WEATHER »

Acoustic Guitars, Japanese Fans, Irish Whistles, and Nautical Cows

The Possibilities of KCSB’s Folk Music Shelves


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

If there’s one thing you can rely on a long-standing community radio station to deliver, it’s a decent folk library. Not only does the music’s ethos seem to align with that of community radio in general, but many of these stations have managed to retain some of the very same DJs they had during folk’s zenith. Though my latest expedition into KCSB’s vinyl library led me to a relatively small set of folk shelves — with a great deal of country mixed in, at that — those shelves bore a number of quirky musical fruits. Having surfaced with three representative records (to the extend that such an odd mix can truly be represented), I’ve formulated six show concepts that folk-inclined KCSB aspirants might want to develop when the next broadcasting quarter starts up.

Looking for a representative folk album, I figured I couldn’t do much better than Gary Ogan and Bill Lamb’s Portland. Released in that all-too-brief (so I hear) stretch of time between the late 60s and early 70s? Check. Recorded by a pair of long-haired, almost cartoonishly laid-back-looking guys with guitars (and sometimes pianos)? Check. A sleeve bearing a soft-focus image of creekside idyll? Check, and then some.

Though I’m not embedded enough in the folk scene to determine how true to the genre Ogan and Lamb’s style is, it’s always possible that theirs is a regional, northern-Oregon-specific sound. Certainly, they deliver the sort of haunted pleasantness — or is it pleasant hauntedness? — that I’ve always enjoyed in the folk music I’ve heard. The Japanese, as it happens, agree with me. There are certain kinds of American music they really enjoy, and Portland, which I’ve found has been put out in at least one Japanese special edition and generated something of a following over there. I guess you never can tell.

Suggested beginner show concept: musical celebrations of the beautiful Pacific Northwest

Suggested advanced show concept: 1970s American folk beloved of the Japanese

The cover of Ben & Jerry’s Newport Folk Festival ’88 Live bears an vivid, colorful image few could resist. That is, a vivid, colorful image of what I can only call a musical nautical cow. (How else to explain its guitar and seafaring hat?) The title is as intriguing as the animal; could this Ben and Jerry possible be the same Ben and Jerry as the world-renowned ice cream entrepreneurs? At least a minute and a half of diligent research reveals that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the men who named one of their flavors after the guitarist from the Grateful Dead and another of their flavors after the band who became the Grateful Dead’s spiritual successors once sponsored a live music festival.

Though neither the Dead nor Phish make an appearance on this record of thirteen songs played at the 1988 Newport Folk Festival, the lineup does hold reasonably true to the festival’s long-held dedication to eclecticism. Eclecticism within a broad definition of “folk”, that is, which gives us players like Fairport Convention’s Richard Thompson, widely worshipped bluesman Taj Mahal, stylistically wandering guitarist Doc Watson, and, of course, Queen Ida with her Bon Temps Zydeco Band. Despite the fact that the album’s production doesn’t give much of the performances’ extramusical context, it’s in the service of a pretty enjoyable snapshot of the high-profile folk world of the late 1980s. Those admittedly aren’t the first years a folk aficionado would regard as a golden age, but spending in KCSB’s music library often means searching for diamonds in the rough.

Suggested beginner show concept: folk music from eras not normally associated with the folk movement

Suggested advanced show concept: live music sponsored by ice cream magnates

Those interested in following through with that marginalized-folk-years concept might also consider sitting down with the station’s copy of At the End of the Evening by Nightnoise. Recorded in 1987 and 1988 in the very same town celebrated by Ogan and Lamb, the album was released by no less a new-age juggernaut than Windham Hill Records. For an inveterate vinyl crate-digger such as myself, Windham Hill serves an important function, since their cover designs are somewhat similar to those of ECM, a German label which specializes in obscure jazz and which I happen to consider the finest label in existence. (Be apprised that, because I have already demanded that fellow Indy columnist and ECM enthusiast Josef Woodard one day produce an all-ECM show, that concept is no longer available.) Many a careless record store owner has priced an ECM rarity cheaply, under the mistaken impression that it’s something dime-a-dozen from Windham Hill. The experienced collector will not hesitate to take advantage of this.

As unpromising as this makes Windham Hill releases sound, this one’s not too bad! In some ways, Nightnoise, which featured the immensely prolific Irish singer/guitarist Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, seems to have been the forerunner of certain popular threads in today’s Irish music, or even more so in today’s “Irish-influenced” music. Deep into the research process for an article on KCSB’s folk music, I obviously steeled myself to hear more acoustic-guitar fingerpicking in a sitting than I’d heard over the past three years. Imagine my surprise, given that mindset, when I dropped the needle on Nightnoise’s flurry of violin, whistles, pan pipes, flutes, and synthesizers — late 80s, remember — that sat atop all the usual folk instrumentation. Not only was it something of a breath of fresh air, it showed me just why Irish music seems to be so hybridizable with other styles of music. Just as you can easily make Irish coffee, so can you easily make Irish rock, Irish blues, Irish folk.

Suggested beginner show concept: folk music with violins, violins, and more violins

Suggested advanced show concept: the best of labels often mistaken for other labels

Related Links

Billy Collins & Aimee Mann

Presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures, Former U.S. Poet Laureate ... Read More