Category: California Coverfolk

California Coverfolk, Vol. 6: Oregon Transplants
Stephen Malkmus, M. Ward, Tony Furtado, & Darol Anger

August 17th, 2010 — 09:46 pm

Here’s some fun to cap off our Summer 2010 Vacation Coverfolk series: just as we’ve moved on from California to Oregon, crossing the state line for a final week with friends and family, so did these well-known boundary-pushing artists leave the long, banana-shaped state of their birth to settle north of the border, helping make the “Portland scene” the vibrant hotbed of music it became in the wake of the indie and folk revivals of the post-grunge late nineties.

Funk-fusion banjo player and bandleader Tony Furtado may not have Bela Fleck’s following or fame, but it’s not for lack of trying or talent. Instead, even as his career has explored the intersection of electric production, fingerpicking, and slide guitar, Furtado has hewn closer to his roots, fitting traditional folksongs and bluegrass numbers smoothly in and among his original compositions, his overall sound not so much challenging the genre envelope as balancing on the knife edge between innovation and graceful evolution – as seen, for example, in his comprehensive reinvention of early bluegrass standard Mollie & Tenbrooks.

Now, 14 albums into a thriving career, the man hovers just under the national radar, though his free concert at Portland’s Pioneer Courthouse Square this Thursday afternoon and a top-of-the-marquee headline turn alongside Peter Rowan and Joy Kills Sorrow at this weekend’s first annual Beavergrass Bluegrass Festival down in Corvalis speaks volumes about his regional recognition. We most recently heard Furtado covering the ol’ standard Man of Constant Sorrow with Tim O’Brien; here’s a few more faves from a long overdue appreciation.

Indie rock god Stephen Malkmus – founder of prototypical indieband Pavement, spearhead of the 1990s indie underground revival, member of The Silver Jews, and more recently of solo “and The Jicks” fame – is a terribly prolific artist, whose numerous studio recordings in all these incarnations shuffle in and out of time, mixing elements of post-punk, basement grunge, alt-rock and true blue rock ‘n roll. And I’ve always liked his songwriting, which manages to capture a detachment and a sneer with reasonably spare lyrics and the basic melodic craft you’d expect of a man known for his understated prowess in all four of the basic instruments of rock: guitar, bass, drums and vox.

We actually did a feature on Pavement way back in February of 2008; the writing remains, so there’s no need to rehash the obvious here. But the songs we posted alongside our deep exploration of the band and the man – both the Pavement covers, and Malkmus’ Dylan covers from the I’m Not There soundtrack – bear repeating.

Though torn-voiced singer-songwriter M. Ward was born in California, in just a decade of active recording and performance he has come to define the Portland scene more centrally than any, having grown to prominence in the region as a solo artist, producer, and guest vocalist before joining She & Him and his fellow Monsters of Folk on his way to further fame and fortune.

Thanks to a tendency towards especially prolific coverage, we’ve featured the frequent indie-crowd collaborator previously known as Matthew Stephen Ward plenty here on the blog, both solo and in conjunction with Beth Orton, Lucinda Williams, Conor Oberst, and of course Zooey Deschanel, the “she” to Ward’s “him”. But though Ward’s ragged, whispered tones and gentle nuance bring majestic tension to these pairings, the sparser balance between his delicate stringwork and voice in solo performance is no less potent. Today, we honor the man by letting that solo work shine.

Finally, from back in the realm of several traditions – classical, folk, and jazz among them – comes fiddler, teacher, and bandleader Darol Anger, perhaps best known for his work as a founding member of both the newgrass Dave Grisman Quintet and the chamber jazz group Turtle Island String Quartet. Over 30 years into a stunning career at the forefront of acoustic and string-band genre-experimentation, Anger has collaborated with dozens of artists, from guitar god Michael Hedges to jazz violin god Stephane Grappelli, from Appalachian revivalist Mark O’Connor to bluegrass standard-bearers Tony Rice, Tim O’Brien, Alison Brown, Jerry Douglas and Bela Fleck, from folk cellist Rushad Eggleston to newgrass bands Nickel Creek and Yonder Mountain String Band.

His subtle touch in bluegrass supergroup NewGrange’s albums is a reminder of how fiddle should lift the ‘grass without overpowering it. His six-album run with partner and mando player Mike Marshall are staples of the Windham Hill and Compass Records labels. Recent collaboration Fiddlers 4 and folk journey Heritage, linked to below, are light and amazing. And yes, that’s his strings you can hear at the end of NPR’s Car Talk.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features, sets, and sentiment on Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional otherday.

