylan, and ending with a tongue-in-cheek coda from Jill Sobule. Floridian young’uns Jubal’s Kin’s version of the 19th century hymn Come Ye Sinners, especially, comes highly recommended – but as always, all herein are well worth the listen.

71 comments » | Bob Dylan, Theme Posts

Covered In Folk: Bonnie “Prince” Billy
(A New American Icon, from Dylan to Danzig, from Joe Pug to Johnny Cash)

May 20th, 2011 — 09:13 pm

An unusual double feature today, combining our two most popular focusing strategies: covers of, and covers by, a folkworld artist with whom the average folkfan is only partially or anecdotally familiar. As with all those who we tout, our feature subject deserves to rise above the constant chatter, to be celebrated for his songwriting and performance. But in this case, the man is so prolific, it seemed appropriate to go for the omnibus approach.

To be fair, though I had long planned to take on the collected coverage of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, I came about this week’s feature backwards, through an incredibly beautiful cover of Hard Life, recently performed by rising star singer-songwriter Joe Pug and fellow indiefolk darling Strand of Oaks, in a set solicited and recorded by uberblogger Heather of I Am Fuel, You Are Friends in a small, private chapel session near her Denver home. It wasn’t the first time I had truly listened to the words and melodies of the songwriter in question – after all, the man has appeared on several indie tributes and cover compilations, and his name is a constant companion in the world of music bloggers. But as with the best covers of any stripe, the sheer beauty of the cover sent me back to the stacks, on the path of rediscovery.

And that way, I found, lies genius.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy – born Will Oldham, aka Palace Brothers, Palace Music, et. al. – is a performer as slippery as his pseudonymic existence, easily misunderstood as self-mocking when, for example, he appears with Zach Galifinakis in a Kanye West video, or professes his love for the infamous R&B artist and accused pedophile R. Kelly.

But in less than two decades of performance and recordings, he’s earned the credibility of his peers through an exceptionally prolific career marked by honest, earthy artistry, and a practically unparalleled devotion to authenticity in performance and song. As noted aptly in a 2009 New Yorker feature article, the result has been a true transfiguration of American music, one in which Bonnie “Prince” Billy… has become, in his own subterranean way, a canonical figure.

Oldham’s work isn’t as accessible as some of his more melodic peers in the indie world. His voice is gruff and broken, his lyrics oft oblique; to steep in his work, whether in collaboration or solo, in full instrumentation or soft, fragile acoustic singer-songwriter folk mode, is to enter a world where emotion trumps precision, and beauty comes – if it comes at all – blackened and tarnished, as a sort of dirty, coarse reflection of the ages.

But filtering other voices through those strained, strangled pipes and a diverse set of twisted, faux-grandiose melodic tendencies wrings new emotional potency from songs which have often been overlooked, or at least not ever looked at so deeply as Oldham manages to – see, for example, his recent recreation of Sufjan Stevens’ All The Trees Of The Field as some sort of great old Crosby, Stills and Nash vehicle, the odd yet aching sadness he brings to Puff The Magic Dragon, the utterly transformative way he channels Steely Dan to take on Springsteen’s Thunder Road, his torn, sparse, broken duet on John Prine’s In Spite of Ourselves, or any of the seven utterly amazing covers on his 2007 EP Ask Forgiveness.

And, conversely, those who have taken on his songbook do so out of respect, and each, in its way, has managed to reveal both the age-old nobility and the sense of modernistic grandeur inherent in the songs, evoking diamonds out of the ether, still tarnished with all the char and soot of the originals.

Today, then, we present a twinned feature of sorts: side A a full-length set of performances and recordings by the man himself, interpreting the songbooks of those he respects; side B a smaller but no less majestic set, with covers of Oldham originals from the likes of Johnny Cash, Calexico, Mark Kozelek, Fanfarlo in rare form, and the inimitable Joe Pug. Hear ‘em and weep – and then head over to Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s predictably inaccessible, oblique online home, to hear, purchase, pursue and explore.

