Sunday, June 29, 2008

Covered in Folk: The Bee Gees
(Feist, Kathryn Williams, Moxy Fruvous, Ray LaMontagne +6 more!)

Bee Gees Gold was the first record I ever bought.

It was a used copy, already ragged; I remember the frayed cardboard at the edges when I opened up the album. I picked it up from some older kid at our elementary school swap meet. It cost a quarter, I think.

And to be honest, I have no memory of listening to it.

What I remember is the thrill of ownership. I grew up in a house full of grown-up records, but they weren't mine, and I wasn't really ready for folk and blues, country and soul. Like any suburban child of post-hippie parents, I had been given a small collection of great, authentic kidsong albums, but those were my parent's choices, and already behind me. The Bee Gees greatest hits were the first music I could hear on the radio, and then play again as many times as I wanted. Whether I played it or not wasn't the point. Buying it, taking it home, pulling against the slight vacuum that held it inside its sleeve, making a place for it on the shelf: it was a revelation, like discovering the key that unlocked the universe.

The experience of buying Bee Gees Gold, plus the rapid-fire acquisition of a used copy of AC/DC's Back in Black, and a few records released that year -- Survivor's Eye of the Tiger, Toto IV, Michael Jackson's Thriller -- would spark a lifetime of collecting and audiophilia. A quarter century later, my closets are full of long-dormant vinyl; the attic is stuffed with milk crate collections, and archived jewel cases. I download far more than I should, and digitize everything I can. My digital collection passed the 25000 song mark just this morning.

My students have always been amazed at the sheer amount of music on my iPod. But true audiophiles know that there's an awful lot of great music out there, and what if you have a hankering for something and you don't have it, ready to call up in the database? I live in a world of shuffle and playlists, theme and artist retrospectives, and new albums and discoveries. I cannot drive without a soundtrack; I look forward to mowing the lawn, in part, because it means an hour of meditative activity with headphones on. I build my summer around folk festivals. I spend almost every evening writing about music in one way or another, here and at collaborative blog Star Maker Machine. Listening, collecting, owning, sharing and enjoying music have become fully intertwined.

But though my tastes have turned towards the acoustic and the authentic over the years, you never forget your first.

In tribute to the record that started it all, today we present some of my favorite folk and folk-tinged Bee Gees covers. Most are recent indie-folk -- as we've mentioned previously in our Covered in Folk series, the tendency for artists to bring the songs of their childhood cultures into their own repertoires means that a whole new set of indiefolks in my age group have recently begun adding Bee Gees songs to their performance canon. And a few are tongue-in-cheek; it's hard to be earnest about something which will forever be associated with sequined bell-bottoms and high-pitched discopop harmony.

But under the glitz and glitter, there's a surprising power here. Turns out the Brothers Gibb actually knew how to write songs with meaning, after all. Not a bad choice, for a nine year old kid suddenly opened to a world of possibility.

Like what you hear? Eschew the big anti-artist commercial megastores; click on links above to purchase small circular plastic carriers of audible joy direct from artist and label websites.

Or, if you prefer downloads, and are interested in an equally artist-centric solution, why not join up at Amie Street, where artists receive 70% of all profits, and retain all rights to their work...and where, thanks to a sliding-scale pricing model, tracks generally cost less than almost anywhere else? As an added incentive to Cover Lay Down readers, the folks at Amie Street are offering you $3.00 FREE towards your purchase; to get it, all you have to do is enter the code "coverlaydown" when you sign up. Totally worth it, dude.

PS: If anyone knows of a produced version of Sarah Harmer and the Weakerthans doing Islands in the Stream, please pass it along -- I love Sarah Harmer, but the CBC recording that's been making the blogrounds is a little too heavy on the crowd noise and tape crackle for my taste...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Festival Coverfolk: Grey Fox, July 17-20
(Bluegrass covers of Tom Petty, John Mayer, Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan (x2), and more!)

Walsh Farm: the gorgeous new site of Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival

After over thirty years on the same site, for most regular festivalgoers, the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival experience has become intertwined with the landscape of the farm which hosted it, from the steep hill which formed a natural mainstage amphitheater to the even steeper hill which separated the entrance and parking areas from the main camping and festival site. So when the organizers of Grey Fox announced at this winter's Joe Val Festival that the farm had been sold, and that they would be moving the festival almost forty minutes north to Oak Hill, NY, there was some serious buzz in the bluegrass community.

It happens: farms fail; festivals move on. And certainly, switching sites changes things around a bit for any music festival. Figuring out where everything goes in a new and unfamiliar space can be disorienting. But making changes is also a great opportunity to revisit and re-establish the very values which do not change, the ones that bring us together each year. When Falcon Ridge Folk Festival moved from one farm to another three summers ago, for example, watching returning regular festivalgoers try to figure out where their "usual" camping spot was on a totally different field made for a fascinating sociological case study. But it was reassuring to see how gentle and cheerful everyone was about the whole process. Once we all settled in, we found our old friends, and had made some new ones, to boot. And by the time the music started, the place felt just like home.

Which is to say: though landscape and terrain certainly frame the experience of any outdoor festival, in my experience, it is the community and the music which make or break a music festival. And given that, Grey Fox fans have nothing to worry about. Having attended Grey Fox for several years, I can attest to both its strong and welcoming sense of community, and its well-deserved reputation as the best bluegrass festival in the Northeast, thanks to wonderful craft and food vendors, impeccable sound production, tight sets and staging, and a performance schedule chock full of artists that will knock your socks off.