1,077 comments » | California Coverfolk, Darol Anger, M. Ward, Pavement, Stephen Malkmus, Tony Furtado

California Coverfolk, Vol. 5:
The Beach Boys, The Grateful Dead, & more native sons and daughters

August 15th, 2010 — 01:01 am

There’s so many bands from California, it would be an exercise in futility to try to pay tribute to all of them in a single post. But with two major native singer-songwriters and the entire Punk genre out of the way, we’re left much closer to the mainstream, providing an opportunity to narrow our focus down. Here’s a few major sixties and seventies pop and rock acts that are or were forever associated with the state which gave them their birth.

Though Jerry Garcia’s bluegrass and old timey folk performances have found their way to these pages far more often than those of the band with which most people associate him, there’s no denying that the Grateful Dead epitomize the free love and drug-fueled trance rhythms of Haight Ashbury at its height. Having bussed through the neighborhood – now a sadly gentrified version of hippiedom – just days ago, it’s quite a relief to turn to some true-blue Deadsongs, all grassed up and exquisite as ever in the hands of these well-worn tributaries.

No California tribute series would be complete without the Beach Boys. Though their later work got weird and wild, to most of the world, their name still epitomizes a clean-cut era gone by: wooden-sided wagons, beach blanket harmonies, and what Wikipedia calls “a Southern California youth culture of cars, surfing, and romance” – kind of the antithesis of the sixties which would follow, once the hippies moved in and Skate Punk took over. [To hear what that sort of mash-up might sound like, might I recommend both the Lash version of Wouldn't It Be Nice and Melt Banana's violent take on Surfin' USA over at Cover Freak's recent Beach Boys cover post?]

Glenn Frey was born and raised in Detroit. Don Henley was from Texas. Jackson Browne was born in Heidelberg, Germany, and spent time in the Greenwich Village folk scene on his way to the top. But along with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, the Doobie Brothers, Linda Rondstadt, and other notable bands and musicians, the Eagles were central to the spread of the California country rock sound, particularly popular in the California music scene of the late 1960s, and their most famous hit Take It Easy – a co-write by Browne and Frey – would go on to define both the genre and the laissez-faire attitude it promoted.

Oddly, covers of Take It Easy are few and far between, though I can picture the song easily in my inner ear, stripped of its country twang, perhaps with a mandolin’s delicacy. And we posted the Gypsy King’s take on Hotel California last week as our journey began. But here’s a few more Eagles covers to keep you soaring.

Finally, The Mamas and the Papas – best known for their smash hit California Dreaming – aren’t that well covered, as it turns out; seems their self-proclaimed “leave folk behind” approach to songwriting doesn’t appeal to the acoustic set. And their cover of John Hartford’s California Earthquake is bombastic and far too funky for a folkblog. But I did find this fingerpickin’ solo instrumental delightful, the perfect lighthearted endcap to a long journey through the Golden State.

Cover Lay Down publishes new features and coverfolk sets each Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday. Looking for the rest of our California Coverfolk series? Previously on Cover Lay Down:

Coming up: We’ve moved on to Oregon, and so does the last installment of this summer’s Vacation Coverfolk!

1,125 comments » | California Coverfolk, Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys, The Eagles

California Coverfolk, Vol 4:
The Punk Rock Collection, Revisited

August 10th, 2010 — 11:17 pm

If you’ve been playing along, you already know that we’re blogging from the road as we drive North up the California coast, with a day or two each in Eugene and Portland before we head homeward a week from today. In fact, if today goes as planned, we’ll be wand’ring (and camping) amidst the redwoods as this post goes live.

As is our tradition here on Cover Lay Down, our immersion in the culture and landscape of a particular vacation region has precipitated a series of features which connect our coverfolk mandate to the highways and byways we travel. So far, we’ve presented three: an exploration of California in song, Dave Alvin’s tribute to his fellow Californian singer-songwriters, and a close look at the songbook of Kate Wolf, a long-gone but not forgotten folksinger whose songs often celebrated her native state.

Today, as we approach California’s Northern border, we broaden the boundaries a bit with a look at the California Punk scene through the lens of coverage.

As I noted in our 2009 Year In Review, last November’s study of seminal first-wave Punk Rock covers was our most popular post ever here at Cover Lay Down, and I haven’t forgotten that it came with a promise of an eventual follow-up, which would feature covers from the last 25 years of punk music’s ouvre. While I’m not prepared to present something so momentous while we’re on the road, looking through the archives in search of artists who scream California, it’s hard to avoid the prominence of Punk.

Indeed, though London, Washington DC, New York and Boston all played their part, more than almost anywhere, California plays as major role a role in the resurgence of punk music in the last generation as it did in the Americanization of early hardcore punk music in the early eighties, with thriving scenes throughout the state and a Wikipedia entry on the subject to prove it. Thanks in part to local punk labels such as Fat Wreck Chords, Alternative Tentacles and Lookout! Records, the Golden State is able to lay definitive claim to the origin of the Skate Punk subgenre, and it remains the home to several major players in both the Pop Punk and third-wave Ska Punk hybridizations of the late eighties and early nineties, from Green Day, Blink 182 and the Offspring to Sublime and No Doubt.