Side A: Bonnie “Prince” Billy Covers:

Side B: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Covered in Folk:

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets twice a week thanks to support from readers like you. If you like what we do here, won’t you consider donating a few bucks to help defray our rising server costs?

46 comments » | Bonnie Prince Billy, Covered in Folk

Dylan, Etc.: More covers of and from
Sarah Jarosz, Lavinia Ross, Lisa Hannigan, Anna Vogelzang & more!

May 16th, 2011 — 07:46 pm

There’s a lot of Dylan in the air this month – see, for example, both our recent feature on Thea Gilmore’s John Wesley Harding, released in honor of the seminal singer-songwriter’s 70th birthday next week, and last weekend’s house concert preview for our upcoming show with Anthony Da Costa, who many have compared to Dylan himself. But as we’ve noted several times here at Cover Lay Down, the Bob Dylan canon is far too vast to justify a single feature. So here’s an omnibus of a different sort: five vastly different new and newly-found takes on Dylan, plus more from the mailbox and beyond.

We’re huge fans of the Sugar Hill Records catalog here at Cover Lay Down. But this two solid releases this month have raised the bar even higher for the best little bluegrass label in the business: Follow Me Down, a stunningly powerful sophomore album from festival circuit fave and local college student Sarah Jarosz, and a strong solo record from Tara Nevins, better known as the sole female voice behind roots rockers and folk festival faves Donna The Buffalo.

Cover Me already hit the ground running last week with Sarah’s Radiohead cover, which features her singing alongside the Punch Brothers, but as a nod of the head towards our ongoing support of her burgeoning career on the border of bluegrass and indiepop – the girl turns twenty next week, for goodness sake – we’ve been given exclusive first-stream rights for Jarosz’ cover of Dylan’s Ring Them Bells, and it’s a masterful take, warm and sweet and aching, with rich production, a pitch-perfect tonality, and subtle harmonies by Vince Gill. Meanwhile, Nevins takes on Van Morrison amidst a spate of deep, mystical originals, and it fits in just fine with her rootsy sensibility. Both albums come highly recommended; head over to Sugar Hill to order.

  • Sarah Jarosz: Ring Them Bells (orig. Bob Dylan)

Our feature on the songbook of Kate Wolf last summer found us wandering North through Kate’s own hills of California, and on upstream to Oregon. Now, in the mail, comes Keepsake, the sole solo album from Lavinia Ross, Oregonian farm-owner and musician whose music is as earthy and honest and organic as her produce. The album includes three Kate Wolf covers, a take on James Taylor’s Millworker, several originals, and a rock-solid interpretation of Dylan’s Tomorrow is a Long Time, recorded with her husband, singer-songwriter Rick Ross, and the whole thing is light and gentle as it comes. Here’s a pair to get you started.

We keep a close eye on little-lo-fi-UK-label-that-could Where It’s At Is Where You Are; though their catalog yaws wide, their taste for covers is insatiable, as we noted way back in March of 2009 upon the release of their gigantic Springsteen tribute, and again over the holiday season, and their stable includes a number of quite wonderful otherwise-unknowns emerging on and about the folkworld. This month’s news takes note of The Lobster Boat, the newest release from Howard Hughes of French band Coming Soon and David Tattersall of The Wave Pictures, whose work together sounds a bit like a mostly-acoustic folk-rock band whose members grew up listening to the Kinks, Belle and Sebastian, and the Violent Femmes; if the below bonus b-side and the title track streaming on their homepage are any indication, this one is well worth the pounds.

  • Howard Hughes and David Tattersall: The Locusts Sang (orig. Bob Dylan)

Elseblog, the collaborative at covers tumblr Copy Cats shared this 2009 bell-driven Lisa Hannigan cover of Just Like Tom Thumb Blues a few weeks ago, but it finally caught my ear – a sharp shock amidst a long slog – as I was digging through the feedreader, trying to catch up after two weeks of being out of the loop. Not sure if it’s folk, per se, but we’ve celebrated Hannigan’s beautifully torn voice here before, and the sparse instrumentation and stark pub setting are utterly delightful to this folk listener’s ears.