This year's lineup, in fact, is one of the best I have seen, a veritable "who's who" of the very best artists in the surprisingly diverse spectrum of sound that is today's bluegrass. The list includes plenty of big names (see below), and many bluegrass community favorites, like International Bluegrass Music Association multiple award winners Missy Raines (bass), and Michael Cleveland (fiddle), both of whom impressed the hell out of me at Joe Valover the past few years. And the Grey Fox organizers have a good eye for new talent; it's a slow year if I only come away with a couple of new favorite and previously-unheard acts by the end of the festival's four day run.

There's banjo master Bill Keith, who has been a mainstay of the Northeast bluegrass scene longer than most folks knew there even was a Northeast bluegrass scene. All-female old-timey bluegrass group Uncle Earl do a great afternoon set every year; if you haven't heard them, know that they are often cited next to new folk artists (and Cover Lay Down favorites) Crooked Still and Sam Amidon as part of a rising generation of great neo-traditionalists. You'll find plenty of current chartbusters, such as the Nashville-based Dailey and Vincent Band, who lean towards countrygrass. And those are just the artists who I didn't have room for in today's download extravaganza.

Today, then, a few choice covers from just a few more of the great acts scheduled to play at the new, more gently sloping home of Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, July 17-20. Notably, this is just the tip of the iceberg; this year's roster is so good, it was hard to hold myself to a reasonable-sized list. But like the above survey, these artists comprise a representative sample of the "best of the fest" in more ways than one, ranging from traditional bluegrass groups to artists pushing the boundaries between jazz, appalachian folk, and newgrass, and from up-and-coming artists to still-vibrant mainstays of the bluegrass scene. Enjoy, and I'll see you in Oak Hill.

And don't miss these other Grey Fox 2008 attendees which I've previously featured on Cover Lay Down:

Tempted? For a full list of performers coming to this year's festival, directions to the new site, and tickets galore, head on over to the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival website. I'll see you up on the hill at the new, gently sloping site July 17-20.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Strawberry Sunday: Berry Coversongs
from Michelle Shocked, Bruce Cockburn, Sarah Harmer & more!

The world was ripe after weeks of waiting, so we ushered in the solstice with a trip to the U-Pick farm just up the hill. One hour and seventeen pounds of sweet, deep red berries later, we staggered home bearing summer's first bounty, our fingers stained, our knees dirty, our mouths sweet with the first fruit of summer.

Since then, we've eaten more than we could count, and given away a good quart or two more. My wife cut half a flat and set it in the deep freeze, sprinkled with sugar, ready for a midsummer jam session; the kids helped make a strawberry Bavarian cream pie with a shortcake crust. The rhubarb that grows wild in the front yard is looking more and more tempting by the minute. I ate a hundred strawberries, says the younger one, and though she cannot count, she's not far off.

Around here, summer means many things: birthdays, barbecue, summer wheat beers, hot afternoon car rides to out favorite local state park swimming holes. And music festivals, of course: last week's feature on Falcon Ridge Folk Fest (July 24-27) was the first of several; stay tuned this week for a preview of fave local bluegrass fest Grey Fox.

But the wheat beers are overeager, arriving in Spring to help us train our tastebuds for June. Music happens year-round, but like birthdays, the festivals come and go throughout. And we're the kind of folks who take out the grill the moment the last snow fades from the earth.

Fresh local strawberries, on the other hand, mean summer is finally here. Ripe, juicy, and delicious. Dripping down our chins, staining our shirts. Summer itself, plucked fresh from the vine.

And since the pickings are slim for strawberry covers, here's some bonus berry/tinyfruit coversongs from the folkworld, while we're at it:

First and foremost, the purpose of Cover Lay Down is to spread the word about amazing artists, that we might support the future of folk music. As always, if you like what you hear, follow the links above to artist and label preferred webstores for samples, bios, tour schedules, and online options for purchase. Remember, folks: buying music from local and artist-direct sources supports diversity in the garden.

PS: If anyone knows of a good folk cover of Raspberry Beret, I'd love to hear it. (No, Hindu Love Gods is emphatically NOT folk music.)

Friday, June 20, 2008

Crooked Still Covers:
Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Gillian Welch, Tradfolk

Boston-based "alternative folk/bluegrass" band Crooked Still emerged at the edge of the newgrass movement just after the turn of the century, and much of their subsequent success is due to the talents of the group members and founders: banjo wizard Dr. Gregory Liszt, double bass man Corey DiMarino, and breathy, emotive singer Aoife O'Donovan. But if their star rose quickly, it was thanks in no small part to a then-novel approach to traditional song, one which placed master cellist and all-around oddball Rushad Eggleston's innovative, improvisational style and high-energy stringplay at the center of what was otherwise a sparse yet nuanced tradfolk stringband sound.

And rise it did. By 2004, the band was playing mainstage sets at both Newport Folk Festival and Falcon Ridge Folk Fest, where their debut album Hop High outsold all competition. Two years later, the release of Shaken By A Low Sound brought us more of the same, cementing their reputation in both the folkworld and the bluegrass circuit as a band worth watching.

