Westport and Brooklyn: On the Road in Search of Music

You can be twins and have diametrically opposed views on things, contrary to the impression created by Three Identical Strangers, the fascinating documentary about triplets separated at birth. For instance, my identical twin just told me he doesn’t care for live music, and I can’t live without it. To that end, I recently took in a pair of performances, one in Brooklyn and one in Westport, Connecticut.

The fourth annual Brooklyn Americana Music Festival was a delightful free event at multiple venues September 20 to 23. I saw music in two vastly different spaces—inside the Dumbo Archway, with trains rumbling past every 10 minutes, and on Pier 3 of the newly built—and bustling on a Saturday afternoon—Brooklyn Bridge Park. The latter was more intimate, with tables set up to create a kind of club, and the former offered spectacular views of Manhattan and a chance to watch the passing parade.

nora brown

Little Nora Brown (right) and Stephanie Coleman: peers, rather than student and teacher. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I think I’ve seen 13-year-old banjo player Little Nora Brown three times in the last month—lucky me—and in Brooklyn she was paired with fiddle player Stephanie Coleman. It’s a tribute to Brown’s burgeoning talent that they seemed more like peers than teacher and student. Her singing is maturing, too. Here she is on video with Stephanie Coleman:

What little I saw of Nashville-based Indian-American sibling duo Giri and Uma Peters was impressive, in a Nora Brown kind of way. He plays fiddle and sings, she plays clawhammer banjo. On their website, it says, “They have attracted the attention of MacArthur Genius Grant awardee Rhiannon Giddens, dobro master Jerry Douglas, guitar virtuoso Molly Tuttle, and blues harmonica great Phil Wiggins.” Add me to that list.

The M. Shanghai String Band was missing some key players, and one regular singer had lost his voice, so it didn’t add up to a stellar performance. Also, songs from John Prine’s first album should be retired due to over-exposure.

minch and korn

Mamie Minch (left) and Tamar Korn: the odd couple, but two big talents. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I loved the combination of Mamie Minch and Tamar Korn, first encountered at the Brooklyn Folk Festival. Korn was also fine up at Oldtone this year. As a duo they’re a bit like the Odd Couple; Minch is quite tall and relatively still when she plays, and Korn is short and extremely animated—really “putting over” a song, as they used to say. She plays an array of fake instruments, too. Their harmonies sounded a little under-rehearsed, but I love their choice of material—old gems, for the most part. Minch has an absolutely lovely, deep alto, and is a fine songwriter and guitarist, too. They’ve made one somewhat lo-fi EP; I hope they do more soon.

Jolie Holland and Samantha Parton, whose work I loved in The Be Good Tanyas, were curiously slack in Brooklyn. The songs (including a cover of Dylan’s “Minstrel Boy”), and the harmonies, just weren’t cohering.

Karen Dahlstrom is from Idaho, but has been resident in New York many years. She’s been on my radio show, and I’ve caught her in the band Bobtown. She was fine solo, with the wide open spaces of Idaho a frequent theme. Check out her album Gem State.

Cricket Tell the Weather, which relocated from Connecticut to Brooklyn, is one of my favorite bands, but fiddle player and leader Andrea Asprelli recently started graduate school at NYU so the version of the band we got was a duo with guitarist Jason Borisoff, her former partner in Atlantic Crossing. They were just fine in a set that showcased her singing and songwriting and his hot picking.

queen esther

Queen Esther under the arch. (blurrily photographed by Jim Motavalli)

And I love Queen Esther, who always reminds me of Valerie June, but is a bit more urban in her approach. Although fine with just a second guitarist, she’s working in a staggering number of genres and formats, including theater.  Listen to this:

Her work as a vocalist, lyricist, songwriter, actor/solo performer and playwright/librettist led to creative collaborations in neo-vaudeville, alt-theater, various alt-rock configurations, (neo) swing bands, trip hop DJs, spoken word performances, jazz combos, jam bands, various blues configurations, original Off-Broadway plays and musicals, experimental music/art noise and performance art.” She played with Elliot Sharp, and was in the original touring company of Rent.

Queen Esther is working on a song cycle about Cathay Williams, probably the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Army—albeit, disguised as a man. Despite many possibilities of exposure, she served for two years after the Civil War. She’s in an upcoming book of mine; stay tuned for that.

**

fleas

The grand finale at the Connecticut Ukulele Festival. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And last night in Westport I went to the first annual Connecticut Ukulele Festival, produced by Peter Propp and held at the Westport Suzuki School. I missed all the workshop stuff—I’ll never be a musician, and I know it—but the point is that this is an instrument you can pick up and be playing straight away.

Steve Forlano is an amiable uke player who embraces that philosophy wholeheartedly, and began holding sessions for would-be strummers at the Westport YMCA. These days they get 20 to 30 beginners at the weekly events. Forlano brought Propp and three or four other uke players (collectively known as the Cukes) up to my WPKN radio show. They performed the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon.” Very nice. That’s the video above.

fleas

The Edukated Fleas play the hits–from 1930. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I made it down for the concert, which was very well attended for a first event. The Edukated Fleas have a laid-back approach to standards like “Me and Jane in a Plane,” “Deed I Do” and “No Moon at All.”

uncle zach

Uncle Zach revives the Allen Sherman songbook. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Uncle Zak was amusing, playing song parodies and oddball tunes. He grew up in a family where all his uncles played music—especially ukes—and a lot of the songs were from that repertoire. There was “Blue Moon” and something called “She Ain’t Rose but Rose Ain’t Here.”

abe deshotel

Abe Deshotel’s quirky songs were modernized with effects pedals. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Abe Deshotel was the evening’s moody singer-songwriter. He played his uke through pedals and played both some striking originals and covers by Leon Bridges and Hozier. Could work on his stage presence, though.

The headliners were worth waiting for. I’ve followed uke pioneer Victoria Vox through 10 albums and maybe a dozen live performances, and even when she’s down the evening is up. These days she’s decidedly upbeat and playing with her husband, the talented guitarist Jack Maher.

vox

Victoria Vox is upbeat these days, and has a lot of new songs flopping around on the deck. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Vox is a one-woman band with her uke and mouth trumpet, but Maher (who records with Feed the Kitty) adds a lot, both in terms of fills and the occasional solo, plus vocal harmonies. I was thrilled to see Vox has written a whole crop of new songs, all of them strong, and some of which appear on her latest album Colorful Heart. “Out on the Rails” is a tuneful number about hobos, and “I Remember the Music” about the stuff that stays with you.

“Leaving Without Goodbye” is from her new project with Maher, Jack and the Vox. It’s about a fight Jack and Victoria had, but as Maher pointed out, “We got a song out of it.”

I’m sure there will be a second Connecticut Ukulele Festival.

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