Finally, since we were trending Dylanesque this week, I headed over to YouTube and did a quick search, just to see what would pop up, hoping to find the perfect coda. Sure enough: amidst the grungy bedroom amateurs, indie-folk banjo-player Anna Vogelzang‘s just-recorded after-midnight cover of Don’t Think Twice comes off road-weary and delicate, providing the perfect excuse to finally tout this long-admired up-and-comer. The ex-Dresden Dolls bandmember’s upcoming new album will feature Anthony Da Costa (thus bringing this entry full circle), and members of Dresden Dolls and Righteous Babe, among others; check out Anna Vogelzang’s YouTube channel for more, more, more from this amazing post-punk singer-songwriter.

Bonus Track:

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and themed songsets twice weekly.

44 comments » | (Re)Covered, Anna Vogelzang, Bob Dylan, Sarah Jarosz

Great Moments in Coverage:
Paul Simon picks random fan out of the crowd to cover Duncan

May 15th, 2011 — 05:17 pm

Yes, that’s Rayna Ford, Paul Simon fan, crying, screaming epiphanotic joy on a Toronto stage in front of thousands, because her heart has taken over her body and brain, and she cannot do anything less. And all because Simon heard her shouted request, and a comment about how she learned to play guitar on the song, handed her his guitar, and invited her up to take his place.

And, ah, God, I’m practically speechless, on the very throatlump of tears myself at the sheer beauty of the moment: the tears streaming down her face; the wide gleeful grin on his; her utter shock every time he urges her into the next verse; the gentle way he comes up behind her and shows her how to end the song; the audience, singing too, part of the magic.

If you had any lingering doubts that music and love are the most powerful forces in the universe, just watch this video, and be reborn.

It’s not polished, or perfect, or even flawless. But as the NPR story notes, it’s a moment so beautiful, so human, it could almost be a story in a Paul Simon song.

263 comments » | Uncategorized

House Concerts, Covered: Anthony da Costa (May 22 @ 2:00)
With special guest Plume Giant! Plus: Meg Hutchinson coming June 25!

May 8th, 2011 — 05:07 pm

A Tree Falls Productions, our little house concert series here in rural Massachusetts, has grown since we first presented Danny Schmidt in our living room, and so has its reputation: both of the headline performers for our upcoming Spring/Summer season concerts came to us, making booking as easy as checking the calendar and saying “yes, please!” Our newest performing space, a restored hundred year old carriage house just up the road, has ample room for 50+, and for our increasingly infamous potluck meals, and we’re eager to fill the house, the better to support artists and fans alike.

As always, house concerts are legally private events, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably a friend already. If you’re interested in joining us for some great covers and originals, and live within driving distance of Monson, MA – that’s less than an hour from Worcester, Hartford, Northampton, and the Berkshires – contact me directly to have us save you a seat for the two shows listed below.

I’ve been a big fan of Anthony da Costa ever since he hit the Falcon Ridge mainstage at the tender age of 17, brought back by popular demand as the youngest ever winner of the Emerging Artist’s Showcase the year before. To have him contact me asking if we could fit him into the Spring schedule was a no-brainer; that he was hoping we could find room for his opening act, up-and-coming harmony-and-guitar trio Plume Giant, was just icing on the cake.

For those who need an introduction: Columbia College sophomore da Costa is a well-deserved darling of the festival and coffee house set, and of folk radio to boot: comparisons to Josh Ritter, Ryan Adams, and a young Dylan are both apt and somewhat of an understatement. His songwriting produces gems aplenty – lyrically wise, aching in performance, and stunning in impact – and his reputation for combining folk and americana in new ways while channeling old souls has marked him as a musician’s musician, cool and confident among a cadre of rising stars who straddle the old and new ways of folk and beyond.

