TLDR: It’s getting chilly, so chill the folk out. This week’s Listening Now is a brief exploration of folk, its relation to place, and a very small portion of all that it entails: everything from a classic guitar and rustic voice pairing (MPJ) to the occasional orchestration of mandolins (Beta Radio) to neo-folk/Americana (Blind Pilot and Mipso).
I just spent a whole beautiful week in Seattle drinking way too much coffee and enjoying blue skies and sweater weather. With travel comes this peaceful experience of going somewhere purely to enjoy it. So often we’re just going through life in an effort to make it to the next thing. We’re not letting ourselves react to the climate around us. We’re forgetting to look at the blue skies, to cozy up in a good sweater, and to sit there and drink a cup of coffee while we look out on a new city as if that’s all we came to do. And folk is the perfect genre for that since it’s often a commentary on place.
Every time I travel I’m reminded of this TS Eliot poem:
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we began
and to know the place for the first time.
Let’s Talk Folk
At its essence, folk is a commentary on place. So many folk artists draw from their surroundings. Folk music comes from hundreds of years of storytelling. Key elements often include stringed instruments paired with ballads that often talk about love and loss, war and heartbreak. These songs and stories were often shared around the fire or in the home as immigrants came to America. You’ll hear a similar sound across the pond in England, Ireland, or Scotland, where a lot of American immigrants came from. Folk, like jazz, is often very regional. The more you listen, the more you can hear hints of the Appalachians, Colorado (Gregory Alan Isakov), the Midwest (Matthew Perryman Jones), or even SoCal (Nickel Creek). Folk is such a broad genre that I could devote a whole year of newsletters to the subgenres within it. Today, we’re looking at folk from a general standpoint of those key elements (tight harmonies, strings, ballads) and bands and artists in the moment that you should totally check out if folk is your scene.
Beta Radio will be in KC with Good Old War Tuesday. It’s pretty classic folk chill. Lots of guitar and a little bit of a Passenger-sounding voice. They talk about place and home and the tension of physical place and feeling at home in their lyrics, mostly written and fronted by Benjamin Mabry and Brent Holloman, friends who met at a summer camp in North Carolina.
Intro: “On the Frame”
Ben talked Tuesday night about how this song is about a wall in his grandparents’ home. It has all these notches on the door frame from kids being measured throughout the years. His grandparents meant a lot to him and died years ago. The family didn’t want their house to sit vacant, so Ben and Brent turned it into a studio for a while, and that’s where they recorded portions of the newest album.
“A lot of these songs [on the latest album] are about looking for home in a person, place or ideology,” Ben said of recording music in his grandparents’ home.
For fans of Passenger, Milk Carton Kids, Barr Brothers, Oh Hellos.
10/24 Update: Went to the Beta Radio concert Tuesday night and I give them a definite 4 out of 5 bees (album reference). Ben and Brent had tight harmonies and an engaging stage presence despite a low turn out. It honestly felt a lot like a little house concert and they rolled with it.
Quotes from last night with Ben about their latest album “Ancient Transition”:
I’ve been displaced in a lot of my life. In my place where I’m living and in my soul. So a lot of these songs are existential.
My mom calls our album “ancient transitions” or “ancient trails” or “ancient traditions.” I have to keep telling her, ‘There’s NO “s,” mom!’
Matthew Perryman Jones
I’ve been an MPJ fan for years. His classic folk vibe fits pretty well with his often scruffy bearded face, long hair, and flannel. His lyrics are beautiful and he manages to keep the listener intrigued with complicated melodies. I play his 2015 album “Cold Answer” on repeat, especially on cold mornings. His latest album “Waking Hours” came out in September and delivers that same sensitivity to relationships and how they are influenced by place.
“I wanted to see how the ‘spirit of place’ would inform the creative process, so I decided to hit the road and see if the muse would be up for an adventure,” MPJ said of his latest album.
Intro: “Wrestling Tigers”
For fans of War on Drugs.
