Category: Alison Brown

Festival Coverfolk: ICONS Irish Music and Arts Canton, MA, Sept. 12-14

September 9th, 2008 — 09:28 pm

My memories of an early nineties family outing to the Irish Connections festival is a bit hazed by Harp and hot sun, but a quick check with my mother confirms it: though I do remember a few snatches of some relatively decent irish pub music at a small outdoor stage near the beer garden, it’s clear that, back then, the music was clearly not the centerpiece of what was otherwise a decent cultural festival on a small college campus.

But good festivals evolve, and even a cursory glance at their festival lineup and schedule will tell you that the Irish festival now called ICONS Irish Music and Arts Festival, which takes place this weekend at the Irish Cultural Center in Canton, MA, has undergone a true transformation. In the decade since I first attended ICONS, it has found its own site, and grown from a small-scale series of exhibitions and craftsmerchant boothbuildings to a several day undertaking of immense proportions. In the process, what was once a crafts and culture festival with a few casual workshop-scale performances of traditional irish music and dance throughout the day has become a full-bore multi-stage music and arts festival of increasingly impressive scope and scale.

In an era where other folk festivals often seem to be recycling the same cadre of artists year after year, ICONS is a breath of fresh air. The breadth of talent at this year’s ICONS fest is impressive, ranging from irish-influenced bluegrass banjoists and solo acoustic singer-songwriters of Irish descent to a seemingly infinite collection of traditional reelplayers, country jigbands, and contemporary Celtic Folk favorites that, like the rest of the arts and cultural activities, “reflect the new cultural directions of Ireland and its Diaspora”. And you just gotta love a festival that features an entire stage devoted to harp orchestras, demos, and dance, and names it Harpapalooza.

Most of the biggest-name acts this year will play ICONS both Saturday and Sunday, so you shouldn’t have to miss a trick, and you’ll have plenty of time to roam the grounds, see dance, sports, and other cultural forms in performance, and browse the numerous static exhibitry and merchants. Old timey neograss folkfavorites Crooked Still will be there, and I suspect I won’t be able to resist seeing them for a twentieth time. I’m excited for old-school folksman Liam Clancy of The Clancy Brothers, young scenesters Lunasa and Beoga, and Irish siren Cara Dillon, too, though I’m determined to save Dillon’s haunted pianofolk cover of The Beatles classic Wait for an upcoming return to the songs of the Beatles here at Cover Lay Down. To tempt you even further, here’s a few solid covers from a few more great artists I’m eager to see for the first time this weekend at ICONS.

Early in his career, to distinguish himself from his famous brother Christy Moore, Irish folkie Kevin Moore renamed himself Luka Bloom after a popular Suzanne Vega song and the hero of a James Joyce novel. Twenty years and over fourteen albums later, the name remains an apt reflection of Bloom’s signature sound, which combines American-style folk songwriting with an Irish approach to performance. The result is sometimes rocking, sometimes mellow, occasionally ragged, but always effective.

Luka’s distinctive, jangly guitarplay and a typically plaintive, leggato approach to lyrics provide a solid platform for some excellent singer-songwriter folk. His originals trend towards reverence and celebration, as befits his style; in cover song, as in his excellent covers album Keeper of the Flame, his approach tends to sweeten the tone of the works of others, providing a surprising depth to such melancholy rarities as Joni Mitchell’s Urge for Going, Radiohead’s No Surprises, and — a repost — Bloom’s cover of LL Cool J’s I Need Love. Bloom’s newest, Eleven Songs, hits stores any minute now, but you can preorder now.

Solas is one of the premiere contemporary celtic folk bands around today, and — as befits a band whose name translates to “light” in Gaelic — they’ve been at the forefront of an American celtic revival since they first burst onto the scene over here just twelve years ago. As Muruch noted in her recent review of For Love and Laughter, their newest album, they’ve gone through some lead-singer lineup changes over the years, but since the power of Solas as a performing group is predominantly in their arrangements and full celtic sound, as led by award-winning multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan, there’s more consistency here than change, and that’s a wonderful thing.

We’ve previously featured ex-lead singer Karan Casey here at Cover Lay Down, and I’ve dropped a few fave Solas covers here and there since we got things started late last year, but good music bears repeating: here’s linkbacks to their version of tradsong Rain and Snow and a cover of Sarah McLachlan ballad I Will Remember You; here’s a few more of my favorite folksingers’ coversongs from Solas. And here’s hoping that they’ll let their new lead singer Mairead Phelan shine on some new ones at ICONS, too.