At just 20 years old, Anthony already has eight records under his belt, including Bad Nights/Better Days, an amazing 2008 collaboration with dobro player Abbie Gardner of Red Molly, and his most recent effort, Not Afraid of Nothing, which Twangville cited as having “the lyrical quality of a John Prine album”. His next record, Secret Handshake, will represent a shift in sensibility: heavier on the production, and recorded live in the studio with a live rhythm section, the result is expected to be a bit more rock/pop/Americana, but if Dylan can do it, so can da Costa; even if you can’t make it to the show, I highly recommend supporting the project at Kickstarter, where a ten dollar bid will net you a pre-release digital download of the album, at least until the campaign closes at the end of the week.

As noted above, at his own request, Anthony will be playing with newly-formed “retro-folk” trio Plume Giant, whose tight three-part harmony work, led by guitar, violin, and viola, have already marked them fan favorites in the Northeast and beyond. The Hartford Advocate calls them “sweet, enthusiastic and wildly dedicated to their music”, and rumor has it they’ve been covering both The Strokes and Radiohead on tour – sounds like our kind of band. Here’s a few fave live covertunes to whet your appetite for both acts, appearing May 22nd at 3:00 pm in the carriage house at Lord Manor Bed & Breakfast.

In other Tree Falls Productions news: we packed the house for contemporary acoustic songwriter Meg Hutchinson back in the fall of 2009, and folks loved it so much they’re still talking about it. The lyrical alto and fan-favorite, who has won numerous prestigious competitions and songwriting awards in the US, Ireland and UK, has long been one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and we’re especially honored to be presenting her again on June 25th for an evening show. Here’s a Townes cover Meg performed for us last time she visited, and a Greg Brown cover from her recent winter-themed collaboration with Antje Duvekot, Anne Heaton and Natalia Zukerman.

And speaking of Danny Schmidt, whose appearance in our living room kicked off our seasonal house concert series way back in March of 2009: the Austin-bred singer-songwriter recently released Man of Many Moons, his seventh album, and it’s got a studio version of Buckets of Rain on it that’s just achingly beautiful, crushing and torn and inimitably Danny, just like the live version he dug up for our living room audience. Here’s the pair – live and in studio – and a plug for Man of Many Moons, along with a reminder that we covered Danny and his life partner Carrie Elkin last summer, and that older, now-gone downloads are always available upon request.

House concerts tend to lead to lifelong fandom for a reason: the intimacy of a home setting has an effect both casual and powerful on the relationship between musician, listener, performance and song. It’s quite rewarding to host your own, too. If you or someone you know is interested in bringing an artist into your home, and you think you’d be able and willing to round up a dozen or so friends and fellow audiophiles, let me know – I’d be happy to help you find someone coming through your area. (Hint: check tour schedules for artists you like, paying close attention to any “down time” they might have near your area between tourdates.)

755 comments » | Anthony Da Costa, House Concerts

Covered In Folk: Elvis Costello
(Peter Mulvey, Sara Lov, Hem, Lucy Kaplansky and more!)

May 5th, 2011 — 01:10 pm

One of the biggest challenges of coming of age in the late eighties is that some of the best pop performers of the post-punk/new wave era were already past their musical prime when I discovered them, invariably through radio hits that echoed their earlier work while somehow managing to sound derivative and old-school amidst the rising tide of majestic yet ultimately ephemeral heartland rock, bouncy pop, early grunge and smooth R&B which characterized the era.

Case in point: I went through a brief Elvis Costello phase when I was in high school, which mostly means I came to him too late. As such, though I find his earlier, punkier stuff palatable and familiar from the ubiquitous cultural canon of classic rock radio, I cannot help but remember him first and foremost as the man who put together Spike and Mighty Like A Rose – albums which contained pain and biting political satire which I could not yet appreciate, and whose chart hits hid that finely-tuned, articulate political mind among the polished popstuff.

