Quieter voices get heard at Big Sur ‘new folk’ fest.
Thursday, May 19, 2005
When the term folk music is used, one thinks of protest music and sing-alongs, Greenwich Village, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. But these days, there are a growing number of musicians seeking—possibly unconsciously—to redefine the music form. Rather than writing anthems like “Blowin’ In the Wind,” these musicians are creating more abstract acoustic music. And these days, when rap artists and rock bands seem to be trying to prove they are louder and more in-your-face than their contemporaries, some of these new folk acts are heading in a radically different direction, towards quiet, muted sounds. In the liner notes of BRIGHTBLACK’s ala.cali.tucky, the crickets of Kentucky are given a nod for their contributions to the recording.
While there has always been folk music, 2004 seemed to be the breakout year for this newer strain of acoustic music, with publications and hipsters frothing over releases by warbling singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart and harpist Joanna Newsom. Now, other acts like Six Organs of Admittance and BRIGHTBLACK—who headline Big Sur’s Folk Yeah Festival on Friday and Saturday nights, respectively—are emerging from the formidable shadows cast by Banhart and Newsom.
Rather than being influenced by the pioneers of folk music—Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and early Bob Dylan—these artists seem to have embraced a wide array of other influences, including introspective singer/songwriter Nick Drake, finger style guitarist John Fahey, newer artists like Will Oldham (Palace, Bonnie Prince Billy) and more obscure musicians like Garry Higgins, a singer/songwriter from the ‘70s who is covered on Six Organs of Admittance’s latest release, School of the Flower.
Despite some similar influences and a reliance on primarily acoustic instrumentation, the acts of this new folk music have their own distinct sounds. Of the artists performing at the Big Sur Folk Yeah Festival, BRIGHTBLACK—the product of a collaboration between musicians N.D. “Nabob” Shineywater and Rachael Hughes—is probably the most radically mellow music of the bunch. On ala.cali.tucky, their 2003 debut CD, the band sounds like a group trying to play a combination of country music and spacey pop, a la Mazzy Star after downing a bottle of Robitussin. In the CD’s opener, the surreal “New Mexico,” every lyric is drawn out over shimmering pedal steel guitar and other acoustic instruments like the smoky sting from a shot of low-grade whiskey.
Meanwhile, Ben Chasny, the driving force behind Six Organs of Admittance, clearly uses his acoustic guitar to arrive at different ends on School of the Flower. Songs like “Words for Two” are wispy acoustic numbers that could be blown away by a strong wind, while “Saint Cloud” is an eastern-sounding number with tablas and what sounds like chanting monks.
One of the most interesting artists of the festival besides the two headlining acts is Little Wings. Consisting of former San Luis Obispo resident Kyle Field and a rotating group of musicians, Little Wings creates great, mostly acoustic-based music that recalls the Beach Boys and Will Oldham’s strange folky music. His song “Sing Wide” is a psychedelic collage of acoustic guitar ramblings and downpours of random drumbeats.
While Field, speaking by phone from his mother’s house in Malibu, does not see a definite movement of “new folk music,” other artists, like Shineywater and Chasny, feel like something is happening. Shineywater, who lived in a tent on a skate ramp for one year and used to play Earth First! Benefit concerts in Humboldt County, has organized two music festivals in Bolinas—called Quiet Quiet Window Lights—featuring Newsom, Banhart and Peggy Honeywell. He sees this movement—which he calls minimalism—as a form of rebellion against overly produced products from record companies and other corporations.
For his next album, which will be released by indie powerhouse Matador records, Shineywater hopes to create a CD that combines country music with rural Indian and Jamaican melodies.
“It’s heavily inspired by hashish and people who live in the country,” he says matter-of-factly, in a heavy Southern drawl, from his current home in Northern California.
Chasny, who also plays in garage rock band Comets On Fire, says he has noticed a little more interest in folk music—including the use of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon” in a recent Volkswagen commercial. Despite this, Chasny does not want Six Organs of Admittance to be solely appreciated by folk music fans. That is why the evening after the Big Sur Folk Yeah Festival he is performing with Om, an extremely hard metal band.
The Folk Yeah Festival will take place at Fernwood, 24 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1 in Big Sur, Friday at 9pm and Saturday at 8:30pm. $20/advance for two nights; $12/advance for one evening by emailing aBAgproduction@yahoo.com; $14/one night at the door.667-2422.