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Honoring Folk, the Music of 'Our National Subconscious'
Folk music is not for the meek. It is neither simplistic nor passe. Bob Dylan has called it "old-timey music," but those ancient folk formulas inspired him and informed every subsequent generation of pop music, from Neil Young to Public Enemy to Radio-head. Yet folk as a genre is too often neglected.
For 30 years, it was the mission of the "FolkScene" radio show to celebrate that legacy, right up until it was dropped from the KPFK-FM (90.7) schedule in October in a dispute over control of the program.
So a crowd of local folk-based talent--including Jackson Browne, Dave Alvin, Peter Case and Van Dyke Parks--gathered at the Troubadour on Tuesday to salute the show's own legacy.
The four-hour festival of folk, folk-rock, country and bluegrass was a benefit designed to raise money for the legal expenses incurred by "FolkScene" hosts Roz and Howard Larman during failed negotiations with KPFK. The Larmans hope to find a new home for "FolkScene." And, like the radio program, Tuesday's concert also provided a platform to bring folk to the masses.
Standing backstage, Alvin called folk music a gauge of "our national subconscious. Folk songs are our myths, our 'Odyssey.' " He remembered first tuning into "FolkScene" on the radio while working in the '70s as a cook in Long Beach, in the years before his old band, the Blasters, was first invited on as a guest. "When I finally got on the show, I knew I'd made something of myself," he said.
As headliner of the night's sold-out show, Browne played music that was typically understated and quietly commanding, whether standing alone with an acoustic guitar or accompanied by others. "This is a night for old friends," said Browne, who was frequently a guest on "FolkScene" and has recently begun working on new music in the studio. Browne, who was joined on stage by singer Jennifer Warnes, also recalled his own early days on the Los Angeles folk-rock scene, noting the four-song limit at the Troubadour, which once specialized in folk performers, for a night of new singer-songwriters.
"The Troubadour was always a great place to hang around," he said. Just as powerful was the appearance by Alvin, whose vocals have only grown richer and more expressive with time. Leaning forward in his faded jeans and black leather coat, Alvin sang his own "King of California" in a deep timbre, and then invited a crowd of players to join him for a country version of his "Marie Marie," a Blasters-era song that has grown into a modern standard for rockers, folk singers and zydeco players. It taps into that "old-timey" music without ever seeming dated.
The Troubadour show, which was hosted by humorist Harry Shearer, limited each performer to three songs, which kept the night moving swiftly. Case, who last appeared on "FolkScene" in August, performed the excited, rock-fueled folk of "Ice Water" and the joyful talkin' blues of "Two Heroes Are Better Than One." He then slowed things down for the delicate and emotional "On the Way Downtown," a song written with his son, Joshua Case.
Talking backstage after his performance, Case suggested that the "FolkScene" program had been taken for granted by locals, but he said the show's current crisis may inspire more active appreciation. "They have a deep understanding of this music and the people who play it and its audience," Case said of the Larmans. "The loss of 'FolkScene' is a major loss culturally." * * *
Earlier in the evening, the Joel Rafael Band mingled traditional folk styles in dynamic, layered arrangements that included the Dylan-like phrasing of singer Rafael and the playing of daughter Jamaica on violin. Another highlight came from Judy Henske, a quirky folk-torch singer who sang stories that were dark and comical. Parks at the piano performed his own folk-based pop songs, including the Brian Wilson collaboration "Orange Crate Art," which opened with a gorgeous instrumental section worthwhile all by itself.
At the show's end, most of the night's musical talent gathered on stage for "Will the Circle Be Unbroken"--two-dozen singers and players, howlers and pickers, taking turns on the folk classic. It was a moment that perhaps best captured the rousing community spirit of the night and the music they had come to celebrate.
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