The Tannahill Weavers come from the old school of traditional Scottish folk music; they made their name bringing a slightly folkrock sensibility to the traditional celtfolk of their native land, and they’ve been around longer than most of us. Their natural, heartfelt work on this old Stan Rogers tune may be an anomaly among the ballads, reels and caeli, but it’s also a seamless resetting of a timeless tune, one which which shows just how closely related the traditional music of Halifax is to those older, ancestral folkforms from across the great pond. Meanwhile, despite its origins, in the hands of the Weavers, an original reel wrapped around a Gordon Lightfoot tune becomes a driving folk rock event verging on Celtic Punk. Classic stuff, all of it.

Banjo virtuoso and jazzgrass composer Alison Brown may be better known in the industry as the founder of Compass Records, but over the years, she’s also released a number of wonderful albums which explore the intersections of bluegrass and jazz and folk music. Each is a clean mix of crisp-yet-flowing banjo-driven ensemble instrumentals not unlike the more acoustic work of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and, with the help of a series of stellar guest vocalists and session players, more typical bluegrass and folk settings of originals and covers both.

We’ve previously posted Alison’s work with the Indigo Girls on Simon & Garfunkel classic Homeward Bound and with Beth Nielsen Chapman on a sweet cover of Hendrix’ Angel; here’s a few more newgrassy takes on a pair of familiar radio hits with male vocalists you might recognize from the bluegrass world.

Cover Lay Down posts original writing about covered content and folkculture every Sunday and Wednesday.

212 comments » | Alison Brown, Festival Coverfolk, Luka Bloom, solas, Tannahill Weavers

Covered in Folk: Jimi Hendrix (Rickie Lee Jones, Fiona Apple, The Corrs, Emmylou Harris, 6 more!)

April 9th, 2008 — 02:59 am

Big news in the folkworld yesterday as Bob Dylan received a Special Citation from the Pulitzer Prize folks for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.” In response, For the Sake of the Song turns up a set of stellar live Dylan rarities, and claims Dylan’s recognition as a big win for rock and roll, but we know better — that description has folk written all over it, doesn’t it? Kudos, Bob.

This would be the perfect moment for a set of Dylan covers…if we hadn’t already featured singer-songwriter Angel Snow‘s deep thoughts on Dylan’s “profound impact” and “poetic power” this past Sunday, along with her great take on Meet Me in the Morning. Rather than try to top that admittedly premature but no less effective tribute, today, we offer a compromise: a feature on the musician who took a Dylan song and turned it into the seminal soundtrack of every Vietnam movie ever made. Ladies and Gentlemen: the songs of Jimi Hendrix.

Like so many of our Covered in Folk subjects, Jimi Hendrix isn’t folk, but he has a kind of folk credibility that makes him a natural choice for popular cover songs. Woodstock, the drug culture, the sixties — if that electric wail and trippy, funky, post-blues sensibility wasn’t at the very heart of his sound, we’d be remiss not to claim this cultural icon as one of our own.

But the challenge of covering Jimi Hendrix, of course, is that while plenty of Jimi Hendrix songs have lyrics, most don’t have that many words to play with. Take Voodoo Child, which uses a dozen words or so to proclaim repeatedly that the singer/narrator is standing next to a mountain, and is a voodoo child, and still manages to remain seared in our brains. Or the few short lines of hallucination poetics that is Little Wing, so trivial to the song’s success that while Sting’s cover is too maudlin to share here, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s instrumental cover comes across as masterful and complete. It’s telling, in fact, that many of the best Hendrix covers out there are by blues musicians, as in many ways, Hendrix lyrics are like the words in the blues — they might offer some context, but it’s not the words we look to when we struggle to find ourselves in the blues experience.

It’s not that Hendrix songs are meaningless. And it’s not that his lyrics are useless, really. It’s that with a few exceptions, Jimi speaks with his guitar, and uses his voice, even the lyrics themselves, as another instrument, a factor to set the stage, so that the technique and raw emotion of the strings might more effectively convey the subtleties of emotion that the song is intended to “mean”.

