It’s Getting Better
Sometimes there comes along a week that you wish you could rewind and do it again in a better way. Last week was one of those. Stress, tension, unhappiness, frustration all rolled into one big bad week. It’s over now, thankfully but I’m still reeling from the collateral damage it wrought: for the greater part of last week I couldn’t find time to listen to music. Of course, there was enough stuff coming my direction—via RSS feeds, my online music store accounts and a host of mp3 blogs—but I just couldn’t get down to exploring them. Up until the very end of the week when my mood was suddenly and very pleasantly lifted by a donkey’s jawbone.
Actually it’s a percussion instrument called a quijada used by Mexican folk musicians. And it is indeed made from a donkey’s jawbone that is weathered and seasoned but has all the teeth intact. When struck or scraped, the teeth rattle and that results in a unique percussive sound. I heard the quijada being used by a band that I’d never heard of: The David Wax Museum who are also a curiosity themselves. Wax, a Harvard University alum, fronts what is an American folk music band with a twist, the twist in this case being a generous dose of Mexican folk music, an outcome of Wax’s own stay in Mexico. When you think of a mating between traditional American and traditional Mexican folk music it doesn’t really conjure up something that you’d get excited about but Wax and his band (it’s a trio that has guests dropping in) surprise you with their oeuvre.
I heard a track called The Persimmon Tree by The David Wax Museum, a track that they had played early this month at this year’s Newport Folk Festival. It was nice (made even nicer because I heard the donkey’s jawbone on the track) and then discovered that NPR had put out their entire setlist for free downloading. I grabbed that and then headed off to buy their album, Carpenter Bird, a set of 12 songs that include pure American folk as well as nicely shaken together cocktails featuring both Mexican and American folk. Of course, there’s also an occasional dash of the jawbone’s rattle that gives all of it an extra edge.
This year’s Newport Folk Festival featured several musicians that I hadn’t heard of. Ben Sollee, a cellist and singer, and Daniel Martin Moore, who plays the banjo and the guitar, are from Kentucky. Sollee is an environmental activist and together with Moore he has produced a new album called Dear Companion (incidentally, produced by another Kentuckian musician but more on him in just a bit). They make delicate music (with the banjo and the cello working well together) that I found to be quite calming.
Exactly a year back I’d written about last year’s Newport Folk Festival, which was also the 50th anniversary of the event, and how some of the legendary greats, like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Mavis Staples had performed. Seeger’s set saw his grandson, Tao, play with him. Well, Tao had a set this year and it was rather good. But one of the performers at this year’s event simply blew me away and it was Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings. Jones is a revivalist of soul and funk and she and her band are brilliant live performers. Her set (nearly an hour long) at Newport (where she made her debut this time) was rivetting. Jones has a voice and stage presence that commands unwavering attention of anyone who’s listening to her and if you haven’t heard her, I’d suggest the following. Go and listen to her set at Newport; and then go and buy all four of her albums, particularly 100 Days, 100 Nights (2007).
I said I’d tell you about the other Kentuckian musician who produced Sollee and Martin Moore’s album, Dear Companion. Well, he’s none other than Jim James, frontman of My Morning Jacket, soloist and ace collaborator (remember he’s one-fourth of Monsters of Folk, the folk supergroup that Download Central has raved about). At this year’s Newport fest, James collaborated with many musicians but his finest moment was when he got on stage to sing with veteran American folk and country singer, John Prine, on Prine’s All the Best, a sweet, old-fashioned break-up song that sounds deceptively simple but begs for a repeat every time it finishes.
Of the many musicians that performed at Newport this year, I’d heard a few before. Such as Sharon Jones, The Avett Brothers, a North Carolina neo-bluegrass band; and Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, an ensemble band with nearly a dozen members. But it was the new ones that got me excited. I’ve mentioned The David Wax Museum but there was also The Swell Season, a folk rock duo that comprising Glen Hansard (Irish) and Marketa Irglova (Czech) and Pokey Lafarge and The South City Three, a ragtime blues band with an infectious sound. For these and several other bands that brightened up Newport early this month (and my life towards the end of last week), you can check out these links. A good time is assured.