Genre Mash-Up

We look for a home for Hem, weigh Soulard against folk music and visit the Old School

Folked Up
St. Louis has lots of festivals, and with the bend from winter into spring now in sight, those festivals tend to focus on beer, local music and all things involving Fat and/or Tuesday. But if we happen to turn our slightly blurred vision away from the parade route, we are met with another vision: the buffed wood floors of the Sheldon being trod upon by some of America's finest folk singers and songwriters.

This weekend the Acoustic City Concert Series presents the first annual St. Louis Folk Festival featuring Tim O'Brien, Viktor Krauss, Carrie Newcomer and Richard Shindell. They won't throw beads Friday night, but you might score a guitar pick. And we can pretty much guarantee that the only things being flashed are smiles. Not convinced you should skip Soulard? Please turn your attention to the following cases up for review:

Acoustic City vs. Feeling Pukish and Shitty: The Acoustic City Concert Series has been bringing the best acoustic acts to St. Louis since 1996. Feeling pukish and shitty has brought the best of us to our knees for far longer than that, but the audible effects are lacking in comparable glory.

Carrie Newcomer: Better than passing out!
Carrie Newcomer: Better than passing out!
Hem: Neo-politan?
Hem: Neo-politan?

Tim O'Brien vs. Maggie O'Brien's: Yes, the glasses o' brew at Maggie's will be raised high, but can that compare to the height of your spirit as raised by the sound of Tim O'Brien? His flawless voice and equally stunning presentation make for bluegrass music as tangible as it is timeless.

Viktor Krauss vs. Get Out of My House: Spend an evening with bassist Viktor Krauss (brother of the inimitable Alison), and all you'll take home with you are the sounds of his country-inflected compositions in your head. Get drunk at Mardi Gras, and who knows what you'll wake up with.

Carrie Newcomer vs. Carry Me Home: If you like the open honesty of Dar Williams or Lucy Kaplansky, Kathleen Edwards or Adrienne Young, then Carrie Newcomer is for you. Her sound is pure heartland, but her songs, like those of her New England peers, have inspiring flecks of intellectualism. Being carried home from a pub, graciously slobbered apology included, is an experience more likely flecked with spittle.

Richard Shindell vs. Dicks: Richard Shindell is....not a dick. Lots of drunk guys screaming "show us your tits" are....total dicks. As far as this fest is concerned, Shindell is the final float, the one a celebrity would ride on if celebrities rode on folk singers instead of floats. It would not be a stretch at all to call him the James Taylor of our generation, if James Taylor were less boring and a better storyteller.

Workshop vs. Bar Hop: Part of the Folk Festival includes workshops with O'Brien, Shindell, Krauss and Newcomer from 10 a.m. till noon on Saturday. It's an unbelievable opportunity to work with the artists and hear their stories. Bar hopping might land you some stories, but trust us, you really don't want to know why Guy at the End of the Bar's wife left him. -- Jess Minnen

Staying Stylish
With its mix of country instrumentation and the snow-pure vocals of Sally Ellyson, Hem has become a bastion of subtle, airy goodness. Rather than kicking in the doors of the listening public, Hem prefers to knock gently, perhaps leaving a note that it'll call again. While that may work for the average NPR listener, Hem deserves to be on the hi-fi in every home. The problem? Marketing the band's sound. Fans get confused by vague musical-genre classifications: Americana, adult album alternative, and alt-country, while alphabetically aligned, don't quite do justice in describing Hem.

How does the band refer to its sound? In the press release for last year's Eveningland, chief songwriter Dan Messé gave a clue to Hem's sonic inspiration: "These songs have more of a relationship to the '60s and early '70s. We're all in love with that Countrypolitan sound." Sure, Dan, who isn't? But is "countrypolitan" going to move more units at Best Buy? Are all the countrypolitan radio stations swamped with requests for Hem? No.

In order to further Hem's influence, we're suggesting a few new genres, names so catchy and grabbing that they're bound to be the next electro-clash or glitch-pop. When Hem plays at Off Broadway next Wednesday, don't be shy about offering your own suggestions.

Neo-politan: A modern update of the countrypolitan sound (like what Maxwell did for neo-soul). A cross-promotional tie-in involving Neapolitan ice cream could give a chance for dairy enthusiasts to dig a new musical movement.

Town & Country: Being from New York, the members of Hem have no claims on country's traditional geography. Thus, the band's mix of urban sensibility and country style sounds as smooth as a Chrysler Town & Country minivan drives (again, more chances for cross-promotion with the lucrative Soccer Mom demographic).

Mandolin Reign: Inspired by Bruce Hornsby's smasharoo "Mandolin Rain," this style asserts the raw power of everyone's favorite eight-stringed, lute-like instrument.

Prague Rock:By recording with the Slovak Radio Orchestra, Hem not only made Eveningland an international affair, it stole Eastern Europe away from Kafka fans. --Christian Schaeffer

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