And then, last year, Crooked Still announced that Rushad would be leaving the group.

Many of us in the folkworld feared that this would be the end of Crooked Still. Long before Ben Sollee's avant-folk celloplay made him the darling of the blogworld, Eggleston had set the pace and standard for the cello as a contemporary instrument outside of the string quartet or orchestra setting, both through his work with Crooked Still, and as a member of several groups with master fiddler Darol Anger. Replacing Eggleston with another cellist seemed like a no-brainer for a group that had made their name trading on the interplay between Rushad and the other group members; adding another string player seemed like a safe bet, too. But would it be enough?

In a word: YES.

Since their inception, Crooked Still has always handled traditional folk music exceptionally well, and this new line-up continues the tradition with aplomb, bringing new life to timeless songs. But where their previous albums leaned heavily on tradsongs such as Little Sadie, Shady Grove and Darlin' Corey -- songs made familiar, if not popular, by older generations of folk and bluegrass artists, from Doc Watson to Jerry Garcia -- their new album Still Crooked, on folk label Signature Sounds, digs deeper than previous efforts, tracing the roots of traditional folk through other, more obscure carriers, such as Ola Belle Johnson and Sidney Carter. The result is a set of songs that sound both fresh and timeless, in ways that their previous efforts could not be without escaping their songs' history.

There's also some surprises, here. Tristan Clarridge plays the cello with more subtlety than than Rushad did, but this only deepens the sound from where it was before. The addition of fiddler Brittany Haas brings a keening high note to the mix; in slower songs, especially, the higher stringsound rebalances lead singer Aoife O'Donovan's breathy voice towards the sonic center of the Crooked Still sound, where once her vocals competed with the cello for prominence. The fuller setting brings out a side of Aoife as singer that is even better than before. The bigger sound that results is potent, and totally enveloping.

Those who could not imagine Crooked Still without their founding cellist need not be concerned. More importantly, though, those who thought it was impossible to improve on the Crooked Still sound will be surprised. The "new" Crooked Still sound is more traditional, in terms of genre, but it is also simultaneously something more than it was, a stellar maturation of previous efforts. Nowhere is this more evident than in Low Down and Dirty, Aoife's first original composition for Crooked Still, a classic revenge ballad with a twist that comes across as some of the best folk I've heard in ages. Still sharp, wielded exquisitely, the cutting edge of traditional folk music remains in good hands.

Wanna hear it for yourself? You'll have to buy the album for the originals, and the tradfolk; almost every song is a ten out of ten. But here's a genuine label-approved Cover Lay Down exclusive, not one but TWO covertracks from Still Crooked, which hits stores next week: a wild, spunky take on an old Mississippi John Hurt tune, and a sultry, quiet public domain number with stunning backing vocals from Levon Helm's daughter Amy, a fine musician in her own right. Plus a few older covertracks from Crooked Still's earlier releases, to give newcomers a sense of their overall sound. Listen, and then run right out and buy Still Crooked to hear the rest. Or just come on out to Falcon Ridge Folk Fest this July, and see 'em in person.

Since we're in the mood, today's bonus coversongs feature other cello players from the folkworld: newcomer Ben Sollee and his amazing Sam Cooke cover, and a cut from Fiddlers 4, a wonderful neo-appalachian quartet from some of the best genre-crossing string players in the business, featuring none other than Rashad himself on the low notes. Plus a youtube link for a great, spare solo cover by young folkcellist Lindsay Mac, who will also perform at Falcon Ridge this year.

Previously on Cover Lay Down: Crooked Still covers tradsong Wind and Rain

Further reading: Folk tastemaster Songs:Illinois has two MORE Crooked Still songs: one from Still Crooked, and one from Hop High.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Festival Coverfolk: Falcon Ridge Folk Fest, July 24-27
(The Nields, Patty Larkin, Martin Sexton, David Massengill)

Gas isn't getting any cheaper, so now that you're back from the confusingly-named fields and stages of Bonnaroo, where Ben Folds retired his lush, hushed cover of Bitches Ain't Shit (see Fong Songs for a great live-from-Bonnaroo recording), it's time to start looking at a few festivals closer to home. For us, this means our own stomping grounds, here in the American Northeast. And for my money, there's no better festival around than the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, a four-day, four-stage extravaganza of music, dancing, and live music that takes place in Hillsdale, NY, on the last weekend in July.

Falcon Ridge tickets won't sell out for a while, but if you're like me, you're going to need some time to air out the camper and clear the calendar. Without further ado, then, here's a short feature on the festival itself, followed by some sweet covers from a few artists not to be missed.

Falcon Ridge Folk Festival isn't the biggest Northeast music festival, not by a long shot. The Falcon Ridge camping population hovers far under ten thousand; on a good year, total festival attendance doesn't rise much past fifteen thou. To me, this is a bonus. Where the bigger New England folk festivals such as Philly and Newport are often too crowded for me, Falcon Ridge is intimate, as festivals go, with a community feel that's rare for a major festival.

