Torch and Twang

The fourth annual Twangfest, the biggest and the best so far, celebrates some of the country's best roots artists

Twangfest, held this weekend at Off Broadway, is a feast of American-influenced music, a celebration that honors, as per its name, the rural accent that appears front and center in both kinds of music, country and western.

Each year the festival gets bigger and, wonderfully, better; this, the fourth Twangfest, is crammed with inspiration, ranging from the hardcore traditional to the just-barely-twangy, honoring those not just interested in historic preservation but in wide-eyed adaptation. As a result of this relatively adventuresome philosophy, the three-day series of concerts is developing a national reputation as one of the premier festivals of its kind. Most impressive is its bare-bones, do-it-yourself energy; it's a party created by fans of the music for fans of the music, and you can tell. You won't find a more excited and reverent crowd anywhere in the country on this weekend, and the city's resurgent reputation nationwide as a music town owes at least a little bit to the fact that Twangfest is held within its limits once a year.

What follows is a list of a few recommendations from RFT writers. Be forewarned, though: Chances are, you're going to have to commit to either going to the festival or not; the Twangfest crowd crams Off Broadway, and picking and choosing the evenings you'll attend is risky. You may face sellouts, and it's recommended you either get there early or go whole-hog and buy the three-day pass.

Fred Eaglesmith
11 p.m. Thursday, June 8
Fred Eaglesmith's musical development parallels the movement being celebrated by Twangfest: Take country music, with its detailed eye for the hard truths of daily life, then add rock, with its pulsating beats and unyielding drama. These two forces were combined by many bands following in the wake of Uncle Tupelo; Eaglesmith did the same thing on his own -- while growing up in Canada.

The music of Fred Eaglesmith grabs you by the collar and shakes you while rubbing a gentle hand up and down your back. He's of the singer/songwriter ilk, to be sure, but doesn't just strum an acoustic guitar and deliver literary impressions set to meandering melodies. Nope, Eaglesmith understands song structure, has an ear for hooks, builds tension and releases it just when you can't take it anymore.

Most of Eaglesmith's songs are about people overcome by desperate passions, usually just after the end of an intense relationship. He takes longing and turns it into grace with a deft turn of phrase and an urgent rhythmic undertow.

None of this is meant to deny the good-time humor he brings to many of his songs as well and which becomes even more important during his stage show. To add to the fun, Eaglesmith's percussionist, Washboard Sam, has the craziest gear you've ever seen a musician wear, including a cymbal on his head.
-- Steve Pick

Lonesome River Band
Midnight Thursday, June 8
What does it take to be among the best bluegrass bands on the planet? Listen to the Lonesome River Band's early-'90s classics Carrying the Tradition or Old Country Town or even their picking on John Fogerty's Blue Moon Swamp. You hear more than just chops: Call it natural forces, or supernatural, or just the collision of intuition and imagination. What comes across rawks hard enough to wipe out a fleet of Harleys.

The Lonesome River Band was begun in 1982, gaining notoriety with Lookin for Yourself (1989) and then taking over the bluegrass charts (yes, there is such a thing) with the seminal Carrying the Tradition in 1991. As with most bluegrass acts, the lineup has changed radically. After the last original member, Tim Austin, retired from touring, the band was willed to bass player Ronnie Bowman and banjo monster Sammy Shelor. "When the band first started," Bowman says, "the drive was there. Over the years, we've kept the same drive."

Most bands in jazz, rock, blues or country get that drive through drums. Even bluegrass has a history with the skins: As far back as the '50s, Don Reno, Jimmy Martin, and Flatt and Scruggs recorded and played live with drum kits. Before they could pay the bills on the festival circuit, the Lonesome River Band actually used a drummer, doing country and bluegrass in nightclubs. Now bass and mandolin provide that racing pulse. "I don't want to say it's rock & roll," Bowman says, "because bluegrass is totally un-rock & roll, but we're all big fans of drums. Our driving sound has a similarity: We're all thinking of that kick drum, which is like the bass, and the mandolin is like the snare. We have that kick-snare, bass-mandolin chop. When you have a groove going, you might forget that it's all about the beat. The drive is not tempo, how fast or slow you play, but how you play on that beat."

The current LRB lineup is completed by Kenny Smith (guitar), Rickie Simpkins (fiddle/baritone vocal) and Don Rigsby (mandolin/lead and tenor vocals). Each has made a name with the most important bluegrass/ acoustic acts in the biz -- including Tony Rice, Claire Lynch and J.D. Crowe -- but they have truly coalesced in the Lonesome River Band. For fans of Del McCoury or Ralph Stanley, LRB's appearance at Twangfest Thursday night is a God-sent opportunity to hear what contemporary bluegrass is all about. After last year's overly polished Finding the Way -- Bowman jokingly calls it "our pop album" -- the band has returned to a hard-smacking bluegrass sound, rooted in devastating harmonies, timeless songs -- old, new and unknown -- and a viscerally live approach. After 18 years, Talkin' to Myself (Sugar Hill) may be their most thrilling work. "This record is a better representation of our live show," Bowman says. "Our sets aren't so polished. We don't practice what we say or do every night. And yet every song on the new record fits together. It's like a good quilt pattern: You can have a lot of fabric pieces, but if you have that pattern, everything sewn together, well, then you have art."
-- Roy Kasten