As such, a Hendrix song offers several avenues of ownership for a covering performer. It can, for example, be an opportunity to feature the production — to shape a sound that in toto compensates for the lack of a prodigy at the center. Many artists who perform on or just over the pop edge of the folkworld have done just that. The heavy worldbeat production makes Voodoo Child a pop song in the hands of Beninise singer Angelique Kidjo, but the bounce and cry of the vocals call to the original. Though Cassandra Wilson‘s cover of The Wind Cries Mary is languid by comparison, it, too, shares a jangly acoustic jazzpop sensibility and an honest delivery which make it authentic, as if played on a jazz bar stage after the audience had gone home, and the mics had been turned off.

Other related genre covers focus on the instrumentation itself, reminding us that Hendrix was a guitarist first, and a band member and singer only afterwards. The Corrs bring a more traditional folk rock sensibility to their live cover of Little Wing that could pass for a mellow version of the original, were it not for the pipes and fiddle. Bluegrass dobro wizard Jerry Douglas may sing the words to Hey Joe, but as with Hendrix himself, it’s the instrument who is the real star here. And if Memphis blues/rock prodigy (and sometimes rapper) Eric Gales sounds little like Hendrix when he sings through his guitar, it is only because here, too, the heavy drums and lyric only lend support to what is ultimately a guitarist’s song, played b a guitarist of extraordinary talent.

If few true “folk” musicians and singer-songwriters take on Hendrix, it is because so few of his songs leave room to build on lyrical meaning. Because of this, to me, the most daring and often the most interesting Jimi Hendrix covers are the ones where the emotional emphasis is shifted to the voice. Emmylou Harris covers everybody, but I think her cover of May This Be Loved is among her more successful attempts, and surprisingly so, in part because of how effective her aging yet still etherial voice applies itself to the sparse, repetitive lyrics — though the very heavy wash of sound in the production, which features what seems to be an electric guitar played back in reverse throughout, provides an effective, moody underscore.

Similarly, though Alison Brown‘s Angel is a true ensemble piece, with rich harmony vocals and a full acoustic band from banjo and guitar to bass and piano, Beth Nielsen Chapman‘s warbly, honest lead vocals beat Fiona Apple‘s earnest attempt to bring the blues to her voice, which almost works, if both voice and production didn’t teeter on the edge of channeling Cher and Aaron Neville. And most effective of all, the nuanced, impish delivery Rickie Lee Jones brings to Up From the Skies recenters the song on the lyric without losing a whit of the hopeful, playful emotional tone of the original.

A mixed bag today, then: a few stellar covers, and a couple of flawed gems worth celebrating nonetheless. Heavy on the fringes of the folkword, too, with worldpop, cool jazz, and plenty of blues and bluegrass to choose from. Perhaps, in the end, this is the more honest tribute to a man like Hendrix, who — for all his wizardry — was a musician for whom experiment and experience, not perfection, were the ultimate goal.

Though most tracks on today’s list came from compilation albums, the Hendrix estate doesn’t really need our cash. On the other hand, today’s artists really do deserve your support. As always, clicking on artist names in the post above takes you directly to artist websites for purchase and, in most cases, further tuneage.

Looking for today’s bonus tracks? How about a few versions of that Dylan cover? If you missed it a couple of weeks ago, head on over to last week’s Audiography guest post to hear a pair of covers of All Along the Watchtower from Canadian Celtic rockers The Paperboys and old-school American folk rockers Brewer & Shipley, who you may remember as the guys who originally recorded “One Toke Over The Line”.

666 comments » | Alison Brown, Angelique Kidjo, Cassandra Wilson, Fiona Apple, Jerry Douglas, Jimi Hendrix, Rickie Lee Jones, The Corrs

Covered in Folk: Simon and Garfunkel (Indigo Girls, Jonatha Brooke, Shawn Colvin, and more!)

January 23rd, 2008 — 11:52 am

Hope no one minds two Covered in Folk features in the same week; in my other life I’ve got student grades to process and a new term starting up Thursday, so I needed something quick. Upcoming features include the coversong repertoires of some stellar voices from across the folk spectrum; in the meantime, here’s a post I’ve been sitting on for a few weeks, ever since our feature on the solosongs of Paul Simon.