This intimacy is as much a product of design and business model as it is a function of size. The place is entirely volunteer run, which means about a tenth of the people there have more than just a visitor's stake in the place; the mood that results is relaxed and full of cheerfully shared ownership. There's a Family stage and a Dance tent, in addition to Mainstage and Workshop stages, plus the usual and plentiful booths and services that make any good festival a full-body experience; these spaces interact effectively, with room to move, and no sound spill from one stage to the next. The camping areas nestle right up against the grassy mainstage amphitheater; after hours, small-label and indie artist performances continue in privately owned tents up on the hill until dawn, where you can see mainstage artists in a makeshift coffeehouse setting.

Falcon Ridge is perfect for cover lovers, too. The best set at the festival is the annual two-hour tribute show, where as many as ten different artists and groups cram onto the workshop stage to perform the songs of a single artist in an in-the-round format; in years past, I've seen Beatles tributes, Dylan songs, and Guthrie tunes here, but no matter the tribute subject, the performers always have a great and infectious time. In fact, though the mainstage is plenty impressive, I spend the lion's share of my music-watching time at this small second stage, which features intimate performances from mainstage-caliber artists throughout the daylight hours -- most often in small groupings, which providing a rare opportunity to see two or three of your favorite folk artists play for, and with, each other.

Falcon Ridge celebrates their 20th anniversary this year, and to make it special, they've come up with a full set of festival favorites that span a broad definition of folk, from old-school folkies Janis Ian and Jack Hardy to up-and-comers Joe Crookston (heard recently on Songs:Illinois) and singer-songwriter-cellist Lindsay Mac (who does an amazing version of Bill Withers tune Use Me). Other crowdpleasers include a plethora of contradance bands, and the ever-popular folkrock bands Eddie from Ohio, Railroad Earth, The Strangelings, Lowen and Navarro, and Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams.

The core of the festival performance is singer-songwriter folk, of course, and this year's roster is impressive. Regular visitors to Cover Lay Down will find it familiar, too; we've previously featured a great many performers from this year's Falcon Ridge 20th anniversary extravaganza, including John Gorka, Eliza Gilkyson, Lori McKenna, Chris Smither, Dar Williams, and folk trio Red Molly, who first came together on-site. (Note: In order to tempt you into joining me on-site this year, archives for all these performers will remain open until the festival has passed us by.)

But such artists are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg; the Falcon Ridge roster is rich with talent. Later this week, in honor of their new album's June 24th official release date, I'll have two *exclusive* label-approved tracks from appalachian folkgrass quintet Crooked Still, who will appear at Falcon Ridge on Thursday this year. Today, we feature the coversongs of a few other great and often undersung performers who will grace the stage at this year's Falcon Ridge Folk Fest.

Though the songwriting talents of both male and female folksingers are increasingly touted with equal merit, for some reason, as a default mode of analysis, the folkworld tends to celebrate male musicians for their stringwork, while female singer-songwriters are known for their voice. Boston-based folk artist Patty Larkin has spent her career trying to challenge that curious bias, both as a solo artist and as a member of the short-lived quartet Four Bitchin' Babes, and she's got the chops to prove it: Larkin trained in Jazz guitar at the Berkeley College of Music, and her fretwork and picking style has been praised by many throughout her quarter-century of performance.

But Larkin's no one trick pony, either. Her songwriting is witty and wise, and she's got a perfect note of longing in her voice that can melt the coldest heart. Though she's drifted a bit label-wise, most recently landing at Vanguard, in the right production environment, her talents shine like a beacon. These two covers provide the perfect setting for this rare folk trifecta.

My father took me to see appalachian dulcimer player and storyteller David Massengill way back in the eighties, at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA; it was one of my earliest experiences with folk, and it was, truly, a revelation. Massengill is best known in the folkworld for his role in starting the Greenwich Village cooperative which spawned the Fast Folk scene that revived folk music in the seventies and eighties; he hasn't been terribly prolific over his long career, but he is an amazing performer and songwriter in his own right, a culture vulture with a wry critical eye and a warm voice, full of humor and poignancy about everything from gritty urban immigrant life to vivid, fanciful dreamscapes in which tourists visit the New York sewers, Jesus escapes from a mental hospital, and history's greatest villains gather for a dinner party.

David Massengill will be performing at Falcon Ridge as part of a duo with fellow Fast Folk granddaddy Jack Hardy; here's two covers from him, plus Cover Lay Down fave Lucy Kaplansky doing a great rendition of one of his best.

I recently discovered that Martin Sexton lives right around the corner from my sister-in-law, which makes sense only if you assume that such miraculous bluesfolk and that perfect mellow weight-of-years voice are best honed in the middle of absolute nowhere, Massachusetts. Sexton started off in the early nineties as a Bostonian busker, where he sold 20,000 copies of his demo out of his guitar case, but despite being named artist of the year by the National Academy of Songwriters way back in 1994, and, more recently, having one of his songs featured on Scrubs, this incredible songwriter and guitarist with the multi-octave jazz-infused vocal style remains just under the radar.

Though my favorite tunes from him are light and airy as a Leo Kottke tune, despite his rural residence, Sexton can play it up funky and fast, too, with a catchy urban sensibility that's off the charts. And he's just incredible live. While we wait for his next album to go platinum, here's both sides of Martin: a delicate live version of Amazing Grace worthy of Jeff Buckley's dreamiest, and a bass-heavy high-production take on Billy Preston's infamous Will It Go Round In Circles. Plus a great Christmas tune, just for the hell of it.

