To be honest, when I tossed the show on my calendar I had no idea what "Folk This III" was, or how the five acts on the bill could coalesce under any banner. When I arrived at the club, parking on the street and dodging raindrops on the way to the front door, I still had no idea what I'd find, and I wasn't alone. Before I could open the door, a smoker huddled under the awning asked me if I was there for the punk show. I shrugged and muttered something about a folk show. My puzzlement was contagious.
Music began promptly at 8:30 with local Maggie Henehan. Henehan made sense to me. Folk is a woman with an earthy, patterned dress finger-strumming open chords on an acoustic guitar. Henehan fit my stereotype. Her face was expressive, her delivery full of pathos, and her voice rich with nuance. She was inclined to sing as many notes as possible; so many that I suspected there is some vocal jazz training somewhere in her past. While one song was described as "sassy," neither Henehan's voice nor her music ever rose above the pleasant in her short 25-minute set. I quietly took notes to try and piece the night together.
Henehan was quickly followed by the self-explanatory Not Sisters – a duo consisting of unrelated guitarist/vocalist Jen Appell and upright bassist Kristina Ning. Again, this was folk as I understood it. However, unlike the opening performer, Appell wasn't afraid of volume, nor were the duo afraid of speedy tempos. Appell was also not afraid to cram in as many corny "folk" puns as possible (e.g. "Thanks for getting out of the folkin' house.") When she sang her voice was strong and deep, demonstrating plenty of confidence in a style free of filigree. The songs in Not Sisters' set were generally built on finger-picked guitar work, with Appell's vocals nestled in nicely. Across the stage, Ning worked in both fingered notes that resonated throughout the room, as well as in long, bowed notes. Occasionally Ning alternated between the two styles within the same song. Throughout the set she watched Appell closely for clues, and it was those moments when bass and guitar interplay was the cleverest that I enjoyed the duo the most.
Fifteen minutes later Major Matt Mason USA took the stage. While MMM is generally a solo effort for guitarist/vocalist Matt Roth (who Too Much Rock readers will recognize as half of Schwervon!), the project is currently experiencing a growth spurt. Drummer Pat Tomek (of The Rainmakers, and so many other bands) set up at the front of the stage next to Roth, and rumor has it, the duo will soon become a trio when a bassist is added for future performances. As this was Roth and Tomek's first live performance, the twosome negotiated the beginnings and endings of most songs on stage, occasionally giving the audience an enjoyable peek under the covers of Roth's creative process. Solo, MMM is categorically a member of New York's anti-folk scene. His vocals are delivered matter-of-factly over simple barre chords, earning him accurate comparisons to contemporary Jeffrey Lewis. Curiously, while both Lewis's and Roth's lyrics seem to arrive at grand truths and observations effortlessly, they each take entirely different paths – Lewis through literal accountings of the mundane, and Roth's through colorful and illustrative language that might just be nonsense until it suddenly isn't. It's enviable. While these characteristics remains the core of the larger MMM, the band's fuller footprint reveals broader connections to cowpunk and even the minor key, open chord folk leanings of REM. In fact, the direct "Drink the Blood," replete with guitar leads, makes the case for MMM as a rock band. As with Roth's Schwervon performances, there was a break in the music as Roth read the poem he composed the morning of the show. The break did not, however, include an improvised dance performance from drummer Tomek as Schwervon's Nan Turner generally provides – Roth joked that he couldn't afford to pay Tomek for that service. Until Roth coughs up the cash, fans looking for impromptu tap will have to catch Schwervon on Tuesday at Davey's anti-folk festival.
The evening continued with a dress rehearsal of sorts. This Saturday the Westport Roots Festival makes its annual return, prompting the by-popular-demand reunion of local cowpunks Boot Hill. Frontman Gary Cloud hadn't performed Boot Hill's songs in thirteen years, and so, along with his new rhythm section, he decided that a test run was necessary before hitting the festival stage. Folk This (whatever that is) appears to have just gotten lucky when it landed the band's low-key reunion gig.
The set began with just Cloud on stage for a ballad I'll call "Last Cowboy Standing." Old, new, cover, original, I couldn't tell you, but it was full of all the twang and sadness that the title promised. Soon Cloud was joined by bassist Lizz Weiler and drummer Jason Meier (from The People's Punk Band and many others) for a half-hour set that spoke to both Cloud's Western shirt and his Converse All Stars. Driving tempos surged, and while the single-guitar version of Boot Hill was no match for the noisy chaos of the two-guitar version, the band definitely strayed far from my notions of folk. Let's put it this way, this performance would have sent Newport up in flames in '65. And I have a feeling the band would have been happy to watch it burn.
Cloud's banter was humble and appreciative, with numerous trips down memory lane, and a couple of humorous diversions – one thanking the Westport Root Festival organizer Jody Hendrix for getting him out of the La-Z-Boy where he confessed spending all his time watching American Dad on Cartoon Network with his five-year-old kid, and another blaming whiskey and weed for the band's not-so-subtle regional hit "Ride Me Like a Cowgirl." Let's hope Cloud's recliner gets less time, and fans get more chances to see this fantastic showman again.
While certainly the hillbilly aspects of Boot Hill could keep that band in line with what I assumed to be the Folk This continuum, that theme was shot to hell when headliner Go Generation began its set. Although playing at the request of Gary Cloud, the recently reformed Go Generation have 0% in common with folk, and everything to do with the late '70s UK mod-revival scene. This was the punk band the smoker asked about outside the front door, and the band that perplexed a friend who noted a skinhead in the nice mod suit carrying a guitar case earlier in the night. This was not folk.
Instead this was 30 minutes of ringing power chords from the band's new guitarist Cody Blanchard (of The Uncouth), active, Motown-esque bass work from Devin Blair, snapping drums from Jon Cagle, and plenty of oohs and aahs from both band and audience. Although the set began with "Upturned" and ended with "Fashionable Anarchist," both from the band's 2001 album Upturned (Hooligan Empire), the rest of the band's initial catalog was ignored. Instead the audience was introduced to new songs like "News of Today," "One More," and would-be Sporting Kansas City anthem "Blue Brigade." Each carried the same melodic punch that that band were known for fifteen years ago, but with added bravado that original vocalist (and principle songwriter) Pat Bukaty never brought to that version of the band. Unsurprisingly, the trio also injected two songs by The Jam into its set – first "The Eton Rifles," and later returning for a crowd-pleasing encore of "Down at The Tubeway Station at Midnight."
While Blair played the straight man, thanking the audience for showing up, and providing the band's history between cuts, Blanchard provided adorably drunken descriptions of the band's new material. Notes (and even entire verses) were missed, but the small audience of punks, skinheads, and hooligans (an entirely different audience than had watched the initial acts) didn't seem seem to mind.
Once "...Tubeway..." was completed, and another encore was waved off, these fans slipped over to the bar for another drink, and I slipped out into the rain for a quick drive home still entirely unsure of what "Folk This" represents, but certain that I had a good time.