You need me to say something about Simon and Garfunkel? THE Simon and Garfunkel? Okay, how about this: every single person I know knows the lyrics to at least one Simon and Garfunkel song. Me? I can sing Cecilia in my sleep. In harmony.

Rolling Stone lists Simon and Garfunkel at #40 on their most influential artists ever; by “influential”, they’re talking about the effect of this American folk rock duo on the world of professional music, the stuff that garnered them a lifetime achievement award at the 2003 Grammy awards. But much more noteworthy is the fact that, three generations later, their songs have become part of the base set of popular tunes which pepper the sonic landscape for the developing ear in suburban American culture.

It’s not just that I know all the words to a song older than me. It’s that I learned them when I was fourteen, and I still remember them. Even in an earbud age, kids still come home from summer camp with the songs of James Taylor, the Beatles, and Simon and Garfunkel in their ears, because this is the canon of the acoustic guitar, passed down from older teen counselor to song circle. Now that’s folk. It’s truths like that which give us hope for the next generation, and the next beyond that, too.

Today we present a carefully chosen, predominantly female-voiced set of Simon and Garfunkel covers, firmly grounded in the folk world but willing to veer towards alt-country (Johnny Cash), folk pop (The Indigo Girls), and indiefolk (The Purple Raiders, Emiliana Torinni) where the song warrants it. Nothing comprehensive, mind you. Just some great songs, performed and interpreted with love and guitars. And isn’t that the best kind of tribute?

  • Indigo Girls, Mrs. Robinson
    The tomboyish, politicized folk harmonies of the Indigo Girls charge every word with a gleeful yearning, create the perfect happy medium between the original song and that amazing cover by the Lemonheads.

  • The Purple Raiders, Mrs. Robinson
    …though this even more ragged demo might have more indiecred. I’d say more about alt-country upstarts The Purple Raiders, but their website is all in German.

  • Johnny Cash w/ Fiona Apple, Bridge over Troubled Water
    This one got lost among the Nine Inch Nails and U2 in the last cover-heavy years of Cash’s career. Some sappy synth-vocals in the background, but Johnny Cash‘s broken-voiced hope clears the maudlin bar.

  • Emiliana Torrini, Sound of Silence
    Folk rock at its psychadelic, Icelandic best. Once a stand-in for Bjork, Emiliana Torrini can turn a great song on its ear without straying too far from the original sound. She can also build a hell of a wall of sound.

  • Brobdingnagian Bards, Scarborough Faire (trad.)
    A tradsong popularized by Simon and Garfunkel, done over by faux buskers the Brobdingnagian Bards on the punnishly-titled A Faire to Remember. Our first nod to the filksong and re-creationist fairefolk movements here on Cover Lay Down.

  • Jonatha Brooke, Bleecker Street
    Musicians and music lovers of a certain age know we’re a bit too young to know Bleecker Street as it was in the heydey of the American folk revival. But we sure recognize a debt to our forefathers when we see it, and Jonatha Brooke pays hers back with interest. Absolutely stunning. From the incredible out-of-print folkscene tribute album Bleecker Street: Greenwich Village In The 60′s.

  • Shawn Colvin, The Only Living Boy in New York
    A repost from our first few weeks, but I couldn’t resist: Shawn Colvin‘s sweet, soaring, just-before-9-11 cover of this song is the archetype for the truly great Paul Simon cover. Feel the love, and own it, too.

  • Alison Brown w/ Indigo Girls, Homeward Bound
    Jazzfolk fusion bluegrass banjo wizard (and Compass Records founder) Alison Brown generally brings guest vocalists in for her coversongs; here, the sweet harmonies of the Indigo Girls bring us back full circle.

    As always, all artist links above go to artists’ preferred source for purchase; if you like what you hear, pick up the recorded works of these modern inheritors of the folk world by clicking on their names above.

    And here’s a little bonus section coverfolk from Paul Simon’s oft-forgotten partner — a man who has read one thousand twenty three books since June of 1968, and wanted to put a Bach chorale piece on Bridge Over Troubled Waters. There are others, but this Art Garfunkel stuff’s a little too lite for my ears.

  • 721 comments » | Alison Brown, Art Garfunkel, Brobdingnagian Bards, Emiliana Torrini, Indigo Girls, Johnny Cash, Jonatha Brooke, Shawn Colvin, Simon and Garfunkel, The Purple Raiders