Be Good Tanyas will, eventually, with practice
by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., April 21, 2002) – The time is right for The Be Good Tanyas, a trio of female singer/musicians from Vancouver who play hundred-year-old songs and write new ones that sound like they are a hundred years old. The group, which performed at Mass MoCA on Saturday night as part of a themed evening of Southern food and culture, also betrays hints of having grown up in the rock era. It’s a formula destined to succeed and please an audience bred on manufactured music longing for rootsy authenticity.
The trio of Samantha Parton (guitar, vocals, and mandolin), Frazey Ford (guitar and vocals) and Trish Klein (electric guitar, banjo and vocals), backed by a drummer named Ike, subtly interweaved old-time elements of high, lonesome harmonies, acoustic textures of ukulele, banjos and mandolins, and gospel- and country-tinged melodies, with more modern influences, like the hint of a reggae beat and the whine of an electric slide guitar, strategies familiar to fans of like-minded performers like Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams and Iris Dement.
Over the course of the evening, the balance of the group’s sound emphasized the old-fashioned over the modern, although individual numbers varied as to the rock-influenced quotient. “The Littlest Birds,” an original number by Parton, moved along like a 1920s vaudevillian softshoe, and drummer Ike played washboard on the tune. The song that followed, however, had more of a neo-psychedelic feel, with a trippy, minor-key melody that felt like early Cowboy Junkies – another Canadian group that combines old-time country melodies with rock arrangements (and also has played Mass MoCA) – or Neil Young. In fact, several of the tunes that boasted three-way harmonies recalled the pop-influenced folk-country harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash more than those of old-time or bluegrass groups.
“Dogsong,” also by Parton, who accompanied herself on ukelele, was flecked with Klein’s pedal-steel like electric guitar, but remained delicate and childlike. Like many of the group’s songs, the arrangement was sparse and economical. Klein’s instrumental leads on guitar or banjo typically stuck closely to the notes of the prevailing chord, and there was nothing particularly virtuosic about the playing.
The members of The Be Good Tanyas want to make a virtue of simplicity, and with their organic harmonies, delicate, gossamer melodies, and rootsy, informal approach, they succeed. Where they fail, however, is as a concert act. This is a group to hear on an old radio, or to see in the more intimate setting of a folk club. But Parton, Ford and Klein have come a long way in just the three years they have been together. Judging by the way they stumbled through the stage business of a concert on Saturday night – starting and stopping songs clumsily, failing to get from one song to another smoothly, and losing the audience’s focus – that’s too far and too fast to be playing in front of 300 or so people.
[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on April 24, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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