It took me a while to get into the nasal, warbly, oddly Nordic vocal harmonies of local authors, folk teachers, and singer-songwriter duo Nerissa and Katryna Nields. But most people who like their unique sound really like their sound, and I can see why: the sisters, who first began playing Falcon Ridge years ago as part of folk rock group The Nields, write surprisingly poignant, deeply intelligent tunes about the weirdest subjects, and perform them with bouncy spunk and aplomb and a surprising tenderness. Plus, there's something about any sibling pair singing harmony that just melds perfectly. Here's a cover of and a cover by the Nields, the better to showcase both their songwriting and their performance. PS: Don't miss their kid's stage set.

Want in? Tickets for Falcon Ridge are available through the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival website; if you're camping, act soon, because four day camping passes invariably sell out a few weeks before the gates open. If you'd like to attend totally free, come volunteer* -- we're always looking for a few more folks willing to help out! A few hours of generally enjoyable teamwork each day gets you free music, free food throughout the festival, access to great camping spots, and that feeling that comes from being a part of something wonderful. Contact Volunteer Coordinator Barbara Jesse for more.

*Full Disclosure: I'm Teen Crew Chief at Falcon Ridge, in charge of our "officer's candidate school for future volunteers." If you see a guy with a walkie-talkie leading a bunch of kids in matching shirts around the festival grounds, come on over and say hi -- I'd love to meet you!

Today's bonus coversongs are a bit ragged, but I couldn't resist: they were recorded in 2005 at the annual Sunday morning Falcon Ridge Gospel Wake-up Call -- another of my favorite Falcon Ridge traditions -- and everyone who is singing here will be at this year's festival, as well. Add a warm and sunny summer morning, a great spot on the hill, and that feeling of community that can only come from having woken up in a field full of cool people you love, and you're practically there.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Covered in Folk: Bob Marley
(Xavier Rudd, Magnet, Luka Bloom, Kings of Convenience, 8 more!)

A few weeks ago over at collaborative music blog Star Maker Machine I had the opportunity to share Bob Marley's Stir It Up -- a song which I maintain is one of the great summersongs of all time, in spite of its subversive political undertones. In my accompanying post, I noted that:

Bob Marley's greatest hits release Legend may have been just a posthumous compilation, but it was a perfect, complete set; it caught fire upon its release, bringing the sound of reggae full-bore into mass culture for the first time. Some of this was surely timing -- the album was released in May, and the songs rode up and down the charts like an elevator all summer long, moving virally and fluidly among those of us at summer camp, and catching fire in the schoolyard upon our return. 

But the album was also a timely signifier of authenticity for a growing dissatisfied American underclass left out of the Yuppie movement. College students bought the album in droves. The album went platinum ten times, and set what would appear to be an unbreakable benchmark as the highest selling reggae record ever. By the time I hit high school a few years years later the dreadlocked poster was perfectly familiar; so were the chunky beats, the fat bass, and the loose, rough-hewn vocal harmonies of the Wailers coming from a summer boombox.

I stand by that assessment: even today, the image of Bob Marley retains a particular young person's mark of countercultural, slyly adversarial legitimacy in the US -- whether or not those who choose to post Marley's head upon their dormroom wall realize that there is fire there, not just smoke and rolling papers.

But though the Star Maker Machine model favors the shortform, since that post, I've been looking for an opportunity to explore Marley's legacy on a larger scale. Because sifting through my folk archives in preparation for that elseblog post, I was struck by how many great Marley covers have come to us from musicians outside The States.

My own experience aside, if the unusually broad geographical diversity of today's coverfolk is any indication, Bob Marley's music and the message of peace and social justice it carries has spread to every corner of the globe. And why not? Americans may like to think that Jamaica (like everywhere else) is some sort of colony, but Marley is no more ours than anyone's. And, perhaps more significantly, Marley's truths are universal messages of hope and solidarity, relevant everywhere that people gather together as folk.

Here, then, a set which explores that broader significance. Our "genre" tags are all over the map, from the Irish singer-songwriter vibe of Luka Bloom to the upbeat indiepop sound of Norwegian folktronic solo artist Magnet. Marley classic Three Little Birds gets the lion's share of offerings, with four vastly diverse takes: the hushed, fragile lo-fi indiefolk of Birmingham, Alabama experimentalists 13ghosts, the joyous acoustic kidfolk of New Yorker and Cover Lay Down favorite Elizabeth Mitchell, the Zydeco stylings of Keith Frank and the live bossa-reggae beat of Brazilian Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil.

The mellow Australian jamfolk of Bonnaroo favorite Xavier Rudd stands in stark contrast to the traditional Okinawan folk sound that Nenes uses to flavor their stunning all-female interpretation of No Woman No Cry. Omar Sosa and Richard Bona's Afro-Cuban Jazz cover of Redemption Song is full and hopeful; late countryman Johnny Cash and UK post-punk Joe Strummer bring the weary weight of age to their own spare take on the same song.

Regular readers know I don't usually go for live covers, especially those clearly recorded from the audience, but for this amazingly mellow, sparse take on Waiting in Vain from Norwegian indiefolk darlings Kings of Convenience, recorded just two months ago in Seoul, I'll gladly make an exception. And though I was tempted to skip Scottish vocalist Annie Lennox's languid vocal pop as "not folk", I couldn't help but include it alongside, for contrast's sake.

