Folk to Fauxk

Tune-Me-Music, 1999 A roundup of reviews inspired by the South Florida Folk Festival

Strumming an acoustic guitar does not a folksinger make. True, ability to play a guitar is a must. (Piano is fine, but a guitar's portability allows for plucking around the campfire and hopping trains on the spur of the moment.) A hard life is not vital but useful for song fodder. It helps to have at least one protest tune in the repertoire. Other instruments necessary to master or to make friends play include: harmonica, banjo, tambourine, and even the washboard. Not to say that one has to don overalls and make like Boxcar Willie to be a folkie, but a certain sensibility is required -- and it's not of the pop, rock, or world music kind. Nineteen national songwriter competition finalists and nine headlining artists performed at the South Florida Folk Festival this past January in Broward County. Some of them were true folk artists; others would be considered "new folk" -- or what could be called fauxk. Below find a handful of reviews of a few of the players.

The San Diego, California-based ensemble led by long-time folkie multi-instrumentalist Rafael and including his daughter Jamaica on violin and viola, Carl Johnson on lead guitar, and Jeff Berkley on percussion, made its Florida debut at this year's South Florida Folk Festival. Rousing and well received, their performance was memorable for its grace and American sound, as if a Grant Wood painting had come to life, or more appropriately one by Edward Hopper, with its quiet dignity. Released on Jackson Browne's independent label, the album Hopper, the band's third as a cohesive unit, shares the same qualities. Rafael, whose voice is reminiscent of a less-throaty Bob Dylan, writes most of the story-songs here. Opening ballad "As I Move Along" ("Helplessly I spin in revolution/Catch a glimpse of my own evolution") creeps into a tone poem about loneliness and denial. Native American activist/poet John Trudell lends his words and voice to "China Basin Digs," a tale of the homeless being displaced yet again. Nestled comfortably among Rafael's tunes is an evocative cover of "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," with words by Woody Guthrie and music by Billy Bragg, peppered with touches of violin and elegantly placed guitar licks. Touching and placid, Hopper's eclectic selection of solid songs fusing folk and world-beat elements admirably shows off the multiple facets of the American dream in all its unsightly yet enticing simplicity. (Inside Recordings, 12358 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, CA 91604 www.joelrafael.com)

Self-described "junkadelic folk musician," Asheville, North Carolina-based Jonas uses found and recycled objects -- PVC pipes, water cooler jugs, a pogo stick, to name a few -- to create his uncommon sound. It's a good thing the anthropology graduate of artsy Oberlin College is so clever in his lyrics or his music might be relegated to the children's hour at folk fests across the nation instead of main stages catering to adults. (Jonas does understand his shtick's appeal to kiddies; he hawks Bangin' and Sangin', an instructional videotape geared toward children.) The odd objects he favors are present on this strong collection of tunes, which includes the funky "Late," about a man who relishes throwing his partner off schedule in the morning and the multiculti chorus of the tribal-sounding anthem "One," which features a voice billed as "Ed the Plumber." But Jonas is at his best when he relinquishes his gadgets and goes it alone, just his clear James Taylor-like tenor and a guitar, as heard on the tale of people he meets on "The Bus" and the languid lullaby "Lighting of the Lamps." The disc's triumphant tune: "God Is In," a six-and-a-half minute irreverent meditation on the seemingly obvious presence of God in our lives ("God was in the S&L's/But left, that's why they went to Hell"). Co-written by Jonas, Laura Mahr, and Chris Chandler, the song is enough to make even the most hardened atheist wonder. (Bang-a-Bucket Music, c/o Loyd Artists, 133 Forest Hill Dr., Asheville, NC 28803 www.billyjonas.com)

Winner of the Best Upbeat Song award at the recent South Florida Folk Festival, So is a Chinese-American singer/songwriter from Boston who seems more comfortable belting out blues, pop, and torch songs in his Bryan Adams-esque voice than folk, as evinced on the fourteen tunes on this mostly underwhelming album. Opening the disc is one of its few stars: the ragtime-flavored ditty "Big Circle Blues," but any further heights are missed. Clichés abound, especially in the blues ballad "Dirty Ashes." Smacking of ersatz Robert Cray electric guitar lines, the piece is neither proficient nor profound lyrically, containing the unfortunate groaner: "I wanna eat you like a mango/Teach you how to tango." So his acoustic guitar, and his harmonica take a stab at social conscience in the title track "Individual," a paean to political correctness, which revels in relativism when it claims: "Who am I to judge you/And who are you to judge me?" This may be one wishy-washy individual you're better off not knowing. (Kevin So, 190 Washington St., Brighton, MA 02135 www.kevinso.com)

Pelletier, winner of the Best Overall Performer award at this year's South Florida Folk Festival, emits a Jimmy Buffet-via-upstate-New York vibe in the title tune to this album filled with ten uneven works leaning heavily toward pop. Guest sideman Sal Giorgianni's alto saxophone squawks through "Mr. Sunshine" and the pedestrian love song "Right in the Heart," lending a smooth-jazz air that is ill advised. Musician John Sebastian (Lovin' Spoonful) plays harmonica on "The 8:05," which mentions a favorite folk element, a train, but nevertheless sounds less like a folk song and more like an Eighties hair-band power ballad. Best of the bunch is the banjo- and washboard-tinged "Must Be Doing Something Wrong," a humorous exploration of how housework might have impeded the discoveries made by geniuses through the ages, showcasing proficient wordplay. ("Now could Einstein find time for his E is mc squared/With this relatively large pile of laundry on the chair?/Would he have the energy and would he have even cared?") (Hudson Valley Records, P.O. Box 510, Carmel, NY 10512 www.hudsonvalleyrecords.com)

From the opening violin strains on the calm ballad, "Four Dollar Frame," it's evident Briody, recently named Connecticut's State Troubadour, has all the appropriately twangy credentials necessary for consideration as a true folk artist. Taking the prize for Best Mellow Song this past January at the South Florida Folk Festival with the affecting "Walnuts & Rice," a lesson from a father to a son about the importance of regard for loved ones and detachment from material things, Briody shows himself to be master of the mellow here. A funny moment goes flat during "The Sensitive Guy Song," detailing the supposed transformation of a macho man into a compassionate Alan Alda clone. But the nine other skillful story-songs highlight the endurance of love and friendship, and the disheartening aftermath of romance gone awry. (Tune-Me-Music, P.O. Box 102 Ridgefield, CT 06877 www.kevinbriody.com)

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