We used to call it “folk music.” The music of the people. Regular people. But sometime in the last fifty or sixty years, that term became inadequate. The explosion of electronic musical production, audio and visual media, and cult celebrity took folk music and transformed it from a participatory activity, something that people did amongst themselves on porches or street corners, in jook joints or churches, into something we watch in awe from the balcony, or through a screen, performed by larger-than-life figures who could not be less regular. Many of us experience nostalgia for an imagined time when our forebears hopped boxcars and strummed banjos, when the world was simpler, rougher. A time when lives were rarely captured on camera or recorded through microphones, and more often came and went as a series of experiences that would never be analyzed or reflected upon. Unlike the present, when everything is reflexive, when the narratives surrounding events are being constructed in real time. So now we call it “roots music.” The sounds that have fed into and informed what is happening now, played with the real instruments our synthesizers imitate, by musicians who are acutely aware of the ancestors who have influenced them.
A couple of those musician/historians, Michael Eck of the Ramblin’ Jug Stompers and Ryan Dunham of the Red Haired Strangers, have been pulling together the Albany Roots Music Festival for the past five or six years. They attempt to showcase some of the diversity of traditional musical forms being played by those who sprouted from the same soil I did, somewhere near where the Hudson River meets the Mohawk River in upstate New York.
Blake Christiana, the lead singer-songwriter for this year’s headliner, Yarn, comes from my hometown, Schenectady.[i] His prolific composing has allowed the band to produce seven full-length records in the past eight years, while maintaining a marathon tour schedule. He is supported by some exceptional talent, including mandolinist Andrew Hendryx and guitarist Rod Hohl, whose big-time chops meld together with their bandmates to create a rich, cohesive sound.
While Christiana fought through a sore throat that was causing him to lose his voice during a 45-minute set, Hendryx and Hohl treated the audience to a series of soaring, atmospheric jams. The band played tunes like “Down on Your Luck” and “Angel Place the Halo,” which showed off their ability to build beautiful arrangements around well-crafted lyrical stories. For me, the highlight of their performance was this long version of “Abilene,” in which Christiana’s ragged and raspy voice carried well, and the instrumentalists were just on fire:
Leading off for Yarn were a skilled group of local musicians steeped in blues, folk, and gospel roots. First came singer-songwriter Matt Durfee, who impressed with his clever lyrics, bellowing vocals, and hot picking on songs like “Everyone Wants to be Right.” Here he is performing the song a few years ago in Albany:
Up next were The Doornails, a razor-sharp acoustic blues trio featuring vocalist/harmonica player Ted Hennessey and flatpicking guitarist Mike McCann. McCann was one of the stars of the evening, teaming up with several acts and calmly shredding his way through improvised solos. Here are Hennessey and McCann jamming out before bringing female folk duo The Nellies onstage for some hokey fun on “Stan the Hot Dog Man”:
Festival hosts Red Haired Strangers took things over from there, contrasting the slow and gentle guitar playing and singing of John Rice with the firey blues harp of singer Ryan Dunham. Things really started to cook when they brought McCann onstage for “Bended Knee”:
The pace and tone of the evening changed dramatically when The Mount Olive Southern Missionary Baptist Church Choir took the stage. Eck described them as men who “take their music and their faith very seriously,” and that certainly seemed to be the case. Pastor Willie Stovall led a polished group of six sweet, smooth voices backed by a keyboard and electric guitar. The group stirred the crowd with pure gospel music of the kind that has given rise to decades of impassioned rhythm, blues, and soul drawn from significantly less devout, but perhaps no less divine, sources. Here they are performing the song “Doctor Jesus”[ii]:
Yarn fans should check back later this month and listen to my interview with Blake, in which he shared that the band’s new album should be out before the end of the year, and explained why writing songs (like this) about the bad guys can be so much fun.
Check out Matt Durfee, Red Haired Strangers, and Mike McCann, who all play in and around the Albany area on a regular basis. You can hear the Mount Olive Southern Missionary Baptist Church Choir every Sunday at 236 Pearl Street in Albany.
[i] He wrote a song about it actually. You can hear it here. Lines like “Good men go down/While the evil get crowned/No there ain’t no reason at all/We got cops doing lines/While beating their wives/Claiming they’re the law,” basically should cement Blake’s place as the bard of Schenectady’s desolation in the same way Springsteen is associated with New Jersey, in this Schenectadian’s opinion.
[ii] In the video, you’ll hear Pastor Willie ask for the lights to be turned way up on the stage while the choir performed. When Yarn came on afterwards, Christiana exhorted the crowd to give the men from Mt. Olive another round of applause, then joked, “Unlike the gospel choir, we’ll take the lights way, way down.” Nothing like the contrast between the Lord’s Music and the Devil’s Music to evoke the roots of American music, right?