There's other covers out there, of course. But taken as a set, today's gems fit our own "greatest hits" modality of quality over quantity, while serving as a survey of worldbeat folk from far-flung places. And I can think of no better way to show the true influence of Bob Marley, as a challenge to those who might mistake their collegiate associations for the broader impact of this musical genius. Enjoy.

Like what you hear? As always, links above lead to artist-preferred sources wherever possible; please, support these artists and others by following links and buying their music. And, as always, if you know of other folk covers you think belong in this rarified crowd, send 'em along, either through comments or via email.

Still haven't had your fill? Today's bonus songs are halfcovers -- one a two-song medley, the other an original a Damien Rice cover intertwined with a Bob Marley cover (thanks, Kathy!) -- from two very different ends of the American folkworld: Jack Johnson's barefoot surf folk and the delicate, experimental pianofolk of Benjamin Costello. Together, they help us see how, even within a single culture's use of Marley's songbook, there is more than meets the blurry eye.

Cover Lay Down posts regularly on Wednesdays, Sundays, and the occasional Friday and holiday; upcoming posts include folk festival previews, new album reviews, and other great songs from the coverfolk purview. I also recommend Star Maker Machine, where the gathering crowd shares over thirty songs a week on a given theme; my own recent posts include the originals and multiple coverversions of both Daniel Johnston's Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievance and Monty Python's Always Look On The Bright Side of Life.

PS: looking for some Father's Day Coverfolk? Try Covered in Kidfolk: Daddy's Little Girl for some still-live coversongs for fathers and daughters!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Covered in Kidfolk, Vol. 5:
Barnyard Tunes and Critter Songs for Cool Moms and Dads

I grew up in the suburbs, where wildlife was scarce, though we had our share of squirrels and birds, and the occasional rabbit sighting in the backyard. When we wanted to see larger animals, we generally headed out to Drumlin Farm, a working farm run by the Audubon Society, where caged birds of prey lined the path to the chick hatchery, the pigs and sheep gave birth every spring, and you could always spot the queen in the glass-lined, thin-sliced beehive, if you looked long enough. There was a pond, too, for crawdad spotting. Well worth the membership, and the half hour drive.

These days, we live in the country, where turkeys congregate around corners year round, and the neighborhood dogs roam aimlessly throughout our lives. Round these rural parts, Spring brings a whole mess of animals into the yard, from the new baby robins that nest in our holly bush to the frogs, toads, and salamanders that scatter when the kids run through the tall grass and hollows. On weekends, it's a five minute jaunt through the woods to the dam and its shady, overgrown waterways, where turtles, ducks, and beavers play in the water, and the fish practically jump on the hooks the moment we throw our lines in.

On hot days, we head up the hill to Westview Farm, where the new baby goats skitter up and down the concrete barriers, butting heads and bleating; in the evenings, the mother cow in the grazing field across from our driveway lows to her new calf. This year, the neighborhood has even been graced by a family of foxes; we haven't seen the mother and her kits yet, but the father runs past our windows and down into the growing darkness just about every day towards suppertime.

The world of kidsong is chock full of songs about animals, and for obvious reasons. A healthy child's life is full of nature, and nature is full of life. Too, the developing awareness of what it means to be alive, and be part of a world full of other things that are alive, is an important part of child development; songs which portray the various relationships we have with animals -- both wild and domesticated -- help prepare us to think deliberately about our world, and our place in it, as we grow up to become parents of our own.

Today, in service to this aspect of development, we present a sprawling collection of animal coversongs from my growing kidfolk cache. Most predate the phenomenon of song authorship. And with artists such as Tim O'Brien, Nickel Creek, Garcia/Grisman, and Seldom Scene lead singer Phil Rosenthal on the list, the set skews towards the bluegrass, but I make no apologies for this; it is only very recently, with the advent of the NYC indie bluegrass scene, that bluegrass has begun to leave behind it's associations with rural community and farmlife, and this makes it good solid folk music in my book.

But regardless of origin, as with all previous entries in our Covered in Kidfolk series, the point here is to provide a respite from the cheesy, cloying pap that passes for mainstream children's music, that we might -- as cool moms and dads -- stay true to ourselves while providing our children with music that befits their age, and their emotional and developmental needs. I think this particular set hits the mark admirably. Whether these songs speak of the swamp or the barnyard, the woods or the stream, each is wonderful, in both the usual sense and in the older sense of the word: full of the wonder which we should nurture in every child, and in ourselves.

As always, folks, links above go to label- and artist-preferred sources for purchase, not some faceless and inorganic megastore. If you like what you hear, buy, and buy local, to help preserve the little spaces, for the little people you love.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Ruth Ungar Merenda Covers:
Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Richard Thompson, Nico & more!

In the early days of Cover Lay Down, I spent some time covering the emergence of artists like Teddy Thompson, Rufus Wainwright, and Sam Amidon, all new voices who walked in the footsteps of folksinger parents; more recently, we heard Neill MacColl, son of Ewan and half-sister of Kirsty, in duet with Kathryn Williams, and Ben Taylor as a tagalong in discussion of the life work of his father James.

This may seem like a high percentage of "folk kids" for a blog that's only been around since September. But stepping back and looking around, we see that the prevalence of second generation musicians in Cover Lay Down is not so far off from the natural order of things in the world of folk music.

