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Cookin' With New Releases - Here's What's On The Stove. (Better Read This Before You Order)

June 21, 2008

Thumbnail image for Crooked Still Still Crooked.jpgCrooked Still ~ Still Crooked

Crooked Still defined: Traditional ballads arranged for 5-string banjo and cello with the spotlight on a sensuous singer with a breathy delivery. That's the dictionary definition, which was derived by who made up the band. Aiofe (EE-FAH) O'Donovan is the singer and Rushad Eggleston WAS the cellist. The gifted but quirky Eggleston left the band and was replaced by two people: Tristan Clarridge is now on cello and Brittany Hass plays 5 string violin. Rounding out the ensemble is Corey DiMario on bass and Dr. Gregory Liszt on banjo. Liszt is one of the few folk musicians who is also an MIT graduate.

So, Crooked Still has an impressive cast, and an unusual mix. Did you notice what's missing? Though O'Donovan plays guitar and piano, she rarely does in this context. Her focus is on her singing. And why not, she's got the New York Yankees (better make that the Boston Red Sox) of instrumentalists behind her, and the ensemble sound requests the absence of conventional rhythm. The group wants your ears to focus on the cello, violin, and banjo, and on Aiofe's distinctive delivery.

The result may be closer to jazz with all of the improvisation, but the musicians seldom become abstract, which is smart. Crooked Still is already so different, that they would risk becoming inaccessible if they played too 'free.' Rather, the collective sound is engaging, powerful, daring, and fun. You may know some of the songs and you're familiar with all the instruments, but no one has their combination. That, by the way, is the definition of style - when critics or fans have difficulty coming up with comparisons.

Annabelle Chvostek ~ Resilience

Based out of Montreal, Annabelle Chvostek used to be in the Wailin' Jennys. In fact, she wrote and sang "Devil's Paintbrush Road" off Firecracker. Like Cara Luft before her, this ex-Jenny has an impressive new solo album. Resilience is not a loud and fast rocker, but it has real staying power; it's one of those albums that attract you initially, but the more time you spend with it, the easier it is to become enraptured.

The album's title describes a terrible loss, but comments on the heart's remarkable ability to recover. As with many of the songs, Annabelle plays multiple instruments: mandolin, violin, piano, & organ. Becky Foon adds texture with cello. Texture is a good word for this entire album: subtle accordion, multiple electric guitars, but without volume or flare, and eastern percussion. "Wait For it" is a delightful tale of a city couple finding love in the country, and provides emotional balance for the album with its happiness. "Piece of You" is a wish to spend one day and one night together in love without necessarily being sexual lovers. The album includes humor: "I Left My Brain" and swing: Ella Jenkin's "Racing with the Sun," the only song Chvostek didn't write. Resilience is titled well. This CD invites you back for more, and you won't be disappointed when you oblige.

lissa_Song.jpgLissa Schneckenburger ~ Song

Lissa plays fiddle and sings and on her new release Song she reveals to us that she is also a bit of an historian. The album has a theme. It traces ancient British ballads that found their way to Maine, her home state. More importantly, she has arranged these songs so they sound contemporary and fun. Though the focus is on the stories, her rhythm section makes her shine. Often there are two guitars, bass, and light percussion provided by Stefan Amidon. For flavor, she offers two accordions (Jeremiah McLane and Sharon Shannon) on "The Fair Maid by the Sea." Eric Merrill, who is showing up on everyone's album, plays banjo & guitar.

The album's best offering may be "Little Musgrove and Lady Barnswell." It's about a Lord's wife falling for a sheepherder. Bad things happen to both of them, but the result is an absolutely delightful romp (go figure!) Lissa has really jumped up a notch as a featured artist - her playing is full of style based on exceptional technique, and she is singing with more confidence and power than ever. There are several medleys with a song and a tune combined and these work well since she is now evenly talented as a singer and a soloist.

~ Jim Blum

Kerfuffle To the Ground.jpgKerfuffle ~ To the Ground

Folk music in the UK is alive and well with Bellowhead, Tim Van Eyken, Seth Lakeman, Spiers & Boden and many others. Add to that list Kerfuffle, a young English band we discovered at Cropredy last year. Their new album, To the Ground, is the group's fourth release and features mostly English material, with smart song choices and arrangements that are unique to the band. An extremely inspiring version of "The Cruel Mother" called "Down by the Greenwood Side," may be the album's highlight, with a driving rhythm section and Hannah James' pure and natural singing. The band's past three albums, along with awards, formal music training, and high profile festival gigs, have shown the group's accredited virtuosity of the genre. This new album finally shows off the group's vocal range too, especially in the song "Arise Arise." Kerfuffle has also managed to avoid the obvious standards - no version of "The Blacksmith" here. Instead, they have delved deep to deliver material not performed to death. While "The Cruel Mother" may be considered by some as a standard, Kerfuffle handles it like a brand new song, with an arrangement we haven't heard before. Clearly inspired by greats like Pentangle and Fairport, Kerfuffle has delivered a smart album, full of creativity, originality and musicianship that's on par with the best of the best in the genre.