As an outsider to punk music, I’m in no position to suggest that there is something sonically distinctive about any or all of these performers or subgenres – though it seems intuitively obvious to note that Skate Punk is often distinguished by its association with both skate culture and the aggressive, fast-paced motions of skateboarding itself. But I will note that, as in the previous incarnation of our Punk Covers series, the vast majority of these songs play out as beautiful, raw, even delicate tributes in the adept hands of these predominantly solo and stripped-down performers. So here’s a short set of songs made famous by the post-second wave California crowd, all folked up and pretty as you please.

PS: I looked and looked, but can’t find any decent folk-y No Doubt covers. Got any leads? Leave ‘em in the comments…

1,678 comments » | all folked up, California Coverfolk

California Coverfolk, Vol. 3: Dave Alvin’s West Of The West

August 8th, 2010 — 10:00 am

Previously in this series

“There are two types of folk music: quiet folk music and loud folk music.
I play both.”

Dave Alvin – most recently of Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women; previously of the LA suburbs – has always played roots music, whether it’s the early rockabilly roots rock of The Blasters, the Punk of seminal LA band X, the countrified blues he generated earlier in his career as a solo artist, or the tejano-roots-rock-Americana hybrid he’s evolved and developed as his own. But in the world of Grammys, as in my own, roots music and folk music are closely intertwined, or so said the Academy when it granted Public Domain: Songs From the Wild Land, his 2000 collection of traditional folk and blues classics, highest honors in the Contemporary Folk category despite a heavy country clang and twang on Railroad Bill and a strong blues harmonica leading the barrelhouse on Don’t Let Your Deal Go Round.

There’s plenty of beautiful troubadour balladry on that album, too, to be fair. His Delia sounds centrally like a well-produced cowboy folksinger’s piece, and his Texas Rangers is as haunting as any. And 1994 release King of California – his first attempt at a more acoustic solo sound after years of harder-edged roots rock – is a gorgeous piece of work, low and steady as a Townes album, as much a tribute to Alvin’s talent as arranger and performer as it is a tribute to Alvin the songwriter and lyricist, the man who has also published two books of poetry.

But it’s the fourth-generation Californian’s tribute to the singer-songwriters of his native state which concerns us today, as the miles speed on by up the coast towards Oregon. His slightly croaky, smoky voice is perfectly suited for reinvention, and on concept covers album West of the West, it covers his fellow Californians with aplomb, moving fluidly between blues, rock, and folk.

And when it works, it really works. His Los Lobos cover, for example, opens up a murky hole with blues banjo, faint drumcrashes, string bass and Tom Waits’ phrasing, exposing the dark blues at the song’s core. And where Keller Williams’ recent cover of the Grateful Dead tune Loser is delicate and humorous, calling to its ragged origins, Alvin whispers and wails, wringing the darkness from the tune with Pink Floyd guitar majesty. It’s no wonder the man’s name keeps cropping up on so many tribute compilations, taking on everyone from Springsteen to Haggard.

Here’s three of the slower, less rockin’ cuts from the West of the West tribute, followed by a handful of other, similarly toned-down covers from Dave Alvin’s “quiet” acoustic side. (I know it seems anomalous at first, but trust me on the Surfer Girl cover – the tension between the traditional doo-wop and that distinctive voice are what makes it worth it.) Buy it all here when you’re done.

1,130 comments » | California Coverfolk, Dave Alvin

California Coverfolk, Vol 2: Kate Wolf
(Covers of and from Kate, Greg Brown, Dave Alvin, Nanci Griffith & more!)

August 6th, 2010 — 11:59 pm

As noted previously, we’re headed up the West Coast for the next two weeks and then some, blogging merrily along the way. On Wednesday, we marked the first steps of our journey with a sweet set of songs about the great state of California; today, in the first of two weekend single-artist feature posts, our California Coverfolk series continues with a look at the songs and songbook of one of the region’s most beloved singer-songwriters.

Born in San Francisco, educated at Berkeley, and long known as a native daughter of her adopted Sonoma County, singer-songwriter Kate Wolf was a shining star in the American second-wave folk revival, “repopularizing” folk music in Northern California in the late seventies, and going on to national acclaim before her untimely passing in 1986. With a dozen albums to her name – half of which were released posthumously – she made her claim aptly as a writer and song interpreter particularly influenced by “honest songs and honest singers”, with shades of The Weavers, A.P. Carter, Dylan, Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizell, and other early influences resonating throughout her catalog.