And if the idea of folk music as a family business is not so uncommon, then I suspect much of this has to do with the kind of work that musicmaking is -- after all, the artistic muse isn't one which takes place solely outside of the household, and can be left at the office each evening. As we alluded to in our recent exploration of folk musicians who are also mothers, as an art form and a vocational practice, the work of folk is something which permeates home life.

Some forms of folk, like some forms of music, are more open to family performance, of course. In the contradance and traditional folk music worlds, especially, performance is very often something which happens in households and community halls, with families and children; proportionally, you see more kids on (or near) stages in dance performance than you do in latenight singer-songwriter coffeehouses. Sam Amidon grew up in a household like this, where music took place as a daily and family activity, and performance was more often mid-afternoon than anything else. And the family atmosphere which permeated the McGarrigle/Wainwright household is famous for bringing forth Rufus and sister Martha Wainwright as musicians of confidence in their own right.

Someday soon, I hope to tackle the phenomenon of three-generational folk families which have their roots in the early American folk resurgence of the fifties and sixties, such as that of Woody, Arlo, and Sarah Lee Guthrie, or the performing careers of the Seeger family, including Pete Seeger's grandson Tao Rodriguez Seeger, who performed as part of The Mammals with today's featured artist until the band went on its recent hiatus. But such massive undertakings are for cooler, more comfortable days than today's high humidity heat wave. Instead, today, we look at another folk performer who grew up in not one but two households of folk musicians, and has since struck out on her own. Ladies and gentlemen: the various folk incarnations of Ruth Ungar Merenda.

For a young folk musician, fiddle and uke player and vocalist Ruth Ungar Merenda has gone through a surprisingly large amount of performing groups and incarnations. Starting off as a childhood sidegirl determined not to follow in the footsteps of her mother, luthier and singer-songwriter Lyn Hardy, and her father Jay Ungar, who with Ruthy's stepmother Molly Mason is a staple of the New England contradance and fiddlefolk revivals, Ruth headed off to Bard College, and from there to NYC, where she tried to make a go of it as an actress.

But as with so many second generation musicians, it seems the music was in her blood. By her mid-twenties Ruthy had drifted back to the fold, making appearances throughout New England as part of the family bands. In 2002, with the production support of Jay and Molly, Ruthy released Jukebox, a sprawling solo album which tackled a few originals and a bunch of early country and jazz classics with powerful but still slightly immature vocals over a delicate old-timey charm and acoustic swing production. Though the album showed diverse influences, and would have probably done well in the track-by-track promotional model of today's blogworld, back then it sold no more than a handful of copies.

Luckily, even before she released her solo disk, Ruthy had found a different outlet for her sound, joining up with a few other younger folks, including fellow second-gen songwriter Tao Rodriguez Seeger and singer-songwriter Michael Merenda to become The Mammals. And this time, people started to listen.

The Mammals emerged in the midst of a young person's newgrass revival, finding fame alongside similarly female-voiced bluegrass and folkgrass acts such as Uncle Earl and Crooked Still. As fiddler and the sole female voice of the Mammals, Ruthy found herself front and center plenty; she also began to play with others backstage at festivals, and occasionally showed up with a few other women from those aforementioned groups in side projects and sidestages, even recording a slightly racy album with her compatriots Aoife O'Donovan (of Crooked Still) and Kristin Andreassen (of Uncle Earl) as the trio Sometymes Why after a successful jam session in a festival parking lot.

I was lucky enough to see the Mammals several times in their few years together as an active performing group, both as a solo act and in tandem with Canadian-based folk group the Duhks (their performance together was billed as Platypus, as in Duhks+Mammals, which is just too cute). I liked the sound an awful lot, and I think their early release Evolver was a masterpiece of modern traditional folk rock. But seeing them in concert in their last year of performance, you could tell there was a hint of something in the air, just a faint unease in the way they clustered in threes and twos, rather than as a full ensemble, as if that there were some differences of opinion about what the "right" sound for the Mammals was supposed to be.

These days, in fact, The Mammals are "hibernating" while their members pursue solo projects; for Ruthy and Michael Merenda, now performing as Mike and Ruthy, these projects included marriage, which came with a very generous wedding present of studio time and production for an album. The result was The Honeymoon Agenda, a complete set of originals and well-chosen cover songs which run the musical gamut from the urgent yet delicate one-guitar duet sound of Tom Waits cover Long Way Home to a surprisingly countrified version of the Velvet Underground's I'll Be Your Mirror to a grungy production-laden folkpop that rivals the best work of Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield or Mary Lou Lord and Elliott Smith, or more recently, Signature Sounds indierockers the Winterpills -- that latter being unsurprising, since it was the Winterpills' producer who gave the duo the generous gift.

This newest incarnation of Ruthy's collaborative work is a far cry from the bouncy, almost renaissance sound of the contradance she grew up with, and it seems to have replaced the acoustic folk-slash-newgrass jam session sound of the Mammals work with a more intimate studio sound. Nor is it truly a return to the country swing-influenced singer-songwriter sound of her earliest solo work. Instead, though the record ultimately still shows an evolving artist in flux, it shows much more potential, in many more directions than before. It is lo-fi, but confident and mature in a way that Ruthy's first solo work only hinted at. And, as in all Ruthy's previous work, there is an energy and an honesty here which is well-served by her perpetual sense of whirlwind glee in making music, regardless of the style or subgenre.

