Genghis Khan/ He could not keep/ All his kings/ Supplied with sleep/ We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep/ When we get up to it. “You Ain't Going Nowhere,” by Nobel laureate Bob Dylan; the first song on an album called Sweetheart of the Rodeo by The Byrds.
I am going to write this week's concert preview column as if it were a sleepy dream coming from the future, a place in space where rocanrol is a mere curiosity, and except for random, archived versions of recordings by the likes of performers such as the Dylan, Bikini Kill and Prince—no longer exists. Here goes.
Whenever the American version of rocanrol got ponderous, overly complex and also found itself lagging behind other popular music genres, artists in outlying subgenres asserted themselves and their work in response. In the early 1970s such was the case with a burgeoning folk-rock and country-rock scene. During the second decade of the 21st century, under similar conditions—including the failure of a social revolution and a rising right-wing social and political agenda waiting in the wings—a similar trend could be discerned.
In the case of 2016, that revitalizing sub-genre is called Americana. For lack of more precise descriptors, this form of music is generally plaintive, earthy … and twangy. With its roots firmly planted in the American and Western folk traditions, Americana's allure lies in the form's clarity of sound and simplicity of execution; in many ways it's the antithesis of other subgenres, notably EDM and hip-hop, that've also leapt into the pop culture consciousness post-millennium. Anyway, it's in that combination of qualities related to comfort, quietude and introspection that listeners may find solace and hope even as the louder, more prominent wall of sound surrounding their aural activities crashes.
For Burque that means Americana is a big deal, especially this week. With a plethora of performances elucidating the art form's rising popularity and intense musicality, Burqueños y Burqueñas have an opportunity to get in on the succession of sound in the popular post-rock world.
The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo
The Porter Draw
On Friday, Nov. 11, Low Spirits (2823 Second Street NW) is the site of something spectacular … or at least a reflection of how some of the best new music in these parts descends from the aforementioned folk and Western aesthetics first popularized at the end of 19th century. I'm talking about the concert featuring The Porter Draw, the Cali Shaw Band and Eileen and the In-Betweens, for crissakes. All three of these bands represent critically-timed turning points in the history of American-style pop music. The music of Eileen Shaughnessy, for example has the weight of history riding alongside and speaks to subjects including feminism and racial justice with restless, wandering guitar-lines and a provocatively piquant vocal style that complements the composer's earthy concerns. Cali Shaw is a storyteller and his work focuses on intricate narratives buoyed by searching soundtracks filled with finger-picking and dramatically prescient percussion. As for the leaders of these latter-day rocanrol rapscallions, The Porter Draw, please note the following: Here is a band whose members rose through the ranks of electro-pop—deeply and permanently influenced by the late genius of local rocker Jim Phillips and Lousy Robot—before developing into one of the most illustriously unpredictable honky-tonkers in town. Seven bucks will get you in on this 21+ hellaciously good yet humbly presented hootenanny, beginning at 8pm.
So you know, all of the stuff that happened on Friday night—the big show at Low Spirits, your realization that rock and country and folk go together like chocolate, peanut butter and milk, et cetera—would probably not be entirely possible without the tremendously diffuse influence of the musicians playing at Launchpad (618 Central SW) on Saturday, Nov. 12. That would be The Handsome Family and Pawn Drive. In case you want to know, those bands are legendary. Local nonchalantly unkempt folkster AJ Woods provides opening support for these genre-giants, but the real treat features two ensembles and their musical differences. Brett and Rennie Sparks have done their utmost—in a career that's spanned more than 20 years—to lovingly deconstruct and magically re-order the fundamentals of American music through a post-structuralist endeavor that marries intellectual flights of poetic and melodic fancy to the sadness of existence as expressed by Brett's baritone realizations of Rennie's lyrics. Weekly Alibi chatted with Brett and Rennie Sparks about all this Americana vis à vis rocanrol business. Here is some of what they said:
Weekly Alibi: Is rocanrol alive or dead?
Brett Sparks: Oh it's alive, but it's dying. It's not the central form of pop music anymore. So, it had about 80 good years—about the same longevity as the ragtime craze. But it is certainly still alive. I'm on the road about half the year and I'm living in the world of rock and roll. Whether they call it Americana, folk-rock, alt country, whatever, there are hundreds of bands out there still playing rock and roll.
Hip-hop, EDM, Americana: Successors to rocanrol or just side roads?
Brett Sparks:I'm trying to envision a big family tree, but I really think the diagram should be more like a big, nasty tangle of wires. I think all things feed off one another. Maybe side roads yeah, or offshoots. But hip-hop would have roots in other places—R&B, jazz, soul. EDM from dance music, art-rock, Kraftwerk, etc. After the CMA awards, I guess Beyoncé is country now. If you listen deep enough one can find good music in any genre.
How does the term “Americana” fit or not fit your music?
Brett Sparks: ... Well, we play American music. I don't really like labels, but "Americana" is pretty benign and inclusive, non-specific. What is Americana anyway? Roots music? I guess. I see Americana as essentially the country structure, style and attitude informed by other elements, especially folk and rock and roll. The best example of this is probably still Sweetheart of the Rodeo. You know, if Rubber Soul or Let it Bleed were released today, they'd call those records "Americana."
Speaking of influences, Rennie what informs your work in The Handsome Family?
Rennie Sparks: The garbage along the sides of highways. Birds living high in the rafters of big-box stores. The wrinkled faces of desert dwellers. The way the sun lights up the world as it falls.
Contrariwise, the music of Pawn Drive, fronted by Brett's brother and Alibi employee Robert Darrell Sparks, uses a more rambling, brightly meandering formula to achieve its twangified yet genre-transcending goals. To paraphrase the Radiohead, an obscure electronic god of the early 21st century, one is whispered while the other is shouted. That is to say, the musical emanations coming from The Handsome Family seem like intensely quiet yet extremely potent incantations while the work of Pawn Drive has a chattering, almost ghostly ring to it, as if Darrell and and his outfit are sitting in an extra-large automobile noisily navigating towards a railroad crossing maelstrom whose existence has been beautifully implied by Brett and Rennie. In any case, it will be a hell of a gig, featuring some of the best players this town has ever seen. Tickets are 10 bucks for those 21+; the doors to equally grand but ironically divergent sounds and visions open at 8pm.
Since this is America, after all, I am kindly asking that you take Sunday as a day of rest and put your shoulder to the wheel dutifully on workaday Monday—both are traditional in these parts—so that the resumption of sonic explorations on Tuesday can be as fruitful as possible. Given the parameters for said searchers seeking soulful meaning, we should all be in luck. The Cooperage (7220 Lomas NE), in coordination with AMP concerts, presents East Coast-style folkies and Americana adherents Darlingside to town as an entreaty to the proposition that the road currently traversed has less to do with fantastic flows than it does with soaring harmonies and a richly textured, sunny and melodic melancholy. Blending their voices and vision around one collectively responsive condenser microphone, Darlingside uses songs like “The God of Loss,” to examine the heroic responses that figure so prominently in the American experience. Using late ‘60s folk and country-rock as jumping off points, the quartet employs masterful attention to their instruments (like most in Americana they are better players than DJs or rappers) to achieve a humble confidence seldom seen in practitioners of competing popular music forms. Chicago-based folk duo Frances Luke Accord opens this recital of longing and rhythmic redemption. $17 in advance or $22 at the door grants one access to this 21+ invocation, starting at 7:30pm.