Tift Merritt and the Carbines
9 p.m. Saturday, June 10
Country singer/songwriter Tift Merritt may very well be one of "five emerging insurgents on the edge of center stage," as the alt-country fanzine No Depression recently crowned her, but it's difficult to say for sure, given the scantiness of the recorded material an MP3 on her Web page, four rough but amazing demos and a seven-song EP of duets with John Howie of the Two Dollar Pistols, a much less engaging (to put it charitably) singer than Merritt. Her negotiations with bluegrass label Sugar Hill currently at a standstill, the 25-year-old North Carolinian could be either the next big thing or just another casualty of label myopia.

Whatever her fate, there's no denying her gigantic talent. Backed by her solid country-rock band, the Carbines, Merritt plays rhythm guitar and sings with a clarion delicacy reminiscent of the young Emmylou Harris. Sometimes her crystalline vibrato attains a ragged majesty that brings to mind a less prickly, more buoyant Lucinda Williams. Merritt covers some of the same territory pioneered by Harris, Dylan and Williams, exploring those places where rock & roll, country, folk and blues intersect, but she never seems derivative or overly literary. Her songs are carefully crafted without being precious, and she sings them with a visionary sweetness and an aching restraint that's all too rare in this age of belters and blowhards. By most reports, Merritt is also a compelling performer, a small-boned beauty with golden ringlets and an easygoing stageside manner: equal parts juke-joint girl (the title of one of her songs) and coffeehouse angel. Although the direction of Merritt's career is uncertain, her performance at Twangfest this year is a sure bet. Don't miss it.
-- René Spencer Saller

Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings
10 p.m. Saturday, June 10
Some artists come by their twang honestly; others steal from the best. It's like absconding with the Farm-Aid funds. In his pre-(gray) roots day, Nick Lowe was thought to be the Milton Berle of pop, getting his best material from duped peers and dead trailblazers. But that was just a shtick -- Berle could write great jokes in his sleep, and Lowe was crafty enough to make a crazy quilt out of used material.

Walter Clevenger has been compared to Lowe in the way he takes the hyphen out of country-pop, purveying a hybrid strain for which there's no word. "We've been lumped in with the Los Angeles pop scene," says songwriter Clevenger, whose Dairy Kings will bring pop calcium to the bare-bones Twangfest country. But Clevenger's blend was never simple Lowe-fi reproduction. "I don't know how we'll fit in," Clevenger adds with more anticipation than trepidation. "I hope we do fit in." He says the Kings haven't even been close to this far east before. Most of their gigs have been in the Los Angeles area, just a dream's throw from Clevenger's home in the bedroom community of Orange County. Never pasteurized pop, the Dairy Kings have until now been defined within the context of LA's IPO (International Pop Overthrow), an annual music festival that places them in the thick of Jellyfish wannabes, Posies poseurs and Redd Kross dressers. Actually, despite Clevenger's love of obscure old power-pop albums, he's a roots man. Either way, people will squeeze him into a category smaller than a calf stable in a train. It's a cruel world for true originals.
-- Jordan Oakes

Bill Kirchen
Midnight Saturday, June 10
The Fender Telecaster is possibly the most twang-friendly guitar ever invented. The guitar delivers a naturally trebly sound, with the ability to produce a deep rumble on the lower strings, especially if coupled with the reverb knob on a Fender amplifier. Best of all, the pickups employed on the classic Telecaster practically make each note sing with the sound of electricity, generating a slight quick echo that calls to mind music made in the mountains.

Bill Kirchen is one of the Telecaster's best practitioners of twang. In the '70s, Kirchen held the guitar chair in Commander Cody's Lost Planet Airmen. His encyclopedia of basic Telecaster twang licks is familiar to anyone who remembers their hit rendition of "Hot Rod Lincoln." There it is, all the rumbling aura of menace, the hammering rhythmic ticks, the bent chords, the clattering quick runs up the fretboard.

Kirchen resurfaced in the '90s, first appearing here as a guitarist in Nick Lowe's touring band about five or six years back, then turning out a couple of first-rate solo albums on Hightone Records. The first of these, a concert recording called Hot Rod Lincoln Live -- hey, Kirchen knows which side his bread's buttered on -- included an incendiary remake of his biggest break that featured nods to guitar role models ranging from Muddy Waters to Jimi Hendrix to Johnny Cash to the Sex Pistols. The second, a studio affair called Raise a Ruckus, showcased the songwriting talents of his wife, Louise. He's not the greatest singer you've ever heard, but not the worst, either. His guitar playing, however, will be a fitting ending to this year's Twangfest lineup.
-- Steve Pick

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