But why take my word for it? Here's a few coversongs from each of these three major phases of Ruth Ungar's adult career thus far, so you can hear her musical journey for yourself.

The Honeymoon Agenda is available from various artist-friendly sources, including CD Baby; for digital downloads, I highly recommend Amie Street, where the entire album is currently available for download for six bucks, but where, due to their snowballing scale, song prices will continue to rise as others find Mike and Ruthy's music. (Bonus: when you arrive at Amie Street, sign up for an account, and enter the code "coverlaydown" for a three dollar discount!)

The Sometymes Why album appears to include no covers, but it, too, has some great ragged moments. And all five of the Mammals albums, Ruth Ungar's single solo album, and hubby Michael Merenda's solo works are all worth checking out, too.

If you're up for some live music, and live in the NY/NE area, Mike and Ruthy will also be appearing at several folk festivals in the American Northeast this summer, including the always amazing Clearwater Festival and Revival on June 21 and 22, and New Bedford Summerfest in the first week of July, which I've never attended but very much hope to make it to this year; their tour schedule has more. And for those who are willing to make the trip, experimental folk trio Sometymes Why will be at Bonnaroo next week. In full, it's an exceptionally busy schedule for any performer, let alone one who became a mother on January 28 of this year. Given Ruthy's own irresistible pull towards the musicworld, I'm confident that we can expect to see little William performing alongside Mama, Daddy, Grandma Lyn, and Grandpa Jay before long.

Today's bonus coversongs offer a taste of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason's typical contra-slash-swingfolk sound, as a roundabout way of exploring the deeper roots of Ruth Ungar's musical journey.

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • The Mammals (and many others) cover tradfolk tune The House Carpenter

  • Friday, June 6, 2008

    Covered In Folk: (Not) The Grateful Dead
    (on Borrowed Tradsongs and the Dead as a Vehicle of Renewal)

    Naturalismo, which I discovered when researching last week's post on Freak Folk, seems to be one of very few music bloggers to note the passing of Alton Kelley -- the sixties poster artist whose most popular work was probably the above skeleton-with-rose-garland poster, originally created for a 1966 Grateful Dead show at the Avalon Ballroom. You may not have seen the poster before, but you've seen the graphic it inspired on a hundred Volkswagen bumpers; the image, which Kelley and his long-time partner Stanley Mouse adapted from a nineteenth century illustration for The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was the source from which the Grateful Dead took their early, longstanding, most recognizable iconography.

    The relative dearth of recognition in the blogworld at Kelley's passing, coupled with the evolutionary story of the iconography of the skeleton in that poster, got me thinking about the similarly under-covered relationship between the Dead themselves and the folk tradition. I'm particularly interested in the way the Dead, like Kelley and Mouse's skeleton itself, served as a bridge between the images and objects of the past and the ongoing recognition of those objects in the present. If the skeleton reframed the imagery, the Dead reframed the tradition. And that's pretty folk, right there, folks.

    I'm not claiming that the Grateful Dead are folk music, necessarily, though their credibility in the folkworld is pretty strong. The combination of their use of traditional appalachian folksong as source material and their pre-history as jug band artists align them closely with the bluegrass that preceded them, and the newgrass movements which would follow. And their tendency towards acoustic sideprojects, their use of acoustic instrumentation and folk instruments, their connection with the same hippie movement which brought forth and nurtured the second wave of the new folk revival post-Guthrie and Dylan, and their not-so-occasional stripped down performance makes a strong case for their inclusion in the folk canon.

    Jerry Garcia's solo work and influence, especially, are a major component of this; by most accounts, though others in the band co-wrote their share of originals, it was Garcia who learned the majority of these traditional ballads and jams, on train rides and on back porch sessions, and brought them in for the band to arrange. And while his bandmates went on to play music across the genre map, both on hiatus and in the more recent aftermath of his death -- it's hard to argue that the solo output of, say, Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, or Bruce Hornsby count as folk in any shape or form -- it was Garcia who would become almost as well know for his more delicate acoustic mandolin and guitar work with compatriots such as David Grisman.

    One day, it is my intention to give that Garcia and Grisman folkwork the full attention it deserves. And previously, I've posted several sets of songs more properly characterized as bluegrass which follow the Grateful Dead take on tradition: two wonderful newgrass takes on Deep Elem Blues; a Single Song Sunday collection of covers of Rain and Snow; a great high-energy version of Grateful Dead "standard" Don't Ease Me In. But it's never to late to do more, especially in tribute. Today, a few traditional songs played by others from the less countrified side of the folkworld, post-popularization by the Grateful Dead, and in most cases, surely influenced by same.

    I considered adding a few more traditional songs of and from the Grateful Dead playbook here as a bonus, but it's Friday, and we only do short posts here at Cover Lay Down on "off" days. Luckily, several recent and especially relevant posts on other (better) blogs are still live and worth the visit. So quick, before they're gone:

    PS: Much credit goes to the Grateful Dead Lyric and Song Finder as a general resource for today's post. As the plethora of links here and elsewhere remind us, the folkworld would be a much poorer place were it not for the obsessive pursuits of others.