Kate’s clear, pure voice is unmistakably intimate, and in her best recordings, she treats it gently, letting the cadence carry her from soft and low into a soaring legato that slides like light over subtle fingerpicked strings. But there’s more to these songs than just prettiness. Her love of the folkways – of song, and of her natural setting – is evident in her songcraft and her delivery: like the best folksongs, her timeless lyrics of love and longing are deceptively simple, grounded in the flora and fauna of human experience, but they contain depths that resonate long past song’s end.

Though she succumbed to Leukemia at the young age of 44, twenty five years later, Kate’s legacy remains strong. Her life is celebrated each year at the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival in Laytonville, CA, which traditionally closes with her song Give Yourself To Love, and this year attracted such folk luminaries as Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, Robert Earl Keen, Greg Brown, The Waifs, Carrie Rodriguez, and more. And several excellent tribute albums have floated to the surface over the years, including both Laurie McClain’s 2003 cd The Trumpet Vine, and 1998 Red House Records release Treasures Left Behind: Remembering Kate Wolf. Below, some favorites from a well-deserved eternity in coverage.

Kate was as accomplished a singer and picker as she was a songwriter, and her love of song carried over into the tunes of others; indeed, many of the covers she chose to take on in her short lifetime carry the poignancy and prescience of her life and death. Though beautiful Joni Mitchell and Woody Guthrie covers on her earliest albums remain undigitized, her masterful take on These Days, taken from posthumous mostly-covers compilation Looking Back At You, is utterly gorgeous, a perfect soundtrack for the next leg of our journey.

1,057 comments » | California Coverfolk, Kate Wolf

California Coverfolk, Vol. 1: Here In California
(State Songs, City Songs, Street Songs and more!)

August 4th, 2010 — 12:58 pm

I’ve cheated a little here, penning this a few days in advance just in case something goes awry in our plans, scheduling it to post automatically so you could be here now. But in my mind, it’s Wednesday as I write this, legs up in the passenger seat for a short leg of the long drive from San Simeon to Monterey, where my wife’s relatives will be putting us up at a seaside conference center and resort that boasts such “authentic” rustic environs that it eschews TV and radio, and provides wi-fi solely in the lobby.

Through the windshield, the twisted cliffs part, offering the endless Pacific to our delighted eyes, and I am reminded of the last time I took this journey, untethered and struggling to stay carefree, with a newborn second child, no job and no home to go home to. Now I look at my wife frowning thoughtfully at the road, and at my children playing quietly in the seat behind me, and I smile, comfortable in the knowledge that this, too, shall pass, and it will ever be okay.

We’ve been in California since late Sunday night, flying into LAX in the wee hours, starting our vacation with two nights just North of Los Angeles, visiting my father’s relatives and settling in to the scorched-earth summer landscape; from there, we drove about three hours up the coast, stopping in Santa Barbara for lunch and a look-see, ending the night fireside in a campsite under the stars, thanks to the borrowed tent atop our borrowed station wagon. This morning, we took in Hearst Castle, mostly to serve the spousal preference for grandeur and solitude while the kids and I turned the one-time home to the stars into a playground and scavenger hunt site.

And our grand adventure is still just beginning. Over the next two weeks we’ll be slowly crawling up the coast, visiting old friends and family, never moving more than three or four hours a day, stopping in most cases for two nights at a time, the better to seep in the vastly different environments that comprise this gigantic state. From there, we’ll land in Eugene, OR, for a four-day stay with my brother-in-law and his wife, and fly out of Portland on our anniversary.

It’s my second trip to The Golden State, and our first attempt at a long multi-day driving vacation with the kids, but in the early stages, at least, we’re still happy windowgazing. Promises of giant redwood forests and cave explorations, museums and aquariums, and a day or two more of camping in the long gaps between major cities, help fill the miles, and though the everpresent trucks slow us down a bit on the coastal highway, it’s good to be anywhere, really, three weeks from the school year and under an open sky. Me, I’m looking forward to exploring the smalltowns and subdivisions which, to me, have always offered comfort and cultural epiphany: San Francisco’s Chinatown, Mendocino, Monterey; undiscovered walking villages, hidden oases in the midst of wine country. And since we’ve got plenty of time, it’s a good bet that our journey will bring a few unplanned surprises, too.

The carefree nature of our family vacation lends itself poorly to definitiveness, and anyway, there’s far too many songs of California – of the state itself, and its various locations both intimate and chaotic – to make any attempt at a comprehensive compendium here. Too, for reasons which will soon be apparent, I’m saving a few obvious choices for later in our journey, including the one you’re surely thinking of, and the song which appears in our title above. But here’s a few relatively recent favorites to keep the beat as we drive ever Northward.

Cover Lay Down posts new coverfolk features and songsets each Wednesday, Sunday, and the occasional otherday. To listen while you browse, check out our Play! page.

1,835 comments » | California Coverfolk, Regional Folk