Their Spotify bio sites them as more Americana, but I think the propensity for mandolin and fiddle puts them further on the folk spectrum. Tried to cut them out of my list because I’ll be talking about them in a couple weeks, but I just can’t help it. So you better start listening now. I’ve already favorited like half of their 2018 album “Edges Run.”
What’s in a name? In a September 2015 interview with Raleigh’s News & Observer, however, Terrell revealed a new origin story, claiming to want to dispel previous rumors.
“There’s a phrase in Japan,” he explains, “it means something familiar, but there’s something a little bit off. And it roughly translates, or at least we were told, to ‘a little pee in the miso.’ And so we put a little P in the miso: Mipso.”
Intro: Servant to It
For fans of I’m With Her, Trampled by Turtles, Nickel Creek
Bonus! They’re touring with I’m With Her in Feb 2019.
Blind Pilot is a mix of their classic use of trumpet and a good dose of strings, especially some great guitar picking and violin. They’ve got some great storytelling. You probably recognize them from that song everyone is always sharing: 3 Rounds and a Sound. They haven’t released anything in a while, but this song is constantly on my fall list, and has a whimsical backstory.
For fans of The Weepies, The Decemberists
Concert Review: Gregory Alan Isakov
4 out of 5 fedoras.
I saw Gregory Alan Isakov Saturday night and he was so fantastic. I highly recommend if you get the chance. He played a mix of old and new. I was quite possibly the only one dancing, which is how this review turns into a bit of a rant: music is supposed to move you, people! It’s okay to move more than a safe swaying of the hips. Maybe it’s just because Greg is a pretty stoic guy, who already doesn’t say much when at the mic (he even apologized for that). But his music just built on itself and I really wanted him to react to it. He closed the set with “Liars” which is probably the best song on the album and full of so much fire that I don’t know how people weren’t losing control of their bodies. The crowd erupted with shouts and hollers after every song he finished but were somehow able to contain all their excitement while he was playing. Maybe it’s just me, but the big reason I go to concerts is for the experience, and I think that responsibility lies on the artist. If I wanted a listening party, I’d buy a record player. My favorite shows are when the artist really embraces that we as an audience WANT to be in their world. I want to know the stories behind their songs. I want to see how they react to the music they just spent months, even years, creating. Anyway.
Still a great show. Would go again.
Sufjan with Angelo de Augustine on “Time”
Sufjan’s label Asthmatic Kitty Records shared a video of him accompanying Angelo de Augustine on a recent single. One of my favorite ways to find new artists is by subscribing to a label’s newsletter.
And when I read that Angelo has worked with St Vincent, Sufjan, Glen Hansard, and Rhye, I knew I needed to add him to my listening now playlist.
For fans of Sufjan’s latest album “Carrie and Lowell,” Ray LaMontagne
Oct 26 – Colony House (Lawrence)
Oct 26 – Maggie Rogers (Truman)
Oct 28 – Goo Goo Dolls
Oct 31 – Tank and the Bangas
Nov 2 – Me Without You (Lawrence)
Nov 3 – The Roseline (Ollie’s Local) *local band
Nov 10 – The Weepies (Knuckleheads)
Nov 14 – Bastille (Uptown)
Nov 16 – John Prine with Conor Oberst (Midland)
Eugene Peterson – Eugene Peterson died Monday. He wrote the modern translation version of the Bible, called “The Message.” This, honestly, made him one of the greatest biblical scholars and commentators of our time. My parents spent a weekend with him at a Laity Lodge retreat years ago. They said he was an incredibly humble man. His last words were “Let’s go.”
Wendell Berry – There’s been a lot of talk of place in this week’s edition. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of Wendell Berry lately.
The Bridge – I hear a lot of new music from local KC radio station, Bridge 90.9FM. Tune in. Support local music. The Bridge team works really hard to bring new content, to challenge its listeners, and to promote local music. I will confidently say that they are powering the music scene in Kansas City.
The Current – There are other radio stations throughout the US getting good music to willing ears. I follow The Current on Youtube and love any time I get a notification about a new in-studio session.
P.S. Ever wondered, “where DID band names come from?“