~ Chris Boros

Posted by Jim Blum at 1:12 PM

Folk Alley and Red House Records Anniversary Celebration at Blossom

June 18, 2008

RHR25_201rgb (2).jpgThis Saturday, June 21st,'s mothership, WKSU 89.7 FM presents A Prairie Home Companion at the Blossom Music Center in Cuyahoga Falls, OH. Coincidentally, Garrison's musical guests for this broadcast - the Wailin' Jennys, Jorma Kaukonen, and Robin & Linda Williams - are all on the same record label, Red House Records, who is celebrating their 25th Anniversary in 2008. Since Folk Alley is also celebrating a milestone 5th Anniversary this year, we decided to make a party of it!

For those of you who are in the area and planning to attend APHC at Blossom, please stick around after the broadcast and join us at the venue for a special Folk Alley/Red House Records Anniversary Party mini-concert! The show will feature a performance by the Wailin' Jennys, along with a few songs from Jorma Kaukonen and Robin & Linda Williams! We'll have all kinds of goodies to give away too, so please join us for the festivities!

Of course, if you're a fan of A Prairie Home Companion and haven't seen it live, you really should at least once. So buy your ticket for the radio show, and then party with us after!

Posted by Linda Fahey at 10:16 AM

Download The Alleycast for June - 2008

June 12, 2008

Ruthann1.jpg Ruthann2.jpg

The Alleycast for June features Folk Alley's exclusive concert recording from The McDades, plus our special interview with The Everybodyfields. Also featured is Folk Alley's Open Mic artist of the month, Frankylou. Plus, we present a special interview with Ruthann Friedman, she made one record back in 1969 called "Constant Companion." Over thirty years later, she's recording and performing again. Download The Alleycast today!

Posted by Chris Boros at 2:29 PM

The Telluride Nothing Festival - July 18-20

June 4, 2008


MerleFest was fun this year - no doubt about it. However, is it me, or are some festivals just too big? 15 stages and 80,000 people can be fun for some, but a bit annoying for others. Don't get me wrong, the music is well-worth dealing with 80,000 sweaty and stinky people, but with 15 stages, it can be overwhelming.

So for those of us who might like a small festival, here is one to suggest that offers absolutely nothing! Whether this is just a joke, or a real thing, it certainly sounds fun to me. It's The Telluride Nothing Festival.

The Nothing Festival was accidentally created by a local resident who was fed up with the prospect of another huge event by a large promoter. A tongue in cheek letter was sent to the city manager requesting a non-festival permit and was taken seriously!

I would love nothing more than to sit around with a bunch of cool people for two days and do nothing. Absolutely nothing! Sounds like heaven to me. "Thank you for not participating."

Posted by Chris Boros at 3:45 PM | Comments (3)

Cookin' with New Releases; Here's What's on the Stove. (Read This Before You Order)

June 3, 2008

Abigail Washburn and Sparrow Quartet.jpgAbigail Washburn ~ Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet

Abigail Washburn plays old timey banjo and sings. A lot of people can make that claim, however. What sets Abigail apart is that she can also sing in Chinese and her Sparrow Quartet has pioneered a complex but riveting musical crossover.

First, east meets west: Asian and Appalachian traditions combine with unexpected delight. Then there's both kinds of banjo: Abby frails to Bela Fleck's 3-finger resonator style. Add in a classical touch: Cello (Ben Sollee) and violin (Casey Driessen). Yet all players also improvise because they can play jazz. Finally, and this one is hard to explain, Sparrow's songs often draw out divergent emotions simultaneously. Start with the albums final piece "Journey Home." It is easy to feel happy and sad as you hear Washburn sing in words you don't understand to the bands combination of styles and notes that you've never heard before.

This is one of those "Wow" albums. Their first release "The Sparrow Quartet EP," was really good, but it was only a forecast of what was to come. This collection includes the band's own compositions along with strikingly original arrangements of songs that may be centuries old. Three years ago Abby told me that she had assembled a band and had arranged a State Department tour in Tibet. When she told me who was in the band, I could only imagine what it might sound like. Now, you and I don't have to imagine -- this dream is real, and you'll discover something else everytime you listen.