But rediscovering artists with an adult’s mind and an audiophile’s appreciation for lyrical, melodic, and stylistic nuance is a fair benefit to pay for such generational outlook. And in Costello’s case, just as his songwriting endures, so does his legacy. Costello’s been around the block – long enough for multiple tributes, including the ragged, endearing 2003 indie tribute Almost You: The Songs of Elvis Costello, from which we’ve selected two favorites below. And recently, he’s gained my respect as a musician’s musician, most specifically in his role as host of Spectacle, the BBC/Sundance Channel program where his deep questions about the urges of artistry and the mutual admiration society he establishes with some of pop music’s most thoughtful artists have produced a series of memorable sessions.

As with so many of our Covered In Folk feature subject, Costello’s enduring and evolving relevance has been an inspiration to more than one generation of artists; as a consequence, both his bigger hits and, increasingly, his deeper works have been subject to a broad set of coverage from many genres.

Thanks to those who pick up on his earlier post-punk anger, there’s an awful lot of madcap in even the folk-driven covers we might find on this list. Gabi’s acoustic punkfolk Bedlam is fittingly frenetic and slightly out of tune. Cover Lay Down fave Lucy Kaplansky goes uptempo and oddly bouncy for (What’s So Funny ’bout) Peace Love and Understanding, the Nick Lowe composition made famous by Costello. The brush suitcase drum and solo busker’s tone of Peter Mulvey’s reinterpretation of Oliver’s Army take on the brisk energy of the subway platform on which they were recorded. And Canadian folk quintet Dust Poets take Veronica to a totally new level in a bluegrass-tinged acoustic roots performance which first won my heart way back in 2007.

But Costello does smoother balladry raw and tenderly, too. And it is ever the wont of folk musicians to strip down even the angrier tunes they love, to find new nuance in their words and melodies. Hem pull The Angels Wanna Wear My Red Shoes down to earth in a twangy alt-country, while Laura Cantrell goes for full-bore barroom country. Alison Brown’s bluegrass take on Everyday I Write The Book is fluid and gentle, full of sweetness and charm. Sara Lov’s new I Want To Vanish is frozen and languid and delicate; so is Tywanna Jo Baskette’s Just A Memory, in its echoey way. I’ve long loved the way Everything But The Girl transform Alison, wringing aching and tender from just a guitar and sudden, startlingly sweet harmonies. And though many have taken it on as a smoky jazz standard, Mae Robertson’s Almost Blue manages to keep things light enough for folk, even as the piano tinkles and the trumpet wails.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features twice a week, thanks to support from readers like you!

691 comments » | Covered in Folk, Elvis Costello

May I Suggest: Mayday Coverfolk

May 1st, 2011 — 11:19 pm

I speak of two Mays on this warm, sunny Spring afternoon: of the request, and of the calendar. Yet the two terms are related, in their way. For Spring is a metaphor of rebirth, and “mother may I” is a sort of rebirth, too: of the moment, of the allowance to move forward, of the soul.

Appropriate, I think. This past year, I’ve given myself permission to act again, treading the boards for the first time since a failure to learn my lines in time caused my high school director to cut Ionesco’s Rhinocerous down to a 45 minute play. I’m writing poetry again, listening to the insistent muses after almost a decade of carefully, painfully training myself to turn a blind ear to the inner voice, for sanity’s sake. And I allowed myself to let this blog go “temporarily”, knowing that my lifelong tendency has been to abandon – only to prove myself by coming back with a vengance, and with no less than three posts a week since we returned.

I’ve been busy, to be sure. But busy with the right things, for once in a lifetime. Just as “may” is both an arrival and a promise, so has my life finally become as much about future as present. Learning to not just embrace but actually, finally, to be in those times to their fullest is both a test of character and a vehicle for yet another stage of life: the one where the center doesn’t just hold, it fuels the self, because you trust it to.

Learning to embrace the fear of falling, of course, is part and parcel. But to say “I may” is to give yourself a gift of progress, of procedure, of trust and faith and love.

We all deserve another chance. And in the end, the only one who can give it to us is ourselves.

433 comments » | Theme Posts