Pat Wictor Sunset Waltz.jpgPat Wictor ~ Sunset Waltz

Who is Pat Wictor? I had no idea, but when a trusted aide insisted I listen, I remembered Folk Alley's best trait: offering joy through discovery. Wictor's songs are basically bluesy but he doesn't use the same tired progressions. Some selections offer a fine compliment of instruments (lap slide, accordion, harmonica) while others are just Pat. "Just Pat" is plenty because this guy has a sweet voice and plenty of range, somewhat similar to Pat Enright of The Nashville Bluegrass Band (though "Sunset Waltz" isn't bluegrass).

Wictor's subject matter is smart. He sings of acceptance in "That's the Way it's Gonna Be." He sings the perfect wedding song delivering Pierce Pettis's "Song of Songs." He is brutally honest revealing a father's alcoholism in "Whiskey Vacation." There's an original Civil War ballad about a mother knitting socks for 7 dead sons - "Marching Still." He pays respect by covering Dylan and Phil Ochs. He is amusing during "Existentialist Blues:" "Things ARE just as hard as they seem." Pat is getting airplay on folk radio all over the country and you can add us to that list.

Northern Lights One Day.gifNorthern Lights ~ One Day

In various configurations, Northern Lights has been playing contemporary bluegrass for years in New England. Lead singer, Ben Demerath (Sugarbeat), joined them and the group seemed ready to take on more of a national identity. Folk Alley chose 7 songs off their last album "New Moon." "One Day" is a step backward; we were disappointed not to find one song to add from it.

The biggest problem seems to be song selection, because these guys can obviously play. Out of all the Bob Wills numbers "Miss Molly" is too often the choice, and we have many versions already. There are hundreds of other Wills gems to choose from. Ditto "Working On a Building" and "Talk About Suffering." These are overdone. The band's three lead singers (with the exception of guest Jonathan Edwards) mostly under deliver and at times they try too hard. The lack of originality is most evident when it comes to composition. The band wrote none of their own songs and made no attempt to clarify that they were celebrating covers. There are plenty of other newer bands who are passing Northern Lights by, which is disappointing because they can do better.

stairwell sisters get off your money.jpgThe Stairwell Sisters ~ Get Off Your Money

Famed producer Lloyd Maines was in Boulder, Colorado and heard a group of women playing old timey music on the street. He like their energy; they became friends, and he produced their album. The album starts off farily ordinary - no stellar lead players or singers. Remember though, this is mountain music and the original purpose was not to impress - the idea was participation. You work all day, and then you play music on the porch. Or you dance. You don't WATCH (as in TV or concerts). YOU play.

Understanding this philosophy, the album is fun. Further into the CD, it offers something else. Songwriting: "David & Goliath" is a biblical analogy for modern warfare. "Shuffle and Shine" laments the trials of the working individual. There is also Theatre:
"Stay All Night" begins with banjoist Evie Ladin solo tap dancing, then the band joins in.
To keep the tune interesting they add dynamic ensemble changes: starts & stops, that sort of thing. The song starts off interestingly and then it stays that way.

Not every submission to Folk Alley has to reach the standards of the Sparrow Quartet. The Stairwell Sisters have loads of fun and they care. Both show.

Jim Blum

Posted by Jim Blum at 12:27 PM | Comments (1)

Kerrville Announces 2008 Crop of New Folk Winners

After 800 submissions were whittled down to 32 finalists, the top 6 artists in the Kerrville Folk Festival's Grassy Hill New Folk Contest performed this weekend in Kerrville, Texas. The 32 finalists played for crowds at the 36th annual festival on May 24 and 25, with judges Jud Caswell, Amy Speace and Jon Vezner picking winners for the spotlight show on June 1. Rod Kennedy, founder of the much-loved festival, acted as host for the event. Folk Alley Open Mic contest winner Chad Elliot made it to the top 32 (couldn't happen to a nicer guy)! Winners receive a cash honorarium from Texas Folk Music Foundation, Vic & Reba Heyman, and the Jim Ross Memorial Fund (as well as a bunch of other prizes).

Here are this year's winners:
Devon Sproule (Charlottesville, Virginia)
RJ Cowdery (Columbus, Ohio)
CJ Watson (Nashville, Tennessee)
Hans York (Seattle, Washington)
Robby Hecht (Nashville, Tennessee)
BettySoo (Austin, Texas)


Posted by Ann VerWiebe at 10:53 AM | Comments (1)

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